I remember the first time I saw the video for Alive, in 1991, by a young band out of Seattle named Pearl Jam. I was thirteen, and had spent most of my middle school years immersed in hip-hop and R&B, stuff like Digital Underground and Boyz II Men, and this was the first rock song I’d liked in a long time. Soon thereafter, I was sitting in eighth grade Language Arts and a boy named Greg asked me if I’d heard it, and I said yes, and we talked about music for the next twenty minutes. It was back when a video on MTV could still make a huge impact, and one of the first moments when I realized that my passion for music could actually be a benefit in the romantic arena. “Alive” will always be one of the great songs of my teenage years for that moment alone, and because it ushered in the next era of music for me and many others my age, the first time I felt like part of a musical generation.
I owned Ten on cassette and played it over and over; almost every song on that album will still shoot me right back to those years. I still believe that anyone my age will not only recognize the opening chords of Jeremy, but be able to see the video in their head, the young boy drawing pictures, and Eddie Vedder’s echoing screams while shaking his head in a frenzy. The next year, it was all about the Singles soundtrack, which brought two more amazing PJ songs called Breath and State of Love and Trust but also introduced me to a lovely little song called Drown, by a brand-new band called the Smashing Pumpkins. Two years later, Vs. came next, and I went to a record store at the mall (one I would work in myself years later) to buy it the day it came out. I remember getting the tape and realizing due to a manufacturing error that my copy didn’t have the title on the spine, and I remember playing that tape so many times I wore it out. Even just looking at the tracklisting sets off so many sonic memories, worn deep into the grooves of my mind.
The next year would bring Vitalogy, which I snapped up as soon as it came out, but marked the last of Pearl Jam’s records to sell millions of copies, to be the must-have rock’n'roll record. While it had some amazing songs (Corduroy is still one of my favorite PJ songs ever), Vitalogy marked their turn away from the mainstream, and I didn’t turn with them. My senior year of high school was all about Smashing Pumpkins– I still remember the day their magnum opus, Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness came out, and my friend Tom cut classes and went to the mall with our cash and bought us all copies, and I sat in the lunchroom listening on headphones and falling in love. I remember stumbling across a wonderful Pearl Jam single, I Got Id, but that was about it. Soon I would be in college, and while I impressed the boys on my hallway for knowing the rarer PJ tracks, I’d also discover Radiohead and Liz Phair and others and immerse myself in those. But my college boyfriend was a dedicated PJ fan, so I kept in touch. We saw them together at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1998, but my boyfriend had the ultimate Pearl Jam concert story– he’d seen them the night Kurt Cobain’s death was announced, and Eddie Vedder had almost been too distraught to play, even though the two bands hadn’t been friendly.
Then for many years, I embarked on other musical journeys (and boyfriends), and Pearl Jam spent years in a quagmire, a quixotic battle with Ticketmaster, and while they kept making records, I had stopped listening. While working in that same mall record store, I heard their Last Kiss cover way too many times, and I remember liking Given to Fly, but that was it. In grad school I made friends with a die-hard fan, who collected all the official bootlegs and had never given up them, but I still thought of them as almost a relic of my earlier years, unable to appreciate the stand they’d taken against corporate practices like ticket monopolies and music-video misogyny.
Then recently, iTunes featured the newest Pearl Jam video, The Fixer, and I downloaded it, and once again, a Pearl Jam video had captured me, and I heard the song in my head for days. This morning, while at Target buying highlighters and dry-erase markers and a present for the birthday party I was taking my girls to, I saw Backspacer for sale, and impulsively bought it, not realizing that the band had made an exclusive deal with Target. I popped it into my car’s CD player, and before we were out of the parking lot, Lucy piped up from the backseat and announced her approval, and I felt I had come full circle. I listened to it all day, while shuttling us from birthday party to soccer game to family dinner out at one of our favorite restaurants, and I’m loving it. I don’t know if an album can hit you quite the same way at 31 as it can at 13, but either way, I’m so glad I succumbed to that little nostalgic pull.
If the original rock fans (like my own mother) felt the world divided in Beatles and Rolling Stones fans, I think my own generation was divided into Pearl Jam and Nirvana fans, despite their common PNW origins. My mother is still a Stones fan through and through, and I’m now and forever a Pearl Jam fan.