Thursday, January 10, 2013

No. 511 – Alive

Performer: Pearl Jam
Songwriters: Stone Gossard, Eddie Vedder
Original Release: Ten
Year: 1991
Definitive Version: It has to be the one from Saturday Night Live, 1992.

In April 1992, Robb was excited at work. Pearl Jam was going to be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, and he was geeked to see them. I didn’t share his excitement.

You had to be disconnected from what was happening to not have heard of Pearl Jam. I had, but I couldn’t say I really knew anything about them other than they were part of the exploding Seattle grunge scene and most definitely a flavor of the month. I knew Smells Like Teen Spirit and Nirvana, but I didn’t know any of Pearl Jam’s music.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. A month or so before this, another female friend from the backshop took me to see one of her favorite Flint bands play a gig near Saginaw. No one was there, and the singer spent most of the first hour or so trying to pump up the imaginary audience. The few folks who were there weren’t having it. It was pretty pathetic.

Finally, they just gave up and played, and when they did, it was tolerable. At one point, someone yelled out to play some Pearl Jam, and they did this song. It was completely different from the bombastic hair-band crap they had played up to that point; it had a bluesy sound but was hard-edged. It wasn’t bad.

SNL started just before the midnight deadline, so that night we kept it on SportsCenter until it was about time for the first musical spot. The section was in excellent shape that night, so I had a little bit of time to see what all the fuss was about Pearl Jam before heading down to the backshop.

Of course, they played this song, which obviously was their big hit. If a cover band could make this song sound good, as you might suspect, the originals made it sound really good. I liked it, and I liked that the lead singer, whatever his name was, wore a White Sox cap (backwards), but I split midway through the performance, because I had to push the last pages out.

When we all assembled at the White Horse later, Robb was talking effusively about how awesome Pearl Jam had been, and I had to agree I liked what I heard. He said I had to get Ten, and I got it soon after that, deciding to buy it on tape for $8 instead of potentially wasting $15 if I didn’t like anything else besides this song.

Well, I liked the album right away. It was loud, but it wasn’t shrill, like speed metal; or punk, like Nirvana. In fact, it sounded just like plain old hard rock if The Who used more minor chords. It was a slow burn: I’d listen to a little at a time and then move on to more few songs. I started with Alive, but soon, I was adding Even Flow to the mix.

And then I finally saw the entire SNL performance of this song. I can’t remember exactly how, but I think after I told Robb I had bought Ten, he brought in to work the videotape he’d made of the SNL show, so I could see the whole performance.

Well. At the end of Mike McCready’s first solo, when Jeff Ament started pogoing across the stage and Eddie Vedder’s singing for his life (I knew the names of the guys in the band now), my eyes were wide open. Woah! This IS The Who, all over again!

What happened then wasn’t as dramatic as when I saw The Kids Are Alright for the first time, but it was close. I almost instantly upgraded Ten to the CD and played it endlessly at home. By the time I finally saw Pearl Jam’s Unplugged performance, I had pledged allegiance.

Another difference: I didn’t stop listening to the stuff I had been just before discovering Pearl Jam, like Rush or Dire Straits or Robbie Robertson, but my regular rotation most definitely changed to skew far more young and new.

Pearl Jam led to Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins and Alice in Chains and Tool and so on. For the first time, I actually was more current with my music than Jin was, and I couldn’t get enough. Over the next three years, I bought almost everything that had any connection to the alt-rock scene.

Alive was the touchstone, and Robb putting SNL on The Journal sports TV that fateful night ushered in the second-biggest musical renaissance I went through.

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