Fall2007

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New Thoughts on Old Songs

On Pearl Jam, Vs., and a Failed Interview with a Young Friend

By Neil Bhandari

I remember when they were on the cover of Time Magazine… “All the Rage” the headline roared, and I couldn’t help but feel that this was no small victory. MY BAND was on the cover of this very adult magazine. A magazine I’d seen my parents, teachers, aunts, uncles and any number of otherwise respected adults reading over the years. This band that I’d been talking and talking and talking about for months, this band that I’d been locking myself in my room to listen to, were on the cover of, not Rolling Stone, not Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll, not Tiger Beat, but TIME MAGAZINE, in the same space that presidents, foreign dignitaries, even Jesus himself had previously occupied. Everyone would have to realize now how important they were. How important I was….

I was twelve years old, suburban, upper-middle class and hungry for something new. I’d followed my sister to Boyz II Men and my brother to Guns n’ Roses, but found the choices they presented (crying over girls who’ve left you and laughing about girls you’ve abused, respectively) somewhat unappealing. Pearl Jam didn’t sing about girls. They sang about characters I wanted to know, to be. Dark, tortured characters who ached to be heard and so channeled themselves through Eddie Vedder’s wild eyes and spastic gestures, through his deep, clean, violent baritone. It was instantaneously enthralling. Though ill-fitting, I adopted the songs on Vs. as mantras for my life. I wasn’t tortured, but I worked to become so. I was the runaway child of Daughter, born to parents who didn’t understand; I was the unholy fortunate of W.M.A., awash in fault; I was a dude who somehow decided that rats were better than people, and ends with a Michael Jackson homage. The record was everything I wanted to be: a heart of rage wrapped in a skin of soul wrapped in a flannel shirt.

Hey

Hey

What’s going on?

Nothing really. Just listening to music. You?

I’m talking to a friend of mine, Paul, from a summer camp I used to work at. I was his counselor for a few years, and because I’d never had a younger brother, and he’d never had an older brother, we kind of adopted each other as such. He’s eighteen, and a big Pearl Jam fan. Actually, I was the one who introduced him to them a long time ago, a decision I’ve regretted at least a few times since. Like me, he’s prone to annoying, know-it-all-ish tendencies, which I tend to counter with general dickheadedness. Healthy. Anyways, I’d written to him a few weeks prior mentioning that I wanted to talk to him for something I was working on.

No. nah, nothing. What are you listening to?

Huh? Oh, uh, My Chemical Romance…

Oh, that Black Parade record?

Yeah.

You like it?

Yeah

Not really…

Huh?

Nothing… Did you get that letter?

The one, yeah the one you sent? Yeah.

Yeah… cool… so you got anything?

About…

About the letter…

About Vs.?

Yeah… without acting like this was scripted… yeah…

Heh… well, yeah, I mean, I really like it… I know that when I first got it, I dunno, I thought it was good and I liked it, but then I got some of the other albums like Ten and Vitology and whatnot and I really liked those and then I went back and that’s when I started to really like Vs. too…

Oh… ok… um, what about it do you like?

The lyrics, and, I just, I think it’s a really, it’s got a lot of really good songs on it-

You mention the lyrics- anything specific?…

Uh, not that I can think of off-hand, just a lot of good stuff… I really like “Glorified G” and “Daughter”… “Elderly Woman”…

Are you kidding me? I thought they were his ‘favorite band’… anytime I’ve ever brought them up, his tongue cant keep up with his brain as he tries to spew out as many facts about them as humanly possible…

Ok… uhh… well, actually, about them, as a band, being as that you’re 18 now, and they’re your favorite band. You were 5 when that record came out, and you heard it for the first time when you were…

Twelve.

Right. You were twelve…… Alright… I’m doing this wrong. Telephones blow. What kind of stuff did you used to listen to as a kid?

Well, mom was always playing the Beatles, so that, and like, whatever was on the radio, and then I would like hear you guys (he’s talking about myself and some of the other camp counselors) talking about Green Day and Nirvana and Pearl Jam, so I guess I started checking that sort of stuff out at the library, and then you guys gave me, I think Vs. first, and then some Wilco and other Pearl Jam at the end of that one year…

Right, ok, so yeah, it was us that got you into that stuff…

It’s gratifying to know that he knows that…

Yeah, well, at first. But then you know, I kind of started finding more…

Right…alright, anyways, when that album came out, Vs., I was like 12… it changed my life… not in a cool ‘I was gonna shoot up the school and then I heard “Dissident” way, but like, you know, like it or not, I’m at terms with the fact that it’s where a lot of my liberal leanings originated, and I took on Eddie’s white guilt as my own upper-middle class guilt… do you feel like it had any impact on your view of yourself or the world?…

Nah, not really, I mean, I like it a lot, but yeah, I don’t think…

Alright… alright…

It went on a bit more from there. It doesn’t matter I guess, because I realized at that point that I didn’t care what his take on it was. I’d wanted him to tell me he thought it was the most important record he’d ever heard, but even if he had tried to, I wouldn’t have let him. I’d have had to prove that it was more important to me than it was to him. It was my record. And anyways, he’d been in kindergarten when the record came out, and it was stupid to expect that now, in a musical landscape overgrown with Creeds and Nicklebacks and other Pearl Jam-inspired shittiness, he’d be able to understand the significance of the real thing. No, I wasn’t interested in his thoughts at all.


I know that to most people Pearl Jam isn’t really anything special anymore. Some would argue that it’s been ten years or more. Like my other pop-cultural obsession, The Simpsons, they’re widely considered to have followed a few years of extraordinary brilliance with an extended tenure of solid, old-hat consistency (I only draw the comparison because it’s an entertaining parallel to map out, should you ever care to). But the thing about obsessions, be they musical, culinary or podiatric, is that they’re selfish pleasures, all about the individual partaking in the experience, and indifferent to outside opinion. What Vs. gave me, luckily, for I sat unknowingly on the precipice of middle and high school mundanity and the idiocy I would encounter therein, was a belief in people- that the poor could be helped, that the rich could offer that help, that children could overcome their neglectful parents, that black victims of police brutality could forgive their white oppressors, and, perhaps most importantly to me, that someone who hadn’t lived through these things could still sing truthfully about them.


I bought a new copy of Vs. recently, on cassette, like my first copy, to behold the joy of unfolding the inlay, rather than flipping though it, and to get a whiff of that long-forgotten new-tape smell. Greeted by the snarling sheep caught behind the wire fence on the cover (and how’s that for an easy-to-identify-with character for a twelve year old boy?), I put the tape in, put my headphones on and waited for the songs, the ones I’ve heard thousands of times over the past fourteen years, to hit my ears in a new way. I wanted to be twelve again and to be told what to do, how to think, who to be. I wanted it to be new again. I wanted to know that if I tried hard, I could hear and feel this music in the same way that I had the very first time. But of course, I couldn’t. They were the same songs, and I loved them as strongly as I ever had, felt as close to them as I’d ever been, but they could never be new. I’d already squeezed every bit of meaning out of them that I ever would. They were in me now; I was of them.


In the album’s liner notes, composed mostly of odd photographs and scribble-scrawled handwritten lyric sheets, you can just barely make out, under emphatic cross-outs (though not emphatic enough to render it illegible) the words “would you kill yourself for pearl jam?” I’ve often wondered about what it meant, who it was written for, if the band, or Eddie specifically, in the midst of being the ‘biggest band in the world,’ realized the significance of the impact they had on so many, and wondered how far that influence could be taken. And resultantly, if they were hoping that their young fans would see it, ponder it, and be awakened into retaining perspective on the influence we allowed their music to have on us. I’ve always loved that they included it. An early test, a gut-check to make sure that everyone involved, themselves and their fans, knew that this was something special, that we’d all take much from the relationship, that we’d all grow into who we’d become, and that we should never lose ourselves in the process.

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