There was a time, between hair metal and boy bands, when MTV still played videos, and radio wasn’t streaming online, that scruffy dudes in flannel and Doc Martens ruled the airwaves. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and, arguably, to a lesser degree, Soundgarden were the kings of rock radio. They wrote songs about teenage angst, depression, suicide, drugs, metaphors for the new comfortable life our generation was provided and the emptiness that was found within such coziness. We didn’t have to deal with a generation altering war, a corrupt president (at that time), global recessions, or international terrorism. It was the 90’s. We (we, in this case, is basically middle class, suburban Americans for I can only write what I know) were in a temporary bubble of glory. Our parents were aging hippies, our president admitted to smoking but not inhaling, our country was still a mess, but the media wasn’t as intrusive as the Internet saturated, fear-filled 21st century. There was assuredly still gun problems, poverty, childhood hunger, failing inner-city schools, ignorance was rampant as always, but I was just a kid, all I knew was I needed new pegs for my Mongoose bike or had a test in Social Studies with Ms. Greenwood.
Nirvana is probably the biggest of the so-called “grunge” bands. Their hit, “Smells like Teen Spirit” is supposed to be the anthem of my generation. With lyrics like, “here we are now, entertain us…” Kurt Cobain grabbed the first string of modern youth entitlement, as if to say to the world, do something for us, we deserve it. Kurt looked bored with life, acted jaded by his celebrity and essentially burned out instead of fading away. He wrote lots of the enduring hits from the 90’s and because he followed the James Dean model, he will always be remembered for his youthful insouciance, greasy blond hair and intensely weary blue eyes.
Alice in Chains and Soundgarden I found later to be agreeable to my ears. Particularly, the unplugged album of Alice in Chains and the Chris Cornell voiced Audioslave. I know both of those bands rock well and hard, but my taste always leaned toward the final, and in my opinion, greatest of the Seattle sounds, The Mookie Blaylock Band, a.k.a. Pearl Jam.
Pearl Jam’s Ten is counted among one of the first five albums I purchased at the antiquated Sam Goody. I listened to it with a sense of rebellion and wonder. I knew he was screaming about pain, pain that I just hadn’t experience at age 12. Eddie Vedder spoke of drug addiction, lost loves, school suicides, child abuse, and familial estrangement. The lyrics were touching, despite their confusing and mature themes, but it was the melodies, harmonies and riffs that kept me hooked. Nirvana rocked straight through the amp. Pearl Jam caressed the speakers with a slightly warmer, less bar chorded lead guitar sway. I hate to compare the two, but music is meant to be interpreted, and I deduced Pearl Jam to be my first favorite band.
I used to drink to oblivion, especially for the concerts at Camden, New Jersey’s outdoor pavilion. There are few shows I remember fully. Save for the brief memories of waving my hands back and forth in the shape of a shark fin, and making out with tequila breathed 20-somethings, I’m not even sure I saw Jimmy Buffett some years. But, for some reason, among the possibly 50 shows I saw at that grand venue on the Delaware River, I was never close to drunk at a Pearl Jam concert. I wanted to hear them so bad every time. They never let me down.
Re-visiting PJ’s MTV Unplugged album this week was such a nostalgic experience. Eddie’s voice sounded so crisp, so undamaged by age, so naively indignant and perfectly clear. He sang the song “Even Flow”, about an old homeless man, down on his luck, “hand out, faces that sees time again ain’t that familiar”. He sang about a depressed boy who shot himself in front of his class, “seemed a harmless little f*#%”. He sang about a girl he lost, who will “..someday you’ll have a beautiful life, someday you’ll be a star, in somebody else’s sky…why can’t it be mine?” And then the classic line from the slow song to end the album, a possible ode to a troubled paternal relationship, “I see the world’s on a rocking horse of time.” It’s a nice image to finish such a turbulent album. One day, we will all be released into this rocking horse of time, this world of everlasting ebb and flow, the eternal purge and surge, the familiar creation—followed by destruction.
And that is just their first album! We haven’t even discussed “Better Man,” “Daughter,” “RVM,” or “Corduroy.” Music changed in that brief moment between pagers and cell phones, The Real World and Survivor and Tupac and Little Wayne. There will continue to be new music that is incomparable to what came before it. Visionaries will push the boundaries, producers will push the stars to their mental limits and music will continue to push us forward through our lives, giving us soundtracks to remember when we were dancing in ecstasy with that beautiful girl on a beach rave to Madonna’s first techno single, “Ray of Light”. The first time you felt the power of singing Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” in a karaoke bar in Korea. Or maybe, just the calming vibrations of recalling your first Bob Marley moment can remind you to slow life down and take a deep breath.