Pearl Jam Haven't Been Relevant in Years, So Why Do We Still Clamor to See Them Live?
The first album I was really excited for was Vitalogy.
I was 11. I wasn't much of a music fan as a kid, but something clicked in early 1994. I started hanging out with friends who liked music more. We'd ride our bikes to the mall and browse the CD racks at a music store calledThe Wall. If we were lucky, someone's older brother would drive us to Tower Records. Desperate to fit in, I started devouring music.
I would steal my parents CDs and listen to them, wanting to learn more about my new obsession. I returned them all except two of my father's: Ten and Vs. I had been aware of Pearl Jam before, obviously, but I hadn't realized how much I enjoyed them until I gave those albums a good listen.
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I decided they were my favorite band. I needed to learn more. I'd peruse music magazines at the bookstore. When we got AOL, I'd read Pearl Jam message boards. I even loved some of the band's politics. I thought Pearl Jam was brave for its fight against Ticketmaster, even though I was sure I'd be too scared to go to one of their concerts.
When Vitalogy came out in late 1994, I was so desperate to hear it I bought the early vinyl release. My parents' turntable didn't have a needle anymore, so I played it on my Fisher-Price record player that had previously played Disney albums. I loved it. I eventually got it on CD for Christmas; I'm pretty sure I almost wore out my boombox.
While the band's popularity waned, I remained a fan. I liked No Code; 1998's Yield is my favorite Pearl Jam album. Turns out one of my closest friends in high school was a bigger Pearl Jam fan than I was, and we'd scout out the cheapest prices on the band's singles at various area Best Buy locations. (If you haven't figured this out yet, I'm a pretty huge dork.)
One thing was missing, though. Due to the Ticketmaster boycott, Pearl Jam hadn't played the Philly area since I became a fan. When they finally announced two shows in Philadelphia in late summer 1998 and my friend offered me one of his tickets, I was elated. We got a ride to the ferry downtown and rode it to the Camden amphitheater hours before the show; we had cheap lawn seats, so we needed to make them count by getting them right in the front row.
I was terrified. Most everyone there seemed impossibly older and bigger, though they were probably just in their twenties. A security guard told us about a recent wild brawl at a Jimmy Buffett concert. I was a skinny 15-year-old cross country runner, and I figured I'd end up getting killed. I counted down the hours to my death as the opening bands (Mudhoney and Iggy Pop) performed. Iggy Pop seemed to play for hours, and the length of his set deepened my anxiety.
My fears were unfounded. I had a great time! My friends and I came back with great memories. They played all the songs I had wanted to hear. They even played a bit of "Philadelphia Freedom"! (In a less fun moment, Eddie Vedder also said the next terrorist attack would be on the Liberty Bell.) The night remains one of my favorite memories from high school. Not too many people at my high school liked Pearl Jam, but that made it even better: We were firm in our beliefs, standing up to the Dave Matthews/Phish juggernaut that dominated in my high school class.
I entered college. My musical tastes were changing. I was listening to Pearl Jam less and indie rock and hip-hop more. But I kept going to concerts. I saw them in 2000. I saw them three times in 2003, including a trek out to Hersheypark for a show with Sleater-Kinney. I even saw them on the 2004 Vote for Change tour in Reading, though I think we saw that as more of a political statement than a concert. (Whoops! We failed.)
2004 was about the last time I put on a Pearl Jam album to actually listen to. I'll give a new album of theirs a listen or two, but that's about it. I can barely name any songs on their post-2000 albums. I still occasionally do a terrible rendition of "Jeremy" or "State of Love and Trust" at karaoke, but I don't consider myself a big fan of the band anymore. I don't like their new stuff, and I've outgrown their old stuff. Pearl Jam is a childhood thing I've tossed away, much like x's on my wrists and a not-embarrassing waistline.
Yet I still go see them live.
I saw them in 2005. I saw them in 2007 in the third row, with the second ticket of a fan club member. I saw them in the middle of the street last year at Philadelphia's Made in America. The only time I didn't see them when they came to town was when I was unemployed and didn't have the cash, the only sensible fiscal decision I made in my mid-twenties.
And so, as Pearl Jam tours in support of its new album Lightning Bolt, I am seeing them again, at Brooklyn's Barclays Center on the opening night of two shows and when they play my hometown of Philadelphia next week. I will enjoy these shows, will sing along to the old songs I loved, and will leave saying I've had a good time.
But I don't even know how much I even enjoy them live anymore. They're still talented and they still put on a good show. But it's not the same, and I don't think it's my imagination. In July, two Pearl Jam demos from the sessions for the band's self-titled 2006 album leaked online. Pearl Jam messageboard The Sky I Scrape had a 115-page comment thread, filled with complaints about how much better these songs were than the ones on the finished Pearl Jam album. User Strat summed up his feelings: "I don't think the band is incapable of writing music like this. I think they have just decided that singing yeah yeah yeahs during a concert is more enjoyable for them or everyone than playing good music. That is the unfortunate thing." Keep in mind: these are people who like the band enough to post on a Pearl Jam messageboard!
So why do I keep going? It's not some sense of camaraderie. A friend of mine recently saw them in Pittsburgh with a group of "Pearl Jam nerds" he's been going to shows with for years. Since high school I've generally dragged a girlfriend along or went with an acquaintance, or attended alone. A Phish fan I know told me he doesn't really enjoy the band anymore, but goes for the good drugs. That's not me, either. And while I have many fond memories of high school, I'm not attempting to get back to that period of my life by attending Pearl Jam shows.
This is the most I'll be seeing Pearl Jam in a short period of time since 2003. Maybe I'll figure it out these next few days. Maybe the songs from the new record--which I liked more than other post-2000 albums my first listen through--will sound incredible live. Maybe the band will break out an old favorite of mine and my fandom will be reinvigorated.
Or maybe I'll be just as baffled as I am now. Either way, I'll probably be shelling out a few hundred bucks for tickets when they come around again in 2016. Hopefully Iggy Pop will open.
Pearl Jam perform at Barclays Center Friday and Saturday.
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