Not A … Jukebox

I was lying on my bed one afternoon at university writing an essay on Vikings* when my mate walked in and told me there was a new American band playing at Bradford Queens Hall in a few weeks and we should go see them because people were saying they were going to be ‘the new Nirvana’.  Fair enough, I thought. We got tickets easily and didn’t think much more of it.  Four days before we saw them I thought I’d buy their single so I’d know a track or two to sing along to.  Which is how on 23 February 1992 I bought Pearl Jam Alive, on 12″ with a great big poster and a track that wasn’t on Ten.

Pearl Jam Alive 01

Initial thoughts, then as now, I just loved the whole big grand sweep of ‘Alive’.  What strikes me now is the fairly muddy production and that the main thing that carries the tune is Eddie Vedder’s voice,  or at least until we hit that divine guitar freakout at the end – Mike McCready really does not get the adoration he deserves as a rock guitar player sometimes and that really is an incredibly good solo.  Everyone likes an anthem sometimes and this is certainly what we’re dealing with here, it is straight classic rock.

Not sure whether it makes me a bit of a dozy article but I’ve never even considered what the song might be about until now.  The fact it is about a mother telling a son that his father isn’t really his father and that he should just be happy to be alive, never occurred to me for a second.  The fact that the chorus is not an affirmation of life at all, but a sarcastic ‘oh great, I’m alive, whoopee’ (I paraphrase) had never occurred to me for a nanosecond**.  Like I said, dozy.

Pearl Jam Alive 04

The B-sides show why this is the only Pearl Jam record I own^, apart from the 7″ of Spin The Black Circle.  Not that there’s anything at all wrong with ‘Once’, or ‘Wash’, it’s just … well, I’m not sure.  I can hear shades of the Chili Peppers on ‘Wash’ and apart from the atmospheric start, ‘Once’ ends up taking a sharp left turn onto Samey Street too.  Pearl Jam, with a few very notable exceptions, ‘Yellow Ledbetter’, ‘Better Man’ and about four tracks off their Lost Dogs album, bore me.  I couldn’t tell you why, I like a lot of what I know about how they conduct themselves and their politics and ideals.  I like the way they make so many of their concerts available to fans and that they vary their live sets so much.  My dad loves them, owns all the albums, wears a Binaural tour T-shirt and goes to see them when he can.  I know they mean a lot to a lot of people but I have just never managed to like them myself and I have actively tried.

When I saw them on 27 February 1992 in Bradford Queens Hall they were good and energetic, Eddie Vedder climbed up onto the balcony rail and ran around it  – high-fiving most of the fans along that row, including your humble correspondent, they covered The Who’s ‘Baba O’ Riley’ and Joy Division’s ‘Interzone’, but for me the performance was better than the songs.  All except ‘Alive’, which was magnificent.  There were waves of crowd surfers and stage divers one of whom asked the band to play ‘Alive’ again, to which Vedder replied, ‘we’re not a fucking jukebox!’ – which I thought was exactly the right answer.

Pearl Jam Alive 03Pearl Jam Alive 02

387 Down.

*you know the fellas, they drive longboats, play death metal, fond of a good fight and have a bit of a thing against monks.  Yeah, them.

**Eddie Vedder said that the way that audiences reacted to this song did end up turning it into an affirmation for him eventually.

^I’m counting Mirrorball as a Neil Young LP, for the sake of not disproving my own argument.  I am the law.


29 thoughts on “Not A … Jukebox

  1. Pearl Jam were a very important band for me when I was 17. Ten came out the beginning of my senior year in high school. To me, they were the ultimate group that represented both the past, present, and future. You could hear both elements of classic rock like Hendrix and the Who, as well as punk rock and alternative. They did all this with a very progressive attitude towards politics, social issues, and their relationship with their fans. To say I was obsessed with them would be putting it mildly. After seeing their MTV Unplugged and Vedder writing “Pro Choice” on his arm with a black Sharpie marker I knew these guys were the real deal.

    This love affair with Pearl Jam lasted two years. By the time Vitalogy came out I was pretty well spent with Pearl Jam. It felt like they were trying too hard to be this non-conformist band of extreme leftist progressives, instead of being a BAND that were forward thinkers. Their art and politics collided into a bloody mess that affected the quality of their music, imo. Vedder nearly allowed fame and popularity to swallow him whole, showing up at Awards shows with a bottle of wine in a brown bag, stumbling on stage and acting the fool he certainly didn’t want to be. The music, as you said, just began to sound same-y and rather plodding. I had a short-lived resurgence of love for their music with Yield, and album I feel sounded and appeared to be about the music and not about social concerns. It really is a damn good album. My wife and I saw them in Chicago during the Yield tour at the Allstate Arena. Despite nosebleed seats and sitting nearly behind the stage it was still a great show.

    I’m glad Pearl Jam is still around and making music. I’m glad the band seems to have their shit together, and that Eddie Vedder seems to be growing into middle age gracefully. They have an ardent fanbase and I’m glad about that. For me, I’ll always have 1991 and a song called “Black”.


    1. I’m sure they’d still be good to go and see when they rode into town, but as a catch-22 I’m not sure, as a casual, I can be bothered to go through the whole rigmarole you need to in order to buy tickets these days.

      As for Mr Vedder once you’ve high-fived me, how do you top that? I think he’s found it a difficult life experience to top.


  2. I was a big fan of Pearl Jam, but tuned out after Yield (98). My friend is still a super fan, but they just bore me to tears these days. No Code is certainly worth investigating; it’s very interesting.

    McCready’s a great guitarist, though.


    1. It’s a common theme I think, people bow out after a certain point. I’ve heard their last two (my dad again!) and there was nothing for a casual listener to grasp on to at all.


  3. You saw them in ’92! Oh man.

    I’ve gotta just get it out there that I’m with yer Dad. I own A LOT of Pearl Jam. All the albums, many bootlegs, that boxed set of the Gorge, all the DVDs… lots of PJ. Even saw them in concert myself (in ’96 for No Code). I tried again in 2000 in Montreal but that show sold out in nanoseconds. Crazy.

    But I’ve met many people who don’t like them, or just can’t be arsed, and that’s cool too. Not everything is for everybody. S’all good, baby. Go get what you like. But me, I listen to this band a lot, and am always impressed with how experimental they are with their albums yet always sound like themselves. Each record is unto itself, yet fits the discography like an essential piece of a puzzle their still creating. And then newest record! DAMN! So good. They’re still as vital now as they were when you saw them.

    This is a beautiful chunk of vinyl, and an excellent write-up to go with it. That’s a keeper, that one. Cool!


    1. Thank you. I just can’t get there with them, but that’s fine they’re free to ignore me too. If I had to pick an LP of theirs I’d go for the acoustic Benaroya Hall one.


      1. Oooo I have that Benaroya set. It’s good. Of all their stuff you’d go acoustic, eh? Interesting. You know the re-release of Ten came with the MTV Unplugged set (mine’s on a DVD. I know there were multiple versions of it, surely one has it on CD or something). That would tie more easily into your review of this EP, era-wise, non? Not that I’d dissuade you from buying Benaroya. Or anything else by them all of it. 😉


      2. Aw man I crafted a lovely reply and it didn’t post. So, short version: Benaroya’s a good one. And the re-release of Ten came with a DVD of their MTV Unplugged show, which would be in keeping with the era upon which you were writing.


  4. Really enjoyed reading this (as always). I award you maximum points for “Samey Street”. I’ve never actively investigated this band but I’d say that was the reason why. I’ve yet to hear anything that’s made me want to.

    Also, I would treat any Viking that didn’t just listen to Bathory and Manowar 24/7 with extreme suspicion.


    1. Ahh thanks, maximum points accepted!

      I know, shandy drinking Vikings listening to One Direction and Extreme, have to be watched I say! In fact were I a Viking I’d only offer them a reduced share of the pillage until they sorted their act out.


  5. Is “Once” the album version, do you know? That’s actually one of my fave Pearl Jam tracks. In its remixed form, either on the Ten deluxe or the Rearviewmirror compilation, either/or is better than the album version, because as you said, the production is a tad muddy.


    1. It is the LP version, ‘Wash’ is a different mix to the version on Lost Dogs.

      I’ll give Rearviewmirror a listen. I’d like to like Pearl Jam more than I do, like my dad.


      1. As you pointed out, McCready’s guitar playing is so tasty. I find that to be an easy gateway into Pearl Jam land.

        Lost Dogs had a lot of different mixes on it, I get confused when it comes to all the different versions.


  6. They are the one Seattle grunge band that I could never get into either. It’s seems to me that most of their songs sound the same and the recordings just don’t seem have to have the dynamics of a great rock recording.


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