I am, and will always be, a child of the 90s, a member of Generation X, an unrepentant bore who still believes that Nirvana’s Nevermind was, just short of the fall of the Berlin Wall, about the most important socio-cultural event this side of Sergeant Pepper.
I say this aware that the kool kids will — clutching their vinyl copies of old Mudhoney records — no doubt sigh at such ‘MTV’ sensibilities.
Rubbish. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ changed the world. But Kurt is dead and so we look to others to help us reconnect with those splendid days when Mariah Carey and her evil minions were dumped from the charts. Enter Pearl Jam, whose biographer in the new movie Pearl Jam 20 seems to have benefited from the Mormon injunction that we record everything for posterity. Cameron Crowe’s film gives us amazing and encyclopaedic glimpses of Seattle circa 1991 when out of the ashes of Mother Love Bone, Eddie Vedder and co. arose.
It will sound melodramatic to call Pearl Jam’s music the soundtrack to my life, but watching the film follow Pearl Jam over the last two decades I kept being reminded of who I was at the time of each song. Here are a few highlights:
‘Black’ (Ten), MTV Unplugged, 1992 (RJH is 16)
There is a restrained manliness to Vedder in this video which really appealed to me as a kid. Here was a man who climbed stage rigging and growled his anger at the world but who was also a welcome un-jock, comfortably in touch with the feminine. Several of the songs on Ten are written from the female view and whilst ‘Black’ tells the tale of a man lamenting lost love, it remains gruffly romantic and decidedly un-Poison. In a relationship with a girl but with a mission and life standing between us and a happy ending, I really understood Vedder’s lament that ‘I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life / I’ll know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky / but why can’t it be mine?’ Slightly cringeworthy, I know, but I was a teenager.
‘Faithfull’ (sic) (Yield), SVT Sessions, 1998 (RJH is 22)
Pearl Jam’s deliberate withdrawal from the spotlight post-Vs. means that most of you probably do not know this song nor much else since ‘Jeremy’ enjoyed (endured?) constant play on MTV. This is a shame as Yield is probably their best record. ‘Faithfull’ expresses the kind of sad frustration I felt during a crisis of faith when I, somewhat reluctantly, still found myself going through the religious motions: ‘We’re faithful / We all believe, we all believe / So faithful’. Though that crisis is long since passed, it was not a pleasant feeling.
‘Bushleager’ (Riot Act), Uniondale, NY, 2003 (RJH is 27)
‘Bushleager’ is a venomous screed against George W. Bush. We moved to the US in 2002, just in time for the Iraq War and the particularly nasty bitterness which seemed to descend on American politics (and from which America has not yet recovered). Vedder sings/chants his hatred of a President — ‘not a leader / he’s a Texas leaguer — who was ‘born on third [and] thinks he got a triple’. Wearing and then mocking a Bush mask, Vedder is booed by the crowd who chant ‘USA, USA’. The reaction is surprising given the Deadhead-like loyalty PJ fans have for the band, but this was 2003 and things were weird. Vedder’s discussion with the crowd after the song is a telling reminder of a difficult time. I thought then, and still think now, that the Bush-Blair march to war was criminal and this song captures that sour mood.
‘Amongst the Waves’ (Backspacer), 2009 (RJH is 33)
Life is good: ’Riding high amongst the waves / I can feel like I have a soul that has been saved’.
The band are feeling mellow and content . . . and so am I.
Kurt Cobain wrote (chanelling Neil Young), that ‘it’s better to burn out than to fade away’. Not so. Stick around, ride the wave, enjoy the sunset. We’re all still alive . . . yeah!