Pearl Jam And The Power Of Redemption

newspaper article about pearl jam tragedy at roskilde

I want to tell you a story about my favorite band, Pearl Jam. It’s a story I’ve thought a lot about. It’s a story of compassion, death, art, redemption, and much more.

The story starts on September 29, 1996.

The scene is a now-torn-down outdoor stadium on Randalls Island, just outside Manhattan. The stadium holds 22,000 in the seats. The attendance that night is 30,000—with a moshpit on the floor and thousands of others crowding in.

The band is on fire. They’d end up playing a three hour show that night—remarkable for a band with only four albums released.  The crowd is alive and singing—it’s New York City and the summer is fading away. Everyone’s looking for that last kick before the sun ashes itself into autumn’s ashtray.

At one point, Eddie duct-tapes his body and crowd surfs in the pit. Someone throws an ‘Eddie Vedder For President’ shirt on stage (it’s an election year). By all accounts, the show is absolutely electric. Here’s the whole concert.

Yet, something’s off. The band has to stop playing a few times to address it. Eddie gets a bit angry having to repeat himself.

The “pit”—the standing area right in front of the stage—is looking a bit dangerous. There’s a bad sway to the packed-in crowd. The band is worried that someone could get hurt. Eddie, the voice of the band, pleads for reasonability and safety.

At 16:07, Eddie stops a song entirely. He points to a person in the audience and waits for them to be kicked out. He tells the people in the back that they have it good because they’re not in the pit. The PSA to clear out the danger lasts for almost two minutes. It’s a total concert buzzkill.

They start playing again. At 21:15 he implores the crowd to “watch out for your neighbor”. He’s now making announcements between almost every song they play. And the concerts only just begun.

We’ll stop there for a few paragraphs. Hang on to this scene though.

pearl jam randall island 1996 concert poster

Source: pearljam.com

Fast forward to four years later.

It’s June 2000. The band is playing a series of shows in Europe, mostly festivals. One night they play one in Denmark—a festival called Roskilde.

They start playing. The crowd, exciting by those opening chords of what will likely be an epic rock n’ roll vision quest of a concert, rushes toward the stage.

But the ground is muddy. Things start going terribly. People are crushed. Nine concert goers end up dying by being trampled on in the chaos.

It’s an excruciatingly sad entry on the band’s timeline—the saddest. They cut the show short and leave. They cancel forthcoming tour dates. The police blame Pearl Jam for the deaths, though the band refutes that. Here’s a news report from the day.

No one is sure if they’re going to play again. The band said later that they weren’t even sure. There’s no good playbook for how to come back from something like this. They talk to the families of the deceased fans. The band, having had some issues from sudden fame, is bound together in a closeness that hasn’t existed for years. It’s ten years into the existence of Pearl Jam.

It takes them months to play that next show. They play, they say, because it will help them heal. In their documentary, all of them point back to Roskilde as a crucial point. A before-and-after day in their history.

Their first show back they play in Virginia Beach. It’s almost four years after that New York show (we’re still coming back to this). It’s an emotional show, to say the least. They dedicate songs to the fans who passed. They improvise. They shed some tears.

Eddie asks the crowd to do something. He says the last time they asked it didn’t work out (where they tried, like in New York, to have fans give each other space). But this time it’s singing.

Eddie pleads: “Sing loud because you’re outside. Sing loud because you’re still alive. Just sing loud.

The crowd does. They sing “it’s okay, it’s okay”—a cover of this song. It’s therapy for everyone, but it’s the band that needs it the most. They’ve gotten fans through so much, now it’s time for the return. As Eddie said that night, “it’d be nice to start anew.”

Later, Eddie would say, “When we were trying to figure out what to do, the thought was not to react, but to respond. How to make the best of a really screwed-up situation.” He also pointed to The Who—his favorite band—who played on shows after losing their drummer, played on after losing their bassist years later, but mostly Eddie pointed out they played after a concert tragedy of their own: losing 11 fans at a show in 1979 in Ohio.

newspaper article about pearl jam tragedy at roskilde

Source: newspapers.com

Die hard Pearl Jam fans know the Virginia Beach 2000 show. The first one after Roskilde. But many don’t know the New York show in 1996. It wasn’t particularly notable—another great show in the pantheon of great shows. Even the band’s cautions to the pit were something Pearl Jam had to do regularly in the 90s. Before venues themselves started cracking down on moshpits.

I didn’t know anything about the New York show. But I like to put on full concerts when I write and as I was listening to the show one day something caught my ear. I stopped writing immediately and went back.

It happens right around the 25:45 mark. Eddie’s addressing the fans for the third or fourth time that night.

At 26:00, he says, “If someone was hurt to the point where they didn’t live after tonight, I don’t think we’d ever play again. Some bands they continue on, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Music ain’t that important.”

I was stunned. Four years before Roskilde he gave a prophetic statement of where he’d stand should something hypothetical happen. And then it happened.

And then he did exactly what he said he wouldn’t do.

Since then, I’ve been searching for meaning in this. What does it mean? Was my favorite lead singer a hypocrite? Or was he just saying something to say it way back in NYC in 1996?

I don’t have that answer. Perhaps Eddie does—along with Mike, Stone, and Jeff.

But here’s what I think.

First: we can make claims about anything, including ourselves, in the hypothetical. We’ll never know what we’d really do until that something materializes.

And there’s some wisdom in this—but the wisdom is wiser when we try to establish an opinion on how someone else acts when we’re still in the realm of hypothetical. Like we learn in the famous movie scene, experience is a greater teacher than mere learning passed down through words.

For Pearl Jam, Roskilde is a story of redemption. It’s taking a terrible event and turning it into fuel to keep going. From pain to purpose. The fact that Eddie said something about that event years before may simply give it another point of redemption. Redemption from ourselves, from the hypothetical part of the first point above.

Second: What the New York concert shows is fear. Eddie’s fear of something terrible happening. But he, like all of us, can’t know what happens if that fear is manifested. Because we often fear fear itself, as the saying goes, we live in the hypothetical as though it were the reality. It’s not. The reality deserves its own judge—and we deserve the space to be separated from what we had thought in the hypothetical.

Third: the things that we create—the art we pour our hearts into, whether its music, poems, drawings, 3D models, etc…may be the only thing that can heal us from the depths in which it has hurt us.

Ten years later, in 2010, at a concert in nearby Berlin, Eddie spoke about that day. After a false start met with some tears and Stone’s and the audience’s encouragement to keep going, he said:

“It continues to be the hardest day in our lives….It’s not like we’re thinking about it any more today, because it’s thought about every day….

I’m still sorting out what the lessons are here. Well, I’m sorting them out in logical. What they mean given the evidence and history I’ve gone into above.

There’s another part though: the emotional lesson. And that’s already figured out. It’s a group bouncing upward from both fear and loss. That’s a lesson I can carry with me without the need for more clarity. I’m grateful for the lessons the band learned and the lessons I’ve learned in being a fan.

Some Thoughts On Blood, More On Tracks

You’re probably not curious, but I’ll tell you something anyway. As it stands right now, my third favorite album of all time is this. My second favorite is this.

And my favorite album of all time?

Well it begins with these lines….

Early one morning, the sun was shining
I was laying in bed
Wondering if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red

The album is Bob Dylan’s 1975 Blood On The Tracks.

dylan tracks back

A few things to point out before I wax on its brilliance.

  • The album is receiving some serious press attention at the moment because Dylan just released ‘More Blood, More Tracks’ a 6-cd set of outtakes from the recording sessions from the album.
  • The original recording sessions are famous for being split between New York City and Minnesota—with the final album taking cuts from both.
  • The album has been described as ‘the breakup album to end all breakup albums’ — it came out on the heels of Dylan’s divorce from his wife Sara.
  • It was a commercial success, after a few Dylan albums that had critics saying the songwriting master was in a creative rut (after the basically unrivaled production of the 1965-66 Nashville records)
  • It’s generally considered one of the greatest rock n’ roll albums of all time—with perfect scores from several different critics.

Okay, I think that’s a good start. It’s many people’s favorite Dylan album, especially those that want a little more vulnerability from the Nobel prize winning lyricist. Try these, for instance:

In 14 months I’ve only smiled once
And I didn’t do it consciously

That’s from ‘Up To Me’ which didn’t even make the album. Yet it’s a brilliant 6-minute song of love and loss. It could’ve been the 11th song on Blood and it would’ve fit. Except that it’s nearly the same chords and music as ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ and, too, has a bit of ‘Shelter from The Storm’ —one of the album’s more famous songs. And ‘Shelter’ deserves its post in folk music history, as the uplifting, love song of indistinct time and romantic rescue.

‘Shelter’, along with some of the album’s other tracks like ‘Tangled Up Blue’ (the first song where the first set of lyrics came from) and ‘Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack of Hearts’ convey the mixed feelings that I think give the album is nuance. It’s not a straightforward “breakup” album (nothing with Dylan is straightforward anyway). It’s an album of loss done by a master of his craft, and its going to be mixed with the kind of writing that explores the whole of the human condition, just with a change of perceptive lens. Things aren’t groovy or wild and metallic like the sixties Dylan songs (think of the jaded, poetic chaos of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ or ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’), they’re solemnly described instead.

And the lyrics and music convey that. Part of the big deal about the two separate recording sessions is the musical sensibility Dylan put in in both. The New York sessions are stripped and bare (which were leaked for years as the so-called ‘Blood On the Tapes’ bootleg). The Minnesota sessions are fuller, with songs often accompanied by an organ which gives some tracks their unique sound.

What the rest of those tracks become is an intimate picture of something. On first listen, you see the breakup album that it’s been tagged as. According to Dylan himself—perhaps the least reliable source on Dylan meanings, ironically—that the songs are creations inspired by Chekhov stories. Jakob Dylan, the son of the couple in question, said the album is “my parents talking”. Regardless of meaning, the album is a wondrous trip of hurt, inspiration, life, and more.

Some examples, yeah?

We’ll start with ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ which goes on like its title sounds. It’s a 3-minute 60s-folk-song without so much as a breathe between verses. It’s a favorite sing-a-long from the album, but it didn’t start as that. My favorite piece from More Blood, More Tracks is the original ‘Lonesome’ which runs as a 5 and a half minute blues jam with a more drawn out, deflated Dylan. There’s no pop. And yet, lyrically, it works on both levels. Because it’s a yarn of anticipated longing, it can play as a poppy ode to current jubilation, or a song of a loss not yet encumbered. ‘Lonesome’s best lyrics:

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go

Want to see that song’s impact? Search that title on Spotify and see just how many covers have not only been done, but have been committed to albums.

On the album, ‘Lonesome’ ends a not-quite-forlon side 1, coming after the scowl of ‘Idiot Wind’ where Dylan ruminates on the stupidity of young love, with an anger toward poor decisions made. Or maybe it’s none of those things. Who knows?

‘Idiot Wind’ itself forms another unlikely pair, off the heels of ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ one of the albums crushing songs. You can listen to the original or you can listen to this outtake, which comes accompanied with its own lyric video. I suggest taking 4 minutes and 42 seconds of your day and watching it. For lyrics, not much beats this verse:

Bird on the horizon, Sitting on a fence
He’s singing a song for me, at his own expense
And I’m just like that bird, Oh, singing just for you
Oh, I hope you can hear
Hear me singing through these tears

That’s bruising in its own right, but it doesn’t hit the album’s emotional apex. That one is on side 2’s ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ — an fiercely determined breakup song that even Hank Moody recommends singing after you’ve been wrung by heartbreak.

It is the bloodiest of all the tracks.

No ifs, ands, or buts around that. It is the stinging middle of the whole sordid masterpiece here—and through the (only) three variations on More Blood (here’s one), it remains calm, orderly, and desperately downtrodden. It is a song of capitulation, of moving on (in only the pyrrhic sense), and of living with mistakes that’ve made uncomfortable truths.

I could quote the whole song for the purpose of showing that, but I’ll stick with the lines that hit me once as a younger man with the force of 20 million lesser songs, and still streak the rivulets of my veins when they play now.

I see a lot of people, as I make the rounds
And I hear her name both here and there, as I go from town to town
And I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off

As a member of the great church of Bob Dylan, I can say for sure that we get nothing—and I mean, nothing—like this in Dylan’s entire 50-year catalogue. So we take it as some kind of evidence. And the privilege of being a music listener is that you get to make the determination of what that evidence means. For me, it means that Dylan can make a masterpiece of the throngs of sadness. And, in listening through the album and its outtakes, that he managed to will himself to perfection despite those throngs.

I’ll end this post, this fawning over this creative brilliance of an album, the way that the album itself ends:

Life is sad, life is a bust
All you can do, is do what you must
You do what you must do, and you do it well
I do it for you honey baby, can’t you tell?

Video

“I Ached For My Heart Like Some Tin Man”

Gregory Alan Isakov’s masterpiece“The Stable Song”

 

 

 

Lyrics:

remember when our songs where just like prayers.
like gospel hymns that you called in the air.
come down come down sweet reverance,
unto my simple house and ring…
and ring.

ring like silver, ring like gold
ring out those ghosts on the ohio
ring like clear day wedding bells
were we the belly of the beast or the sword that fell…we’ll never tell.

come to me clear and cold on some sea
watch the world spinning waves..like some machine

now i’ve been crazy couldn’t you tell
i threw stones at the stars, but the whole sky fell
now i’m covered up in straw, belly up on the table
well and sang and drank, and passed in the stable.

that tall grass grows high and brown,
well i dragged you straight in the muddy ground
and you sent me back to where i roam
well i cursed and i cried, but now i know…now i know

and i ran back to that hollow again
the moon was just a sliver back then
and i ached for my heart like some tin man
when it came oh it beat and it boiled and it rang..its ringing

ring like crazy, ring like hell
turn me back into that wild haired gale
ring like silver, ring like gold
turn these diamonds straight back into coal.

 

Waxing {Musically] – The War On Drugs – Red Eyes

The War On Drugs (the band) has put out a new single — the first new music we’ve seen since Slave Ambient.

I was a late-comer to Slave Ambient (and the band, then, by default) but it hasn’t stopped me from absolutely getting lost in the music these guys keep making.

The band is certainly of the newer “indie darlings” — a Pitchfork-backed band in no secret way. (Though the writers at Pitchfork seem so keen on harping it as “road trip” music and harking on some kind of metaphor of distance that the songs bring. To me, it’s not distance in the stretching out sense, it’s distance of a tiny thing — a moment, a statue, a note that plays. It’s the small thing that you get lost in, and you take yourself the distance. It’s getting lost music more than the “road trip” label — which denotes some kind of destination. The music, for me, will always be destination-less. And really, really good).

Here’s the new single: Red Eyes

 

Why I Saw Pearl Jam 6x in 2 Weeks

Following a band is exhausting. Or, it can be. Certainly balancing a job while doing it can get serve up some timecrunches.

Answering emails with your ears still ringing? It’s tough.

In the last two weeks, I’ve followed my favorite band, Pearl Jam, up the west coast — from San Diego to Vancouver — and kept up with my Zirtual work as best I could. (Which, by the way, thanks to my Learning Team for the assistance).

I have more respect for the guys of Pearl Jam than I did before. And that was already high. I’d seen them 13 times before, twice already this year before this tour. My first show was 10 years ago. I didn’t know if they’d be touring 10 years later, let alone that I, at the age of 25, would be following them on my own mini-tour.

I grew up hearing stories of hippies following the Dead, boozehounds following Buffett and a few stories of following Pearl Jam in those early days as they ripped through ‘Last Exit’ and Eddie was still crowdsurfing. It was appealing, romantic even, to jump in a car and dedicated some time to a band. Didn’t consider it a life priority, though.

It was more an accident than anything else that I wound up doing what I did. My cousin called to see if I wanted to check out a few shows in Southern California, and I saw shows in Portland (which I’d wanted to see) and Vancouver (home of a Zirtual coworker & friend). So I booked all of the above.

No car, though. Planes. A Macbook. My Android. Some Zirtual Certification sessions along the way. A Thanksgiving with some Irish friends in the Bay Area. Not your typical “groupie” experience.

But, coming out of it now, it was a tremendous experience. It’s strange, now, to not have my days occasionally punctuated by a three-hour concert experience. It seems mundane to now have Mike & Stone ripping solos across my Tuesday nights.

A few people asked — is it really worth seeing them six times?

My answer is, of course, yes. It’s why I was confident in booking those tickets (& spending that money. Here’s some stats from the six shows I saw:

  • 206 total songs (34.3 avg. per show)
  • 104 unique songs
  • 62 songs played at only one of those shows
  • at least one song from all ten of their studio albums
  • 14 different covers (+ 4 different “tags”)

Hell, during the last show I saw, in Vancouver, they played 7 songs I hadn’t seen yet. After 5 shows!

The band puts on a different show each night. It’s as simple as that. Other stat trackers show they played over 170 different songs on this tour. 170. That is SO many songs to know how to play. To be confident in performing. To serve up to a crowd in a cavalcade of music.

It’s a gorgeous thing to see such ingenuity  in each performance. Thinking that they crafted each experience for that specific venue. And I got six of those. 19 in total, now. I doubt they’ll be my last shows.

Thanks for the memories, boys. A great stamp on a great year.

The Hold Steady (still) almost kills me….

From their first album Almost Killed Me — track 10 ‘Killer Parties’:

If they ask why we left in the first place. 
Say we were young and we were so in love. 
I guess we just needed space. 
We heard about this place they called the United States.

Youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhzctuOfosc

 

There’s nothing to wind down your day better than storytime with Craig Finn.