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Wednesday
Sep212011

Pearl Jam and Me (and Tsotsi?)

In anticipation of the new Pearl Jam documentary by Cameron Crowe (one of my favorite directors making a movie about one of my favorite bands, and I just found is his favorite song of theirs is my favorite song too?!?), I realize it's time to finish this ridiculous ramble about my memories of this oddly iconic band that's meant so much to me. A necessary disclaimer before this gets going, though: There is pretty much no way to talk about my love for Pearl Jam without talking about my own zig-zags through making money making music. It's their 20th anniversary of being a band, and it's my 20th of trying to make music for a living. So, apologies in advance for all the self-referential stuff. Overall, it's also important (to me) to emphasize that I don't feel at all 'cool' telling you about this stuff -- in fact, I feel a little embarrassed. It's the kind of shame, though, that I've always taken as a sign to keep going in that direction, to try not to worry about being perceived as an overly enthusiastic schmuck, to just be my dorky self, and let that be as close to 'cool' as I ever get…

I'd moved to Sacramento in 1991 to start talking about forming the band that we eventually called Far. We'd played a handful of shows and made a demo tape. That February, when they were still listed on the flyers as Mookie Blaylock, they played their 14th show at the Cattle Club in Sacramento (http://goo.gl/5L97b), where all the local bands would play (touring bands, too). They were opening for Alice In Chains. Drop Acid was on the bill, too. The singer for that band was Kevin, who is also the singer for 7 Seconds, a band that Ed likes, so I've always figured that was how that happened. Anyway, there they were. And there I wasn't. I was in Claremont, finishing school. When I next came up to Sac for a show or something, someone gave me a cassette. It was in a tan cardboard sleeve, with a little scribble of a character, arms wide open, and all this completely unnecessary information scrawled on it. I loved that they covered a Beatles tune ('I've Got A Feeling') with weird, maniacal intensity. I loved the other rock punk (as opposed to punk rock) songs on the tape. Mostly, though, I was fascinated by the storytelling in the printed handwriting. It was the same kind of gesture that I'd come to love in artists from Zeppelin to Prince to Rickie Lee Jones to U2, pretty much any artist I really loved… Artists that seemed in their art and promotion to enjoy a conspiratorial, intimate relationship with anyone that liked the music; an invitation to a community. I got Ten (Pearl Jam's first album) soon after, and it quickly joined my late-night, lights-dimmed, lyric-reading rotation. 'Release', the last song on the album, was my first deep connection to them. It's still my most intense. Here was this guy, singing so simply, singing such obtuse lyrics, then so painfully direct. Singing about his father, about holding pain, about opening up. I remember the room so well.

So at some point, they were officially called Pearl Jam. Ten was out, they kept on touring, the secret started to spread. But not really. There were plenty of people that didn't feel the same pull that I did; just about all of my friends thought they were overblown, not punk, not cool, whatever it was. The people that did like them really loved them, though. They were mostly geeky little music zealots like me; people not real interested in the latest hits, but also a little confused and turned off by indie elitism that seemed to revere bands for being distant, ironic, abrasive. The early fans that I met were hyper-idealistic and romantic about music that reached and yearned, melodies that stuck with you, sincerity that seemed to be for real. The word about the live show was good. They were coming to the Troubadour (http://goo.gl/UCIls). I'm not sure who I went with. I do remember all the promo stuff stapled up around the club, being a bit put off by it, the band being put off by it too. Ed biting the hand that fed the whole set, climbing all over the place, the band leaving the stage seemingly grumpy about the whole industry-tinged affair. It didn't look like they were coming out for an encore. Then after a while, Ed came out onstage alone. I had the feeling he'd wanted to do the encore, but the rest of the band didn't. I forget what sticker he'd had on his shirt the whole show, some old punk band I think. He peeled it off, and under the sticker, it was a U2 shirt. That juxtaposition still defines them for me, and further endeared them to me in that moment. Then Ed sang an a cappella version of 'Suggestion', a song about sexual harassment and assault by Fugazi, and walked off the stage for good. Weeks later, I would take that sparse, combative arrangement and paraphrase it at a benefit show for House Of Ruth (http://houseofruthinc.org).

From that Troubadour show forward, I went into ultra-geek mode. A woman that worked at Tower Records with me, Kari Necker, was similarly hooked, so we became PJ buddies. Two women from Seattle called Tracey and Melissa were in our little gang too. We all followed them around so much that when Ed went out to the field where the first Drop In The Park (a free show) was to have been (on May 20 at Gas Works Park), to apologize to the stragglers disappointed by the sudden cancellation due to some city council screwup, he asked someone somethin like, "um, you aren't with, um, Jonah, are you?". Bless Tracey's preserving heart, there's actually a YouTube vid of a muffled VHS tape documenting this surreal moment:

(right at the beginning, then around 2:30ish again). When the show was rescheduled (http://goo.gl/wc8tV), of course we drove 14 hours to get there and I nearly killed us all trying to learn to use cruise control.

Ridiculous fan-boy that I'd become by this point, of course I decided to write Ed a letter. I'd always loved mix tapes (still do), so I wanted to make him one. I wanted it to be full of stuff that he may not have heard, but that if he really was the kindred spirit I was imagining, he'd love as much as I did. I remember putting a few tunes by this wacky, thoughtful, noisy punk band called Victim's Family, and a lot of stuff by this brilliant, mercurial songwriter called Rickie Lee Jones. The letter talked about all the different bands and songs, along with who-knows-what else. The first song on the tape, I think, was also the first song on my favorite record of hers. It was called 'We Belong Together'. It's a truly incredible song, full of indelible images and phrases ("…the only angels who see us now watch us through each other's eyes"). 

In the weeks and months after I sent the letter, PJ really did start to blow up, along with that whole Seattle scene. They still seemed to be the misfits of the scene; not punk enough for Nirvana-lovers, not spooky-glammy enough for Alice In Chains folks, not rock enough for Soundgarden heshers, still just a bit too vulnerable and ballad-y. Perfect for me, though, and perfect for more and more people. I pretty much figured that my letter was long-lost in the mounting deluge of fan mail. I was okay with it, if a little crestfallen.

Then came MTV Unplugged. For gazillions of people, it was the lightswitch that 'Release' had been for me. The band playing with such abandon and passion, the setting perfect for showcasing their particular songs, sentiment and style. There were two moments that came out of the TV and nailed me to the couch. One was Ed scrawling 'Pro-Choice' on his arm during that epic take on 'Porch'. The other was near the end of 'Black', the lovelorn, instant-classic anthem that would play such a part in their attempt to retreat from fame when they famously refused to make a video for it a few months later. As Ed howled the 'I know someday…' bit (one of so many bits near the end of songs that became as important and memorable as any chorus) and the energy built, he started singing, "We… we… we belong together! Together!"

For so many people, this was the moment they found out about and/or gave in to Pearl Jam. It would have been incredible no matter what, but after the letter and the tape and all, I was literally frozen in my friend's living room thinking, "Either he loves Rickie Lee Jones as much as me, which means we really are long-lost brothers, or he got the mix and the letter and loved it and that song so much that it made it into that moment and…" at which point my brain pretty much short-circuited. All I knew was that I had to figure this out.

The next step up for them was places like the Warfield, a 2,000 set venue in San Francisco. But by the time they were getting to the venues on that tour, they had outgrown them, so it was very, very sold out (http://goo.gl/GSxvb). The opening band, by the way (along with a weird South African trio called Tribe After Tribe), was Rage Against The Machine. Rage's first album wasn't out, most people there hadn't heard them or even heard them. They utterly decimated that place, absolutely conquered it, more than any opening band I've ever seen, by a longshot. In their 30 minutes onstage, Zak (RATM's singer) raised dramatically my aspirations as a rock singer and frontperson, forever. Anyway, before that, back outside, way before the show started, I was wandering the streets around the Warfield in a Drop Acid shirt. I found the Pearl Jam bus, asked Jeff Ament (PJ's bassist) if anyone in the band liked Rickie Lee Jones ("yea, she's great!")... but no Eddie. Then, walking away, there he was, walking with his girlfriend Beth, right towards me. I showed him my Drop Acid shirt as a would-be icebreaker. 

"Oh cool," he said, "I lost mine in Detroit."

"Wanna trade?" (He was wearing a DRI shirt).

"No, that's cool, thanks."

At which point I tumbled into some ramble trying to let him know that I'd sent a letter, with a tape, and what about that moment at the end of 'Black', and did he…

Somewhere in my incomprehensible mess, he stopped me by saying, "Oh my god, that was you" and giving me a big hug and a tough, tender kiss on the neck. He said some stuff about how much it meant to him or something, but for all the other details that are still so clear up to that point, I honestly don't remember much. In those moments, my most goofy and romantic of ideas had actually made sense to someone else. Someone doing exactly what I was trying to do, doing it so well. Anyway, at some point, he and Beth ambled off, and I collected myself enough to get inside the show. I immediately bought a PJ shirt, took off my shirt, balled it up as well as I could, and right as they walked onstage, I hurled it towards them. It flew right past Ed and slid under the drum riser. Tons of stuff followed as the set went on, all sorts of would-be gifts, band demos, who knows. The roadies would cross the stage periodically, cleaning it all up. My shirt lay hidden, though. It stayed that way for the whole show. At first, I was really happy about this, thinking that someone in the band would find it. Then, as the show neared ending, I started to realize that no one at all might find it til well after the band was gone. During the last tune, Ed jumped into the crowd as just about always, and came up out of the crowd with his shirt half-ripped off, as just about always. The band went offstage before the inevitable encore, and finally, during the last stage-sweep, a roadie saw and grabbed my shirt. I was kinda dejected, but still glowing from the day and the show. Then, when the band sauntered back out to play some more for us, Ed was wearing the Drop Acid shirt. The perfection of that moment is right up there with anything before or since for me.

So, while there are so many other stories and memories… Them opening for Nirvana and RHCP New Year's 1991 (http://goo.gl/VKsQz), Kari and me flying to New York on New Year's Eve 1992 (http://goo.gl/cQy86) with no tickets to a relatively tiny show and having a pair given to us by the singer from (I can't for the life of me remember!!!!) -- then, once inside, somehow scaling up to the booth where Ed & Beth were watching Keith Richards, giving them a Far t-shirt and CD… After their first Bridge Benefit show (http://goo.gl/IyEyI), where they played 'Daughter' live for the first time, just after Vs. has sold a million in its first week, hangin out with Dave (their drummer at the time) in his hotel room at The Phoenix, talking to him about their burgeoning fame, having him play us that first Christmas single tune… Far being on a compilation with Henry Rollins, knowing Ed loved him, giving Ed the comp with a letter at their Warfield show that Rollins was the opening act at (http://goo.gl/0TKdC), bawling when they opened that show with 'Release' straight into 'Animal', having Ed reference the letter onstage before singing 'Blood'… Ed recognizing me ("hey, Jonah from Far") while walking around in the crowd at Lollapalooza 1992 (http://goo.gl/MxYtY)… Far getting signed by Immortal/Epic (Pearl Jam's label) at the height of PJ's popularity and wanting nothing more than all the PJ promo stuff they could find, cherishing my basketball picture-disc of 'Ten'… saying hi at the Grammy afterparty in 1997, thinking Ed seemed pretty sad… Hearing 'Given To Fly' way before Yield came out in someone's office at Epic, laughing about how much it sounded like 'Going To California'… 2002 in London (http://goo.gl/a995K), backstage only because my friend Scott worked for Epic (Far had broken up, I was touring solo by then), purposely not booking a show because he could get me into theirs. We ran into Ed walking through the halls under the venue. After years of not seeing him or anything, he recognized me immediately and I had to awkwardly introduce him to his own label rep. Then, later that night, everyone was standing around after the show. Ed was giving Mark Arm (singer for Mudhoney) shit about his microphone coming off the cable when he was swinging it around. I mentioned that I'd hear a great story about that same thing happening to Eddie Money. All of a sudden, Ed's eyes lit up and he launched into a story about Eddie Money. He grabbed me and stood me in front of him, saying, "Okay, you're Eddie Money and I'm Eddie Money's bodyguard, telling you about all the people you're meeting at the record label party..." I just stood there, smiling and shaking my head, not even trying to be cool, just soaking up the fan-boy moment.

All those indelible memories aside, though, that Warfield day & night is still the one. 

Again, I really don't feel 'cool' telling you about any of this. Quite the opposite really, feelin pretty self-conscious reading through it and trying to edit typos -- it's just fun to share this with anyone that's ever loved a band this much; my particular tales of how much one band meant to me as an artist, as a person. I think of the people who have sheepishly said sweet things to me over the years, how I've thanked them profusely, assuring them that I'm as big a geek as they ever were. Here's the proof.

They're pretty much the last band that I really loved in that teenager way. My arc through making a living making music is now seemingly waning, in a way that feels complete and healthy. I let my Ten Club (Pearl Jam's fan club) membership lapse, rejoined, let it lapse again. I'm not particularly into much of theirs after Yield, though 'The Fixer' and some other very recent softer stuff has gotten me pretty good. I don't even listen to any of their stuff particularly actively. When my last band Gratitude was looking for a drummer and I got to play music with Dave Krusen (PJ's first drummer) for a couple hours, my head didn't explode (but it was really neat). I haven't gotten jaded or anything, I'm still a total geek for them and music and life, but I guess they're more just a part of me now, rather than some entity I'm goofily obsessed with. 

The last time I saw them live says it perfectly. I didn't try to get backstage or anything else. I just went to some shows. They were at the Bill Graham Civic in San Francisco for a few nights. Yea, I went to all three. On the last night (http://goo.gl/Lbor7), near the end of the show, when they were deep into a great extended freakout in 'Crazy Mary', I found myself welling up with pure love of the band, the music, the moment, as I so often have at their shows. At that instant, I looked to my right and there, up in the cheap seats with me, was my original PJ fan-friend Kari, who I hadn't seen for who knows how many years, similarly lost in the moment. Our eyes met and we both completely lost it, just reveling in the serendipitous PJ world we'd both grown up in. We hardly spoke, and hardly have since. Didn't have to. The music did it for us.

Speaking of the music, how cool is this (http://www.pearljam.com/music/songs)? A database of every song they ever played, how many times they played it, the lyrics... So ambitious, so complete, so neat.

======

An epilogue to the preface. So glad I wrote what I wrote before seeing the movie. Won't even try to articulate that further. Yea, just sitting here not typing. What's left out of what's written after this is all the inarticulable stuff, stuff I felt listening, seeing, reading. A me that's gone, and so still here.

Here's some broken lines from just now:

Riding my bike back from seeing PJ20 (http://goo.gl/35Huu)
After seeing Tsotsi (http://goo.gl/BYTI3) hours earlier
Lost young men
Surrender
I'm probably the only idiot seeing parallels
Putting myself in the middle of them
Crying and laughing about it all
Two lives I didn't lead
That both make me yearn to know theirs
And so happy to have mine
Both films perfect
For me, at least
PJ20 makes me hate video so much
Those moments deserved film
But maybe that's just nostalgia
I don't think so, though
And all of a sudden I'm thinking of Boogie Nights
Another lost young man story
All absent fathers
My family tree