There was a time when I used to mark the inevitable march of time by how long ago Pearl Jam’s album Ten came out. This started sometime in the late-1990s when my former high school classmate (who was the only person from high school I chose to stay in contact with — we both pretty much hated everyone else from our school) heard “Jeremy” on the radio and said, “Can you believe ‘Jeremy’ is eight years old?” And on it went.
“Can you believe Jeremy is 10/11/12/15 years old?”
“Man, we are old.”
Coach George Karl gave me the reminder late last night about the band that was originally named for Mookie Blaylock.
Yesterday I texted my friend, “Jeremy is 30 years old.”
I was a guitar player in those days, and, being a young know-it-all music snob, I had no use for the pretentious, shallow over-commercialized crap that was ’80s rock. Led Zeppelin was my favorite, but I was a big fan of many genres. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt? Yes. Robert Johnson and the Delta blues? Yes. Miles Davis? God yes. Mahavishnu Orchestra? Yup.
Motley Crüe? No thanks.
Eventually I became a bigger fan of Nirvana because Kurt Cobain was such a tortured, gentle soul, and also because the first girl I ever met at a bar really liked them. But Pearl Jam was the first grunge band I heard, and the first time you heard them, you realized, “Wow this seems important.”
Important? More like earth-shattering. It was big, riffy, honest rock with Eddie Vedder providing the most dramatic singing style anyone had heard since Freddie Mercury. Grunge was about alienation, not fitting in, living in a fucked-up world that was not what we were promised. (Seems relevant today, but especially relevant to anyone in their early 20s and struggling at life).
Jeremy’s bright opening arpeggio shifts into a diminished minor chord progression (I vaguely remember some things from the guitar days, and this may not even be right), and the words start out innocently enough, “Drawing pictures….lemon-yellow sun...etc” but then…
“... And the dead lay in pools of maroon below.”
The song was about a 15-year-old boy who shot himself in class. The video could hardly be more graphic or shocking for the MTV age. (TW: dramatized violence, abuse.)
You can’t talk about grunge history without talking mentioning suicide, self-destruction and despair. But Wikipedia preserves this quote from Eddie Vedder about the song:
“It came from a small paragraph in a paper, which means you kill yourself and you make a big old sacrifice and try to get your revenge. That all you’re gonna end up with is a paragraph in a newspaper. Sixty-four degrees and cloudy in a suburban neighborhood. That’s the beginning of the video and that’s the same thing in the end; it does nothing … nothing changes. The world goes on and you’re gone. The best revenge is to live on and prove yourself. Be stronger than those people. And then you can come back.”
Ten gives us the antidote, an anthem for those who lived through hell and survived, with “Alive.”
“I’m still breathing, I’m still breathing
I’m alive. I’m STILL alive”
Ultimately, most of music, and youth, and life, is about love and loss. What song from that era was as iconic as “Black”? (Yes, I know the answer is “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”)
The opening, distant riff transitions into a bass line that announces, “Hereeeee’s Eddieeeee, now yarling!”
“And now my bitter hands/Cradle broken glass/Of what was everything/
All the pictures have/All been washed in black/Tattooed everything
All the love gone bad/Turned my world to black/Tattooed all I see”
And the end still haunts me.
“I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life
I know you’ll be a star/In somebody else’s sky
But why/Whyyyyyyy/Why can’t it be
Oh can’t it be mine”
Mookie Blaylock, the basketball player, is 54. Eddie Vedder is 56. The world goes on, but we’re still alive.