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.
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.
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.
*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.