April 1, 2009

Lose Myself

With the release of a remastered edition of Ten by Pearl jam, I have decided once and for all to document my connection to the “organism that is Pearl Jam,” and the role the band has played in my life as therapist, role model, and friend.

Pearl Jam’s music has played as the soundtrack to my life since the first time I heard Ten in 1992. Since that time, every few years Pearl Jam releases an album that appears to mirror my life both in content, style, and growth. Pearl Jam is in a different category than most bands for me. There is music, and then there is Pearl Jam. I have never felt this type of connection to any other artist. The following posts will be an exploration of this connection.I realize that for some reason liking the band carries a stigma in Indie elite circles, as if Pearl Jam is a has-been band that peaked with the release of Ten. I have nothing to prove to anyone by writing these posts, I simply want to catalog my memories in one place.

I cannot write about my life without writing about the music of Pearl Jam and vice versus. I have spent so much of my life immersed in their music, and now I feel compelled to explore the relationship for myself, a sort of inventory of my life.

In the next few months I hope to write blog posts that chronicle my appreciation of every song in the Pearl Jam catalog. Ambitious, I know. Maybe this will take me longer than a few months. Maybe I will be writing about the songs for the next few years. Like I have plan to do with Zen in the Engaged Life series, I hope to examine lyrics, share my thoughts, life associations with the music, and perhaps create some mash-up art that reflects my understanding of certain songs.

I hope that readers will join me by sharing your thoughts and memories to the songs that resonate with you. If you are a Pearl Jam fan, I hope you will share your thoughts on the songs, the band in general, and on my recollections and blog posts. If you are not a fan, I hope my investigation will open your eyes as to the why Pearl Jam is more than merely a recording artist.

Before I begin, please take a look at this short clip about the history of the band and the release of their deluxe remastered edition of Ten. I will not spend too much time in this introductory post giving back story about the band. I hope that I can flush out all of that history in the detail in the coming months:

Amongst my friends, I have a terrible habit of hating something one minute and then loving it the next. Loving it so much, in fact, that the person who first introduced the thing to m, whatever it may have been, is flummoxed by how devoted I can become to something that just weeks ago I could care less about.

My introduction to Pearl Jam is a textbook example of this scenario. It is 1992, the year I graduated high school. My iPod playlist, had I had an iPod at the time, consisted of The Use Your Illusions albums by Guns and Roses, Check Your Head by the Beastie Boys, a little Sex, Sugar, Magic, by the Chili Peppers, and lots of Lynryd Skynrd. Don’t ask.

My friend’s and I have always had an unspoken competition about who discovers what first. Music, books, articles, we all want to be the first to say we found the next big thing. We still do it today, and while it may appear to be sophomoric, it keeps us on our toes. I had first heard Alice in Chains on 120 minutes and so laid claim to their discovery, while a friend who I always resented a bit had found Pearl Jam. Because of my immaturity and pig-headedness, I couldn’t admit that Pearl Jam was any good, for if I did, he would have out scored me in our little game.

Anyone who has spent any time with me knows that I am a bit obsessive when it comes to Pearl Jam today, so to hear that at one point I said, “I can’t get into them. They don’t have any rhythm,” would be shocked. It may sound sacrilegious, but that quote will always haunt me. I said it. I admit it. I was wrong.

Honestly, I hadn’t really even given the band a chance. I had only seen this SNL clip and was trying to be flippant:

I will wait till I get to Alive before I talk about the song and this performance in particular.

A few weeks later, the Pearl Jam juggernaut was gaining momentum worldwide. They appeared on MTV unplugged, they were performing at Lollopallooza, they were featured in the film Singles, and on constant rotation on MTV. Once I actually started to listen to the music, I knew that this was not a band I could afford to be flippant about. These songs spoke to me on a level that no music had ever done or has done since.

These were songs of pain and redemption, of abuse and survival. These were songs for victims who had overcome adversity. These were songs written about and for me. These were songs of healing. I took the music and locked myself away with it, as I have a tendency to do, and I came out reborn and baptized. Suddenly I didn’t feel alone, because I knew that there were at least five people out in the world who understood what it was like to be me. Broken. Hurt. Pissed and most importantly hopeful.

Pearl Jam’s music is not only filled with angst, as many people tend to portray it, it is a music that looks at the true nature of human suffering and pain and defies it.

Let us begin with the first song off of Ten- Once:

I have always related to the themes that catapulted Pearl Jam to be the spokesmen for the disenfranchised. I hope to explore the roots and nature of my angst and rage in the coming months, but it is worth noting that as early as the age of nine, I have felt a strong sense of victimhood and anger. These feelings were/are symptoms of a lonely childhood, alcoholism in the house, and abuse. Pearl Jam was music that could easly relate to feelings that had been festering in me since I was a child.It was as if I had finally found a voice to give life to my confusion and rage.

While I appeared to have a “normal” childhood and adolescence, I have always harbored my share of demons, and Pearl Jam was the first band that not only acknowledged that these demons were there, but openly invited them to come out and be examined. Pearl Jam has been my therapist since 1992 and has yet to let me down.

According to wikipedia,
The song originated as an instrumental demo titled "Agytian Crave" that was written by Gossard in 1990. The instrumental was one of five songs compiled onto a tape called Stone Gossard Demos '91 that was circulated in the hopes of finding a singer and drummer for the group.

The tape made its way into the hands of Vedder, who was working as a gas station attendant in San Diego, California at the time. He listened to the tape shortly before going surfing, where lyrics came to him. Vedder recorded vocals for three of the songs on the demo tape, one of which was "Once", and mailed the tape back to Seattle. Upon hearing the tape, the band invited Vedder to come to Seattle and he was asked to join the band.

"Once" is the middle chapter of a trilogy of songs in what Vedder would later describe as a "mini-opera" he entitled "Mamasan", with it being preceded by "Alive" and followed by "Footsteps". "Once" tells the tale of a man's descent into madness which leads him into becoming a serial killer.
I admit it...what's to say...yeah...
I'll relive it...without pain...mmm...
This song for me is about the idea that the past functions cyclically. We revisit times of trauma, feel healed, only to have to face them again. Although we have been damaged and scarred, by allowing ourselves the luxury of imagining an alternative past, we may help alleviate some of the pain. The irony is that even after coming to this realization, we are forced to deal with the painful reality, unaware where we are living in the time-lines of our lives, we are eventually forced to face the possibility of living beyond time. The lyrics fluctuate back and forth between the possibility of an unblemished past and the reality of pain. This oscillation between past and present, fantasy and reality, if we are not careful, the protagonist shows us -can lead to insanity.
Backseat lover on the side of the road
I got a bomb in my temple that is gonna explode
I got a sixteen gauge buried under my clothes, I play...
The chorus tells us that we are constantly forced to wage the battle between the past and the present. Reality versus fantasy. And of course there is the enticing idea of giving into insanity. Despite the pain we may have had control over in the past, we are ready to let go and give into what we have always wanted- a reality bathed in fantasy and insanity.
Once upon a time I could CONTROL myself
Ooh, once upon a time I could LOSE myself, yeah...

Oh, try and mimic what's insane...ooh, yeah...
I am in it...where do I stand?
Oh, Indian summer and I hate the heat
I got a backstreet lover on the passenger seat
I got my hand in my pocket, so determined, discreet...I pray...

Once upon a time I could CONTROL myself
Ooh, once upon a time I could LOSE myself, yeah, yeah...

It is interesting to note for anyone who has been following Pearl Jam since the early days how much their songs have evolved and changed. It is eye opening to go back and watch these early concerts and watch how much they have all changed. This post has already become longer than I had planned, so I will not comment much on Vedder's antics here. We still have the rest of Ten to go through for that, but it is great to see how young, reckless, and chaotic he was on stage. More on that later.

In closing, I have spent a lot of time with the song Once. I cannot count the number of times I have been alone screaming the words to the ghosts in my head. Although, I first heard this song in 1992, throughout the years it has been one of my go to songs for letting off steam and antagonizing my demons.

I remember a specific night some time in 1993/94? When my friend Anthony and I, walked to the edge of sanity and for a few drunken hours considered the possibility of madness. Screaming around the room, knocking over furniture, unhinged. Free.

Once upon a time I could lose myself…


  1. Pearl Jam have been my 'formative' band as well - my first big act concert was to see them in Melbourne, Australia. I agree when you note that their musical development has reflected shifts and changes personally. I'm really looking forward to your discussion of their music and lyrics and hope I can contribute and reflect with you.

  2. i felt the same way about bon jovi ;) not that they were all that soulful- but they were the 'it' band when i was in high school and i didn't care for them. i was more into genesis and phil's solo work. now that i am a thirtysomething- i kind of dig some of their stuff. my new obsession is james blunt's lyrics. love him. he isn't a fantastic singer or performer but the lyrics to his songs move me.

    as for pearl jam- i can see the appeal. i, however, had quite enough as my senior year of college saw the freshman playing the same songs over and over and over and over again. that was enough to sustain me for a lifetime :)