Waxed: Pearl Jam's Vitalogy

(Editor’s Note: I wrote this article in September of 2005. I have edited it for posterity, to fix a few mistakes, and other editorial type of things. The spirit, overall feel, and mindset of the piece remains the same. The piece was actually written in response to an article written by Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman, where Simmons took the position that Vitalogy sucked, and Klosterman vehemently disagreed. It should be noted that both Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman are favorite writers of mine, and each in their own way are a huge influence on my pop culture meanderings. Here, then, is my response to Simmons claiming that Vitalogy was a mailed in effort, the “Spin The Black Circle” was a terrible song, that Pearl Jam had missed its mark. Obviously, in my opinion, this was the only album they could’ve made, and it quite possibly saved the band, the whole ‘90’s alternative-rock movement, and thousands of lost teens, 20- and 30-somethings that the music of Seattle spoke to.)

Yes. I did actually graduate from college, from one of the best public journalism schools in the nation, with a magazine writing concentration to boot. I was born to write. And yes, in all fairness, I should reveal my deeply ingrained opinion that Pearl Jam is my favorite rock and roll band, and possibly will be the greatest rock and roll band of all time, first. But - Bill wants real journalism. So, I claim: Vitalogy is the defining album of the '90's.

Set the stage in the late '80's: a small handful of good pop metal bands - Guns 'N' Roses, and... um... Guns 'N' Roses - and way too many craptastic pop metal bands - Warrant, Trixster, L.A. Guns, Kix, etc. - were dominanting rock and roll and pop charts. Most bands moved to Los Angeles to make it or break it in the big bad music biz.

Enter a sleepy little town in Washington state. A dreary, rainy place known for coffee. Seattle. And in this city? The Melvins. Soundgarden. Green River. Mother Love Bone. Mudhoney. And yes, Bill, I know that Green River splintered off into MLB and MH - but did you know that GR's drummer went back to school to be a lawyer? NO?!? Yes. Mother Love Bone. And... the first Seattle drug casuality, Andrew Wood.

Lucky for us, Cameron Crowe was hanging with wife Nancy Wilson in the rain-soaked north and got to witness the aftermath of Wood's overdose. Including the musicians. Who, lucky for us, decided it was time for a tribute a short time later. Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron from Soundgarden got together with Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard from MLBone, and Mike McCready jumped on board, and then, Eddie Vedder appears from nowhere (well, from friend and current Red Hot Chili Pepper drummer Jack Irons) and... Temple of the Dog is born. Pain, love, memories, rejoicing. ROCK.

Vedder was auditioning for Jeff and Stone's new project. Mike had joined. Jack was recruited as a drummer, but didn't want to leave the Peppers (though he shortly would, when then Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak died of an overdose months later). Jack did hook up the three with Vedder, they found a drummer and what resulted was an album called Ten. ROCK.

Soon, Pearl Jam was born... and soon, they joined a then-unknown band from their hometown named Nirvana, and the two bands joined the Smashing Pumpkins on a tour. And then... all hell broke loose. Nirvana and Pearl Jam simultaneously became the two biggest bands in the world, long before anyone outside of college towns knew who U2 was.

Nevermind and Ten went head to head on the rock charts, and bedrooms everywhere were plastered with posters celebrating the bands. Vs., Pearl Jam's second offering, sold 1.1 million copies in it's debut week - shattering the record, then held by Garth Brooks' album Ropin' The Wind. Nirvana released the then-critically dogged, unbelievably harsh, and undeniably cool and rockin' In Utero. More rock chart wars. Wars in the press. Words and music, money, fame, teenage wasteland. It's only teenage wasteland.

Then... in the midst of the "alternative revolution," in the midst of Time magazine covers and Rolling Stone interviews and rampant drug use and skyrocketing superstardom... Kurt Cobain took his life.

Suddenly, now there was but one. Pearl Jam was the biggest band in the world – the last band standing as the voice of a generation, the voice of millions. Fighting Ticketmaster over high ticket prices - the band took a substantial cut in personal profit - and struggling with their own demons, both private and personal... suddenly, there was only one.

They stop making videos (actually... they did that around Vs. release). They shirk from the public eye. They stop touring. They return to Seattle, hide in the recording studio... and make an album some people have suggested is the '90's equivalent of the Beatles' White Album. The last remaining "voice of a generation" was about to scream a rallying call, a deafening blast of hope, pain, and survival for all of '90's teenage wasteland:

lives opened and trashed..."look ma, watch me crash"...
no time to question...why'd nothing last...
grasp and hold on...we're dyin' fast!
soon be over...and i will relent!!!

The shotgun blast heard 'round the world rang quite loud in Seattle, throughout a community of musicians whose struggles with fame, drugs, and more were suddenly brought to the forefront of American culture. One of the two major people in the community, Kurt Cobain, had committed suicide. One "voice of our generation" was dead, unable to handle the pressures of his super-stardom. The other remaining voice, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, suddenly became the most famous Seattle voice... no more battles between bands. Worse... how would He Answer? How would the band ever answer?

Maybe you don't think of these things when you play an album - the history surrounding it, the personalities contained within, the meaning behind each and every song on a record. Nonetheless, they play a role. And here, laid bare in the music, was the soul of a band, damaged, bloodied, but not beaten. Vitalogy was Pearl Jam's answer to being the biggest band in the world and the voice of millions of lost twenty-somethings and teenagers.

The funky faux-jazz that starts the record quickly fades into the blistering opening track, "Last Exit." "Lives opened and trashed... look, ma, watch me crash… no time to question why'd nothing last... we're dying fast..." The lyrics were so direct - this would be a fight for survival. Even the music - in an off-kilter beat, 5/4 - would seem driving, maddening, but be propelled to succeed, to overcome. How would the battle for young souls be won, especially when one of their heroes lay dead by his own hands?

"Spin the Black Circle" would answer: music. The black circle - a record - would spin out tunes, and the music and words would comfort. What Bill Simmons thinks is a silly, throwaway song is really just instructions that answer the "Survive!" rallying cry of "Last Exit." Survive! How? Listen! It was an ode to vinyl, an ode to plastic spitting out melody and harmony... and spinning in bliss. It was also light-hearted - a way of saying "we'll be o.k."

But that wouldn't last for long. "Restless soul, enjoy your youth," rang out the opening words of track three, "Not For You," a blistering take on what musicians were being used for - their fame would sell records, sell clothes, sell MTV awards shows. "There is something sacred about youth, and the song is about how youth is being sold and exploited," Vedder had said of the song. "I think I felt like I had become part of that too." "This is not for you... fuck you!" Eddie would scream, while the band pounded out an instantly memorable beat. You can see Stone grooving in a corner in a studio, while Mike shreds an electric 12-string, wringing every emotion he could get out of wood and steel.

"Take my time - not my life," would be the message in "Tremor Christ," a song about a relationship gone bad. Was "she" just another girl, or... was "she" the record buying public? Was "she" the mass media machine using the "Alternative Revolution" to sell torn up jeans and flannel shirts for $74.99 a piece at The Gap? Whatever "she" was, it was obvious that the protagonist was hurt - "wounded was the organ he left all bloodied on the shore." And while she drowns "in his wake," the smallest oceans still got the big, big waves. A sea-sick dirge of a song, it remains one of Pearl Jam's most visceral tracks - and a testament to all bands that think "heavy" means "loud and detuned." The song feels like the weight of the human condition... and by track four on the album, you wonder... will we survive, after all?

"Nothingman" was a song that had been around a while, according to the band. A story of love and loss... and the feelings of loneliness and nothingness when something so sacred is let go, and can't be taken back. The quiet, introspective ballad was the first musical relief on the album - and lyrically, it seems lost and hurting. Like a dog licking a wounded paw. And you still wondered... will... we...

"Don't mean to push, but i'm being shoved! Ohh, i'm just like you, think we've had enough!" Vedder and the band blaze through "The Whipping" - the previous lull being just that, a brief respite for the ears, and a rest for the mind (at the expense of the heart). "Whipping" pulls no punches - the original lyrics are written on a petition for the Clinton administration to investigate a recent rise in bombings at abortion clinics. It went for the jugular, literally leaving the listener reeling. The song even won an award at the MTV Music Awards, to which Vedder said, "This award, it really doesn't mean a thing."

"p-r-i-v-a-c-y is priceless to me" was the only lyric in the next song, "Pry, To."

The booklet for the next song featured an x-ray of teeth - instead of a lyric sheet. "It is about a relationship but not between two people. It's more one person's relationship with a million people. In fact, that song's almost a little too obvious for me. That's why instead of a lyric sheet we put in an X-ray of my teeth from last January and they are all in very bad shape, which was analogous to my head at the time." Vedder and the band struck pay-dirt though - the song is arguably one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time. "Corduroy" was born - and a million PJ fans would never be the same.

"Bugs" would showcase an accordian, in a carnival-type insane waltz. The bugs in the head were obviously the reporters constantly hounding the band. Such a very weird song - a song of fear of what would happen if the band let down its guard.

"Satan's Bed" would roar to life after a few whipcracks, before the lyrics would once again deride fame and fortune. Vedder screams, "Already... in love!" and the band drives home yet another rocker. For a band seemingly known for their ballads, Pearl Jam spent most of Vitalogy raising hell and not giving a damn who got in the way. This song could easily be the "Paris Hilton Anti-Anthem."

"Betterman" was another song about a messed up relationship. A song from one of Eddie's old bands, it would rocket up the charts and dominate rock radio. It would be parodied when PJ cancelled shows later due to illness - "can't find the Vedderman." A song of abuse and hopelessness - that ignorant fans the world round would propose to - until the band let them all in on the secret, and tell 'em to read the lyrics...

"Aye Davanita" would provide another small respite - in the form of a band jam session, complete with chanting and wondering basslines - courtesy of Jeff, whose bass work is stellar throughout the album. Again, the respite would be brief - for the album's darkest tune would follow next.

vacate is the word...vengeance has no place on me or her
cannot find the comfort in this world
artificial tear...vessel stabbed...next up, volunteers
vulnerable, wisdom can't adhere...
a truant finds home...and a wish to hold on...
but there's a trapdoor in the sun...immortality...
as privileged as a whore...victims in demand for public show
swept out through the cracks beneath the door
holier than thou, how?
surrendered...executed anyhow
scrawl dissolved, cigar box on the floor...
a truant finds home...and a wish to hold on too...
he saw the trapdoor in the sun...
i cannot stop the thought...i'm running in the dark...
coming up a which way sign...all good truants must decide...
oh, stripped and sold, mom...auctioned forearm...
and whiskers in the sink...
truants move on...cannot stay long
some die just to live...ohh...

"Immortality" was the tale of the other voice of the generation - the one that couldn't stay long, and felt like he had to die, just to live. Featuring a lazy melody, a beautiful 12-string acoustic guitar solo from Mike, and what would become a Pearl Jam trademark, the full band jam at the end of the song... "Immortality," became an instant classic. Of the many songs on the album that are quintessential Pearl Jam, and required listening alt-rock, this tune would stand alongside of "Corduroy" as one of the best and most honest songs the band would ever write. The lyrics try to hide but become so transparent - with the "cigar box on the floor" being where Cobain had left it, moments before he took his life.

"Immortality" was the answer to the question - and the answer was that Vedder and Pearl Jam were just as confused and heart-broken as everyone else. The final jam would be the hope at the end of the tunnel, as the music itself seemed to celebrate life and survival and goodness and hope. The times had changed... but we would survive, not the same, but not finished or done in, by any means. There was hope.

"Hey foxymophandlemama, that's me!" would end the album. Again considered a strange, wasted experimental throw away like "Bugs," it was more like Pearl Jam's version of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" - a song deep within the scariest, lost places of the mind. A look at the lyric sheet is disturbing... and perfectly captures the disturbing nature of the entire album. The album ends as lost as it began...

Vitalogy was a testament to the will to move on, to survive - made by a band that was itself dying. After the release of the album, Pearl Jam would go on full retreat, away from the public consciousness. They gave their answer - which was, don't look to rock stars for answers, 'cause we're just as messed up as you are. But here... have hope, live on, and rock out for the hell of it. "Ain't it s'posed to be just fun?"

At this point, in this time, when crisis had struck... well, no. Life is hard. But you've got to live it.

Pearl Jam knew that better than anyone. They would persevere, just as the hints they left for their listeners would encourage them to persevere as well. Vitalogy is the pillar of that “being lost but fighting on” mentality. It answered little, questioned much, but most importantly, blazed a trail of hope and strength for those who dared to wonder what life was all about and what it was worth.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Thank you for posting this. It was an interesting and great read!