“‘Between Thought and Expression Lies a Lifetime’: Applying Velvet Underground Discourse to Pearl Jam and the Eddie Vedder Quandary”

Eddie Vedder, being the lead singer of an explosively successful band, and probably carrying some of the rudimentary, procedural trappings you’d logically find in such an enterprise, was severely ostracized by the underground in the early ’90’s. The way this materializes in the minds of middle America (where I’m embedded) is basically through Nirvana, whose In Utero producer Steve Albini, formerly of Big Black, prank called Eddie Vedder with the band present, during the recording sessions at his log cabin in Minnesota. Nirvana as many know took many, ultimately unsuccessful, pains to nurture their relations with the indie, DIY minded denizens of places like Olympia, Washington, where the best bands were seen to be the ones who’d just started out, didn’t know how to play their instruments, and were playing to basement rooms of eight odd (odd) people. This is of course ironic, seeings as they saw fit to lay down an unruly sum of $100,000 to Steve Albini to “engineer” In Utero, being a band whose $606 spent on Bleach had yielded the best percentage profit since the Elvis Sun Sessions. Bleach is an album that sounds fine, and theoretically Nirvana was giving up all of their punk “cred” by going this expensive route, counterculture DNA lurking within the chosen producer, or not.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of producer Brendan O’ Brien in the Pearl Jam equation. O’ Brien came along for the band’s third album, and arguably best, Vitalogy (Vitalogy refreshingly is the one Pearl Jam studio album proper still sold on CD at our local Best Buy, but who knows if it’s for its garish faux-leather packaging or not), and would stay with them up through their sixth, the likewise excellent Binaural. These albums captured a live band sound thrilling for fans, producing perfect companion pieces to the band’s cataclysmic Live on Two Legs, a live album of music captured entirely at one concert.
What’s more, the album projects evaded “overproduction” in the intangible way too: instead of harping on a “professionalism” point, which Ten and Vs. seemed to do both in Vedder’s overly serious songwriting m.o. and in the sterile lack of “mistakes,” “moments that breathe,” or “humanized aspects,” the middle segment containing Yield, No Code and the two others actually captured the band’s personality on wax.
Hearing Vitalogy in its entirety is like seeing a UFO. You might not LIKE it, you might not want to do it on a regular basis, but damned if you’ll ever forget it.
Ten had brought us “Even Flow,” “Jeremy” and “Alive,” Vs. had brought us “Daughter,” “Dissident” and “Animal,” but Vitalogy is relatively, RELATIVELY, devoid of an obvious hit single, though these songs — namely “Corduroy,” “Better Man” and “Nothingman” [1] would play as anthemic and central into the band’s live album. I personally think both “Whipping,” though, and “Immortality,” would have been decent candidates, though they never saw entrance into this realm as far as I know.
But Eddie Vedder just seemed cursed, for lack of a better term, with the poignant inner statement, exploding from him in music form like some unavoidable ray of human alteration. The band tried hard to “be punk,” see their release of “Spin the Black Circle” as the first single off Vitalogy, but their statements were simply too big, too full of climax and melody. They simply didn’t know the care-free goofiness of The Vaselines’ “Son of a Gun” and “Sex Sux (Amen),” or The Buzzcocks’ ribbing of teenage libidinousness (“Orgasm Addict”) and simple statements of sexual frustration (“What Do I Get?”) [2] Punk rock was about getting back to simplicity and having fun, but Pearl Jam had simply seen too much. They stumbled accidentally into the sort of “world domination” that Sub Pop saw, or attempted to see, as such a joke. Another interesting fact though is that per reports, Pearl Jam tours were a really laid-back operation, and their relations with their managers were great, whereas Nirvana manager John Silva has been known to be an oppressive, manipulative and slick city boy without much compassion for the needs of the band members, Nirvana having been particularly vulnerable to this for not really having a city mindset, hailing from tiny Aberdeen.
And as we all know, “Spin the Black Circle” is about as “fun” as having a cyst removed. So let’s just look at the best song on Vitalogy, which I think is “Immortality,” the penultimate track (the last track is a goof-off about a little girl being turned on by getting spanked, called “Stupidmop,” the title also I guess a reference to Thurston Moore’s lyric about his hair in the chorus of the song “Candle” from Daydream Nation). “Immortality” is just grunge, to a tee. It doesn’t need punk. It’s Mudhoney’s “Come to Mind,” [3] it’s Soundgarden’s “Limo Wreck.” It takes the guitar soloing baton straight from Neil Young, of whom Pearl Jam are professed fans, covering “Fu**in’ up” for Live on Two Legs, and a creative minor-chord rendition of a “Rockin’ in the Free World” cover for an appendage to the live version of “Daughter.”
Rock and roll, when it’s great, like say The Shins or The Strokes or something, brings you to a sort of metaphysical enclosed place, that’s sacred. The whole point of grunge was that there are no such spaces — Soundgarden even had a disturbing stanza that went “You gotta kill you mother / Gotta kill your mother / Kill your mother.” “Daughter,” though featuring a juicy, head-nodding chord progression, also has the sort of busy feel to spur restlessness, keeping the listener on their guard. It’s not really a song to relax to, like The Shins’ “Gone for Good” or The Strokes’ “Trying Your Luck” might be. It gets you angry, restive, and a lot of Pearl Jam’s songs seem to carry the ethos of sexual leveling, voicing misdeeds against women (“Better Man,” “Dissident”) — there is a call to arms, despite not carrying the punk aesthetic, so in this way the songs do perform the role of at least HARDCORE, [4] if not punk itself.
And punk typically makes for better music than hardcore, if only because, it doesn’t take itself as seriously. [5] Pearl Jam was the unlikely band that took themselves seriously, but were still good, and for this, were ostracized. But they GOT it, believe me, they got it, they got that they were lucky to have made it big, to have all that album money, and all those good guitars and drums, and they got that they were in an imperfect spot as middle-class white guys, so they started to let loose with songs like “Bugs” and “Stupidmop” and the song whose title appears follows on wikipedia: “‘Untitled’ (Also known as “*,” “The Color Red”, “Red Bar”, or “Red Dot”, and which actually just appears as a red dot on the song listing). Ironically, Pearl Jam has another song that goes by the capricious moniker of “Untitled,” a gentle guitar/vox number that appears on Live on Two Legs, and appeals to the ladies, making ode to romance and garnering claps from the audience, which somehow avoid being annoying, against all logic. But genuineness oozes from this band, the autonomy of catharsis sometimes, temporarily, smothering, or trampling over, the “punk” sense of good party taste.
[1] As a practical joke, the band eventually made the habit, at slightly anticlimactic shows, of sequencing “Better Man” and “Nothingman” each right consecutive with one of their b-side songs, “Leatherman.”
[2] Pearl Jam chose The Buzzcocks as opening act for part of the 2003 tour, slating the punk-minded, all-female Sleater-Kinney for a latter segment of the same rodeo.
[3] Everett True in the brilliant Nirvana: The Biography makes some point about how Mudhoney “breaks all the Ramones’ rules of being in a band,” one of which was, Keep your songs under three minutes.
[4] Another thing said in Nirvana: The Biography is that punk is a product, and hardcore is a lifestyle. This would jibe with Ian McKaye’s tendency toward seriousness in addressing social issues, not just singing about jerking off (or developing a band title centered on that, for that matter, like The Circle Jerks or, ahem, Pearl Jam).
[5] http://dolbydisaster.com/?p=19634: “Jad Fair & Yo La Tengo’s Strange But True: The Great Lost Album of the ’90’s”



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