This review is part of my unofficial “Honeymoon Series,” consisting of music I heard in clubs, cafés and other places while on my honeymoon, a combination of the unfamiliar and music I thought I’d never review in a billion years.
During our stay in San Sebastian, Alicia suggested we pop over to Bilbao to catch the Miró exhibition at the Guggenheim. I immediately looked up the train schedules on my phone and learned that a one-way trip would take two hours and forty minutes. “Why are the trains so fucking slow?” “Because they’re direct—they stop everywhere. It’s better to take the bus—we can get there in a little more than an hour.” I immediately deferred to la mujer española and her superior knowledge of her country of birth.
The next morning we arrived at the station early so we could get decent seats on the bus. Right before the doors closed, a young woman with a tasteful array of tats, tits and piercings hopped onto the bus wearing a Pearl Jam t-shirt. I pointed her out to Alicia and said, “I didn’t know Pearl Jam was that popular in Spain.” “Oh yes, very popular. I saw them in San Sebastian before we met.” Though I lived in Seattle for six years, during that time I was more interested in up-and-comers than established bands, so I knew very little about Pearl Jam except that they were adored by the natives.
After arriving in Bilbao, Alicia led the way to the Guggenheim. The Miró exhibition was very interesting, but Jeff Koons’ Tulips was the highlight for me. The colorful stainless steel shapes had been placed under a skylight, and I must have spent a half-hour circling the work to view the “tulips” from different angles until I accidentally bumped into a woman who was studying one of the nearby paintings. I apologized profusely in my Mexican-influenced Spanish and she graciously forgave my obliviousness to the world around me.
“Huh, that’s odd,” I said when Alicia walked up to me.
“That woman I just bumped into—she was wearing pearls.”
“Yes, and . . . ”
“Remember the girl on the bus—you know, the one with the Pearl Jam t-shirt?”
Alicia laughed at the non-coincidence and said, “You’re always looking for signals from the universe.”
“Guilty as charged.” I had to admit to over-indoctrination in New Age philosophies when I was growing up.
“Let’s just hope it’s not a sign that you’re headed for the pearly gates.”
After we left the museum and had lunch, we were heading towards the bus station when Alicia said, “You know, we should have planned to spend the night here. Bilbao has a great music scene.”
Still feeling the honeymoon vibes, I said, “Why don’t we do that? Let’s find a hotel!”
“You’re kidding. We don’t have any clothes, any make-up, our toothbrushes . . . ”
“Don’t they have stores in Bilbao?”
“But we’ve already paid for the room in San Sebastian,” cried the forensic accountant.
“Fuck that. We’re only going to have one honeymoon, so let’s make the most of it!”
Alicia knew where all the good stores were and in a couple of hours we had clothing suitable for clubbing, street clothes for the ride back, make-up from our favorite brands, all the necessary toiletries and a duffel bag to store all the stuff we bought. We found a nice hotel near the action and spent the rest of the afternoon . . . well, you know.
There was one particular venue Alicia had in mind. Azkena is a combination bar-café-concert hall that showcases a wide range of music but its main drawing card is rock and its variants. I knew it was my kind of place in about five minutes when Alicia pointed out the wall of album covers on display. “Doesn’t that remind you of the header on your website?” I started going through the covers and saw several of my favorites (London Calling, Aladdin Sane, The Bends, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, Nevermind, Ramones), a couple of clunkers (U2, Springsteen) and . . .
Pearl Jam. The Ten cover.
I pointed it out to Alicia and almost shouted, “Now what do you think of that?”
She gave me a very funny look and replied, “You may not have noticed because you’re not that familiar with their music, but the song they’re playing now is by Pearl Jam.”
At that moment I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Rod Serling enter the bar, cigarette in hand in defiance of Spanish smoking laws. I see Rod scanning the crowd, eventually fixing his eyes on mine. He flicks his ashes, walks directly up to me and starts to whisper in my ear: “There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.”
There was only one way out—one way to prevent Billy Mumy from sending me to the cornfield or turning me into a jack-in-the-box. I simply had to do a Pearl Jam review.
Because Pearl Jam was formed in the Emerald City in the very early 90s, the band was automatically slotted into the sub-genre known as “grunge,” a label that every band tagged as such resoundingly rejected. Though many critics eventually soured on the label as a pejorative and ultimately meaningless stereotype that masked the diversity of the “Seattle Sound,” the bands of that era did share a common aesthetic summarized nicely by the people at MasterClass:
- Guitar sludge (i.e., heavy use of Marshall amps and distortion pedals)
- Minimal drum kits (basic kits designed to deliver raw power without distraction)
- Intense vocals marked by growls and grit
- Dark lyrics: “despair, disillusionment, hopelessness, and self-loathing . . . to reflect the feelings of its fanbase—teens and twentysomethings dismayed by the state of the world and the challenges of creating meaningful change.”
The “dark lyrics” have proven to be the most off-putting aspect of “grunge music.” The young Noel Gallagher explained his early rejection of grunge and Cobain to Joe Taysom of Far Out with his customary touch of vinegar: “I remember Nirvana had a tune called ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’, and I was like ‘Well, I’m not fucking having that.’ As much as I fucking like him [Cobain] and all that shit, I’m not having that.”
Wait! There’s more!
“I can’t have people like that coming over here, on smack, fucking saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die,” he added. “That’s fucking rubbish. Kids don’t need to be hearing that nonsense. Seems to me that there was a guy who had everything, and was miserable about it. And we had fuck-all, and I still thought that getting up in the morning was the greatest fuckin’ thing ever, ’cause you didn’t know where you’d end up at night. And we didn’t have a pot to piss in, but it was fucking great, man,” he recalled fondly.
The older Noel Gallagher confessed to a change of heart in that 2020 article:
“I’m gutted that he died before I met him (Cobain), I’d have loved to have shot the fucking shit with him. All the great albums like Never Mind The Bollocks, Nevermind and The La’s, they just get greater with time. They start off being the album of the year and then they just never date. They never, never, never date,” the former Oasis man lovingly maintained.
“If you listen to Nevermind, it still sounds like the future of rock, the same for ‘Fools Gold‘ by The Stone Roses, somebody could record that tomorrow and it would still sound like the most contemporary piece of music ever. That’s why Definitely Maybe has never dated, it wasn’t by design all these things happen by accident,” Gallagher said after not being able to resist bringing the conversation back around to his own greatness.
After writing over five hundred reviews, I can’t remember where I wrote this or even what I what wrote exactly, but somewhere on this site, I expressed these sentiments: America needed Nirvana in the same way the U.K. needed Oasis—to restore the essential edginess of rock ‘n’ roll that vanished in the wave of slick, overproduced crap that defined much of the ’80s.
Pearl Jam was a huge contributor to the restoration of rock ‘n’ roll in the ’90s. If you need some proof that the band can kick ass with the best of them, head over to YouTube and search for “Pearl Jam Baba O’Riley.” Their synthesizer-free cover of the Who classic is an absolute knockout, a power-packed performance by guys who obviously love the fuck out of rock ‘n’ roll and have the talent to deliver the goods.
But the Seattle Sound offered more than a return to rock ‘n’ roll essentials: the “dark lyrics” mirrored the pessimism of disaffected youth who didn’t buy into the “Morning in America” hoo-hah peddled by Ronald Reagan and embraced by a clear majority of the voting public. As noted in a book review of Catherine Strong’s Grunge: Music and Memory on Pop Matters, there was a strong negative reaction to grunge and the alleged negativity of Gen Xers: “She documents the retrospective backlash against the genre, and against its whipping boy/martyr, Kurt Cobain, by a media eager to make sure Generation X lives up to its sloppy albatrosses, “slacker”, “disaffected”, and “cynical”, even if it—they, we, me—were and are none of those things.” While there were plenty of GenXers who did buy into the program and rushed to complete their MBAs, there were many who felt differently, and the “dark lyrics” of grunge gave voice to those feelings.
In contrast to that joyful burst of energy displayed by Pearl Jam on “Baba O’Riley,” the lyrics you’ll find on Ten certainly fall on the darker side of the spectrum. In the documentary Pearl Jam 20, lead singer and lyricist Eddie Vedder was asked about his penchant for writing about the gloomier aspects of life:
Interviewer: A lot of your songs are sort of on the dark side . . . is there any . . . any reason for that? Is that just mostly what you see?
Eddie: My emotions . . . it seems like I should be really happy right now, I get to like play shows, it’s been amazing. But the fact is it’s like my emotions are like a quarter flipped in the air, it’s just like black and white, good and bad, constantly. . . maybe about talking about things that are a little darker, you know, on the negative side of our existence . . . by dealing with them, maybe that’s where I find my happiness.
I noted a distinct increase in passion when he spoke that closing phrase, “By dealing with them, maybe that’s where I find happiness.” When I went through a period of depression in my early twenties, I had several sessions with a therapist. After a few visits, she observed that I seemed to be dancing around the real issues instead of getting to the nitty-gritty. I stammered a half-assed explanation and she stopped me with a pithy piece of advice: “The only way to heal it is to deal with it.”
I did so and though it was one tough fucking road, I eventually reconnected with my happiness.
It’s amazing that Pearl Jam recorded what is considered by many to be one of the greatest debut albums of all-time a mere five months after their first show. Guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament were still recovering from the shocking demise of their band Mother Love Bone due to the death of promising lead singer Andrew Love and had retreated from the music scene. As the wounds healed, Gossard started jamming with guitarist Mike McCready, whose band had also gone belly up. Eventually the pair contacted Ament and the trio clicked well enough to come up with a few songs and make a demo cassette that they sent to drummer Jack Irons, who had left Red Hot Chili Peppers due to the death of one of their band members. Irons passed up the opportunity but gave the demo tape to a San Diego surfer who had gone through a rough childhood and was at the time lead singer in a local band and part-time gas station employee.
One morning after hitting the waves, Eddie Vedder listened to the demo, wrote the lyrics and modified the melodies for three of the songs, recorded his vocals and sent the tape back to the waiting musicians. They were impressed enough to fly Eddie up to Sea-Tac and within a week he was christened lead singer. Once they brought Dave Krusen onboard to handle the kit, they were ready to rock.
Unfortunately, they were rocking under the name Mookie Blaylock, which happened to belong to a live human being. When they signed with Epic, they made a wise name change to Pearl Jam, honoring their favorite NBA star via the album title (10 was Mookie’s number).
The band clicked for various reasons, but one thing Vedder, McCready, Gossard and Ament had in common was a whole lot of hurt in their lives. Shared experience can form strong bonds, and as we know from the experience of those who fought together in war, going through hell can form the strongest bonds of all. I imagine that Ten must have been a cathartic experience for all of them, helping them move past the grief and find their happiness in music.
Given the album’s cherished status, it’s interesting that Pearl Jam’s primary motivation for recording Ten wasn’t to make a great album but to release an album as quickly as possible so they could go out on the road and continue to build their chops. Given that they’d only been playing together for a few months, their strategy made perfect sense. What they didn’t anticipate was that experience of recording Ten would light the creative spark in all the band members, bringing them closer together through collaborative creativity.
Or, to put it another way, these guys had no idea how good they were.
“Once”: This is actually the second song in a three-part trilogy referred to as the “Momma-Son mini-opera,” first recorded on the demo tape Eddie mailed to the guys in Seattle. The first piece is two tracks down the road and the third song (“Footsteps”) was left off the album but used as the B-side for the “Jeremy” single. I really think they should have included all three songs on Ten, for when played in sequence the trilogy packs a lot of punch. The basic narrative goes like this:
- “Alive”: Momma tells her teenage son that the guy he thought was his father is his stepfather, and his real father just died. A broken wire in her brain leads her to molest her son.
- “Once”: The boy’s anger about the deception and molestation causes him to develop a virulent form of toxic masculinity. He becomes a serial killer bent on revenge against a world that has dealt him a pretty bad hand.
- “Footsteps”: The now adult man finds himself on death row, an outcome he pins on momma: “Hey . . . I did, what I had to do/And if there was a reason/Oh, there wasn’t no reason, no/And if, there’s something you’d like to do/Just let me continue, to blame you.”
That, my friends, is a far more coherent narrative than you would find on many a concept album, written by a guy whose songwriting experience at this point in his life was severely limited.
“Once” is partially biographical, but only as it relates to Eddie finding out that the man he thought was dad really wasn’t. The full narrative reflects what might have been if Eddie had allowed himself to be consumed by hatred and resentment. As we’ll see as we move through the songs on Ten, Eddie Vedder was blessed with enormous empathy for the struggles of other human beings, and that character trait likely prevented him from becoming Ted Bundy.
The musical narrative written by Stone Gossard is equally impressive. The disarming opening passage (lifted from part of the album’s closing hidden track, “Master/Slave”) begins in silence; a few seconds in we hear faint percussion and distant guitar before the dominant motif emerges from Jeff Ament’s bass. In the background we can hear Eddie’s voice, faint and distant, as if he’s talking in his sleep. The mood is peaceful and undisturbed; life moves on at a gentle pace. In the context of the narrative, it seems to reflect the existence of a “normal” boy secure in the belief that he was born into a “normal” family.
Suddenly a rough guitar crashes the scene on the left channel followed by a POW-POW-POW-POW from the drums and a sinuous, bluesy guitar riff from McCready. The music represents the moment the boy’s ideal world has collapsed into chaos. Now we enter the head of the boy-turned-serial-killer searching for new prey; he finds it in the form of a girl hitchhiker:
I admit it, what’s to say
I’ll relive it, without pain
Backstreet lover on the side
Of the road
I got a bomb in my temple that is gonna explode
I got a .16 gauge buried under my clothes, I play
Once upon a time I could control myself
Once upon a time I could control myself
Vedder’s vocal drips with toxic masculinity and the arrogant sense of entitlement that comes with it. When he sings the “once upon a time” chorus, you hear both bitterness and anguish as he looks back on his idyllic youth—and for a second—just a second—you hear the little boy and start to feel sorry for the murderous bastard. Eddie Vedder should have won an Oscar for this performance.
Unfortunately, the girl accepts the ride:
Oh try and mimic, what’s insane
I am in it, where do I stand?
Indian summer I hate the heat
I got a backstreet lover on the passenger seat
I got my hand in my pocket so determined discreet, I pray
After a seriously hot instrumental display of the band’s power and tightness highlighted by a deeply expressive guitar solo from McCready, Eddie sings an extended version of the chorus that contains the saddest and most ominous lines of all:
Once upon a time I could love myself
Once upon a time I could love you
The implication is “but those days are gone,” and the girl will forfeit her life.
“Even Flow”: Now considered a classic Pearl Jam song, the Gossard-Vedder composition “Even Flow” turned out to be a bitch to record and none of the band members were completely satisfied with the result. A much better version appears on their greatest hits album Rearview Mirror, and when comparing the two, my ears tell me that there were three problems with the original: Dave Krusen (who admitted he “was really green back then”) really never found the right groove and neglected to provide sufficient power; Jeff Ament’s bass was way too low in the mix; and Mike McCready had an off-day or two (50 to 70 takes), resorting to a Stevie Ray Vaughan imitation when all else failed. Most bands would have blown it off and forgotten about it, but “Even Flow” was fundamentally such a great song that they felt the need to make it right—and boy, did they ever! The new-and-improved version rocks like a thousand bitches in heat.
The topic of the song is best explained by Eddie Vedder when he introduced the piece in a concert at the Bayfront Amphitheater in Miami: “I thought I’d throw in a bit of street education while you still have an open mind . . . Right across the street there’s a little homeless community that lives under the bridge. You should just know that those people ain’t all crazy and sometimes it’s not their fault. This song is called ‘Even Flow’.”
The only way to heal it is to deal with it, but the rich countries whose economic practices and cultural dysfunctions caused the problem in the first place have steadfastly refused to deal with the homeless problem, applying bandaids to a Level 5 wound, with different levels of government treating homelessness like the ultimate hot potato. Meanwhile, the populace wavers between total indifference and disgust, wishing that all those filthy people would just fucking disappear.
Eddie sings the story of one man trapped in the homelessness cycle, his powerful and passionate voice relaying both anger and empathy that triggers my anger and my tears:
Rests his head on a pillow made of concrete . . . again
Maybe he’ll see a little betters, any days
Oh, hand out
Faces that he sees time again ain’t that familiar
Oh, dark grin
He can’t help, when he’s happy, he looks insane
Even flow, thoughts arrive like butterflies
Oh, he don’t know, so he chases them away
Oh, someday yet he’ll begin his life again
Life again, life again
Lookin’ through the paper though he doesn’t know to read
Now to something that has never showed him anything
Understands the weather of the winter’s on its way
Few and far between all the legal halls of shame
Only people who look the other way and can’t be bothered to face reality would label these lyrics “dark.”
“Alive”: This mid-tempo number is the semi-autobiographical piece in the Momma-Son trilogy. The factual part of the story is covered in the first two verses where Eddie learned that his “father” was not his real father and that the real father had recently passed away. The chorus employs a phrase often used when people choose to mask the shock of loss: “I’m still alive.”
The meaning of that phrase will undergo some remarkable transformations, both in the song and beyond.
The fictional part describes the mother’s molestation of her son—the son who just had his entire world turned upside-down. As do many victims of parental molestation, the son strives to bury the memory of the moment:
While she walks slowly
Across a young man’s room
She said I’m ready, for you
Why I can’t remember anything
To this very day
‘Cept the look, the look
Oh, you know where
Now I can’t see, I just stare
When he sings “I’m still alive” in the next chorus, the picture that comes to mind is someone on life support. He may still be breathing, but he’s hardly living. His obtuse rapist tries to comfort him with the same cliché, sending him deeper into a psychological coma:
Is something wrong?
Of course there is
You’re still alive
Oh, do I deserve to be?
Is that the question?
And if so, if so
The song-as-written leaves the son in a black hole, muttering “I’m still alive.” The Songfacts entry for “Alive” mirrors that interpretation (though they omitted the molestation):
Vedder’s lyrics are about a boy who finds out his father is actually his stepfather, and that his real father is dead. He later revealed that the song was “a work of fiction based on reality,” and the chorus of “I’m still alive” was what he considered his curse, as he struggled to deal with the strained relationship with his stepfather and the fact that his real father was dead.
The transformation of the song’s meaning is also explained on Songfacts, in reference to an interview aired on VH1:
In an episode of VH1’s Storytellers, Vedder explained that the interpretation of the song had changed, as fans would react to the chorus by jumping around and celebrating—they heard “I’m still alive” as a positive thing, an affirmation of life. Said Vedder: “When they changed the meaning of those words, they lifted the curse.”
I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a stronger validation of the healing power of music or a more powerful example of music forming such a strong bond between the performer and the audience.
“Why Go”: This Jeff Ament composition has the feel of something between Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, with muscular performances from Mike McCready and Dave Krusen. Vedder’s lyrics address the weird response of parents in the late 80s and into the 90s to children that don’t fit their definition of normal: get ’em to a shrink and load ’em up with drugs. In this case, the parents go one step further and commit their daughter to a mental hospital as she’s obviously causing them embarrassment and we can’t have that, can we?
She scratches a letter
Into a wall
Made of stone
Maybe someday another child
Won’t feel as alone as she does
It’s been two years and counting
Since they put her in this place
She’s been diagnosed
By some stupid fuck
And mommy agrees, yeah
Why go home? (3)
She seems to be stronger
But what they want is
Her to be is weak
She could play pretend
She could join the game, boy
She could be another clone
Get that girl out of there!
“Black”: Speaking of stupid fucks, some of that ilk have interpreted the lyrics to “Black” as a girl having an abortion without telling her boyfriend. The lack of a scintilla of evidence has never stopped stupid fucks from hearing what they choose to hear.
“Black” is a slow-tempo, sad number about a relationship that fell apart due to natural causes—sometimes one-half of a couple grows and changes while the other half stays the same. Such situations are always much harder for the person left behind, still holding on to the belief that the exiting partner was “the one.” In this case, the losing party smashes pictures of the former couple and finds it impossible to appreciate the joy expressed by children in play. Eddie’s lyrics may be slightly overwrought, but they do reflect the fear and uncertainty that often envelops a person who feels like they’ve lost everything.
“Jeremy”: I . . . don’t know where to begin. A few minutes ago I watched the official video and I’m having a hard time gathering my thoughts and emotions.
It’s not the first thing that comes to mind but I have to start somewhere. Most artists try to play it safe on their maiden effort, but not Pearl Jam. They had the guts to tackle some very difficult issues on Ten and I hear their full commitment to that path in every song on the album.
Songfacts claims that “Jeremy” is “about a boy who kills himself at school to get revenge on the students who tormented him.” No, it isn’t. It’s about indifferent parents and teachers that don’t even bother to try to understand their children and have no idea what those children are thinking and feeling. It’s about a sick country that continues to choose gun rights over the lives of human beings—a country where people who are bombarded with breaking news about mass shootings every fucking day, shake their heads, then tune into Netflix to watch films and TV shows loaded with violence. It’s about a society that refuses to face its moral, ethical and spiritual deficiencies. It’s about the often tragic outcome of bullying and the inability of parents and teachers to model and educate children about the Golden Rule.
It’s fair to say that a brief article Eddie Vedder read “about a 15-year-old boy named Jeremy Wade Delle from Richardson, Texas, who shot himself in front of his teacher and his second-period English class of 30 students on the morning of January 8, 1991” influenced his thinking, for “in a 2009 interview, Vedder said that he felt ‘the need to take that small article and make something of it—to give that action, to give it reaction, to give it more importance.'” (Wikipedia). He was also influenced by a personal experience involving a kid in one of his junior high classes who came in one day with a gun and shot up an aquarium. He takes those two stories and instead of simply reporting what happened, delves into the likely causes behind those two acts of violence:
At home drawing pictures
Of mountain tops
With him on top
Lemon yellow sun
Arms raised in a V
And the dead lay in pools of maroon below
Daddy didn’t give attention
Oh, to the fact that mommy didn’t care
King Jeremy the wicked
Oh, ruled his world
The signs were all there and the parents had their heads up their asses. The chorus employs a chilling bit of understatement to describe the predictable result:
Jeremy spoke in class today
Jeremy spoke in class today
Eddie inserts himself into the narrative of the second verse, reliving his own schoolday experiences. Interestingly, he places himself in the role of asshole:
Clearly I remember
Pickin’ on the boy
Seemed a harmless little fuck
But we unleashed the lion
Gnashed his teeth and bit the recess lady’s breast
How could I forget
And he hit me with a surprise left
My jaw left hurting
Dropped wide open
Just like the day
Oh, like the day I heard . . .
The light goes on and Eddie makes the connection, realizing that his bullying could have resulted in tragedy:
Daddy didn’t give affection, no
And the boy was something that mommy wouldn’t wear
King Jeremy the wicked
Oh ruled his world
Jeremy spoke in class today (3)
The closing verse anticipates the common reaction to such a tragedy—a reaction that Eddie unequivocally rejects as utter nonsense:
Try to forget this (try to forget this)
Try to erase this (try to erase this)
From the blackboard
Jeff Ament nailed both the music and the arrangement. The unusual sound you hear in the intro is a 12-string bass, a musical creature I never knew existed until I heard this song. The fade is astonishingly powerful and moving, fully realizing Ament’s desire that “the outro to push over the top.” He also managed to bring out the most in the music by expanding the instrumentation beyond guitars and drums: “On ‘Jeremy’ I always heard this other melody in the choruses and the end, and it never sounded good on guitar or bass. So we brought in a cello player which inspired a background vocal, and those things made the song really happen.”
Most music videos are big on production and weak when it comes to connecting song and imagery, but I highly recommend the “Jeremy” video as one of the best (and most difficult) ever made. You’ll have to click the Watch on YouTube link to gain access.
“Oceans”: In terms of track placement, they couldn’t have picked a better song to follow “Jeremy” than this pretty little love song Eddie wrote for his future wife. The credit for the musical composition goes to both Ament and Gossard, who crafted a fairly simple but interesting chord pattern and arrangement that balances sweetness and simmering passion. The curious sounds coming at you from both sides in the early going consist of a pepper shaker on the left and a drumstick on a fire extinguisher on the right, played by remix man Tim Palmer. Whatever works!
“Porch”: The boys ramp it up for “Porch,” rocking hard to somewhat ambiguous lyrics that generally follow the storyline of a breakup in process. Eddie opens the festivities with an attention-grabbing opening line that in retrospect seems to indicate that the possible breakup is just one more piece of bad news on a shitty day: “What the fuck is this world running to?” Later he makes mention of a “daily minefield,” and it really sounds like he wants to say “Why do I have to deal with all this shit coming at me?”
Some of the ambiguity involves two televised performances of the song: one on MTV Unplugged where Eddie wrote “pro-choice” on his arm; and a second performance on Saturday Night Live, where Eddie added two additional lines: “A woman has every right to choose . . . Choose for herself.” As before, there is no evidence to support the notion that the woman in question had an abortion, but I appreciate Eddie taking the opportunity to use the song to express a view that I completely agree with in a song that really kicks butt.
“Garden”: Eddie wrote the lyrics soon after the first Bush announced the start of the Gulf War, becoming the lonely voice in the wilderness who thought the invasion of Iraq was bullshit. At the time, George H.W. received the highest approval rating in history for his manly aggressiveness, a rating that his moronic son would top (by one point) after 9/11. While the people who approved of the president’s decision talked themselves into believing that the war was a noble act of defending Kuwaiti sovereignty, Eddie figured out what was going on five minutes into the speech:
The direction of the eye
The defection of the soul
I don’t question
I just question
Our modern needs
What really upsets him is the casual regard for the lives of the “brave men and women” in the military, sent on a mission to achieve . . . what? He argues that blind patriotism is really nothing more than a death sentence:
I will walk, with my hands bound
I will walk, with my face blood
I will walk, with my shadow flag
Into your garden
Garden of stone
The “garden of stone” refers to the many cemeteries set aside to host those who were willing to give their life for their country, mistakenly trusting that the people sent them to their deaths had honorable motives.
The guitar duet featuring McCready and Gossard is definitely the musical highlight, featuring contrasting textures and searing arpeggios that make me wonder how in the hell these guys got so tight so damned fast . . . not that I’m complaining.
“Deep”: Sigh. I guess every album has to have at least one flaw, and my vote goes to “Deep” despite some really fine guitar work. The lyrics seem to be headed one way, then go another until you finally wind up in Nowheresville. Eddie’s usually compelling voice doesn’t sound right to me, especially when he’s trying to hit the peaks. Sorry!
“Release”: The moment of catharsis arrives in the form of “Release,” a majestic and deeply moving composition where Eddie Vedder deals directly with the pain of losing a father he never knew (he actually met his real dad without knowing who he was). Eddie points to this song as the one that really brought the band together: “We were strangers, but we were coming from a similar place.”
That place was loss and grief, and though the circumstances differed, a great singer has the ability to express emotions in a way that touches the listener’s soul, calling up feelings that may have been repressed for years but still burn deep inside. Sinatra did it on In the Wee Small Hours and Eddie Vedder pulled it off several times on Ten, but most poignantly in “Release.”
The brief opening passage begins with a gentle, melodic guitar arpeggio; soon we hear a deep guitar drone on the low D note of the DADGBE tuning. Eddie enters with an elongated ohhh on D, which seamlessly melts into the repeated guitar drone, a simple trick that proves to be remarkably compelling. Bass and drums enter to establish the stately slow tempo and Eddie steps up to deliver the first verse in a world-weary voice, uncertain of his direction and purpose:
I see the world, feel the chill
Which way to go, windowsill
I see the words on a rocking horse of time
I see the birds in the rain, ohh
At this point, he makes a choice: to deal directly with the burden of pain he’s carried for oh, so long:
Oh, dear dad, can you see me now?
I am myself, like you somehow
I’ll ride the wave where it takes me
I’ll hold the pain, release me
His voice rises on the words “where it takes me” and the guitar drone returns to underscore the desire to move on from grief. As he sings the last line, the band raises the volume, but nowhere near enough to interfere with the sincere emotion in Eddie’s voice as he sings “I’ll hold the pain, release me.”
It’s one of those verses that simply must be repeated if only to confirm the possibility of release from all the pain he has suffered. The second rendition is even more intense—it’s as if his plea is answered through the expression of heartfelt emotion. The band keeps the drive going, appropriately avoiding any ornamental decoration to distract from the drive and drone. The song fades into softly strummed lo-fi chords . . . followed by a minute or so of silence before the hidden track “Master/Slave” brings us full circle to the album’s soothing opening.
Whether the pain you’re carrying involves family dysfunction, failed relationships or failure in your work, I encourage you to find some time when you can listen to “Release” without distraction and immerse yourself in the healing power of music.
Yes, the album deals with all kinds of “dark” subjects: serial killers, homelessness, teen suicide, gun violence in schools, parental failures and their effect on children, and the mistaken belief that wars solve problems. These are all subjects that the human race refuses to deal with on any meaningful level. I know that many people prefer to listen to music that helps them to pack up their troubles in the old kit bag (see John, Elton), and while I do like to indulge in lighter music when I need a pick-me-up, I deeply admire artists like Pearl Jam who are willing to shine a light on real problems in desperate need of solutions.
I have plans now. I plan to spend the next few days beating the shit out of myself for not paying attention to Pearl Jam earlier and missing several opportunities to see them live. It’s so unlike me to completely agree with the consensus, but if you ask me about the greatest debut albums of all time, I won’t give you a definitive answer, but Ten will definitely be part of the discussion.
These guys are really, really fucking good.