Eddie Vedder turned 50 the day before Christmas Eve, as musicians and regular folks often do, and I was astonished for just a second that one of the rock and roll gods of my youth, the voice of my teenage angst, is now receiving an unsolicited subscription to AARP magazine.
How could Eddie Vedder be 50? That’s barely a decade younger than my dad, and Eddie Vedder and I seemed to have so much in common during all those years I refused to listen to my dad.
I didn’t get my copy of Ten, Pearl Jam’s first album, until sometime in 1993, certainly not before it was cool, and very likely several months after it sold its 10 millionth copy. It was the first rock album that I got to fall in love with, all on my own.
We had moved to a new small town in Iowa in 1993, and up until then, almost all the music I’d bought for myself was hip hop: Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep, Eric B. & Rakim, other cassettes and CDs I’d magic-marker out the “Explicit Lyrics” label on so my mom wouldn’t see it. No one listened to that kind of stuff at my new school when I got there, and I started to buy new albums, and listen to guys with electric guitars: Pearl Jam’s Ten, Nirvana’s Nevermind, and Stone Temple Pilots’ Core, three of the basic food groups of mainstream grunge at that time.
Eddie Vedder was a perfect hero when you were 15 or 16 or 17 or 18, hormonally confused, frustrated with girls, bored in a small town, lying on your bed with some CD liner notes trying to not do homework and wondering why you sucked at important things like sports. Or at least he was for me. The lyrics were somewhat cryptic, and ran the gamut of teenage emotions: sad, angry, brooding, searching, raging. If Eddie Vedder meant anything close to what we thought he did, they were sometimes about what we felt.
I discussed them with my friends Nick and Ryan and Tony while we washed dishes in the back of the Pinicon Restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights, and on the other nights driving around in someone’s car speed-chugging 12-packs of Busch Light because that was the best feeling we knew how to create. Oh yeah, in this song, he’s saying this. No, you think so? I think he’s talking about this. I wonder how many similar discussions the other several million young Pearl Jam fans had, and what Eddie Vedder would have thought if he could have been a fly on the wall during them.
I had cystic acne, and went through two prescriptions of Accutane to try to fix it. Sometimes my doctor would prescribe prednisone to help the swelling of the enormous zits that would form everywhere on my cheeks and jaws, and sometimes he would actually inject cortisone into them. I found out years later that Accutane was linked to depression, and a number of people had committed suicide while taking it. I figured I was just depressed about how my face looked that whole time. With a few years to look back on it, though, I sometimes wonder if I was a happier, well-adjusted teenager, I may not have fallen in love with Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder.
In one scene in Shut Up and Play the Hits, the documentary about LCD Soundsystem’s final show on April 2, 2011, a young fan—who must be 20 years younger than then-41-year-old frontman James Murphy—is having a religious-looking experience at the show: screaming song lyrics back at Murphy, smashing himself up against a barrier, weeping in joy at seeing his favorite band or the pain of the end of their career, or both. When I saw the film, I wondered: If I were that kid, who would the band be for me?
I remembered the hair on the back of my neck standing up from my shitty obstructed-view seat at the Target Center as the opening chords of Alive roared out of the speakers and an ant-sized Eddie Vedder stalked around with a microphone. It was late in the show, the 16th or 17th song, but it was the only song I really, really wanted to hear. I’ve loved a lot of music groups and musicians, but none with quite the desperate, obsessive fervor as I did when I was a confused and maybe a little sad young man.
The Pearl Jam Phase was part of a bigger Rock Phase, which started to end in college, and I didn’t rock out to so many electric guitar songs anymore, getting back into hip hop and starting to discover reggae and punk. Looking back, I understand I would have been cooler if I preferred Nirvana to PJ, or maybe Radiohead. But I grew up in a very sparsely populated place in Iowa pre-online music, and it’s not known for being particularly edgy.
I think you have certain periods of your life when you’re more open to art, and you really hear music and really feel it. Those beautiful summer nights you never forget or your first heartbreak or those lonely nights driving by yourself. And the soundtrack to those memories becomes the theme music to your development into a person.
You get the songs that will always remind you of your childhood or remind you of your dad, the songs you listened to—really listened to—by yourself on your first boom box or through headphones while lying on your bed while you were a teenager with nothing to do, the songs that marked your move into being more worldly in college, the songs that were playing on your first big road trip.
As you get older, those moments become fewer and further between. Maybe life gets more serious and you don’t have time to sit down and Just Listen to music—you listen to it while you’re on the treadmill, or mowing the lawn, or cranking through work e-mails, and somehow it doesn’t mean as much. Maybe your tastes just become more refined, and it takes more to impress you. Maybe you have fewer formative events later in life.
Nine years after my first Pearl Jam show, the band had become a time in my life, a past thing. I hadn’t even bought their 2002 album, Riot Act, and had barely listened to the one before, Binaural. But I got tickets to an advanced screening of this movie, Into the Wild, that I thought might be good. I had read through the book that inspired it in a single night on the couch at my friend’s Salem, Oregon, apartment.
You could have plotted the future of my then five-month-old marriage based on my reaction to the film vs. my wife’s. She disliked it because of the selfish (and many would say foolish) actions of the main character, Chris McCandless. Lots of people felt the same way. I loved it, for the beauty in McCandless’s journey, all that big country from the desert to the huge Alaska mountains—and the accompanying soundtrack.
Eddie Vedder had popped out of a gopher hole and into my life again. He built wonderfully raw songs for the movie, including his anthemic cover of Gordon Peterson’s “Hard Sun,” which played as we sat watching the ending credits. I was moved, and my wife was a little perturbed. I wanted to live big (but probably not die alone in a bus in Alaska) like Chris McCandless, and my wife was starting to realize she really just wanted a nice home and a garden. I bought the Into the Wild soundtrack and played it in my Subaru all over Colorado and Utah, running around those big landscapes.
I sang along with Eddie Vedder’s “Society,” nodding my head in agreement with the sentiment: why do we need so much stuff, such big houses to hold all the stuff we don’t need? My wife and I divorced as amicably as possible, and I crammed my stuff into a 400-square-foot studio, and kept minimizing. Three years later, after another breakup, I moved into my car and started living out of it.
In September 2011, I was about two months into living on the road full-time out of my little Subaru wagon, and I picked up the Pearl Jam Twenty book while having breakfast at Easy Street Records in Seattle. I had that Wow That’s Cool But Wow I’m Getting Old moment you have when you realize one of your all-time favorite bands is celebrating two decades since its first album debuted, and surely it can’t have been that long, right? But then, Wait, there’s a movie?
I bought a ticket and went to a show at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland a couple weeks later, and sat by myself. Before the lights went out, I looked around and confirmed that yes, all of us showing up for this documentary about Pearl Jam, we were in our 30s and 40s. I wondered for a second what the demographic at Rolling Stones shows was nowadays.
My friend Mick used to say that when you’re young, everything is new, and when you’re old, everything reminds you of something else. I got a lump in my throat several times watching that movie in the Hollywood Theatre that night. Maybe because I’d spent so much time alone in the past couple months, maybe I’m just over-emotional, maybe I really do well at nostalgia. I watched a young Stone Gossard and a young Eddie Vedder working out the beginnings of a song called “Brother” in the back of a moving tour bus, immediately recognizing the first chords of the song “Daughter” I remembered from the fall of 1993, when I was 14 and trying to get used to my new braces right at the start of high school.
After the film, I bought one more Pearl Jam song, one I never remembered hearing before: the slower “Thumbing My Way,” recorded live at Chop Suey in Seattle in 2002. It seemed to fit where I was: on the road, wondering why sometimes, missing some things, trying to figure it all out.
We put things away as we grow, starting with toys—one day we’re too old for action figures or dolls, or our security blanket. We close chapters, turning in our football helmet and pads at the end of our last season, or trading in our BMX bike for a road bike. We do the same with musicians, I think, because almost no one makes art that’s relevant for the entire arc of our lives. A few albums, maybe, but then maybe their work takes a different direction, or our outlook takes a different direction, and we find other artists that feel more right at that time in our lives.
I think this is a great thing, especially because it enables musically-triggered nostalgia. People say certain songs can make you feel young again, but I think I like the ones that make me feel a little old. Sometimes I need to turn on that angsty, powerful stuff from my teenage years, lay down on the floor and remember who I was, and what it was like to be a little sad, a little angry, and misunderstood. And be thankful that I had music to help me through it.
[Photos courtesy official Eddie Vedder Facebook page]