The Theorist: Pearl Jam & The Pursuit Of The Good Life

By Spencer Davis. For a kid whose love of rock music was originally sparked by the early 90s grunge movement, seeing Pearl Jam’s recent induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame was an odd sort of milestone in my own musical journey. Standing there together on stage, trying to find words to capture what the moment meant to their music and to their own personal lives, you could almost see Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and Matt Cameron—along with original drummer Dave Krusen!—mentally struggling to grasp the enormity of the past 25 years. There was a childlike shock at being there, as if their adult selves were momentarily jettisoned and replaced with six naive, energetic, swaggering kids from 1991. And from that perspective, the whole thing was no doubt impossible to compute.

But watching on the television, knowing as we do know that, as this was filmed, the world was just weeks away from losing yet another legendary Seattle frontman in Chris Cornell, the induction of Pearl Jam took on a wholly different kind of historical relevance. With so many of their grunge-era contemporaries—Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots—lost or fundamentally altered by premature death, and so many others rendered defunct by eternal squabbling, lineup changes, or on-again, off-again breakups, Pearl Jam is now the last band standing. And there’s a monumental lesson in that about the nature of fame, creativity, and indeed life—either as musicians or just as people.

During Mike McCready’s acceptance speech, he recounted something that former Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagen once told him about Pearl Jam’s uniquely turmoil-free career: “You guys did it right.” Coming from a member of a band that only took seven years to flame out in spectacular fashion, there’s a lot to be read between the lines in those five simple words. But McKagen is absolutely right. For a band whose early music was known for its seething energy of disaffection, who famously took on Ticketmaster at the height of their fame and never really recaptured their mainstream popularity in the aftermath, it’s kind of shocking to look back and realize now that Pearl Jam’s enduring legacy is as a band who, alone among their peers, embraced happiness and stability.

After the Ticketmaster fracas, the band underwent an identity shift in slow motion, one that didn’t become wholly apparent except in retrospect. They stopped making music videos for the most part. They refused anymore to do the full court press of publicity that typically comes with a new album release. They seemed to put less and less concern into new records at all. Instead, they refocused themselves on being first and foremost a touring band, and their legendary live performances gave them a chance to reconnect on an intimate level with their fans, night in and night out. In doing so, they seemed to find a channel to sustain their love of the music itself. And anyone who sees them on stage can tell that it’s when the members of the band are truly at their happiest. They give it their all with every performance, famously writing their setlist only ten minutes before stage time so that every show is unique and spontaneous. It brings a joy to their music that other bands must envy, yet no others manage to emulate.

They’ve quietly shunned their celebrity but—and this is key—they haven’t run away from it either. Unlike the Kurt Cobains and Adam Duritzes and Zach de la Rochas of the world, they made their peace with fame, learning to bounce with the waves rather than fight them. They (mostly) avoided the excesses of drugs and alcohol, and they committed themselves to family; Vedder married his longtime girlfriend in 2010, with whom he’s raised two children, and if you saw the portion of his acceptance speech at the Hall Of Fame devoted to them, even the most cynical consumer of celebrity gossip would see true love in the way he speaks about them.

Why do I mention all of this? Because when you step back and think about it, I’m describing what’s probably the least rock-and-roll band in the history of rock-and-roll. But then stop and think about that. What does it say about us and our music that we almost reflexively associate rock stardom with addiction, breakups, and death? And what is it about the artist’s mindset that lends itself so easily to these things? If the price of musical success is inevitably personal failure, is success even worth chasing? Are all of those bands who never “made it” actually the lucky ones?

Those are questions that have been floating around as long as we’ve had popular music. Maybe longer, when you look back at how dysfunctional most of history’s artists have been. Think how much of our enduring art is drawn from a mental trap of persistent misery. So many of our greatest creators—Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh, Ingmar Bergman, Sylvia Plath, Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, Jeff Buckley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Rothko, Nick Drake, Elliot Smith, Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Amy Winehouse, Jackson Pollock, Judy Garland, Chet Baker, David Foster Wallace, Heath Ledger, Robin Williams, Prince—drew their inspiration from it. And while we have all taken so much joy and enrichment from these people, isn’t there a sort of morbid guilt that we should feel about that? In rewarding with cultural immortality those who suffer so much to achieve it, are we not creating a perverse incentive to seek out self-destruction? Does society, in celebrating their art, take too much?

I think that’s why I took such joy in seeing Pearl Jam on that stage. They are living proof that it doesn’t have to be this way. Of course we might ask, why aren’t more bands like them? Why is this model so hard for others to stumble upon?

It’s a hard thing in life, when you have a vision you want to communicate to the world or when you have that internal drive to make your life mean something bigger, to accept normalcy. This is true not just to aspiring rock stars but to all of us. Normalcy can seem small, routine, lacking—and it’s easy to confuse with failure. And yet how many people that chase the car of greatness ultimately seem happy once they’ve caught it?

Pearl Jam caught that car in a very big way, becoming arguably the most popular rock band on the planet for half a decade. And they seemed utterly miserable. But then they did something remarkable. They let the car go. And sure, some of the harsher critics of the band will say that, ever since 1998’s Yield, their music has never recaptured its former glory. But I think this is the whole point of the band. And I strangely envy them for it. In embracing stability, they took a pass on the kind of cultural immortality that Cobain and Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and the Sex Pistols achieved. They’ll never matter as much to history as those bands. But they’re still here.

It’s a completely different kind of lifetime achievement.

8 thoughts on “The Theorist: Pearl Jam & The Pursuit Of The Good Life

  1. Not to be a hater but didn’t you just criticize Wilco in your why your band sucks piece for this very thing your praising Pearl Jam for?

    • How dare you!

      I guess if I were to provide a more thoughtful answer than that, it’s that I think Pearl Jam’s post-Yield catalog is superior to Wilco’s post A Ghost Is Born output. I suspect some of that is because Wilco’s music is just softer, and therefore more prone to boredom? Having some loud guitars always helps fight back against the “dad rock” charge. If you want my fuller take on late-era PJ, I’d say that Binaural, Riot Act, and Pearl Jam each had at least 6 great songs on them—and that late output actually plays quite well in the live shows, giving the band a greater range of emotions and vibes than if they only played the classics.

  2. I’ve long thought about trying to put what Pearl Jam has done into words. I’ve never really been a fan of their music (not love, not hate), but I really do respect what they made themselves into. I think that many true Pearl Jam fans would disagree with your characterization of their post-Yield music, but that’s because to them each PJ song matters — that’s the point of the relationships they’ve built by touring like they do. And it’s strange to look toward a rock band to show us how to age gracefully!

    • See my response to Biff. I don’t disagree with you. I think I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. I still consider myself a big fan, and while I think their late era catalog has some gems that go overlooked by people who have abandoned the band, I’ll certainly concede that they’ve never since achieved the heights of their first five records.

  3. I’m a fan of the band and I agree with a lot of this. They’re the rare hugely popular band that found a way to age gracefully. Wilco to me is different. First, they were never as important or as popular as PJ so they never had to fight or come to terms with celebrity the way PJ had to. That is one distinction. But also, they haven’t tried to experiment in unfortunate ways the way I think Wilco has (I say all of this while digging on Tweedy’s cover of Laminated Cat”). Wilco tries to be different in ways that I think make for frustrating music, while PJ is happy where they are. I don’t listen to new PJ because it doesn’t interest me. I don’t listen to new Wilco because it kinda pisses me off. =)

  4. Insightful stuff. Why indeed do we look up these miserable, cursed creatures? There is no answer, but it’s probably worth asking oneself that question every…few hours. I would add, though, that many 80s bands seem to have come around to this result as they tour ceaselessly, playing the hits, and perhaps finding peace.

    • Good point about 80s bands! Raises a further question, which is, why were the bands of the 90s so uniquely skewed toward depression and self-destructive behavior? Obviously there’s a lot more self-loathing in grunge music than in most 80s music, and as time has demonstrated, that wasn’t a put-on; even decades later, so many of Pearl Jam’s peers remain miserable and ultimately resort to suicide. Even when we just narrow our focus on the drug angle, the bands of the 70s and 80s obviously engaged in drug and alcohol use at a legendary level and yet almost all of them made it into old age—while overdoses among 90s bands are so routine that we come to expect them. So why does this particular generation seem so unable to find happiness even in success?

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