In Defense of the Gods of Grunge

Pearl Jam's got it bad. Unquestionably the most interesting of the grunge bands to follow in Nirvana's wake, Pearl Jam has suffered at the hands of everyone. Even with all manner of concessions to the marketplace -- a video, a tour with the help of arch nemesis Ticketmaster, a solid rock album in Yield -- the band still can't find its way back to the head of the class. Attempts to create new musical space with 1994's Vitalogy and 1996's No Code were met with sluggish sales and limited influence on the hard-rock world the Seattle quintet once ruled. Like the cult bands Pearl Jam's members openly admire, the group has had to settle for the margin where rock's eccentrics are eventually maligned. A damn fucking shame, since anyone with a brain can tell you that's precisely where rock moves ahead. For every easy-listening Eagles record that pacifies the masses with great date music, there's some washed-up wack-job uncovering a greater noise, whether it be Roky Erickson finding room for his lysergic ruminations, Marvin Gaye following his luxurious soul visions into the land of the ultrapersonal, or somebody like that dweeb Will Oldham who, alone or with his band Palace (or whatever he's calling it this week), goes deep into the crevices of weirdo folk art.

It's only fitting that Pearl Jam should take a seat among rock's underclass. Like Gaye, they saw the mountaintop, tasted success at the highest altitude. Like the others, they feel most at home somewhere else. Yet Pearl Jam's ambitions never resembled those of the numerous indie bands they champion. They've always come on far heavier, like they were seeking Led Zeppelin territory. Sure, sure, everyone's remarked how "Given to Fly," Yield's first single, resembles Zep's "Going to California." But that obvious tip-off aside, look how they've tried to channel their public image. Like Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam wishes to work far enough away from the pack so they stand clear of being lumped in with their peers. In Pearl Jam's case, that includes an endless array of grunge and alternative groups clogging up modern rock radio. That their fans have been fickle and taken PJ's refusal to work conventionally as a reason to move on to user-friendly groups is merely a statement about the overreach of music marketing and the disenchantment of today's rock fan. I've always figured 50,000 Elvis fans can't be wrong, but 50 million pretty much ensure that most of them don't know why they're clapping in the first place.

With Yield all the signs of rapprochement are there. The symbolism is unmissable, the lyrics an easy read. Guitarist Stone Gossard's "No Way" makes it plain: "Not trying to make a difference/Stop trying to make a difference." Ticketmaster? MTV? Oh well, whatever, nevermind. As the band stood alone in its opposition, what was the point anyway? Who wants to be the sacrificial lamb, especially if all you get is crucified for having ideals in the first place? The only fight they've continued is their campaign against the jewel box. In that regard, they've managed to make the most awkward contraptions that won't fit next to anything and fall apart after a few short weeks of opening and closing. To which I'd like to say, "Thanks a lot, guys!"

Funny then to remember that when they first burst on the scene, Kurt Cobain saw them as careerists looking to piggyback on Nirvana's success and to sell out punk's "pure" vibe for major-label superstardom. That the fellas in Pearl Jam looked like rock stars with all that pretty hair, and that they chased after rock's anthemic power when other grunge bands were copping out and staring at their shoes, apparently bothered Cobain. (What, may I ask, is wrong with wanting the music you love to be your life's work? Auto mechanics don't have this ontological struggle, do they?)

Anyhow, Pearl Jam cut their hair and Cobain made a few reconciliatory remarks, and before long Eddie Vedder and Co. were standing on the Saturday Night Live stage paying tribute to Cobain's ghost as they wove their way out of "Daughter" (off their second album Vs.) and into a few bars of Neil Young's "Hey, Hey, My, My." Earlier in the evening they had previewed "Not for You," a song from the then-unreleased Vitalogy; it was a tune that moved with the punk spark of Cobain's roots. It seemed unusual in a time when all bands behave as expected by playing their latest hit up front rather than tempting the audience with something out of their reach. For Pearl Jam, it was simply another case of them staying one step ahead, defying expectation and establishing their independence.

But on that night everything you could love about high seriousness played itself out in devastating detail. As lead survivor, Vedder has taken the mantle of that seriousness to near-parodic proportions. On Yield he is credited as Ed Vedder, leading one to wonder if Edward Vedder might be the next step (where to from there, bright boy)? In the role he was born to play, Vedder was a wounded comrade burying his past, working through empathy and pain to find something deeper than the spectacle that had attracted everyone in the first place.

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