Today Eddie Vedder, lead singer for Pearl Jam, turns 50. Holy shit! I think of those guys as “young.”
Anyway, I didn’t listen to PJ until Vitalogy (1994) and I thought of posting about “Nothingman,” the song that got me into them the way “All Apologies” got me into Nirvana. Or maybe “Not for You,” from that same album. Then came today’s song on Yield (1998) and the day I first heard it I was driving in the car and it made me want to keep driving . . . away, far away.
Yield is probably my favorite PJ album. Later, around 2003, a friend’s urging sent me back to Ten (1991) and I’ve picked up other albums I’ve liked, such as Riot Act (2002), with “Thumbing My Way” and “I Am Mine,” and found Pearl Jam (2006), with “Come Back” and “Gone,” and Backspacer (2009) mostly to my liking too. It’s just that a PJ LP rarely fully clicks with me. I think Yield and Vitalogy (which I picked up on vinyl not too long ago) have the best shot. I tend to find the quieter songs easier to remember. The louder, harder, less catchy songs tend to be indistinguishable to my ears.
Actually, I should say that Vedder first got my attention when he and Mike McCready played Dylan’s “Masters of War” at “Bob-fest,” or “Bobstock,” the big concert tribute celebration of the 30th anniversary of Dylan’s debut. Vedder sang all the verses and delivered them with full power and emotion. Earned my respect immediately.
On “Given to Fly” he does that soaring vocal thing he does, and he also manages to evoke an attitude that gave me the chills when I first encountered it. Coming after yesterday’s post on “Redemption Song” and leading toward Christmas and the celebration of that particular crucified outlaw, “Given to Fly” gives us some more to think about in the transcendence of the particular.
It begins with a kind of down-and-out situation that was only too real to me in the late Nineties: “He could’ve tuned in, tuned in / But he tuned out” and it was probably the “He got up outta there, ran for hundreds of miles,” after that Led Zep “Going to California” recall, that gave me the flight not fight adrenalin rush. “A wave came crashing like a fist to the jaw”—so maybe it is fight, after all. And the music starts climbing then, acting like the waves crashing over him so that by the time we get to “Arms wide open with the sea as his floor” we might well feel that the music is lifting us against all gravity. “He’s flying.”
The part that gave me chills was when Vedder turns the song from this escapist fantasy toward the kind of heroic sacrifice another December baby is famous for: “He floated back down because he wanted to share / His key to the locks on the chains he saw everywhere / But first he was stripped and then he was stabbed / By faceless men, well, fuckers, he still stands.” We’re back with those chains of mental slavery from yesterday’s post, and here we’ve got the kind of prophet that Marley was mourning . . . except that “fuckers, he still stands” comes with that coiled ire that Vedder was able to pack into his prayer that the Masters of War will die, and their “death will come soon.” It moves us from flight to fight pretty quickly with that sudden spike coming again like a blast of power.
But wait, this is still the message from a man of peace: “And he still gives his love, he just gives it away.” Wide open, flying, giving. The way Vedder pours it out vocally, I believe he knows whereof he speaks.
“And sometimes is seen a strange spot in the sky / A human being that was given to fly.” Pow! Instant transcendence, with Vedder’s “flying . . . flying . . . oh” drawing huge growling draughts of breath, eagle-span chest expansions, oh heart take flight.