Pearl Jam – “Ten” (1991 / 2017)

This probably seems like a weird thing to write about. I’m clearly not going to move forward the discourse on Ten, or Pearl Jam’s place in music and society, or what former basketball player Mookie Blaylock feels about the whole thing. But then again, this blog is as much about me as it is about music, and I have an odd relationship with PJ in that:

  • I was in high school and living in the Seattle area when grunge was bubbling under, and in college in Seattle proper when Nevermind and Ten were released
  • I’m definitely into grunge (though personally I’ve never thought of Pearl Jam as a grunge band)
  • I have two close friends who are massive Pearl Jam superfans, at least one of which has traveled to multiple foreign countries specifically to see PJ shows
  • I am, generally speaking, ambivalent about Pearl Jam’s music

The last bullet is the key here. People are often very surprised by this, and I in turn am surprised by their surprise. Clearly I am perceived as the kind of person who should love PJ. And I think they’re fine. They have some songs I like, I’ve certainly heard them often enough on the radio, and I’ve seen at least one PJ documentary, and enjoyed it. But I’m fairly confident the only Pearl Jam album I’ve ever owned is Ten, which I bought on CD when it first came out primarily because I couldn’t get enough of the song “Alive”, a song I still think is their best. Some people are confused by my general lack of enthusiasm for the band. Often they’ll dismiss me with a, “well, you have to see them live”, much like Springsteen fans do. Or they think I’m simply being contrarian as an affectation, which I hope isn’t the case because I’m way to old to be behaving like that. A small minority seem almost offended, and a few think this completely discredits any thoughts, opinions, or tastes I may have when it comes to music. I have come to accept this, even if I don’t entirely understand it – nor, to be fair, do I entirely understand why I’m not into Pearl Jam… but why do we feel the way we feel about specific art or artists?

Ten is probably the only Pearl Jam album I’ve listened to start-to-finish, and the last time I did so was probably in 1991, maybe 1992. So since we’re all stuck at home in double-secret-quaranteen and I have a week off from work, I figured why not order a few things for curbside pickup from Easy Street Records and help my local shop out. And one of the things I decided to order, at the last minute, was Ten, since I have no idea what happened to that CD.

I do have one piece of major praise for Ten – I think the lyrics of “Alive” leading up to the first chorus are among the most perfectly written and expressed that I’ve ever heard.

Son, she said
Have I got a little story for you
What you thought was your daddy
Was nothin’ but a…

While you were sittin’
Home alone at age thirteen
Your real daddy was dyin’
Sorry you didn’t see him
But I’m glad we talked

This is the part of the song that is primarily autobiographical, prior to the narrative taking a very troubling turn in the song’s second half as part of the narrative arc of the “Alive” / “Once” / “Footsteps” trilogy, one of incest, murder, and execution. It’s the mother’s sheer casualness and emotional detachment that Vedder captures perfectly. Have I got a little story for you… it’s not bad enough that she belittles what she’s about to tell him by calling it a story, but even more by describing it as just a “little” story. What you thought was your daddy, was nothin’ but a… but a what, this man who I thought was my father… a what? Sorry you didn’t see him, but I’m glad we talked… Yeah, sorry I intentionally never let you know who your dad was, but he’s dead now, so, yeah, good talk. See ya. Even the very first time I heard this song it struck me – a young man being told in an offhand way by his own mother that the man he thought was his father wasn’t, and that his real father died. You can feel her callousness and his pain in the words and Vedder’s voice.

Sitting down and listening to Ten today is odd. It’s a seminal rock album, one almost 30 years old, and I know all the hit songs that still get radio airplay today – “Even Flow”, “Jeremy”, and to a lesser extent “Alive”, which seems to be having a resurgence on local Seattle-area rock radio right now. What I didn’t realize is how many of the PJ songs I know are actually on this record and not their later ones, most notably “Black” and “Why Go” (and I’d forgotten what a great song “Black” is). In fact, Ten‘s A side is truly great, the only song I don’t particularly care for being “Jeremy”, which is clearly a me thing since it was arguably the highest charting single from the album.

Do I have a new-found appreciation for PJ after listening to Ten again? Yeah, I do. I’m not sure if that will translate into me working my way through their catalog, but I’ll almost certainly come back to Ten and spin it, at least the A side. But who knows. Maybe this old dog still has a new trick or two to learn.