Sunday, April 9, 2017

Pearl Jam Fan Reminisces About Past 25 Years

As a loyal fan of Pearl Jam, today seemed like a good day to express my appreciation with at least a couple of blog entries. But I was running short on time, and besides, I think that I have probably said a lot about the band in past blog entries. So, here are a few older entries that are being republished here today:

Wednesday, June 22, 2016  Pearl Jam a Boring Band?

For whatever the reason, I felt a bit nostalgic the other day, and started to look up some old photos of Pearl Jam, from very early in the band's history. In particular, I was interested in seeing some of the different hats that bassist Jeff Ament was known to wear, because that was one of the elements about the band in those early days that added a fair degree of mystery and intrigue. It seemed like one of the band's trademarks, just one of those things, you know?

So, I was perusing through old pics, when I stopped at one in particular. It was an old pic, but not from the days of "Ten." No, there was Dave Abbruzese, who drummed for the band on "Versus" and "Vitalogy," and who served as the drummer during some of the band's most famous performances and shows.

For whatever the reason, I clicked on the photo to get to the source, and found that there was something strange about the link. While at first, I had assumed it was a nostalgic piece about Pearl Jam's early history, the title of the article made it clear that it certainly was not, as it basically stated that this was the most boring band of the past 20 years.

It should not be surprising that I went ahead and read the article by Nicholas Pell. Needless to say, it was not impressive. It was not because the article was against Pearl Jam, because I have read and heard better criticisms of the band. No, it was because this was a poorly written and excessively opinionated article, criticizing everything from the way that Eddie Vedder mumbles (which was particularly true in those early days), to Jeff Ament's hat collection (which Pell suggested was ridiculous), to the notion, echoed by many far before this article by Pell, that the band lacked originality, and basically stole music from other artist, basically insinuating that they added nothing of quality to the music world. He seemed to take particular exception to "Ten," which he clearly did not like, and suggested that it was trash, albeit not in so many words. Generally speaking, the band could do nothing write, according to the author. They were an unfortunate reality in today's music, and their rise was a borderline tragedy.

This is not the first time that I have heard major criticisms of the band. In his autobiography, Anthony Kiedas of the Red Hot Chili Peppers basically dismissed Pearl Jam, saying that their music was not RHCP's cup of tea, and that was a very mild critique. Everyone knows that Nirvana's Kurt Cobain continually blasted the band, saying that there was nothing alternative about Pearl Jam, and claiming that they were the ultimate in a corporate band. Despite Cobain and Vedder famously sharing a dance to make up, so to speak, Cobain remained skeptical of two members of the band - Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, in particular. Given that they both had donned typical hair band appearances, and could appear to be shape shifters, quickly adapting to the winds and changing their image to pursue the image of the popular music of the moment. More recently, Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins also blasted the band, claiming in an interview with Howard Stern that Pearl Jam's success was a mystery to him, and suggesting that he had always believed them to be "derivative."

Such criticisms are nothing new to this band. Yet, their popularity has persisted, and despite the claims that the reasons for this are a mystery, I think that the reasons for Pearl Jam's success are quite clear. Yes, they emerged from the right city (Seattle) at the right time, on the heels of Nirvana's breakout success. That much is true. And it is true that Vedder came to time just in the nick of time, and the band quickly put together an album, worked with another big Seattle band on another album, and built a reputation relatively quickly. Some can view this with skepticism if they want, although that is overlooking the death of Andrew Wood, who had fronted the band's previous incarnation, Mother Lovebone. Still, Vedder brought a level of intensity and mystery to the lyrics of some of the tunes that the band had been working on, and he instantly got the job. Before long, they had themselves a collection of songs long enough to be an album, and they did some live shows. At first, these live shows were relatively subdued affairs. But in time, the live shows would be the strength of the band, and the energy and intensity that each member brought to these shows helped build and then solidify the band's reputation. I still remember being in awe of Vedder's acrobatics, as he would scale the heights of venues, only to drop down onto the crowd, trusting his fate to his fans. They never let him down.

Let me preface this article by sharing my own little story of how I became a fan of Pearl Jam. You see, I will admit to not being overly impressed with them initially. Back then, I considered myself a fan of Nirvana, and the raw energy of that music, and Kurt Cobain's voice, really appealed to me.

When I heard Pearl Jam, somehow, it just did not connect. This resistance continued for months, even though a ton of my friends liked Pearl Jam.

Then, there was a friend who told me about the lyrics to one particular song. She said that she could not remember the lyrics, but she was pretty sure that the title was something like "Jeremy Spoke in Class Today." The song was about suicide, which was an issue that I had grappled with myself in the not so distant past, and so this information sounded very intriguing, although it seemed a shot in the dark to find this mysterious song. Remember, this was the age just before the internet, so we could not simply type up the lyrics and find out such information, as we can do these days.

Needless to say, however, I heard the song on the radio one night, while driving around. I remember it well, it was a beautiful and warm spring evening, and my fingers went right to volume knob and turned it up, really getting into it!

What a song! The lyrics were difficult to understand (yes, Eddie Vedder does tend to mumble, and this was particularly true back in those early days), but I was hooked. When the band who performed this particular song was announced, I made it a point to obtain my own copy of their album with this song on it. Everything kind of took off from there.

This coincided with my time at a local community college, which I attended after crashing and burning in high school. Perhaps I could elaborate on the all-too-familiar story of not fitting in, of feeling that something was somehow wrong, and of, yes, teenage angst.

Suffice to say, coming from a relatively redneck town like mine, there was little variety in terms of the types of people you would meet. This was not at all the case at the college, where there seemed no end to the flow of interesting young people who seemed to me impossibly sophisticated and made me feel like a different kind of an outcast, even like a bit of a rough redneck myself. These young people seemed connected to the world in a way that I could only envy. They dressed differently, listened to all sorts of interesting music that I was not familiar with, and they spoke with confidence about the world. They seemed ready to take it on, to make the changes necessary to mold it into a better world.

Generally speaking, Pearl Jam was very popular with this crowd, and the band members themselves seemed to reflect the unique looks and styles that those college kids possessed. I remember seeing the manner in which Jeff Ament in particular dressed, with the cargo shorts over the spandex pants, the t-shirts over the long sleeve shirts, and those crazy, funny hats. Other band members dressed kind of strangely, too, although not quite to the same extent. And the band was far more intelligent and well-spoken than they might at first have appeared to the uninitiated. The content of their lyrics was incredible, and the little that I saw or heard of them in interviews (remember, again, that this was just before the age of the internet) confirmed that they represented something different, something unique.

That was what they came to mean to me: a different, more enlightened world. A band with a conscience, at a time when high profile rock stars included Axl Rose, with his fistful of dollars and his excess narcissism. There were a ton of other self-absorbed rock stars at the time, and there were pop stars that dominated the airwaves, and it was hard for me to feel that I could relate to any of them. So, with the rise of Pearl Jam, as well as other "alternative" bands, or grunge bands, or whatever you want to call them, it felt like a really refreshing change. At a time when my previously favorite band, Metallica, seemed to be making it big by selling out, it was amazing to me that a band like Pearl Jam could rise - and rise so precipitously - by having a conscience. It was in everything that they did, and yes,I do understand how some people were suspicious of them, and felt that this was disingenuous.

Still, Pearl Jam seemed to me to represent a shift from boring pop music and self-absorbed harder rock with an obsession with money, and with a decidedly redneck bend. Suddenly, here was a band that actually addressed issues, and which took a stand on things larger than themselves. I remembered the band's performance on Saturday Night Live, with Vedder's self-made t-shirt with a hanger, representing illegal abortions, and how he had made a point of showing everyone watching that he did not approve of another term for George H.W. Bush.

For those who felt that such displays had been disingenuous, then they would have to explain to me how the band has remained very consistent in taking stands ever since. The lyrical content has grown more mature, and it has never lacked in substance. And the band's strong stance on issues has gotten them in serious trouble. I remember being at the infamous show in Uniondale, when their criticism of President George W. Bush got them booed off the stage. There were articles around that time from conservative pundits who loved Bush and his war in Iraq.

The band has made no secret of their political leanings and, indeed, most of the band members live differently than the majority of people out there, which to me translates to indeed believing in an alternative lifestyle, confirming my first impressions back when they seemed quite sophisticated when I was in community college.

And here's the thing: while the band has changed in many ways since then - changed musically, changed in appearance, changed in the public perception - the one thing that has not changed has been their political and social activism. That is the one area where they have remained remarkably consistent, and if this was not sincere, they surely could easily have stopped by now, and no one would protest. They spoke out for a new activism in the 1990's, and were particularly outspoken in their criticism of George W. Bush, particularly his invasion of Iraq, in the 2000's. They even wrote a song blasting him, called "Bushleaguer." Remember, they were courting controversy by so doing, as at the time, Bush's popularity ratings were very strong, and many Americans were reluctant to criticize him so soon after September 11th. Yet, Pearl Jam did not hesitate, even when other major music acts, such as Britney Spears and Toby Keith, were quote vocal in their support of him.

At a time when political discourse in the United States was, quite frankly, stifling, Pearl Jam were one of the relatively few bands who showed enough integrity to do what they felt was right and speak out against the invasion of Iraq, and the policies of the Bush administration overall.

This did not enhance their popularity and, in fact, tons of fans booed them and walked out at the end of the Uniondale show. I remember reading the reactions of some fans, and a few of them swore they wanted nothing to do with the band ever again. I had a friend who felt the same way. He was supposed to go with me to that show in particular, but he declined, after hearing reports that Eddie Vedder had impaled a mark of George W Bush on stage at a show in Denver. What actually happened was that he set the mask onto a microphone stand. But that was enough for him, and he swore never to have anything to do with them ever again. So be it.

In an article, neocon Anne Coulter blasted Pearl Jam for this, and derisively suggested that Pearl Jam's fan base numbered in the dozens. This was, obviously, an outrageous lie, as anyone with half a brain realizing that the band was playing in huge arenas would be able to figure out on their own. Her rantings about Pearl Jam, frankly, were not radically different than those expressed in the article (se link below) by Nicholas Pell, going to all sorts of lengths just to express hatred of the band. Again, so be it.

Ultimately, Pearl Jam is what they have always been: a rock band. Their style has changed - you could say mellowed - over the course of the years and, yes, quarter of a century - since they began as a band. Their music appealed to millions of fans, and continues to appeal to huge numbers of fans right up to the present day. But it is still art, and art is subjective. Some people will like them, and some people will not. As for the people who do not, some people have their reasons, and for others, it is more of a feeling than anything else. I suspect that Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan, as musicians, had their natural competitive juices flowing when they saw the success that Pearl Jam enjoyed, and which indeed seemed to come almost too easily for them. For music fans, their style might not be what they particularly like. I have known plenty of people who disliked the band, for various reasons. Some have not liked them for Vedder's vocals, and some have not liked them because they perceive the band to be unoriginal, to be too much of a throwback to 1970's hard rock.

Pell, however, wrote an article that really does not give serious criticism of the band. Criticizing the hat collection of one member, or suggesting that the lead singer mumbles and is incoherent, or that one particular track ("Spin the Black Circle," in this particular case, is so bad that it would make Thomas Edison turn in his grave and regret ever having invented the phonograph) lacks any serious consideration. It is an article written in a juvenile manner, frankly, and adds nothing, one way or the other, to any debates or serious analysis of what Pearl Jam is, or where they stand in music. Denying that they deserve any of the success that they have gotten, as Pell does, is the equivalent to a child plugging his ears with his fingers, because he does not like what he is hearing. It is not a serious approach to things, and insults are just meant to inflame, to rouse some kind of a reaction. In this case, he managed to at least do that with me, admittedly, as it got me writing this particular blog entry in the first place. But it does little more than that, because it hardly qualifies as a serious, much less a brilliant, piece of writing, or an example of halfway decent journalism, or even a competent musical review. It is just nonsense, and nothing really more than that.

For me, Pearl Jam has never been boring. They might have been, had they not changed their style, and tried to replicate the music and style that got them success in the first place. If they were still trying to rewrite songs that sound like those on "Ten" or "Versus" or "Vitalogy," then indeed, that would be boring. One of the artists that I mentioned in this blog was the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I suspect that they have been trying to imitate their own earlier work, particularly from their most brilliant album, "Blood Sugar Sex Magic," which was probably one of the very best, and most original, albums of the 1990's. That's just my personal opinion, but I find that their more recent work pales by comparison to what they did on that album.

Each album that Pearl Jam has released sounds different than the ones that preceded it, and that kind of variety is exciting. At least to me, it is. And when the band drastically changed their style with "No Code," and basically unplugged the excessive popularity machine, they created something interesting, and unique to this particular band. Their next album was different still, and each album since has sounded different and unique in it's own way.

Yes, they have changed their style and their image, and done so in a mature manner, allowing themselves the flexibility to make these changes. Not everyone has been happy, and many of their earlier fans who liked them at the peak of their popularity lost interest when they made any significant changes. Still, the band persists, and it is a testament to them that they have remained together now for over one quarter of a century. And they are still going strong?

So, boring? No, not boring. Never boring, so far as I'm concerned. They tried different things with their music, and were never what most would likely call formulaic. They take their music seriously, and as such, they should themselves be taken seriously. There are plenty of bands out there who are boring. Bands who sound pretty much the same ten or fifteen or twenty years past their prime, and who never try anything different, but Pearl Jam simply is not one of them.

Here is the article that got me on this topic:

Pearl Jam Are the Most Boring Band in 20 Years by Nicholas Pell, January 5, 2012:

Pearl Jam at Randall's Island, NYC, September 29, 1996 - 20th Anniversary of a Great Concert!

Picture of the rather unique ticket stub from the show. It is actually much bigger than typical tickets tend to be.

Okay, so I wrote the following a few years ago, when I turned around and realized, on September 29, 2012, that it had been exactly 16 years since one of the most memorable concert experiences that I ever had. That would be seeing Pearl Jam for the first time at Randall's Island in New York City back in 1996, when they were finally touring in support of the "No Code" album.

There are a lot of things that immediately come to mind when I think about that concert. First of all, it happened to fall on my then girlfriend (now ex-wife) and my first anniversary. Secondly, although I was beginning to go to a lot of concerts by that point, this concert felt somehow like a turning point. Pearl Jam was a huge band, and they were my favorites. Up to that point, despite having seen a growing number of concerts, there always was that one band, my favorites, whom I had yet to see. Then, suddenly, my friend managed to obtain tickets shortly after I returned from a trip to Chicago with another friend (who also happened to be a Pearl Jam fan and wound up going with us). This was the one band that I really, at the time, felt ready to drop everything to go and see, if the opportunity presented itself, and it finally did. I came somewhat close a couple of times in 1994, but ultimately failed. So, the next time that they came around, I was determined to see them come what may. When that friend managed to snag these tickets, it felt like pure elation, and I felt like a little kid eagerly anticipating the Christmas holiday to come, knowing in my head that the date was approaching, but feeling that, somehow, it could not come soon enough.

Even today, I remember how glad that concert made me feel, and just how huge it was for me. Since then, I have been to 24 Pearl Jam concerts, and have seen almost every song that meant something special to me, and then some! Some of the shows were amazing, and for some of them, I had amazing seats, including the second time that I saw them, making a point of reciprocating my friend's purchase of these tickets back in 1996 by bringing him to Pearl Jam's concert at East Rutherford in 1998, where we had second row center.

Yet, despite having some better seats (well, Randall's Island was standing room only, so there technically were no seats) at some other concerts, this particular Pearl Jam concert really stands out for me even to this day. Rarely has any concert mad me feel this good. There have been other concerts, and I have seen some amazing bands and performances. Very few of them made me feel anywhere near what the Pearl Jam concert in 1996 made me feel.I discussed some of these a few years ago, and shared my thoughts in past blogs, and will add those to this particular blog entry below. But seeing Pearl Jam finally take the stage, after years and years of waiting for that opportunity, felt just amazing! It wound up being the longest concert to that point that the band had ever done, and attained a certain legendary status among PJ fans. I remember how crowded it was, people body surfing, and how some of the staff started spraying grateful fans with water to help cool us off. For that matter, simply arriving at Randall's Island, where just a couple of months and change before, that same friend and I had seen Lollapalooza, was an amazing experience. We were discussing the Fastbacks, and he mentioned how Eddie Vedder "creams over them." 

Hard to believe that it has been twenty years since then!

So, here are some thoughts that I had four years ago on that concert, which took place on this day, two decades ago:

I have seen a lot of concerts in my own time. It's approaching two hundred since 1992, when my brother and I went to see Metallica and Guns 'n Roses, with Faith No More as the opening act, at Giants Stadium in the summer of 1992. That concert was intense, particularly Metallica's set. It was so loud, so long, so energetic, and it left a lasting impression. It was quite memorable. More recently, there have been other concerts that were quite memorable, as well. Seeing Pink Floyd at Yankees Stadium in 1994. Seeing the Vote for Change Finale in 2004, with incredible acts like Pearl Jam, REM, the Dave Matthews Band, John Fogerty, John Mellencamp, Jackson Brown, James Taylor, the Dixie Chicks, and with Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band as the closers. That was incredible. I have seen Paul McCartney give a free concert in Quebec on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of that city. Sir Paul was also involved in another incredible concert memory: joining Ringo Starr on stage a couple of years ago on Ringo's 70th Birthday and playing "Birthday". It was as close to a Beatles reunion, or a Beatles show, that I'll have ever seen, most likely, and as a big Beatles fan (could you guess?), that was very memorable! And since that article that I wrote about this Pearl Jam concert, I was at the 12/12/12 Sandy Benefit concert, which included some huge names that included Eddie Vedder, who accompanied Roger Waters on "Comfortably Numb," Bruce Sprinsteen and the E-Street Band, Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, Kanye West (not a big fan of his, admittedly), Chris Martin of Coldplay with guest star Michael Stipes of R.E.M., Alicia Keys, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Paul McCartney, who at one point brought out the remaining members of Nirvana to perform a song, and this wound up being the first public performance of "Sirvana." Some at the time were suggesting that this was the greatest concert ever. Nowadays, some are suggesting that the Iheart concerts in the desert, also with huge names, are the greatest. For my part, I still think that Woodstock tops all of these in terms of sheer brilliance and cultural influence, and I think that Roger Waters performance of "The Wall" live in Berlin back ni 1990 deserves honorable mention, but I digress. 

I started going to see a lot of concerts particularly starting in 1992, and especially gaining momentum in 1994. But at that point, there was one major act that I really wanted to see, probably more than all others, but which it sometimes felt I would never see: Pearl Jam. The thing about Pearl Jam was that, at the time, they were phenomenally popular, probably at the height of their power, if you will. Granted, much of that was the cult of personality surrounding lead vocalist Eddie Vedder. He was the iconic leader of the group, if you will. The type of guy that, as cliche as this sounds, women wanted to be with, and men wanted to be. They had an incredible, raw energy to them in those days. They have retained some of that over the years, but at that time, it was their defining trait. Their music was intense, and charged with powerful and meaningful lyrics, with more than a touch of poetry to them. They really were a band that seemed almost to offer at least a little something to everyone. I desperately wanted to see them, and felt, on many levels, that no matter how many concerts and acts I saw, it would not be or feel complete or impressive until I saw Pearl Jam.

But they rarely ever toured, and never seemed to come to my area, the New York greater metropolitan area, at the time. True, they came around for several shows in their earliest days in the early nineties, playing some very memorable, even legendary shows, at places like the Limelight, but I really started getting into Pearl jam early in 1993, and by then, they were becoming a rare act to see in New York. They had actually come in the area and done a show at the Paramount, in Madison Square Garden (but not outright MSG), and I had desperately tried to get tickets, but was unsuccessful. I waited outside on the side of a road in New York City with a group of equally determined friends to try and get stand by tickets to Saturday Night Live, and actually managed to get one of these tickets. But there was literally not one opening that night, and so all stand by tickets were sent home. I even tried to see them at the Boston Gardens, and came somewhat close, but no cigar. I collected bootlegs of their shows by then, and that 1994 tour still looms large in my memory, although the pleasure of actually going to one of those shows was not mine.

Eventually, however, the opportunity did come. I was friends with someone who had a penchant for obtaining rare tickets, and he managed to get tickets to one of the two Randall's Island shows that the band scheduled for September of 1996, to support their latest album, No Code. This came around a month after the release of that album, which I remember having gotten while on a trip to Chicago, in late August. So, knowing that I would finally get to see them, I was incredibly excited. I just couldn't wait to finally see this group in concert.

There were three of us who went to the concert together. We got there early, and I remember kind of just taking in the atmosphere. The Fastbacks finally came out to open the show, and then it was Ben Harper, who I was not familiar with at the time, but was tremendously impressed with. Still, the group that I wanted to see was in the waits, and the excitement grew. It seemed to take forever for them to take the stage, and it was so hot that night, I remember. Maybe it was just because we were all so tightly packed in. There were a lot of people there.

Finally, the lights went out, and I saw candles on the stage that Pearl Jam was about to take. I don't remember having seen candles at a concert before like that, so it seemed like a new touch. The band came on stage, and it was a thrill to see the immediately identifiable locks of Vedder's then still long hair, and knowing that they were finally there, that the concert had finally begun.

But the music waited, as Eddie Vedder spoke first. He assured us that while the previous night (they had played Randall's Island the night before, as I understand it, in heavy rain) had been highly charged, tonight, they were going to take it a bit easier. But he had the feeling, he told us, that the music would be better sharper, than it had ever been, and that the concert would be longer, maybe, than any other that they had ever performed.

He was right. It wound up being, at that time, the longest show that the band had ever played (it had since been overtaken, and the longest concert that they have played to date now, to my knowledge, was the third Mansfield show in 2004, when they tried to play mostly all different songs in the three shows combined, and opened that third and final show in the Boston area with an acoustic set prior to their main set).

They opened up with "Sometimes", which is also the opening song of their then new album, No Code. It was a strange choice, I thought. It was followed by an intense version of "Go", and the intensity was on. The crowd was really fired up, and seemed as excited as I was in just seeing the band, finally. The next few songs were also highly charged, despite Vedder's previous prediction. During "Animal", Vedder stopped the song and warned the crowd that people were acting crazy, and given the overly crowded circumstances, he did not want something to happen. He even mentioned that they did not think they could keep playing music if someone was to lose their life at one of their shows, something that a friend of mine mentioned some years later, following the tragic incident at Roskilde during the Pearl Jam set.

In any case, that show indeed was legendary, and just as Vedder had forecast, they did in fact play more sings, and played a longer show, than they had ever done before. Everyone went home satisfied, and that certainly included me. I was flying high for maybe a week or so after, feeling so privileged to have felt like that. Since then, only the shows that I mentioned earlier have really allowed me to feel that way, as far as concerts are concerned. Most recently, it was Ringo's 70th birthday show that made me feel that concert magic. It's a nice feeling, and I remember just feeling so content following that legendary 1996 show. Even the massive traffic jam following the show's end did not bother me. Nothing bothered me after that for a while.

That show was on this date, September 29th, exactly 20 years ago, and I was there! I was sure that it would forever be the greatest Pearl Jam show that I would ever see, but I have seen them over twenty times since then. One of the other very memorable shows that I saw of theirs also occurred on this date, back in 2004. It was also part of the Vote for Change tour, about two weeks before that Washington DC finale that I mentioned earlier in this blog. That also had an incredible set list, and was one of the most intense shows of Pearl Jam's that I had ever seen. Even that was now eight years ago. They were both a long time ago, but, ah, what memories!

Here's a link to Pearl Jam's website with the setlist of this 1996 show (as well as an illustration of the poster from the show, now a real colector's item):

And here's a link to the other September 29th show, eight years later in 2004, and eight years ago on this date:

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