FFWDing to the Best Part: “Jeremy,” Pearl Jam (1992)

This upbeat ditty — not about an underloved but overprivileged white boy who shoots others from his school. but rather about one who takes his own life, forcing his horrified schoolmates to look on — was released seven years before Columbine. And of course predated many other school shootings since. My point is not to drag everyone down on this Tuesday with obvious reminders, but to defend my actions as an (often) drunken college sophomore.

Because as a college sophomore at UVa, see, one of my roommates and I had choreographed a modern dance to this song. And it was as awkward and ridiculous as you can imagine. But not! — you see — as horribly insensitive as it might be today, when we know all we know about guns and schools and mental illness. Still, we were certainly a couple of a’holes.

First off, the video is incredible.  It was made at a time not only when people still watched videos, but when there were a handful of video music directors whom avid MTV watchers could rattle off by name. “Jeremy” director Mark Pellington was one of these.  Also on his resume? “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy),” by Information Society.  Yesssss.  Nearly 20 years after I was wowed by “Jeremy,” I would watch a Pellington film and declare it “pointless nonsense.”

Well.

Anyway, “Jeremy.”

Best part? 3:03 – 3:21. Most will argue that the “best part” (tm pending) is Eddie Vedder’s skilled vocal run between 4:33 and 4:50.  But I prefer a less dramatic, slightly more haunting portion of the build-up. The whole “try to erase this…” segue, where Vedder sings over himself in a deranged form of round, paints a portrait of guilt, regret, lingering terror, and brings the audience into the fear that is yet to explode minutes later. I will say, though, that my dance that accompanied that aforementioned vocal run?  Truly inspired.  

 

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One thought on “FFWDing to the Best Part: “Jeremy,” Pearl Jam (1992)

  1. Grunge didn’t know it was the death knell of the popularity of rock music. It thought it was the next logical step: Motown after 50s crooners; Blondie after Donna Summer; the Clash after Van Halen; Ricky Skaggs after Kenny Rogers; the later Toby Keith after, um, the earlier Toby Keith. Pop music always starts with a primitive genre, builds it into a shiny, complicated, beautiful edifice of that style, and then switches to a primitive version of a different style and begins anew.

    At first it seemed like Guns’n’Roses were the end of the hair metal craze, what with their prominent boozing and hygenically suspect hair and wardrobe. But no, there they were in the early 90s with their ten minute piano ballads about rain. (“The solo’s awful long, but it’s a good refrain,” Regina Spektor would chirp about it years later.) Kobain would famously disdain his early champion, Axl Rose.

    So the early 90s offered us the apotheosis of Metallica, technically expert yet deadly serious and not much fun. Plus Nirvana, musically bumbling yet encouraging to teen spirits with their ennui, their thrifty apparel, and a feedbacky homage to Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.” (“We’re so loud and incoherent/Boy, this oughta bug your parents,” Weird Al would deadpan about them.)

    Splitting the difference between Metallica and Nirvana we find Pearl Jam. These guys know how to play, and also to compose. (And also to bathe.) Check out the octaved bass at the beginning, followed by some guitar harmonics, leading into dueling electrics, panned wide in stereo. By the end of the song we’ve got a nice detuned twelve string acoustic guitar, netting us more sonic variety than we’ve come to expect in a five and a half minute rock song. They had the musical chops to be Journey or Night Ranger but, sensing the zeitgeist, chose to act lo-fi instead. Eddie Vedder’s Jim Morrison impersonation also made a nice respite from the stratospheric vocals of 80s rock. Combined with a series of thoughtful songs with lyrics about something other than the singer’s inexhaustible libido, and you’re got a decent case to enthrone Pearl Jam as the last great rock band.

    Sadly for Pearl Jam, they did not inaugurate a new trend (Stone Temple Pilots don’t count), but rather offered a redemptive epitaph to the arena rock era. The 90s belonged to R&B and hip-hop, which had matured from Run-DMC and Sugarhill Gang to Naughty By Nature and Arrested Development, on the way to Eminem and Kanye West. Compared to the 80s, precious few rock bands make it into the Top Ten, let alone to the Number One spot. Pearl Jam refused to compromise. They maintained their purity at the cost of their influence. If the “revival twenty years later” trend had held true for grunge as it did for many musical genres preceding it, we should be near the apex of a musical Nirvana/Soundgarden nostalgia phase now, at the end of 2013. I don’t hear it. Pearl Jam mourned Jeremy, but who mourns for Pearl Jam?

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