I spent a good half of my teens obsessing over Pearl Jam. I collected every physical piece I could get my hands on, which took a lot of time and a lot of money, and, by the time I was in my mid-20s, I owned over 500 CDs, vinyls, cassettes, bootlegs, doormats, socks, stickers, etcetera, and had seen around 30 shows. Honestly, I could have bought a house with what I spent on that band over the course of a decade, but I’ve never regretted it, because I also built a ton of friendships during that time. That’s one of the great side effects of liking a band with a cult following. You meet a lot of people on trips around the country, have some wacky adventures and form bonds that may have never been made otherwise. I still talk to plenty of them to this day, which is more than I can say about most of my family or other childhood friends. Even though these days I’m not part of the caravans and do not go out of my way to find a rare import in a record store two states away, we still have that common ground when we do meet up. We all came from the same experiences.
Pearl Jam’s debut album turned 25 this past weekend and it got me thinking about my long history with them. I laughed when I thought back to when I first heard the record. I thought it was boring. It had come free in a BMG or Columbia House mailing after I failed to tell them that I wasn’t interested in that month’s pick. But instead of sending it back, I went ahead and cracked the cellophane, though with less fanfare than my usual tradition. I remembered the video for “Jeremy,” and that song was OK, so why not? I put it on and it put me to sleep. In fact, it worked so well that I would put it on a few nights a week when I needed help dozing off. A year before, a friend of mine insisted that I listen to their most recent record of that time, which was Vitalogy. She queued up “Bugs,” maybe as a sort of joke. And while I thought it was a funny song, it’s not really the track to get you into a band — the odd little accordion song that it is.
It wasn’t until a couple years later that I was in a friend’s basement playing pool that he put on their Vs. album. I found myself losing interest in the game when “Glorified G” came on — and later “W.M.A.” and “Rearviewmirror.” They were the ones that finally got me to pay attention, and my attention quickly turned into an obsession in the way only a teenager’s can — raw emotions and nothing but time. I bought all the albums, discovered the B-sides and began a long march on annoying any friend within earshot with the backstories and anecdotes. I also made up with Ten. I found the anthemic power of “Evenflow” and “Porch” and the beauty of “Oceans” and “Release,” but my love for that record possibly had more to do with its creation story than the album itself. Learning how the band came together, almost simultaneously recording the Temple of the Dog album and the meaning behind The Mamasan Trilogy, made up by “Once,” “Alive” and “Footsteps” — it was all very theatrical. Perfect for a high school drama kid.
Through their lives off the stage I learned about activism, both political and environmental, and books like “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn. I learned about Gloria Steinem and her crusade. And they turned me on to everything from The Who to Sonic Youth. So many things that came to shape my life. Their own pursuits made me pay attention to the world around me and beyond me. Their passion ignited my passion, and it all made me a better version of myself. Even in the darkness of an album like Ten, which is a very dark record, I was able to get light and direction. And while I may rarely pop in that disc these days (I tend to favorite No Code and Yield), it’s not hard for me to lay back and hear every note even without spinning the actual record. It’s ingrained in me, a foundation in my DNA. Happy 25th birthday Ten.