Pearl Jam Were My Teachers

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I used to make my mom listen to Pearl Jam. Maybe “make” is too strong a word. She was driving the car, after all, and was legally and familially allowed to tell me what to do, but I’d badger my way into getting a Pearl Jam CD into the rotation of any number of a series of Bonnevilles my family owned from the late 1980s to the early 2000s as we took Interstate 55 north to Springfield, its surface like a laser blasting between miles and miles of corn fields, flat and rolling almost to a fault. I’d single out prettier, lighter fare, such as “Black” or “Elderly Woman Behind a Counter in a Small Town,” hoping to hook the lady who carried me in her belly, tricking her into loving the rock band I loved so much. Back before I’d move south to Atlanta and embark upon a career as a writer, often penning words about music that was stylistically miles away from the legendary Seattle rockers, before my father-in-law would, as a Christmas gift, build me floor-to-ceiling shelves in my home office to house the 1,300+ CDs, LPs, 7-inch records, and myriad box sets of an always-expanding collection, there was Pearl Jam.

Unsurprisingly, the band’s singles got heavy-and-repeated airplay on Springfield’s WQLZ (“92.7: The Rock Station!”), but when I decided I needed more than what QLZ’s limited commercial airwaves could provide, a friend of a friend, who, for the purposes of this essay, we’ll call Debra, and who was a Pearl Jam fan in a way my junior-high self found both admirable and intimidating, lent me her copy of Ten, suggesting a couple of deep cuts worth checking out (admirable!) and warning me not to scratch the disc (intimidating!). I dug in, and it wasn’t long until one of those trips to Springfield found me using money I’d made — likely walking beans or doing assorted farm work for my dad — to buy my own copy of Ten.

When we talk about music we like, too often the nonmusical situation or conditions surrounding that music are left out of the discussion. Clearly, one of the main reasons I took to Pearl Jam was because of the heavy airplay they received on a fairly narrow-minded rock ‘n’ roll station in the vast, mostly rural section of middle Illinois I called home. But the band’s earnestness resonated with me as well. Revisiting Pearl Jam’s catalog recently, I was struck by how comically sincere the band is. Think about a lyric like “Try to erase this from the blackboard.” If you’re cynical about it, it’s fairly hilarious. But if you’re a young man looking for something real in an area of the world you realized pretty early on wouldn’t be your home forever, it feels, somehow, extra real. Maybe it made me feel like more of an adult to think about kids killing kids (“Jeremy”), incest (“Alive”), homelessness (“Even Flow”), and the many serious problems that existed outside of my small-town, and oftentimes small-minded, community. Maybe seeing my best friend shoved into a locker and called a “faggot” — and not in a “Ha ha, you fag!” way, either, though that’s problematic in its own way — by someone who I was too afraid to stand up to, and feeling like there were so few people around me at the time who even thought this instance was a problem, cemented my belief in a band that cared about something bigger than itself. A band that would take Ticketmaster to court, would refuse to make music videos for so many years, a band willing to take on real issues with their songs, even if that resulted in some people thinking they were square, boring, or simply not fun.

But it was those first few singles that really got me. They had quite a few of them too. Singles — not to be confused with Singles, the Cameron Crowe movie that prominently featured Pearl Jam — were a unknown entity to me at the time, something I wouldn’t truly embrace until many years later when the terms “punk rock” and “colored vinyl” became a regular part of my vocabulary. Their mix of familiarity (“I love that song!”) and exclusivity (“I’ve never heard of that song!”), paired with lower price tags for a dude who didn’t exactly have regular paychecks coming in, appealed to me, but also fostered a weird competitive streak. More than just enjoying the things I love, Pearl Jam taught me to do them obsessively, in the utterly sincere way that Pearl Jam itself embraced causes, themes, lyrics, and songwriting in general over the years. Having something like that to cling to and really believe in, maaaan, at a young impressionable age is a powerful thing indeed. Having all of it seemed not only necessary, but reasonable somehow.

And cling to it I did, eventually becoming a completist of sorts for the band, long before I even knew what the idea of completism entailed. I got all of the full-length albums, of course, eventually buying them the week of release when I caught up, always at the Springfield Best Buy (I didn’t know much about independent record stores at this point), then it was on to cleaning out their singles (the ones Best Buy had, anyway). By the time the band started releasing its “official bootlegs” in 2000, a practice it still continues to this day to a tune of 269 bootlegs so far (!!!), I was a goner. Like some cosmic sign foretelling the relatively huge amount of money — for a guy heading to college — I would spend on the bootlegs, the first round was released on my 18th birthday. By the end of the third round, which was released next March, I had purchased eight, some from shows I had attended (Oct. 11, 2000, St. Louis, Riverport Amphitheatre), others from places I’d dream of visiting (Verona, Italy; Paris, France). I’d listen to these live recordings over and over, delighting in the occasional B-side I’d learned from a single, the deep cuts I longed to hear live one day myself, and the cover songs the band sometimes indulged in, particularly on the “Daughter”/”W.M.A.” combination — an old trick the band used a variation of recently to exciting results that very much pleased both High School Austin and Modern-Day Austin.

More than just the first band I truly fell for, though, the first band I bought singles from and the first act to inspire this weird, new completism in me as a collector and appreciator of music, Pearl Jam would usher in several firsts for me as a listener and a human being. My first slow dance was to “Black,” though Garth Brooks’ “The Dance,” a delightfully on-the-nose number that was also a favorite of every dance I went to growing up, nearly took that title. That late-2000 show in St. Louis was the first concert I ever drove to alone (from college in Missouri, meeting a girlfriend at the time who was still in Illinois), which resulted in my first speeding ticket after (the first of a few, unfortunately). Tragically, Pearl Jam was also connected to the first peer death I experienced as an adult. Debra and I didn’t keep in touch much beyond the year or so we knew the same people and liked the same band, so when I heard about her gruesome death in an automobile accident, the event felt weirdly surreal, like a movie scene being described to me instead of the passing of an actual human. But it was obviously all too real, something I had to remind myself as I reflected on those earlier times, and the value she brought to my life, both musically and otherwise.

Pearl Jam was the first band I ever felt the need to justify my taste in, especially as that taste stratified via interesting new styles of music — a brief emo phase, a briefer IDM phase, a flirtation with post-rock, an ongoing obsession with New Orleans funk, and an ultimate, more relaxed settling in to pan-genre appreciation more than anything else — in college. In that way, Pearl Jam also prepared me for the life of a critic, with all the thought-provoking discussions, the omnivorous multi-genre appreciation, and outside-the-box thinking that entails.

Why do people dislike Pearl Jam so strongly? I remember a friend in high school mocking them but loving Led Zeppelin’s riffier stuff, a distinction that seemed odd to me. In college, I’d argue with a college pal who shared my affinity for Deftones and the similarly minded aggro-rock of the time. Why could he get down to White Pony but not “W.M.A.”? For one thing, it wasn’t very edgy. And for another, he seemed to bristle at the fact that Pearl Jam could play an amphitheater while his favorite bands were relegated to clubs. Plus, they just weren’t “cool” enough for him and his tattoos and his piercings and his baggage. Part of me gets it. I recall attending what would’ve been my second or third Pearl Jam show in Kansas City. I was a little older at this point, about halfway through college, and I remember seeing a substantial amount of sleeveless flannel, camouflage ball caps, and the like. Many of these people seemed more like the rednecks I tried to get away from in my youth than the band I fell in love with during that time. But what’s wrong with that? If we’re all looking for something bigger, more hopeful, can’t we do it together despite our supposed differences?

Much like any decent relationship in a more general sense, Pearl Jam taught me certain things, left me changed, brought new ideas to the table, and brushed away some old ones in the process. I stopped buying their proper live albums before I left college in 2005, stopped picking up their singles in 2003, and petered out of the official bootlegs shortly after my splurge in 2001. I was changing, and Pearl Jam understood. They’d be fine, anyway. But I have stuck to their full-lengths to this day, partly out of nostalgia maybe, but partly because you never really lose a truly great friend.

Indeed, like a childhood confidant that slowly falls out of touch, we retain the ability to pick up where we left off at any time, even if we aren’t hanging out regularly anymore. In 2008, when my wife and I drove up from Atlanta to Bonnaroo for one night so I could do an interview for a feature I was working on, we wandered over to Pearl Jam’s stage late in the evening, waiting for them to perform for thousands in a way precious few bands can do these days. “Just a few songs,” I promised her. “Let’s stay until they play something I’m not excited about.” We stayed for most of their set, before driving the three hours home on deserted Southern interstates, high on the very same music that used to thrill me as a Bonneville made its way up the long expanse of Illinois roadways. That’s my and Pearl Jam’s relationship these days — delightful catch-ups now and again between two old pals, a solo ukulele record here, a festival appearance there, a random sing-along, alone, in my car, more often than I’d probably admit.

But those hits, and the more orthodox deep cuts, songs that have been with me now for longer than they haven’t, are all reminders of a simpler time, before I knew I’d write for a living and that a lot of that writing would be about music. Before I knew how I felt about a lot of things, music or otherwise, if I’m being totally honest. In fact, maybe the way many people in my life have found Pearl Jam to be a little too cornball, self-righteous, overly earnest, and the like can be applied to my thoughts about a certain rise of folk-influenced bands getting a lot of attention in recent years.

I have no problem admitting that Pearl Jam taught me a lot of things, but did I expect them to help me come to terms with a band I’d previously relegated to snarky tweets and exaggerated yawns? Nope. But if I’m mocking “boring” bands that exist today, how am I any better than the guy who poked fun at me for driving two hours from campus to see Pearl Jam? The truth is, I’m not, and it’s nice to still be able to learn things as you grow older, and to have those friends to return to and continue learning from. Meanwhile, if you look at the “P” section of the record collection in my home office, you’ll still find 39 Pearl Jam CDs there. I have to say, I’m looking forward to number 40.

Austin L. Ray is a writer for The A.V. Club, Creative Loafing, Beer Advocate, and many others. He lives in Atlanta.

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