The Poetry of Eddie Vedder

It’s a strange thing that whenever I confess my admiration — OK adoration — for Pearl Jam, it’s often met with a blank stare. Which is interesting enough, given the band’s profile, but more surprising is that sometimes I get the eye roll. When I query said eye-roller, they often can’t name a single song. Or they can name a song, but only from Pearl Jam’s first album, and usually “Jeremy”. Either way, it’s an opinion drawn on little, if any, actual familiarity with their music.

(OK. I have no doubt there are people who hate Pearl Jam having given them a fair and reasonable hearing. I just haven’t met them, m’kay?)

The lack of familiarity comes from the fact that Pearl Jam do not benefit from regular airplay on commercial radio, nor do they have a string of memorable video clips on 24-hour rotation on Rage. (It’s probably called something else now. So I’m old. Sue me.) In fact, Pearl Jam have released only a handful of video clips, apart from those drawn from live shows, MTV unplugged performances, or the multiple bootleg YouTube offerings. Adding to their lack of broadcast opportunities, for a decade they eschewed the conglomerate Ticketmaster, using their own outlets and pioneering online ticket sales to distribute concert tickets to their loyal fans, in the process successfully keeping ticket prices comparable to the cost of a paperback novel but also, conversely, limiting the stadiums and venues where they could play. In theory they wanted to let their music sell itself. According to Rolling Stone, however, they seemed to have spent a lot of time “deliberately tearing apart their own fame.”

Quite successfully, my informal surveys suggest.

Musical taste is an incredibly subjective thing. One that often defies explanation, reason and logic. So I will not waste a moment trying to convince anyone here of Pearl Jam’s musical worth. You can click on the links and decide for yourself. (Or look at the impressive list of their collaborators, musical awards, number of fans, and body of work…OK. Couldn’t resist entirely.)

What I will do, though, is tell you why anyone who reads, writes, or appreciates language is missing out on some of the best poetry of my own fading generation. (The Xers, for those who haven’t caught up.) The reason they’re adored by so many and continue to sell out whenever they tour is because people — myself included — want to hear what Eddie Vedder has to say. As the lead singer and main lyricist, he is the driving force behind this band. But more than this, his lyrics transform an eclectic, grungey array of musical expression into something almost transcendental — a quality taken even further by his solo catalogue.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s give Eddie the pen for a moment.

What I’d like to do is just copy slabs of his lyrics and let him speak for himself. This, however, most likely breaches all kinds of copyright — quite apart from being all kinds of lazy. So what I’ll do instead is highlight selected extracts from his catalogue that I think best expresses why we — Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder fans alike — hang off his every word.

Perhaps the best place to start is with Pearl Jam’s first single — one of only a handful they’ve released over the years. (Yet another example of their anti-marketing strategy.)

“Alive” tells the story of a teenaged boy whose mother tells him that his father is actually his stepfather, and that his real father died.

“Son,” she said, “have I got a little story for you
What you thought was your daddy was nothing but a…
While you were sitting home alone at age thirteen
Your real daddy was dying.
Sorry you didn’t see him, but I’m glad we talked…”

Grim, shocking, and worse, in the next verse hinting at incest, this was eventually revealed to be autobiographical. Part of a trilogy that Vedder calls a “mini-opera” entitled Mama-san, it tells the story of a teenaged boy who has been lied to and betrayed by his mother to the point where he does not know what he’ll do next. But ends, initially, with the almost pleading declaration that he is “still alive”.

Then the story builds to a terrible crescendo in “Once”, part two of the trilogy:

Backseat lover on the side of the road
I got a bomb in my temple that is gonna explode
I got a sixteen gauge buried under my clothes, I play…

Once upon a time I could CONTROL myself
Ooh, once upon a time I could LOSE myself, yeah…

And culminates in “Footsteps” in which the youth having gone out on a shooting spree now awaits his death sentence:

Don’t even think about gettin’ inside
Voices in my head, voices
I got scratches, all over my arms
One for each day, since I fell apart

I did, what I had to do
If there was a reason, it was you…

Still blaming his mother for what happened to him:

Footsteps in the hall, it was you, you
Pictures on my chest, it was you, you

“Footsteps” eerily pre-empts “Jeremy” which details a high school massacre, arguably the song most frequently cited as a reason to dislike Pearl Jam. It is also, in my opinion, one of their least interesting. Despite this, it is the song that gets most frequent radio play and is one of the only video clips they’ve made. (A clip that Vedder has since admitted he regrets agreeing to.)

Ten was the start of the Pearl Jam story and, admittedly, the harshest of all the albums, lyrically speaking. It’s also, ironically, still their best album musically. Although there are better individual songs, each song from Ten is potentially a single in its own right. If they were into that, of course.

Since then, Vedder has moved away from this focus on difficult childhoods and fractured family life, covering everything from the political “Bu$hleaguer”

like sugar, the guests are so refined

to pithy social commentary:

It’s a mystery to me
we have a greed
with which we have agreed.

Vedder turns desire into a complicated battle:

The waiting drove me mad…
you’re finally here and I’m a mess
I take your entrance back…
can’t let you roam inside my head

and transforms loss into something tangible:

Sheets of empty canvas, untouched sheets of clay
Were laid spread out before me as her body once did.

(Incidentally, “Black” was one of the first songs that forced me to listen beyond the music — to study the lyrics and wonder about the man behind them. Something about the next line grabbed me and changed how I listened to Pearl Jam forever: “And all I taught her was … everything.”)

He ranges from stinging self-actualisation:

I did, what I had to do
And if there was a reason
Oh, there wasn’t no reason, no
And if, there’s something you’d like to do
Just let me continue, to blame you.

To quiet self-determination:

Me, I figure as each breath goes by
I only own my mind.
(“I am Mine”)

He is cynical about religion and the hypocracies committed by followers —

The selfish, they’re all standing in line
Faithing and hoping to buy themselves time…
(“I am Mine”)

and yet has written an almost Messianic ode to the power of belief in “Given to Fly” :

Alone in a corridor, waiting, locked out
He got up outta there, ran for hundreds of miles
He made it to the ocean, had a smoke in a tree
The wind rose up, set him down on his knee

A wave came crashing like a fist to the jaw
Delivered him wings, “Hey, look at me now”

While both Vedder and Pearl Jam deny the Christian overtones — Vedder is an aetheist — there is blatant referencing of the Christ story:

He floated back down ’cause he wanted to share
His key to the locks on the chains
he saw everywhere
But first he was stripped
and then he was stabbed
By faceless men — well, fuckers
He still stands

Again, Vedder returns to the defiant advocacy of love, couched in anger and frustration, granted, but still, ultimately, a declaration that love is what makes us human, and allows us to soar:

And he still gives his love,
he just gives it away
The love he receives is the love that is saved
And sometimes is seen a strange spot in the sky
A human being that was given to fly…

It is surprisingly sentimental and decidedly lacking in cynicism. It is also very powerful as a consequence.

The simple wisdom of some of his lines requires no explanation —

And the young, they can lose hope
cause they can’t see beyond today,…
The wisdom that the old can’t give away…

Sometimes life
Don’t leave you alone. (“Love Boat Captain”)

and yet so often these simple wisdoms aren’t given the respect they deserve, or not in any meaningful way:

Sorrow grows bigger when the sorrow’s denied. (“I am Mine”)

In his grammy winning solo album for the Sean Penn film, Into the Wild, Vedder so artfully slots himself into the headspace of the story’s protagonist, Christopher McCandless — top athlete and college graduate who sells everything he owns to disappear into the Alaskan wilderness — that the film almost didn’t need dialogue, so clear was the narrative across Vedder’s lyrics.

The story is synopsised in Vedder’s Oscar-nominated song, “Guaranteed”:

Wind in my hair, I feel part of everywhere
Underneath my being is a road that disappeared
Late at night I hear the trees,
they’re singing with the dead

If you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand all the extra layers to this verse. But even without seeing it, Candless’ mixture of innocence and naivety, underlined by an unfulfilled desire to understand something bigger than the “normal” society he was expected to enter before he took off “into the wild”, is sweetly rendered by Vedder:

A mind full of questions,
and a teacher in my soul


I’ve got my indignation,
but I’m pure in all my thoughts
I’m alive…

as well as recognising Candless’ genuine feelings of remorse for having hurt the ones he loved by leaving, as well as his attempts to ease any feelings of guilt they might have:

If ever the was someone to keep me at home
It would be you…

Vedder understands the frustrations of youth, even now, at the ripe old age of 47. The cynicism is there, as is the sharp and witty social commentary — very rock-and-roll and very “alternative” (if there is such a thing anymore) — but what tempers Vedder’s stories — for they are all stories — is the persistent underlying theme that manages to force its way to the surface, if not in every song, then across each album, and certainly throughout his career…

That is, love.

Love is all you need. All you need is love.

The haunting “Black”, already cited, gives us one of my favourite declarations of love:

I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life,
I know you’ll be a sun in somebody else’s sky, but why
Why, why can’t it be, can’t it be mine?

In “Love Boat Captain”, a song written in response to a fan’s request in the aftermath of a tragedy that almost forced Pearl Jam to disband, Vedder reminds us simply in this un-ironic quotation:

It’s already been sung,
but it can’t be said enough
All you need… … is love

The incident that triggered the band’s crisis occurred at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark. During Pearl Jam’s act, the crowd surged dangerously toward the stage. In the crush, nine young fans (all men) were trampled to death, largely unseen by the other fans or the performers. On stage, Vedder had repeatedly pleaded with fans to move back, but it was only later, some way into their act, that they discovered what had happened. They cancelled the performance and left the stage. The festival continued without them, although no other acts appeared on that particular stage.

Vedder references the incident directly in “Love Boat Captain”:

Lost nine friends will never know,
two years ago today…

But it is in the question these deaths poses immediately after that we get to the heart of it:

…and if our lives become too long,
will it add to our regret?

The question suggests that this level of loss is never finished, never closed. That time doesn’t make it any easier, just longer. During live performances, Vedder changes the lyrics from “two years ago today” to reflect the actual time passed — a poignant reminder that while life goes on, the families’ suffering is a continuum. As is the band’s. (Several of the band members, including Vedder, have remained in contact with the families of the nine dead men.)

Perhaps this is the greatest irony surrounding people’s misconceptions about Pearl Jam. Considered to be grunge and therefore somehow cynical, bitter, and angry, in truth, more recently, and perhaps all along, love shapes Vedder’s music. It is the question he most consistently asks and tries to answer, and the only consolation he willingly offers up when nothing else makes sense.

Once you hold the hand of love…
it’s all surmountable.
(”Love Boat Captain”)

The opposite of cynical, Vedder’s faith in love is the source of the most eloquent and original contributions to the genre, and, yes, I’ll say it: the generation. Even when referencing his angry youth — the angry youth, more broadly — there is a hopefulness and optimism pervading everything he writes. Even if he wasn’t a recipient of it as a young man, he knew it was what he needed. What we all need. And he seems to have found it as an adult.

This is the opposite of the nihilistic ranting too readily associated with grunge music by its critics, and too frequently cited as the reference point for Pearl Jam detractors. Vedder unashamedly advocates the purest but most complicated of all desires in the simplest form possible. It’s all about love. The need to give it and receive it.

Enough from me, though. I’ll give Eddie the final word:

Hold me, and make it the truth,…
That when all is lost there will be you.
’Cause to the universe I don’t mean a thing
And there’s just one word that I still believe and it’s
Love,… love. love. love. love.