Thoughts on Pearl Jam at Madison Square Garden Last Night
Pearl Jam Madison Square Garden Wednesday, June 25
I was born in 1982. Not exactly a watershed year in American history, but notable in that when I became sentient enough to be an actual music "consumer," a band called Pearl Jam released an earth-shaking breakthrough album Ten. Predictably, that record was enormously important to me as a kid. I'd like to say that’s because Ten expressed something profound about being roughly ten years old at the time it was released. But of course that would be complete nonsense. The reality is that I probably just really liked "Alive," had a lot of energy that could be expediently dispensed in shouting along to the chorus, and thought Eddie Vedder's voice was eminently cool. In retrospect, this actually occurs to me to be a much more authentic representation of the band's core appeal than anything most of its many, many veteran fans would sell you today.
In any case, the significance is that Pearl Jam is one of those few bands I can actually say I “grew up with.” I remembered that again last night, and when you realize a band is distinctly “of” a certain generation, the natural ensuing tendency is to think about what that band might symbolically represent about it—particularly if that generation is your generation. So I do. Somehow, though, Pearl Jam’s symbolic meaning always seems incredibly vague.
Not that people haven’t tried to pin it down. There was that moment in 1992 when the band graced the cover of Time for a story on the grunge explosion. ALL THE RAGE the headline read. Subhead: “Angry young rockers like PEARL JAM give voice to the passions and fears of a generation.” Predictably, this pissed Eddie Vedder off quite a bit. Nevertheless, 16 years later, they’re the biggest of those bands left standing—out of the ones still alive. So yes, one interpretation is that Pearl Jam is one of the final bastions of a grunge scene that represented a major expression of youth culture in American rock-and-roll. Plus, they had a hand in killing hair-metal good and dead. (Ironic, then, that the band brought Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley onstage last night-for a completely bizarre cover of
“Bad Karma” "Black Diamond.")
Strictly speaking, though, it’s hard to see Pearl Jam as “countercultural” icons when they also partially represent what bands like Pavement and Sonic Youth were reacting against in constructing indie-rock. “The problem with all these American bands and their desire to build some kind of community out of grunge,” Simon Reynolds wrote in 1992, “is that they've taken a contracted range of influences— Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Black Flag, Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth at their least adventurous—and compacted those groups' most limited aspects into a bluntly belligerent nouveau hard rock that is remarkable only for its increasing conformity.” Moreover, it’s hardly as though a band’s “social significance” translates cleanly into gross-profit, arena-rock stardom—and certainly not on the level of grandiosity Pearl Jam operates.
So, what then? Sure, Pearl Jam’s big. But why? And what, if anything, do they say about the strain of people that grew up alongside them?
Usually, these types of questions are actually answered not by looking at what a band is, but who they seem to speak to. Keeping that in mind, the first thing to understand about Pearl Jam's longevity is that their fans are complete maniacs.
They range from muscle-bound steroidal freaks to thirty-something wall-street executives to punks to hippies to laid-back surfer types—pretty much everyone except African Americans—and they’re almost as actively participant in a Pearl Jam show as the band itself. At turns, this can be both kind of creepy and incredibly refreshing. From the low hum heralding set-opener “Release,” last night’s sold-out MSG crowd sang along to Vedder’s every note so loudly and so intensely that he often just gladly gave up. They were on the verge of drowning him out at every opportunity. “You made that one real good,” Vedder congratulated after a collaborative take on “Marker in the Sand.” Later, the audience belted out the lyrics to “Better Man” correctly when Vedder flubbed a verse, so he turned that one over willingly too. He even seemed astonished: “You know, we’re really blessed in the sense that with our crowds, it’s not like: show us what you got. It’s more like: we’re gonna show you what we got.”
He’s right. The cumulative effect—band and crowd—can be euphoric, overpowering. There probably isn’t another band in America that could literally shake a venue as big as Madison Square Garden like Pearl Jam did last night. “Can you guys feel it too when the stage moves?” Vedder asked.
But the most amazing thing about a Pearl Jam show is that you can actually witness their audience make the band's songs infinitely larger, more terrifying things than they really are. For all their cries for peace (an acoustic treatment of “No More War” was actually pretty moving), when the audience locked onto Vedder’s gravel-tenor in a particular way, Pearl Jam’s songs—“Why Go,” “Severed Hand,” “WMA,” “Do the Evolution,” “Alive,” etc.—all sounded like battle chants. That’s the political paradox big rock shows present, I suppose. You’re never sure whether they’re benevolent dictatorships in the guise of liberal rallies or vice-versa, and whether you look around in the midst of a fist-pumping sing-along and see automatons or freedom fighters is purely subjective. Maybe what rock bands like Pearl Jam really reveal is how terrifyingly ambiguous those lines actually are.
Yes, Eddie Vedder makes his politics crystal clear, and he’s very conscious of how he wants to use his platform ideologically as a rock star. In fact, the evolution of his songwriting can probably be described simply by saying that while he used to write mainly about private, intimate anguish, he now tends to address the more public and global. Last night we had everything from numerous Obama plugs to pot-shots at White House “Rats” to straight-up fuck-yous. (“It’s nice to know,” Vedder said in acknowledging George Carlin’s death, “that not everyone named George is a fucking imbecile.”) Ultimately, though, this only distracts from the more important underlying reality: Insofar as they understand (as well as any rock band out there) the value of melody, dynamics and acceleration; of a big, driving chorus to shout along with, of crowd control and knowing how to manipulate anger and aggression—Pearl Jam was always an implicitly political band far before they had anything specifically political to say.
Similarly, if Vedder is one of the longstanding premier frontmen in rock-and-roll, it’s partially because of the brilliant way in which he relentlessly positions himself as a “people’s performer”: sidling over towards the crowd to light up a cigarette during a guitar solo; swigging a bottle of wine; letting the audience take the vocals over for a song; turning his band around to perform for those seated behind the stage; even actually emptying the contents of his pockets for front-row fans as the group finished a dramatic rendition of “Yellow Ledbetter.” There’s also the consistently inclusive language he uses in describing his ideological agenda. “People like us,” Vedder said, meaning everyone within speaker-shot, not just the performers sharing the stage, “We can get a hold of his country.” Given the aforementioned spectrum of listeners, the generalization is almost laughable. No way was everyone at Madison Square Garden last night on board with Vedder’s world-view. But it didn’t really matter. Pearl Jam understands the elements of rock songwriting so well that you usually only retroactively assemble what Vedder is saying after you’ve enjoyed the song. The miracle is that this rarely seems backwards.
In other words, the real way in which Pearl Jam is “political” or “meaningful” ultimately has less to do with what they say than how what they say sounds with a crowd. In that live space of sing-alongs, huddled bodies, and misheard nonsense syllables (at one point we howled “Freeesurp, ramamalamadingdong shodehoo anythingeeh” and it was awesome), they do manage to represent something: The idea of being alive in a generation whose connectivity and potential are equaled only by its overpowering impotence and confusion. Acceleration and energy looking for an outlet, even if it’s just a big chorus to scream along with. “I’m alive,” Vedder sang. “Oh and do I deserve to be/Is that the question?” As the lights came on, the crowd offered a deafening response: “And if so, if so, who answers?”
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