Days Between Stations: The Pearl Jam Radio Show (04/95)

Watching Rosanne Cash on the David Letterman show February 6 was creepy. She’s a unique singer whose dignity and endurance seem to shine through any good song; Letterman introduced her graciously, holding up a CD of the new Till the Night Is Gone (Forward/Rhi­no)—“a tribute to the legendary songwriter Doc Pomus,” Letterman said, as if he’d waited years for the chance to praise the man, who died in 1991. Cash had contributed a stirring version of “I Count the Tears,” first done by the Drifters, to the disc, and this night she came on and sang it with heart, riding perhaps the best hook in any Pomus tune—that lifting, cursing, soaring “Na-na-na-na­na-na late at night” for all it was worth, and it’s worth a lot.

Still, from head to toe, from first breath to last, she didn’t belong. Like any nonsuperstar guest in the ghetto of the show’s last ten minutes, she was wound up tight, so clearly appearing at the pleasure of those far more powerful than she. For all of his midwestern-­hick giggling, Letterman is pure noblesse oblige, absolute ruler of the world and of whoever’s watching for as long as he’s on—Rush Limbaugh with a human face. In the setting of the show, all rollicking good times for those in the know, you can be included if you’re thrilled to have the joke be on you. If you communicate anything else—loss, say; resentment; a passionate, naked desire for revenge; in other words, everything Cash communicated with “I Count the Tears”—you look stupid, square, and worst of all needy. Like you might need someone else in this life.

The strange radio show Pearl Jam put on the air January 8 was the anti-Letterman, the anti-­Limbaugh. Still battling the huge fees the Ticketmaster monopoly tacks on to tickets for national tours, and thus not touring with its recent Vitalogy (Epic), the band wired up Eddie Vedder’s practice studio in Seattle, bought four and a half hours of satellite time, invited their friends over, dug out favorite records, and offered whatever might come of it to whatever stations might be willing to broadcast it. Hundreds of outlets picked up the free transmission; you could call it a giant Vitalogy ad, and Pearl Jam did play live from the house, along with Mudhoney, Soundgar­den, and the Fastbacks (Seattle’s Mekons), but if the word Vitalogy passed anyone’s lips, I missed it.

There was a lot of ordinary, unbleeped obscenity (“I don’t know what the fuck I… ,” as opposed to “Fuck you”), the main crusades were for vinyl and abortion rights (the former handled as a fetish, the latter as a matter of life and death), and the theme, or undertone, was friendship. Or an imagined community—not “a city on a hill,” more like a city inside it, burrowed in against the enemy outside. “This is just a way,” Vedder said as the night began, in words that may read vaguely but sounded as if he knew, or anyway trusted, that those who were listening would know just what he meant, “for you to express your opposition.” He wasn’t talking about Ticketmaster.

Vedder played DJ, spinning old favorites (Sonic Youth’s “Teenage Riot”—you could hear the needle drop into the groove, that little rush of surface noise the whisper of a lost world) and unreleased tapes (led by two thrilling pieces of hard-core dream-pop by former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl’s new one-man band, Foo Fighters). There were telephone calls, drop-ins, a hilarious parody of talk­show-guest groveling. (“Eddie,” said a member of Soundgarden, “I spilled some coffee in the kitchen. I’m sorry. I’m apologizing now.”) On the phone or in the flesh or via answering machine, people sounded completely at home. Any emotion made sense. Val Agnew of 7 Year Bitch talked about Home Alive, an escort service started after Mia Zapata of the Gits was raped and killed on her way home from a show. Kim Warnick of the Fastbacks mused about listening to Dave Grohl’s tapes as she sat beneath a Mayan pyramid in Guatemala. Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill needled Mike Watt on his answering machine. (“A twenty-seven-year-old rock star and a thirteen-year-old girl­! don’t know if the phrase ‘power imbalance’ means anything to you… The music coming out by guys right now is—yawn. Like, superfucking yawn.”) Then she demanded he return the Annie soundtrack album he’d borrowed from her, which she knew he’d never played anyway.Eddie Vedder sounded like the mayor of this imaginary town, floating over its real Seattle terrain like the author of this few hours’ Utopia of good conversation, easy banter, great or decent music. He seemed to be the right man in the right place at the right time in this house of inclusion, electronically opened to the country at large, a place where millionaires like Pearl Jam spoke with no more authority in their voices than the Fast­backs, who after fifteen years get by on day jobs. Whatever house Vitalogy takes place in, though, it isn’t this one. Maybe one of the reasons Vedder is so convincing as a public man is that he can be, in his music, so private. And the word private is not strong enough—the right word needs distance, fear, inner reserves of tension and will, drawn on one song at a time, reserves of emotion that may not be there the next time you need them.

It’s not just “Not for You,” probably the most powerful recording—certainly the most mysterious—Pearl Jam has made, with its bending inner rhythms, its rejections at times coming across like failed embraces. In “Corduroy,” “Better Man,” and “Immortality,” the band, these guys with their guitars, this by-definition superfucking yawn, find ways to build upon their melodies and beats until each structure seems implacable—and then, with a power surge, with notes and riffs that barely seem to belong, they find ways to break the clichés of these structures, to call them into question. The music is open, in a way not all that dissimilar to the way the Pearl Jam broadcast was open, but Eddie Vedder is out of this house. When the music is at its most powerful, at its most grounded, he is drifting, alive to the joy of talking to himself, which in moments can feel like despair over the chance of finding anyone else to talk to. Which is truer, the broadcast or the album? Is there a contradiction between one and the other? Obviously not, as far as Pearl Jam goes; for those who listen, the metaphors of the open house and the drifting solitary may not be so easy to merge, because they may not be choices, not in life.

Interview, April 1995

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