When it rains, it pours.
I'm writing this while laying on a friend's living room, recuperating from a knee surgery brought on from years of abuse in my band. As a teen, I took the unsaid lesson that bands like Black Flag taught me quite literally; play hard or go home. And for over two decades I've done this, and I'm physically paying for it now.
How does this relate to Pearl Jam? Don't worry, I'll get there.
Pearl Jam has never appealed to me in the traditional sense. By the time they were taking root in popular culture, I irrationally despised them. The major label marketing machine behind bands pigeonholed as "grunge" practiced overkill without prejudice, sucking the life out of many of the artists that they came in contact with. Even if certain bands were appealing in the primordial form of "grunge" (Skin Yard, Big Chief, Mudhoney and others) my infatuations quickly deflated with the exploitation of the subgenre. Too much of anything can be a bad thing.
I was a teenage music fanatic in the early '90s, a golden era for aggressive music. Back then, I was recuperating from a broken kneecap. I was laid up for six months, and music became an intense obsession of mine, both as a player and as a devout listener. I would spend hours on end, lost in my head, thinking about the kind of band I wanted and the qualities I wanted to carry one day.
Even then, major labels couldn't piss on my leg and tell me it was raining. I may have known nothing about most things in life, but I felt I could determine if a band was the real deal or not with pinpoint accuracy. I had a voracious appetite for the real thing (still do) and I no tolerance for poseurs, an epithet that even now, I consider a fate worse than death.
One late Saturday night on Headbangers Ball, I saw Pearl Jam's breakthrough video for "Alive" and immediately viewed it as suspect. It had everything a young music lover could possibly want; an arty black-and-white treatment, slow-motion stage dives, and even a visual metaphor for the new craze of "crowd surfing" — the grainy "wave" visual that appears throughout — all in one all-too-perfect package. Something felt off.
As I looked closer, Stone Gossard seemed to be a strange Stevie Ray Vaughan impersonator. Mike McCready's funky stage moves were awkwardly high school, Jeff Ament's crochet Rasta hat was costume-esque, and Eddie Vedder's role as the oblivious heartthrob seemed contrived. Add to that their drummer holding his sticks in a geeky traditional grip, and their fate was sealed in my know-it-all brain: Pearl Jam was a sham.
As Pearl Jam aged, their public resistance to the music industry remained fishy to me. Once-willing participants in the major label millionaire machine, they would lightly bite at the hand that fed them, conceptually aligning themselves with do-it-yourself pioneers Fugazi and the symbolically rebellious Neil Young while still being a cog in the reviled machine.
I turned them off before ever tuning in. For all intents and purposes, Pearl Jam were pop music disguised as alternative art and I wanted no part of it. It took 20 years of my life to pass and some personal introspection to convince me otherwise.
Exactly a year ago, on an overnight drive in the mountains of Oregon, our bassist Nate Newton turned to me and yelled, "We're gonna crash, brace yourselves!" loud enough to be heard over my blaring headphones. Those were the last words uttered before our van and trailer spun out of control, careening into a highway barrier, facing the wrong way on I-84. As we skidded to a halt, I looked at the faces of my bandmates and crew. And that's when it hit me; these people are so different from me, yet we are a family. I love them as such. I never want to lose them. We're different in every conceivable way; upbringings, hates, loves, fears, etc. But we are the same, a crew that finds commonality in the music that we make. I really don't know what I would've done if things took a more tragic turn that night.
And don't laugh, but when we crashed, I was listening to Pearl Jam's version of the Who's "Love, Reign o'er Me."
Still shaken up, we managed to get our wounded van and trailer off the highway, only to sit on a back road waiting for a tow truck to arrive. In pitch blackness I lay on a bench seat, trying to calm my nerves. I wanted to call home and tell my wife I loved her, but there was no service. As the others drifted off to sleep I looked for a distraction from it all. I put my headphones back on and hit play. Pearl Jam's version of "Love Reign o'er Me" washed over me again and I got goosebumps. I played that song over and over that night. Partly because the original is an old favorite, and partly because I needed something comforting in the chaos. Then I distracted myself from our grim situation with thoughts of the band, my life, and the mess I was in. And for the first time in my years of suspiciously listening to Pearl Jam like an investigator, I began to understand the band in a way I never did before.
What I naively misconstrued as a major label sham was actually a true collection of musical misfits. Pearl Jam found each other organically, just like our band did. They never wanted to play anything but honest, emotional music, just like our band played. And they're all intensely different individuals, just like our band is. Pearl Jam wasn't cool or hip, and didn't claim to be. They were awkward kids, just like us. The closer I looked, the more parallels I saw to my own efforts and motivation. Though we played at different volumes and to different ends, we carried something similar in our blood. What I mistook in them as calculated was actually a very different "c" word entirely: character. They were a form of rebellion back then and I was just too stubborn to realize it.
Pearl Jam's bitterness towards the industry was very real. As promising kids, they innocently teetered on the edge of something spectacular only to be shoved off the edge by big business interests. They plummeted through the air, not ready to be the band that the world demanded them to be. The external pressures that cursed them at the peak of their '90s powers could've crushed coal to diamonds. Miraculously they survived the fall and matured into a personal and political musical powerhouse.
I respect them for that.
Lightning Bolt is Pearl Jam's tenth album. Sonically, it's a modern yet warm rock record. At times it carries a pop vagueness and at other times it bears intense emotional weight. Critics often misinterpret it as a weakness, but this disparate assemblage of moods is precisely the band's strength — the varied dynamics they offer are the sound of real-life human complexity. That's the beautiful thing about music: it can speak all kinds of languages.
I know that what I write here doesn't matter to a true artist, nor should it. The emotional fulfillment from what they create is the only thing that matters on their end. As I've grown as an artist and musician I've also grown as a listener of music; I've learned that the musical world doesn't revolve around me and what I prefer to hear. Music being "good or bad" is a flawed idea. Artists make what they want to make and we either connect with it or we don't. Just because we relate to some songs more than others doesn't make the others less valid, we just don't understand them. In fact, we aren't meant to, and that's all right.
Songs on Lightning Bolt that speak to me at this point in my life: "Sirens," "Pendulum," "Yellow Moon" and "Future Days." These songs have something in common: they are tales of love's importance in the face of mortality. That's a universal struggle that I relate to, so much so that it's sometimes the subject of art and music that I make. It may have taken the scare of a lifetime, but I now see Pearl Jam in a different light. Not as symbolic adversaries, but as relatives from a distant land.
Thanks for your time.