The End is the Beginning is the End - Ten Lives On
The end is the beginning is the end. That's how it goes sometimes. In relationships,
in life, in work and play. And in music.
“I’ll ride the wave where it takes me,” Eddie Vedder sings in “Release,” the closing tune from Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten. “I’ll hold the pain/ release me.” As the band rises and falls like the waves of an unbound, unchained ocean, so does Vedder’s voice, carrying with it hope, pain, love, loss, life.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard this record. I was, what, 14 years old? I had heard “the buzz” about Pearl Jam as I had first begun to discover rock music. My first records were common Top 40 fare at the time, some of it good and some bad – Clapton’s Unplugged being good, All 4 One the bad, and the Spin Doctors somewhere comfortably in between.
Then I heard kids at school talking about Nirvana and Metallica, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. So I listened. And while Pearl Jam was not my first entry into grunge/alternative/’90’s rock, they would grow to become my favorite band, slowly and surely. And it all started with Ten.
My mother and I had cooked up some cockamamie scheme to join those wonderful by-mail music clubs, BMG and Columbia House. I joined one, she joined the other, and the crux of the deal was that if her club had something I wanted, she would order that, and I would order something she wanted from my club.
What I wanted was Ten and Vs. (She, justifiably so, wanted Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits. You go mom.) So we ordered them. And I waited.
And waited. And, in a move that quietly mirrored the rest of my life to come, I grew impatient. So… I rushed out and bought a whole slew of “singles” at Wal-Mart. For a short while in the ‘90’s, you could buy actual singles from a band at Wal-Mart. Now bands don’t even put them out, it seems. But most of the big alternative/grunge bands did. Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam were all waiting with mini two and three and four song samplers, mixed in there with the Boyz II Men and All 4 One and Madonna and other pop records in the Singles section of the Wal-Mart Music Department.
I couldn’t wait. I bought the singles to “Oceans” and “Jeremy,” both off of Ten, and "Daughter,” off of Vs. I wanted the “Even Flow” single, but they were sold out. It and
“Alive” and “Go” and “Animal” and “Dissident” would all come later.
For now, I listened to these songs, the live versions of “Why Go” and “Alive” and “Deep” (all off of the “Oceans” single), and “Yellow Ledbetter” and “Footsteps,” b-sides from “Jeremy” that have become legendary in the Pearl Jam catalog, “Yellow Ledbetter” especially. I literally soaked my soul in these songs. I devoured them with the hunger that only a 14 year old knows when they first discover love, emotional and physical, and time, and reason, and… music.
So it was with some excitement when those CDs finally arrived. I checked the mailbox everyday, hoping they would come before we left for our summer vacation to go horseback riding and camping in Brown County Stare Park. I was overjoyed when, on a whim, I asked dad to let me check the mail as we were pulling out of the driveway, horses and camper in tow, on our way to Brown County, Indiana.
And there, in the mailbox, was the cardboard box containing my prize, my treasures. I think I put in Vs. first, truth be told, and I listened to it over and over again on my Sony Discman. The drive from our place in Mooresville to Brown County was about two hours or so. When we arrived, the headphones came off and I had to help set up camp.
By the time we were finished, nighttime was falling. As we were always wont to do, my family planned vacations with other families who had horses, usually the folks that we showed horses with during the summers (and 4-H). As it were, my first crush and by this time my first girlfriend was among the families we showed and camped with. And, with our camp set up, and set about doing another haunting habit that rests with me still: waiting for her to show up.
Now, this was about a year before I started playing guitar, so there wasn’t much to do other than kick around rocks, ride a horse, or listen to my headphones. The choice was easy. I popped in Ten, pressed play, and walked up to the guard/registration house at the opening of the campgrounds. I found a picnic table, sat down and waited. It was there that I first heard the opening notes of “Even Flow.”
Since then, I’ve been hooked. Like the opening “song,” “Master/Slave,” a strange drum and bass tune that ebbs and flows with bristling, concealed energy, like some sultry temptation, so has my life and love of Pearl Jam.
“Once upon a time, I could control myself,” Vedder sings as guitarist Stone Gossard pumps out one of his trademark slinky, funk-based riffs, like water sliding over glass, then cascading into the band charging through the chorus of “Once”. This eventually gives way to Mike McCready, the band’s lead guitarist who’s work instantly defines nearly every song he plays on. His fiery guitar solo on “Once” announced that Pearl Jam was squarely in the classic rock tradition, that their heroes were the icons of the seventies like Zeppelin, Kiss, Sabbath, The Who, and Hendrix.
“Even Flow” set such a standard for the band, the funk-based riffery, liquid guitar leads and driving bass all as much a hallmark of the PJ sound as Vedder’s soaring and sometime incomprehensible lyrical delivery. And this from a band that hadn’t yet fulfilled its potential, and had barely had time to solidify its lineup. Drummers would come and go over the next few years, but this mattered little, so strong were Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament, and Vedder’s stranglehold on the band’s signature sound.
All of that came to a head on the album’s most celebrated song, the anthem “Alive.” Though this song is ultimately about incest and confusion, it was widely misinterpreted as a claxon-like call for survival for Gen-Xers in the rough and tumble, rapidly changing 1990’s. It’s call of “I’m still alive” can still be heard echoing wherever the band plays live. Over the years, the song took on a life of it’s own, with even Vedder acquiescing to his fans over the anthem-like quality, bring more positive energy to the song than ever before. What was a semi-autobiographical story for him became the rallying cry for legions of confused twenty-somethings.
“Why Go” was anchored by Ament’s thunderous bass, and used the trademark liquid riffs coupled with big open guitar chords to fine effect as Vedder vamped about a troubled teen locked away. It also continued McCready’s string of stinging, blues-influenced lead guitar solos.
But it was “Black” that I found myself coming back to, again and again, in my later teenage years and into college, when heartbreak had come a-knockin’ on my door. This ballad in E (wink wink for those of you in the know…) showcased not only the melodic, softer side of the band, but also Vedder’s terrific writing skills. While most of the protagonists in Pearl Jam’s songs have battles to fight or wounds to tend, they usually tended to have hope. In “Black” Vedder deviates from the hope-saves-us-all formula to turn in one of the few songs that ever truly captures the emptiness that comes from lost love. It certainly doesn’t hurt that his voice echoes each painful stroke of the lyrics with its own dripping passion and anguish.
“Jeremy” would be another hit for a band that was looking more and more like a hit-making machine. When the dynamic, visually grabbing video was put into regular rotation on MTV, it would help skyrocket the band to success. The tale of the schoolboy seeking solace in his only escape is both harrowing, and yet, still told with a strange grain of hope – Jeremy does get the last word, after all.
“Oceans” would find the band again quieting down, this time for a ballad that expertly captures that wateriness of the song’s titled. A favorite of mine since I began listening, “Oceans” almost sounds like waves, or sometimes air, and its story of lovers longing to touch is one any adolescent teen – or lonely college boy, or adult man looking for answers – can relate to.
Another concert favorite would be delivered in “Porch,” a song that when performed live (on SNL and MTV’s Unplugged) Vedder would use to deliver whatever message was on his mind at the moment. Though it has changed over the years, it’s still a favorite, and features more push-and-pull tactics from the band, combining their ‘70’s rock influences with the elasticity of funk and rhythm and blues. All this, and still sounding like modern alternative rock.
On “Garden,” the band would use clean, hushed verses to build ambiance, then thunder in with big choruses. The floating guitar interplay between Stone and Mike would foretell many great guitar moments to come – Pearl Jam are nothing if not masters of wonderful musical bridges – and provided more pyrotechnics after the already dynamic and charging “Porch.”
Vedder would tackle drug use and it’s various consequences on “Deep,” a scorch, warbling rocker with a trademark off-kilter Stone riff driving the song along. It provided yet one more moment for McCready to show off his command of the guitar, straining and pulling and squawking emotion from the instrument as Vedder did the same with his vocals.
“Release” drew the album to a close with it’s hushed tones and wave-like structure, cresting and drawing listeners in, and sending them on. A reprise of “Master/Slave” bookends the record nicely, drawing the whole experience to a close.
My teenage self is perpetually wrapped up in the album, all awkward emotion and hormonal rush. Each of the songs off of it have been a favorite over time, with “Alive” and “Deep” being my favorites of all early on, and in later years, “Release” and “Oceans” being two of my most treasured of Pearl Jam’s songs.
Nothing sounded like Ten on the radio when it was released, and really, nothing else has sounded like it since then, either. It’s combination of arean-ready rock and roll anthems, generation X issues and problems, and nods to classic rock, punk, and blues hasn’t been duplicated by any band since. What Pearl Jam achieved wasn’t grunge and really wasn’t alternative rock, either. It was a seamless melding of 1970’s rock and roll, it’s glitz and glam and fire and fury. Coupled with a deep understanding of societal issues and deep-seated familial and emotional issues, the album was a torchlight for any who were troubled and needed release. It was a siren call, a warning sign, and a war march all in one.
Pearl Jam would go on to answer the call they made with this first record, with the fiery Vs. and the hellbent Vitalogy, and that triptych of albums stand as a testament to the power and grace of one of the 1990’s, and truly all of rock and roll’s, most important bands. They would challenge listeners even as the comforted. It was rock music with purpose, the kind of music that saves the soul.
That period of the band’s existence would end of course, as all things do. They would mature, grow as musicians, find new subjects to tackle. They would fight stardom and themselves, their own personal demons, feuds with other bands, and more. Hope, pain, love, loss, and life would never be far from them, but their maturity would grant them different looks on these familiar topics, as it would to us all.
But for one shining moment, here was a band that understood. They were our awkward champions, and they fought with every once of energy they had. And we were all better for it.
Life is a circle. Loss follows love. Hope follows pain. Life happens while you’re living it.
I’m just happy I have a kick-ass soundtrack to help it move along.