Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ten - Pearl Jam (1991)

The band that would become Pearl Jam started out with two former members of Mother Love Bone, rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard, and bassist Jeff Ament, along with former Shadows lead guitarist Mike McCready. The trio recorded a demo as instrumental tracks, and distributed it, in hopes of finding a singer who could put lyrics to them. This demo ended up in the hands of a gas station attendant from San Diego named Eddie Vedder, who recorded vocal tracks for three songs which would become "Alive," "Once," and "Footsteps," and sent his tape back up to Seattle. He got the job.

With the addition of drummer Dave Krusen (who would later be replaced by Matt Chamberlain, then finally Dave Abbruzzese), the band "Mookie Blaylock" was born, and began to record their first album.

Of course, we all know they did not keep the name "Mookie Blaylock" - they decided to change their name after signing with Epic records, who believed there would be too many legal issues considering that Mookie, the professional Basketball player, had recently signed a Nike endorsement deal... the story goes that Eddie Vedder chose the new name to honor his Aunt Pearl, who used to make jam laced with highly hallucinogenic peyote. Vedder later admitted that the story was a complete fabrication- and he probably helped spread the rumor to satisfy his sense of humor... but he did have an Aunt named Pearl. The band did keep one Mookie Blaylock reference - they named their first album after Mookie's jersey number- "Ten" which was released in August of 1991.

The album, on the surface, seems more similar to a hard rock album than what most people would expect from a Grunge/Alternative band. Their sound was strongly influenced by classic rock such as Led Zeppelin, and even early heavy metal such as Black Sabbath. On a casual listen, especially if you only pay attention to the songs that would become big hits, you probably would not consider them to be in the same musical genre as bands like Nirvana. However, if you take the time to examine the lyrics, you can easily see why they belong in the Grunge/Alternative genre - the lyrics speak of topics such as depression, loneliness, suicide, and madness. Topics that spoke loudly to young, disaffected generation X of the early 90s. Combine that youthful rebellion and angst with an accessible hard-rock edged sound, and you have a recipe for success.

The album started off as a modest success, but the band's relentless touring is what really built their popularity. In 1992 the Grunge movement, fueled largely by the September 1991 release of Nirvana's "Nevermind" exploded on the north american scene. Pearl Jam, and bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains became a driving force in the music industry.

Pearl Jam, however, was actually reviled by their peers. They were frequently accused of cashing in on the Grunge movement because of their more mainstream-like sound. Nirvana's Kurt Cobain was one of their most vehement critics- declaring them sellouts, and claiming that Ten could not be a true alternative album because it had too many prominent guitar solos. Truth be told, the critics were being somewhat unfair. The songs that get the most attention are the more rock-oriented ones such as "Alive" or "Jeremy" - basically the first six tracks - while the second half of the album, composed of more introspective songs such as "Garden" or "Release" were largely ignored, despite being more in-line with what people considered "Alternative."

These accusations of "cashing in" proved to be unfounded. The band repeatedly stood against corporate greed, especially with their well documented and long-standing feud against concert ticket giant Ticketmaster in protest of their near-monopoly on ticket sales for large venues. They pursued this feud to the point where they were virtually locked out of nearly every major venue in the country. Eventually, even their biggest critic, Kurt Cobain quietly reconciled his differences with the band shortly before his death- years later Eddie Vedder would claim that if Kurt were still alive, he'd be happy to see what Pearl Jam turned out to be.

The song "Alive," aside from being my personal favorite on the album, is the one that, I feel best captures the style and mood of band. On the surface, it seems to be an inspirational rock anthem, complete with a big guitar solo that has been recognized on Guitar World's list of the top 100 guitar solos- despite the fact that Mike McCready claims to have ripped off ideas from Kiss' Ace Frehley's solo on the song "She," which is allegedly based on material borrowed from The Doors' Robbie Krieger's solo on the song "Five to One." The song seems to be a ready-made arena rock classic with a chorus that any crowd of rock fans can easily sing along with.

Examine Eddie Vedder's lyrics a little closer, and you'll quickly see the darker side Pearl Jam. The song is part fiction, and part autobiography. When Eddie Vedder was a teenager, his mother revealed that the man he knew as a father was actually his stepfather, and that his real father had died long ago -.  Vedder talks about this in the first and third verses of the song  /What you thought was your daddy, was nothin' but/While you were sitting home alone at age thirteen/Your real daddy was dyin'/, while the second verse is fictional. In this fictional verse, the mother then seduces the teenager into a sexual relationship, attracted to the fact that he resembles his long lost father- /While she walks slowly, across a young man's room/She said, "I'm ready for you"/

Vedder originally intended the chorus of the song to be depressing - the teenager has been through so much that he feels that he doesn't deserve to still be alive- the shouts of "I'm still alive" are meant to be the teenager cursing the fact. Vedder later admits that the fans eventually won him over, and he prefers the more common interpretation that "I'm still alive" is a shout of triumph - yes, all this bad stuff happened in my life, but I'm still here! This is the interpretation that I always felt rang true- the song always represented the idea of standing firm in the face of adversity to me, and to the group of friends I traveled with during the summer of 1992. For us, "Alive" was a song we used as a rallying cry, rather than as a lament.

The idea of a broken family, with terrible things going on behind closed doors- the shattering of things held to be truth, the betrayal of trust by a parent or authority figure, are all ideas that hit the target with the young Generation X of the early 90s. When you examine the subject matter of the lyrics, the band seems much closer to the same kind of angst Nirvana more obviously wrote about. Packaging that angst into something that sounds like a classic arena rock anthem is a stroke of artistic genius. Most people involved in the events told by the lyrics would probably hide these ugly problems from the people around them, much like the story of a confused, abused, and angry teen is hiding within a triumphant rock anthem.

Vedder originally wrote "Alive" as part of a trilogy of songs- the second part, "Once" talks about the teenager losing his mind, and going on a killing spree, and the third part "Footsteps" (which was not released on the North American printing of Ten- but was later released as a B-side to the "Jeremy" single) is set in prison, where the angry teen reflects on his life as he waits for his execution.

This mixture of dark, emotional, subject matter with riffs and hooks styled after classic 1970s hard rock catapulted Pearl Jam into a wide appeal. They remain one of the biggest and most enduring acts to come out of the Grunge era. When viewed in modern terms, the album is something that has become hard to find today- good solid rock music with lyrics that you can take a deep dive into that's still great fun to listen to even if you don't bother to analyze it and just take it at face value.

Needless to say, Pearl Jam gained a huge following from their live performances. As the video should show, they had that special chemistry that allows a band to light up the stage, and captivate the crowd. I also have to give a Heavy Metal "horns up" to Mike McCready for tagging his solo with a unexpected clip from Black Sabbath's classic "War Pigs" ...   \m/ to Mike!

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