It took me seven years of marriage to figure out that my wife is a hardcore Pearl Jam fan. I knew she had some of their albums stashed in our iTunes library, but I didn’t realize she had all of them. I figured they were records from her youth, a band she no longer listened to, but I was wrong.
I heard Pearl Jam for the first time while I was in college in Southwest Virginia. A guy who was dating a woman I’d had a crush on played them for me at a party. He was a rich kid who belonged to a rich-kid fraternity and wore braided belts from J. Crew. ‘This band is going to be huuuuuge’ he told me, his forehead beaded with sweat. Cocaine may have been involved. The song was ‘Even Flow’ from Pearl Jam’s first album Ten. I liked my music raw and fast. Pearl Jam didn’t qualify. They were too ponderous. Too slow.
My wife Nuvia and I are ten years apart. She was just thirteen years old when she heard ‘Even Flow’ for the first time. She remembers it vividly. She was driving with her family in their Chevy van from Los Angeles to Tijuana to go to the family dentist where she would be fitted with a retainer. Then they’d drive on to Ensenada to visit her grandfather at his rancho in Valle de Guadalupe.
As the youngest, she got to sit in the passenger seat where she was in charge of the radio. While passing through San Diego she was able to pick up the local alternative station, 91X, which she felt was edgier than world-famous KROQ in LA. That’s when she heard ‘Even Flow’. They were driving through Camp Pendleton, the long undeveloped stretch of coast between San Onofre and Oceanside where the freeway runs alongside the Pacific Ocean, a place where you can imagine what California would be like without all the people in it, a place Eddie Vedder, who’d grown up in San Diego, knew well. The song, the swells, the van, the land – it all crystallized for her. While her friends were transitioning from Janet Jackson to New Kids on the Block, Nuvia decided that Pearl Jam was her favourite band.
When Pearl Jam released their new album Lightning Bolt last year, I surprised my wife with tickets to their show at Viejas Arena at San Diego State University.
It had been decades since I’d been to a concert in an arena and I wasn’t sure what to expect. To help get me up to speed on what Pearl Jam has been up to for the last twenty years, my wife went online, found the set list from a recent show in Hartford, Connecticut, and made a playlist on iTunes from her collection.
It was three hours long.
Living in San Diego has softened my stance on Eddie Vedder somewhat. It was in San Diego that Eddie discovered that the man who raised him was not his biological father and he came to grips with this revelation through music. One of his favourite bands was The Who, whose very name is like a riff on identity and ambiguity. Through much of the ‘80s, Eddie bounced around in bands and worked odd jobs, and I can’t help but wonder if we ever crossed paths while I was stationed in San Diego during my stint in the navy.
I’d seen Pearl Jam once before at Irvine Meadows in Orange County, California when they toured with Lollapalooza in 1992. I was excited to see Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ministry, Rage Against the Machine and Cypress Hill. Pearl Jam not so much.
I went with an old shipmate. We took some exceptionally speedy acid. My friend started having a panic attack and went back to the car to calm down. Pearl Jam was the second band to play on the main stage. They opened with a cover of The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’, a brilliant choice for a music festival (I’ve spent the better part of my life, i.e. up until a few days ago, under the mistaken impression that ‘Baba O’Riley’ was called ‘Teenage Wasteland’. Apparently, it is a common misperception). The jangly intro synchronized nicely with the feeling of potent expectancy I was nurturing while waiting for the acid to kick in. The layering of guitars on top of the glitchy twitchy keyboards, a digital precursor in an analogue rock anthem, gave me chills.
For me, the song has always been about escape – the way all songs are when you’re young and can’t wait to get started with your life – but on that particular day, with the acid coming on like gangbusters, it felt congratulatory. I’d made it through Catholic school, the US Navy and college. I’d paid my debt to society. Great things lay in store for me. This is your time, Eddie seemed to be saying to me.
The acid peaked during the next performance by The Jesus and Mary Chain who’d recently released Honey’s Dead, forty-two minutes of distorted guitars and looping feedback created explicitly for my benefit and my benefit alone. I wasn’t just some howling loon in an amphitheatre on a beautiful sunny day, I was the receiver for which their sonic disruptions were intended. It also didn’t hurt that the way the light was shining through the rigging cast shadows on the curtain behind the stage, and whenever a breeze stirred the curtain those shadows moved, man, and did all kinds of freaky things.
Later, up in the grass field above the amphitheater, kids lit bonfires and danced around them like pagans, sending clouds of dust and smoke up into the air. At one point three separate fires were going. Wasteland, indeed.
The first band I ever saw was The Ramones at the Wax Museum in Washington, DC in 1983. My younger brother had a record player in his bedroom when one day Rocket to Russia appeared on the turntable. It was so much different than anything on the radio. While pop songs projected fantasies for a different kind of future, The Ramones reinforced how I felt right now. I was hooked.
My delivery system of choice was the cheap drug store tape player that I listened to every morning on my paper route. I burned through batteries like a tweaker goes through meth. The Ramones were my fix. For whatever reason, it took more juice to rewind the tapes than to fast forward them, so I’d flip the tape, hit fast forward, and then flip it over again. I memorized each riff, snarl and cymbal crash. Those long walks through my neighbourhood in the dark programmed me for punk rock, but it was at the live show that I caught the virus.
When The Ramones came to town the only way we could go was if our mother took us. I don’t remember much about the performance, but I remember the people. I went to a Catholic school in suburban Virginia. I didn’t really know what punk rock was all about. My mother was a detox nurse at a treatment center for alcohol and drug abuse. She had a better idea of what to expect than I did.
Our tickets said GA – General Admission – but we had no idea what that meant. We were thrilled to discover we could walk right up to the front of the stage. Front row! This will be great! There was at least one opening act. An alternative pop band that seemed all wrong for the show. The lead singer wore a blazer with shoulder pads. Every time he sang the chorus, ‘You know I’d love you if you didn’t smoke,’ people would throw their lit cigarettes at him. There was a huge guy in the crowd who wore a T-shirt that declared, ‘I Play Mongolian Battle Ball. Pray for Me’. When The Ramones began their four-chord onslaught, someone picked me up and launched me into the back of the pit, and that’s where I stayed.
My mother almost got thrown out of the Wax Museum. She kept climbing up on bar stools to take photographs. Afterwards I bought a T-shirt with three-quarter length sleeves, like a baseball jersey. I wore that shirt out. When I couldn’t fit my arms through the sleeves any more I cut them off.
That was thirty years ago. The Wax Museum is gone. Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee are dead. But I’m still here, all hopped up and ready to go now.
Eddie doesn’t have long hair any more, nor does he wear flannel shirts with shorts and boots that was once his signature style, which I always thought made him look like an indie rock action figure. He’s more clean-cut now as befitting a rock icon-with-a-conscience, whose philanthropic efforts put most organizations to shame. The night of the show, he sent one fan from the Philippine Islands home with a $25,000 check for typhoon relief.
For a band that’s been around since the beginning of the ‘90s, Pearl Jam are in remarkably good physical shape. The same can’t be said of their fans, who range from young children to middle age, i.e. my age. This is misleading because many of the young people are clearly the offspring of the older people. Some of these fuckers had probably been conceived while their parents were listening to Pearl Jam, which was kind of cool, kind of disgusting.
Our seats were excellent, which was something of a relief since I’d paid a fortune for them, the equivalent of two months rent circa 1991. The lady behind us bitched incessantly about the long lines at the T-shirt merchandise booth and the overpriced beer at the snack bar. She complained and complained and then she complained some more. She kept fanning herself with a programme. She was having hot flashes and she was miserable so she decided to make the rest of us miserable, too. Right when I thought Nuvia was going to say something to her, the woman lit up a joint and after a few moments of beautiful silence, she said, ‘You know what my favorite part of Eddie Vedder is? His voice. I really love his voice.’
At the kind of shows I like to go to, I’m usually one of the older people in the audience. This fact was driven home when I went to see Wavves in L.A. at the Echo on Sunset Boulevard a few weeks before the Pearl Jam concert. Wavves write bright, beachy pop punk songs with huge hooks and subversive lyrics that enamour teenagers and annoy parents. Naturally, it was an all-ages show, and as I made my way to the back of the line, I talked to Nuvia on my mobile phone, laughing about how young everyone looked. I was easily twice as old as the kids in line.
But then I did the math.
If I was fifteen when I went to see The Ramones thirty years ago, and if some of these kids were fifteen, and they most certainly were, I was now three times as old as they were.
If nostalgia is the sensation of one’s past and present unexpectedly connecting in a way that reinforces the notion that you are exactly where you need to be, what I was feeling was the complete opposite of that. This was not a pleasant connection. This was a gruesome collision, my memories scattered all over the place. I felt like a character in a science fiction movie under psychic attack – not from my future, but my past. These weren’t my people and this wasn’t my scene. I didn’t belong here. It wasn’t a matter of being cool enough – or was it? Was I that guy in the horror movie who refuses to get the message that it’s time to go? It would have been somewhat satisfying if the kids in the crowd judged me. If they looked at me and said to each other, Oh, shit, Dad is here, that would have been okay. But that wasn’t the case. These kids who bum-rushed the merch table for overpriced T-shirts before the show even started didn’t see me at all. I like to think it was because they were too busy looking at their phones, their faces lit up like cherubs, but I knew the truth: I was the ghost of their uncool future.
But my first show was The Ramones. So fuck those kids.
Thirty years of going to punk rock shows left me ill-prepared for the three and-a-half hour rock and roll marathon that was the Pearl Jam concert. That’s the equivalent of seven to ten sets of punk rock.
I tried to approach it like a sporting event. I like sports and regularly spend three hours watching a football or baseball game. But it wasn’t working. The concert felt like a never-ending advertisement for something I didn’t want or need or even understand.
For an arena show it was strangely intimate. We were a few rows above eye level. The stacks of equipment and racks of lights that usually crowd the stage were suspended from above so we could look clear across the stage to the other side of the arena. Many of the band members had family in the audience, including Eddie’s mother. At one point, he opened a bottle of wine and asked the crowd to pass it on to her, which they did. That would never happen at a punk rock show.
I enjoyed some of the songs. I don’t mean to sound mean-spirited, but I liked many of the instrumental sections, i.e. when Eddie’s not singing, and the new album has a tune that approximates the tempo of a punk rock song, and it sounded better live than it does on the album.
Mostly I people-watched. I studied the thin-haired, thick-waisted men and women who have been listening to Pearl Jam all their lives and for whom this concert represented a high point in their year, if not life, which I understood. There are three things for which there is no substitute: sex, travel and live music. I applaud those who have their priorities straight. I watched dorkily beautiful strangers lose themselves in the music. I watched them get carried away. I watched them rock the fuck out. Throughout the show I kept thinking, My God, I hope I don’t look like that.
The highlight of the show was watching my wife. She was so happy. She cheered at the beginning of every song, she sang along with Eddie and she cried on at least three occasions. Pearl Jam took her on a journey and I was happy to be her companion. And then it happened. The keyboards that are somehow both a trill and a clang spilled out of the monitors overhead. Recognition rippled through the arena as the opening to The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ surged through the speakers. For most of us, there are songs that serve as the soundtrack for a period of our lives. It takes us back and we are transported. For most of the show, my wife had been flying solo. When Pearl Jam played ‘Baba O’Riley’, my soundtrack and my wife’s soundtrack synced up, and I was overcome with a feeling of pure happiness. I couldn’t explain it then and still don’t really understand it now.
After the show, we made our way out of the arena and through the concourse to the parking structure. It was slow-going and fairly quiet. For most fans, it was past their bedtime. At a place where the line bottlenecked, I heard someone say, ‘You know, I feel as if Pearl Jam has taken “Teenage Wasteland” and really made it their own.’
Image courtesy of Jim Ruland