I still remember the first time I heard that baritone growl. The low, almost primal howl. I remember the first time I saw the nearly insane grin on the face of the man who would eventually come to be my personal hero. I remember years later, after a ten year hiatus from grunge, the first time I really heard a guitar solo that stopped me in my tracks and leave me with my mouth agape. And I remember the first time I saw them all live in 2003 and felt for the first time the music of a band from Seattle, the greatest band this country has ever given me, given us. Pearl Jam has always been more than five guys playing instruments and singing songs about being alive and speaking in class and flowing evenly. They were the soundtrack to my life and the backdrop to every emotion I’ve ever felt.
This of course all began in the early days of Grunge, where “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was inescapable: MTV was playing it twice an hour. Radio DJs were doing about the same. Every store in America was clearing their stock out and replacing it all with flannel shirts and ripped jeans, making money hand over fist selling Cobain-wear to upper middle class teens who wanted to look like they were born and raised in a dope house. The Seattle I Sound transcended aural dominance and was imbued in every part of popular culture and also the walls of my ten year-old bedroom. Jeremy spoke, all right. Along with Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Mr. Cobain himself. Finally, I and millions like me had our own version of the British Invasion and I had found my John, my Paul, my George, and my Ringo. But it wasn’t Nirvana, though my love for them and their music has never ended. It was the band that, at at least in the beginning, played second banana to Kurt & Co.
Pearl Jam may have come from the same town as Nirvana (as well Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, the other two bands making up what I lovingly refer to as the “Big Four” of Grunge,) their sound and musical ability were light years apart. Like The Rolling Stones, who may have started as just another British Invasion band akin to The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits, Pearl Jam jettisoned their staid Grunge sound and evolved as musicians throughout the 90s and into the new millennium, showcasing their prodigious musicianship along with some of the most introspective and poetic songwriting of all time. If you’ve fallen in love or gone through a terrible breakup in the past twenty five years, Pearl Jam has been there and eight or nine times out of ten, Eddie Vedder, a man who is as charismatic as he is enigmatic, was the man holding the pen (or, as he is given to do, sit at the typewriter.)
As a predictably moody and pity-partying adolescent teen, Grunge was the perfect score for the life of a thick-glasses, braces-wearing teen with terrible acne who needed an outlet for the pain inflicted upon him by the world, or so I thought. If I felt like an outcast, there was the perfect Pearl Jam song I could play and instantly identify with, as if there was someone writing about just my life and no one else’s. I was overjoyed because I knew that there was someone who actually put into words and music the thoughts that I thought, the feelings that I felt, and somehow said the things I couldn’t verbalize. This, above all, was the reason for me connecting with the band and the reason their music has meant so much to me; they became an extension of my emotions and allowed me to express myself when I couldn’t do it.
My PJ listening got even heavier and more intense in 2001, after my father passed away. I was just starting college and the combined effects of a new school and losing a parent were the perfect combination for depression and it needed something to latch onto. Anyone who has been a fan of Eddie Vedder and done any research into his life and his songs knows that he lost a father as a teenager as well, documented most famously in “Alive,” from their debut album Ten. Not only did I love the guy’s music, but we had something in common. That absolutely solidified my thought that this was the band I was born to hear and I would do so for the rest of my life.
I’m now approaching my thirty-fifth birthday, a full quarter-century since Ten entered my ears and my television, and I still love Pearl Jam and their music more than I love most people. I’ve gone through both the absolute worst days of my life and the happiest during that time, and all of the emotions through which I’ve navigated have had a song attached to it, most of them being a Pearl Jam track. “Release” helped me cope with my father’s death. “Come Back” was exactly what I was thinking when apart from a girlfriend back in 2005. “Rearviewmirror” was exactly the anger I was feeling when I split from a different girlfriend. “Alive” is how I feel when I look back on the life I’ve lived and “Man of the Hour” is what I hope they played at my funeral.
They say you should never meet your heroes because you’ll be disappointed. I always thought that was bullshit. I met Bill Murray once, and that was one of the coolest fucking things that’s ever happened to me. Running into one or two or all of these guys would result in me completely geeking out and going all fanboy and most likely weeping, but I think it would top meeting ol’ Bill. When I read that Pearl Jam were first ballot HOF nominees, it sort of validated two things I had not-so-secretly thought for the past twenty years: that these guys were the best Rock n’ Roll band in the world, and that I have impeccable taste in music.