Listen to this track by flannel-wearing Seattle-based hard rock concern Pearl Jam. It’s “Alive”, the first single as taken from their now-classic record Ten, released in the summer of 1991. This song reached peak positions all over the world, and helped to add intensity to the spotlight on the Seattle scene in general at the time, when the mainstream press were beginning to whip themselves up into a frenzy over that which they themselves called grunge.
Nineteen-ninety-one was a pivotal year for many bands, particularly those based in Seattle. It was also a year that many of these bands were lumped together by the press, some having only tenuous common musical threads to unify them. But somehow, they were still a part of a sea change that let everyone know that the eighties were well and truly gone, and that the nineties had officially begun. For the first time in a long time by 1991, rock music was being talked about not only in musical terms, but in sociological ones, recasting rock music as the cultural phenomenon that it had been when it was first coined as a cultural trend. Pearl Jam’s Ten was a text to prove the thesis just as much as Nirvana’s Nevermind was by the early nineties, reinvigorating strains of rock music that had slipped away from the glare of the mainstream until then, casting down the idols of the previous decade as a side effect.
This song in particular was a burning light to a remarkable new take on hard rock, escaping the Spinal Tap-isms of late eighties poodle-glam world of cherry pies, spandex, and women writhing on the hoods of cars. Instead, it shot an arrow straight for the soul, with this song telling a whole novel’s worth, even including some autobiographical material from a 25 year old singer Eddie Vedder, who wasn’t even in the band when he originally wrote this three-verse tale of childhood, betrayal, and guilt.
Eddie Vedder was working as a security guard in San Diego when fellow musician Jack Irons passed him a cassette of a song by Seattle guitarist Stone Gossard called “Dollar Short”. Vedder wrote original lyrics to Gossard’s tune about a boy who discovers the truth of his birth; that the father he knows is really his stepfather, and that his biological father died years before. This was Vedder’s own story, poured into the mould of Gossard’s music. When Vedder sent back the completed song to Gossard, it got him his spot as lead singer in Pearl Jam, a new band in Seattle by 1990 that had emerged out of the ashes of Mother Love Bone and Green River, two bands on the nascent “grunge” scene.
Now, first things first. I don’t believe that “grunge” is any more a style of music than “rock ‘n’ roll” is. Once again, it was more of a social phenomenon than a musical one. But, it did have some common threads that bound together bands who had differing musical influences. One was lyrical directness that made the macho titties-and-beer traditions of a lot of heavy rock music being made at the time seem hollow and ridiculous in comparison. Another aspect was the lack of glitz and costuming that went well over the edge in the eighties and had become more of a distraction from the material than anything else. With this newer take on rock music, there was an earthier approach to how the music was produced as well, seeking to make the instruments sound like instruments — warts and all — and without the filters and post-production trickery of the previous decade. The age of the gated drum was largely over.
But as best exhibited here, the main ingredient that drew the tag of “grunge” into focus was an emotional connection to the subject matter about which the bands were writing, both to the writers themselves, and to the audiences to whom the songs were presented. Cars, makin’ out, and no school was certainly a tried and tested manifesto through out the history of rock, from Chuck Berry to Motley Crüe. Yet, with those subjects, it was easier to see them as a way of getting the attention of record buyers’ most basic impulses more so than any true expression of what was really going on the heads and hearts of songwriters or their fans. This is not a condemnation, necessarily. Rock music is often at its most vital when songwriters write stories their audiences want to hear as pure fantasy. But, music fans cannot live by cars, makin’ out, and no school alone.
All the while by the early nineties, the lean nature of punk rock also informed a new generation of songwriters to add some stark realism to their work to supplement the fantasy aspects of rock songwriting. “Alive” is about something that existed in the world of those who wrote it, while at the same time not drawing attention to itself in any self-conscious way. This is neither a hard coded confessional song, nor one meant strictly as a play to relate to audience teen angst. It’s pure expression that is open ended enough to serve as either one, with the song inviting the audience into itself to decide what to make of it.
When Pearl Jam’s audience did that for this song, they helped to shape this song for it’s writer. Eddie Vedder, who had written the line “I’m still alive” as an expression of guilt was enlightened to see that line in another light. By the time this song became a hit and a concert favourite, it had become transformed by the audience:
“In the original story, a teenager is being made aware of a shocking truth that leaves him plenty confused,” he said of the tale, based on his own teenage discovery that the man he believed to be his biological father was actually not. “It was a curse — ‘I’m still alive.'”But as fans quickly turned the title phrase into a self-empowering anthem, particularly at Pearl Jam concerts, Vedder said, “they lifted the curse. The audience changed the meaning for me. (read the whole article)
This is where this song wins in a unique way; by establishing a hard rock musical environment, and infusing it with a punk rock sense of community that trades on the emotional ebb and flow between the musicians and the audience. Up until this point, there had been stringent camps that kept the aesthetics and philosophies of hard rock and punk rock entirely separate among the fans, although for the most part not between the bands as we would find out when this new musical paradigm took hold by 1991 when both Black Sabbath and Black Flag were equally revered and trumpeted in interviews by the new rock visionaries on the scene.
As it turned out, there wasn’t much separating us at all in terms of what we were looking for in rock music, which is relevant stories to reflect and speak to our experiences in some way. We were all still alive, dealing with pasts that some of us were still struggling with, much like the figure in this song. In the end, no matter which costume we wore as rock and pop music fans in the eighties, the mosh pit turned out to be big enough for all of us after all.
Pearl Jam is an active band today. You can update yourself on their movements at pearljam.com.
To find out more about the grunge scene, particularly in the epicentre of Seattle, read Everybody Loves Our Town.