Looking back at … Pearl Jam – Vs.


I think it was the combination of three things what made me want to pick up Pearl Jam‘s Vs. from an aisle at that department store called Palacio de Hierro Durango in 1994.

1) MTV Latino incessant indoctrination via Pearl Jam‘s VMA performance of ‘Animal’. Embedded for your nostalgic needs. I’m also including their performance with Neil Young because it was the first time I heard of him:

2)  I had saved money for the day they had a 3 for the price of 2 albums.

3) Ten wasn’t available, so I took Vs.

No, really, the one I really wanted was Ten because ‘Evenflow’ and ‘Jeremy’, right? Anyways, they only had Vs. and I thought the cover showed a dog and somehow that made me think it was badass and shit. So I got the album and spent the rest of the afternoon listening to it and my other two purchases, the ones I won’t reveal yet. Oh, and it was a sheep in the cover. The clue was in “no canine teeth.”

From the get go, it sounded like nothing I’ve heard before. I didn’t listen to any hard stuff until we had a cable TV provider installed in the house in 1993, one that showed more NFL games than the one we had did. That new cable TV also had MTV Latino and it was a pretty good source of new bands (and sounds) for me to check out.

So my “hey, I only listen to instrumental soundtracks, classical music, Billy Joel and Elvis Presley” mind was blown away with a velocity only matched by buttons flying off from flannel shirts still being worn by beer bellied/midlife gutted Gen-Xers who refuse to retire their grungy garments.

‘Go’ had ferocity and the initial drum stick “click” resonated every time I closed the denim backpack I had back then. ‘Animal’ was probably not as raging as the live version but still fulfilled expectations.

“This is so good” I thought to myself, while reading the two (2) booklets included in the album. And then came a curveball. ‘Daughter’. “Okay, it’s going to be like those ballads from the 80s and everyone will join in for the mushy chorus, right?”, I thought, wrongly. Dead wrong! Even if all distortion was eschewed by strumming acoustics and a nifty vocal effect for the fade out, that pent-up anger was still there. Now, grunge has been criticized for being “whiny” and “unjustified anger” and I suspect that is more of a criticism directed by the generations after grunge (A.G.) and before grunge (B.G.) towards the ones who felt identified with that music.

Heck, let’s go on a tangent – why does grunge feels so dated, clearly stuck in the 90s? My hypothesis is : the Cold War was gone, times seemed a little brighter and that apparent peacefulness seemed overtly optimistic, so a cynical pessimism with a side serving of sarcasm was sorely needed. That nihilism was needed as both a warning sign and a reaction to what seemed good days. Lo and behold – grunge!

And good days they were. For a while. Then we just couldn’t evade the news, even if we tried to drown it with music influenced by Mudhoney and The Melvins. Yugoslavia got ravaged by an atrocious war from ’91 until ’99. Racial riots happened. A lot. Everywhere. The Dot-com would soon emerge and take a lot of formerly-happy people down.

Heck, remember when Eddie Vedder climbed balconies or stage lights and then dropped into a loving crowd that always caught him? Well, the Mexican economy crashed as if Eddie Vedder had found himself with no audience to catch him.

So yes, Grunge was going to be a very short lived movement.

Oh, wait, we are talking about Pearl Jam‘s Vs., right? While there was some pent-up anger towards family and close ones in the first three songs, the following three songs seem to direct all salvo shot towards broader social problems. Gun culture depicted in ‘Glorified G’ (“glorified version of a pellet gun“), ‘Dissident’, touching the theme of political prisoners and betrayal and finally, police brutality (‘W.M.A.’). The uniting theme in this songs is the broader range touched in the lyrics but the clear cut divider is the musical style. ‘Glorified G’ is playful and fun. ‘Dissident’ has that squeal and moan guitar sound that McCready and Gossard do so well and ‘W.M.A.’ has a tribal, funky rhythm that lets Jeff Ament and Dave Abbruzzese shine through the speakers.

‘Blood’ I never liked that much. Too heavy, too guttural and maybe out of place? It eventually grew on me and behind the heavier facade I could see the musical work put into it. Also – fuckin’ hell, if Eddie Vedder didn’t gargle on milk to relieve his throat after singing this one, he then has a healing factor only comparable to Wolverine. Also, check out the funky bass solo Ament sneaks during the last part of the song. I also took my sweet time to like ‘Rats’ but got the Michael Jackson reference pretty fast and found the sordid humour in the song. ‘Rearviewmirror’… Look, let me do the final three first.

‘Elderly woman behind the counter in a small town’ was another early fave of mine and I still indulge in that song. Pretty sure it’s more relevant now more in my 30s than in my teens. That clash of “the one who moved one” versus “the one who got stuck” is poignant and I swear this sort of emotional stuff is one of my main influences in writing. Minus the Eddie Vedder good looks, obviously. ‘Leash’ is one last lashing of anger, a final chance to vent out angst, whether for teens or people stuck in a rut. ‘Indifference’ was the moment where it dawned on me that Pearl Jam had a good range and weren’t afraid to experiment with it. I also felt it was as out of place as ‘Blood’, but just like in the case of that rocker, it grew on me. I think that every single member of Pearl Jam showing off their introspective side was the real deal maker for me.

Now, every single Pearl Jam fan I know has a fave song. My friend Velle is obsessed with ‘Release’, my trusty pal Araceli loves ‘Better man’ and I could be here all day talking about why ‘In my tree’, ‘Black’, ‘Tremor Christ’, ‘Wishlist’ or ‘Can’t keep’ are some of my other friend’s all time fave Pearl Jam song.

Me? I’d cheat and tie ‘Oceans’, ‘Corduroy’, ‘In my tree’, ‘No way’, ‘Love boat captain’, ‘Sirens’, ‘Lukin’ (1) and ‘Rearviewmirror’, but let’s face it : you do tend to fall back into your first love just for pure nostalgia and that nostalgia becomes something else, something more integral, when even after twenty years you feel a song still talks to you.

So, ‘Rearviewmirror’ it is.

This is where this tirade gets sketchy because I need to bring a “love gone sour” element to this gush piece. I had a crush on this girl, let’s call her “Bridget” because we both loved the film Singles. She was cool but not too popular. She kept to herself but was open to talk with people. She had a weird sense of fashion and could name-drop a lot of bands I heard of but never actually heard. Conversations on rainy days never led to anything that year, although it would change the year after. Without letting this become a confessional, things went wrong. They already had gone wrong at the end of ’94 and I’m pretty sure, as in any relationship, the blame was 50-50. It would get worse in 1995, but back then, that day in December 1994, when I was grumbling and walking uphill towards the bus station to get back home, I recalled “I guess it was the beatings / made me wise“.

Yes, you never stop tripping on stones or banging your head. Sometimes you need a good beating (not necessarily a physical one) to get to that point where “finally the shades are raised“. Then you move on and see things clearer. That’s my argument for obsessing over ‘Rearviewmirror’: how hindsight not only gives you experience, but gives you a clearer view of how good you feel once you leave what hurts far behind.

Now, musically… the song is fierce. It’s a constant build-up and the bang is well worth your buck and patience. Pearl Jam is a furious juggernaut on this one and the little details, like McCready playing an ebow and Abbruzzese throwing his drumsticks at the end of the take make it even more of an experience. Here’s a rehearsal version of the track, for those who miss SNL.

So, enough nostalgia for this week. 1994 wasn’t perfect. None of the 90s were, c’mon. I’m nostalgic but not deluded; all times have smiles and cries. Even then, every time I grab Vs. and hear it in one go, without skipping a song, I fondly remember that sometimes your expectations and wishes won’t be as you imagined, but, heck, you might be getting something better than what you were setting yourself off to get(2).

Words: Sam J. Valdés López

Pearl Jam Website. Myspace. Spotify. Twitter. Last.fm.

(1) ‘Lukin’ is probably more dissonant than ‘Blood’, but I love it. The slow version is even better.

(2) Ten fans – don’t kill  me, I just love Vs. a little more.


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