Releasing Pearl Jam

Our executive editor reflects on his history with the band

Pearl Jam is here in concert this week, and that makes me remember the last time I saw Pearl Jam in concert, and that makes me want to not listen to Pearl Jam. My friend Jon and I still refer to that experience as the worst concert we’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something, considering I once saw Color Me Badd.

The Pearl Jam show was in Greensboro, on August 6, 2000. I was a few weeks away from my senior year of college, and Jon was a few weeks away from his fourth year of college. Earlier that summer, in late June, Pearl Jam suffered a tragedynine fans died at a concert in Denmark, crushed underneath a mob of people and the end of the grunge era.

The band went in seclusion for about a month, and if I remember correctly, the Greensboro show was only their second or third show back. I remember lead singer Eddie Vedder stopping several times during the concert, trying to calm the mosh pit with speeches that we in the second level of the coliseum couldn’t understand. I recognized that it was a difficult time for them, but I was 20 and this was my first live look at the band that had shaped my teenage years, and it was a letdown. After that night, I stopped listening to Pearl Jam.

Some people say timing is everything, and I say that’s an overstatement. But timing is important, and I clearly saw Pearl Jam at a bad time.

It's hard to believe, but that concert was 13 years ago. I’ve moved on since then and found other music to loveI’ve been to six Springsteen shows and never been disappointed. A few weeks ago, though, I was driving home from work when I heard a sound pouring from my truck’s speakers. It was the sound of “Sirens,” a single from Pearl Jam’s newest album, Lightning Bolt. It reeled me back in.

Suddenly, I was thinking of an orange Nerf basketball. And I was back in my old bedroom at my parents’ old house. I was 14 years old, and I was slam-dunking that basketball through a plastic rim that hung on the closet door, with my new CD player blasting sounds unlike anything I’d ever heard, with lyrics that made me feel something I’d never felt, creating music that made me want to stay in that room, all by myself, slamming Nerf balls.

I grew up in a good family, the son of a schoolteacher and a fisherman. My parents worked hard and saved money to send me to college. I had no real reason to find a connection to the distress of grunge music. But this sound entered my ears at the right time, and it forced me explore an emotion I’d never really had any reason to explorefrustration. Over square pizza and chocolate milk at lunch, my friends and I went to war over who was the best grunge band, Pearl Jam or Nirvana. To me, there was no question.

I stuck with Pearl Jam through several albums. In high school, my friend Jason and I drove around listening to Vitalogy while smoking Marlboro Lights out of soft packs, staring out the windshield with hard faces that couldn't have scared anyone, barely speaking a word to each other, and never wanting to go homewhich, of course, we always did, because smoking cigarettes and listening to Pearl Jam can make you pretty tough, but it can’t make you tough enough to skip dinner.

Looking back, the idea of music creating artificial angst seems a little foolish. But I do still believe there’s something strangely nice about a song that makes you want to sit in a smoky car and say four-letter words before you straighten up and go home. There are more than enough tip sheets for happiness in the world. This music provided a map to the other side, a place we all have to acknowledge from time to time.

The older I got, the more I started to fall in love with words, and the more intensely I listened to music. I didn’t follow Pearl Jam for a few years after that show, but I did keep them in the frame. I’d catch glimpses of Vedder complaining about the Bush administration. I’d catch a ukulele song or two. No matter how many more albums Pearl Jam has made, though, one song always stands out. It’s named “Release,” and it’s off their first album. The lyrics include these two lines:

Oh, dear dad, can you see me now?
I am myself, like you somehow.

Like good words do, those lyrics have come to mean different things to me at different points in time. During the past few years, they’ve become especially close. My dad’s endured several strokes, which have quickly chipped away his mental and physical abilities. I’ve only recently started to talk about his troubles to anybody but close family and friends. Fathers are a hard topic for sons.

So I was struck a few weeks ago when I saw an ESPN interview with Vedder and former NFL player Steve Gleason. They were talking about dads and sons.

Gleason, who played for the New Orleans Saints, now suffers from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or ALS. He is only 36, and he has a young son. Since his son’s birth, Gleason has recorded video messages for the boy to watch later. Gleason’s health has deteriorated to the point where he’s now only able to communicate through a computer that can read his eye movements.

During the interview, Gleason asked Vedder about his father, a father Vedder didn’t know. The rock legend looked at the football player in the wheelchair and started to choke up. Then Vedder told Gleason something that he’d told only a few peopleVedder’s father was a musician, too, and the son had recently discovered some of his dad’s songs.

On camera, Vedder wiped away tears. Gleason blinked hard in return. It clearly wasn’t an easy thing to talk about. But in some way, it looked like it made them both happy to talk about it.

I’m happy to know that, even as mainstream music has become all smiles, there’s still a place for guys like Eddie Vedder. I’m happy that I was driving that night when “Sirens” came on the radio. I’m happy that the new album has taken off. And I suppose that if I think about it, I’m happy that Pearl Jam didn’t just come home from that concert in Denmark and fake it. I’m happy that Vedder preached to us that night, because sometimes we need to stare at the bad before we find the good.

And I’m especially happy that Veddermy generation’s leader in angst, one of the kings of grunge, a man with one of the deepest, most recognizable voices in rock and rollcan still sit in front of a camera and show us that it’s OK for a son to cry a little when talking about his father.