I just finished watching Pearl Jam 20. It's something I've been putting off for quite some time, the DVD just sitting there, waiting for me. I've listened to the soundtrack. Read through the book in a few days. But I left the film sitting. I wasn't ready for it yet, wasn't ready for the effect I thought it might have on me.
It had the exact effect I expected. It stirred within me a reflective mood, for not just music, but life and passion.
Not everybody likes Pearl Jam, I know that, and frankly, I don't really care. I think most of us have long passed the point of worrying about people like as opposed to what they are like. Not everyone enjoys the same thing, and I'm not going to sit and try to convince people that they should enjoy something. That's not really the point anyway, although I do have one.
I remember hearing 'Black' for the first time on the radio. I was eleven years old, in the seventh grade, and this new music called grunge or alternative was just taking off. The local rock station had even switched formats to become an alternative station. And when 'Black' played, it hit me like ice water on a hot day.
I was old enough to have developed my first real crush, and was feeling a longing like I'd never felt before. That's exactly what it was: longing. There were pangs and bolts of heat that would streak through my body that I had never experienced. I don't think I even ever talked to the girl. But still, I felt these feelings. 'Black' was the first song I can ever remember that spoke to me as more than a child, that seemed to understand that yearning. Eddie Vedder's raw vocals, his pleading, “I know someday you'll be a beautiful sun, in somebody else's sky, but why, why, why can't it be mine?” For the first time, music wasn't just about a good beat or something you could sing to while riding in the car with your parents. For the first time, there was something that seemed to reach out to me, to be for me only, not for my parents, not for the adults at my school, but for me. For the first time, I began to see the true power of music.
The first time I heard 'Jeremy' was the first time I had ever thought about someone bringing a gun to school. It was the first time I ever wondered what would push a person to do that. I realized that everyone had deeper layers than I had ever imagined, had dark feelings that they hid from the outside world. For the first time, I saw that the world was made up of masks that people wore. This would only be intensified after hearing 'Better Man'.
I remember being a senior in high school and my girlfriend buying me Yield for Valentine's Day. I used to listen to the song 'Faithful' over and over again. Listening to that song and looking at her, I understood for maybe the first time what it meant to faithful to someone, to be truly loyal to them. It seemed like the maybe the first time ever I began to look at life from a long-term perspective, to really grasp that life was made up of more than what happened that day or that week. And it seemed endless to me, the possibilities of life, the sheer length of it. It was like staring down into an empty pit and wondering if there was a bottom to it.
What really changed me happened a few months later. Pearl Jam had finished their Ticketmaster boycott and was on a huge tour for the first time since I was able to drive and actually go to a show. It was in August, a few months after graduation, and a large group of us decided to go. It was our last big night out before moving on to college. That was the night, sitting on the grass and talking after Iggy Pop's set, that I first realized my childhood was over. We were all facing our adult lives. Some of those people I've never seen since that night. Some I kept in contact with for a while. All have since faded into the fog of memory, into the background of life, but that memory will forever be with me.
As will the music of that night. I didn't know what to expect. I had been to concerts, but never for a band I liked that much. It was a revelation. The venue held somewhere around 25,000. It had sold out in 8 minutes, back in May. I was taken aback when, during 'Elderly Woman', the entire crowd yelled out, “Hello!” in time with the song.
Even more so when the band played 'Better Man'. It was their most popular song to that point, but I didn't quite know what that meant. To me, it was just numbers in Rolling Stone or talk on the radio. I truly began to get a sense of things when 25,000 people in unison sang every word to the song. Eddie stepped back a few times, letting the audience take over on vocals. 25,000 people, united by one thing: a song. The sheer enormity of it left me breathless. It didn't matter where all these people came from, or who they were on a day to day basis. All that mattered in that moment was the music. It was like church to me, to see that many people raise up as one, sending their voices into the sky, standing together if only for a moment. It was the moment I realized that we're not alone in all this, that there are other people out there who do or have felt the same, that somewhere out there in the universe, someone else was having similar thoughts to me. It was in that moment that I made a decision of what was truly important to me in life, a decision I didn't even realize I had consciously made. In that moment, it didn't matter what I did with my life, who I was with, or where I went. All that mattered was that I did it with passion, and that I carried that passion with me wherever I went, that I never lost my ability to stand up and announce to the sky or anyone that would listen there was something powerful in caring deeply about something, anything.
As they reached the end of their set, the band played 'Alive'. From the moment I bought the first album, that was the song that had always stood out to me. The audience sang along, the chorus “I'm still alive,” becoming a fuck you to life, a way of saying, “I'm still here, and there's nothing you can do about it. I survive.” I almost lost it to the point of tears during that song. Even almost 14 years later, I still do. I've never told anyone that before, but it's true.
I've been to so many shows over the years, but that's the one thing that's always been present at each show. The audience carries that passion with them, whether it's the need to unite with others that feel the same, or just people that want to howl at the sky and need a release. They all come together and sing those words in unison, creating a harmonic resonance that I've never found to be matched.
And I think that's the point I'm trying to reach. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what kind of music you like, what kind of books you read. All that matters is that you have passion for something, that you feel deeply for something or someone. After all these years, I truly believe that art, music, thoughts, and ideas can change the world. It can unite people from completely opposite backgrounds. Pearl Jam is a band that's kept going because they are 5 men united by a love of music. They've found their own way of doing things, whether that be setting ticket prices, selling merch, releasing music, or setting up their own security. They've done it with passion, a love for the music and the people that have believed in them and followed them.
I watched the film and I thought of all this. It wasn't just a reflection on 20 years of the band, in a way, it was also a reflection of myself. It was a look at the life and times I grew up in, a look at the moments I went from being a kid with a crush on the verge of teenagehood, to the man I am today.
20 years. It's a lifetime to some, a blink of the eye to others. When I first heard Pearl Jam, I never would have believed that I'd still be listening to them 20 years later. You just don't think of those kinds of things when you're younger. At eleven, 20 years seems like an eternity. You don't expect to be following the same band 20 years later. Nowadays, 20 years seems like nothing. Every day, I look at my daughter and think about 20 years from now. Every day, I wonder what her life will be like in 20 years. It's hard not to. And every day, as I look at her, I just hope that she can find something, art, music, literature, films, another person, whatever it may be, that can awaken the kind of passion I've found. Music is nothing without passion, and a life without passion is not a life worth living.
Maybe that's not what the film was trying to say, but over the last 20 years following this band, it's what I've found to be true.