Right now, someone at Epic Records' New York offices is laughing, thinking about the two fools at New Times who shot off their mouths and shot themselves in the foot. I'll admit, it sounds stupid now: Listening to 25 live albums . . . by the same band . . . in a row. And to top it off, the band was Pearl Jam, deemed insufferable by both Robert Wilonsky and myself a long time ago. (I say Vitalogy was the last point of relevance, he says Vs., but why quibble?) The fact is, we got our bluff called; we were secretly hoping Epic would renege on the deal, decide they couldn't send all 25 to us. But they did, those magnificent bastards.
The idea of taking in Pearl Jam's entire European tour (save for the ill-fated show in Rosskilde, Denmark) in one sitting wasn't necessarily appealing, but the challenge was -- the sheer, unadulterated ridiculousness of it all. How long would we last? How long could we last? How long should we last? After all, even before we started, we came to the conclusion that -- with all of the CDsbooksrecordstapesDVDsvideotapes between us, and each week's new additions -- we had a mountain of pop-culture detritus we would never scale in this lifetime. Why does this get to skip to the head of the line? Why not? As we sat down on Sunday at Wilonsky's house, a football game on to distract us, we were David Blaine burying himself alive in a see-through coffin, Evel Knievel bearing down on the Snake River Canyon. This wasn't rock criticism, for once; it was adventure.
And about four hours later -- and that, my friends, is being generous -- it was over. Two albums down, 23 left to go, and it didn't matter. After album No. 1, we'd already flipped through most of Robert's recent comic-book purchases, examined his singles collection, watched all the NFL highlights, played with the dog, flipped though his comics again, and -- in my case, anyway -- barely managed to stave off the aggressive need to sleep. It was clear we would never make it: The PJ on the stereo was making us angry, confrontational. In another 12 hours, Robert would be calling himself Jeremy and threatening me with kitchen utensils; I'd be reduced to a feral state and only answering to the name Leatherman. In another 12 hours, we'd be dead.
Desert Sky Pavilion
Scheduled to perform with Supergrass on Saturday, October 21. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
So we compromised: Wilonsky took discs 1-13, and I was left with 14-25. Over the next day or so, we'd listen to as many as we could, trading our thoughts via e-mail while we listened. This, for the most part, is the time-elapsed version of that dialogue. How long did we hold out? Read for yourself; Wilonsky's comments are italicized, and much more coherent than my own. -- Z.C.
I have the new Radiohead album on my desk, as well as records by Budapest One, the Falcon Project, Mandarin, Fury III and Eyesinweasel, the new project from Tobin Sprout (from Guided by Voices). I haven't listened to any of these, really, not very much at least. And what am I listening to instead? Motherfucking Pearl Jam. I have now officially stepped into a rock-critic world that I'm not entirely sure I can come back from.
Last night, I went to the CD store to pick up my 17-disc bootleg Beatles box -- and how fucked up is THAT? -- when I got into a conversation with the guy who sold me the monster. He said, "You gonna go home and listen to it all night?" I said nah, that I had to plow through 13 PJ discs -- looking for a little sympathy. Then he got that look in his eye, that crazed fanatic rabid look. He said, "Whatchawannaknowboutem?" I said, "Huh?" He said, "I've made it through 12 of them -- whatcha wanna know?" "Uh, nothin'." I muttered something about having heard Hamburg as being the best, and he confirmed -- a friend was even there, dude, and she told him the same thing! How can something that makes one person so happy make another so fucking miserable? I was up 'til 2 a.m. listening to PJ and reading Michael Chabon. By midnight, I totally zoned out on the PJ. Wasn't even there.
You want annoying? How about this, and bear with me for a sec: When I run in the morning, I usually pick a handful of songs and sorta play them back in my head, to keep myself occupied while I plow through the five miles and change. Stuff I like, normally. This morning? Nothing but the PJ -- I'm talking "Corduroy," "Breakerfall," even -- goddamsunovabich -- "Jeremy." If nothing else, I ran faster just so I could get home and listen to something else. These 25 discs are like a virus. I can't believe we signed up for this; even listening to a handful of them is akin to the kind of mental torture you might find in one of the better books about prisoners of war in 'Nam.
Anyone who would do so willingly, gladly even, needs a life, a job, a hug, a kick in the ass. Something.
And, by the way, isn't "five against one" starting to sound like a threat?
Yes. Dear sweet Jesus, yes. I've listened to more PJ in the past 12 hours than I have in the past 10 years, and all I keep asking myself, again and again, is, "Is this any way for a grown man to make his living?" I mean, my old man has, for the past 40 years, gotten up every morning at 6 a.m. to go to work at the auto parts store his father started in 1923. He opens up at 8, works 'til 6 -- every single day -- and endures all manner of abuse from customers. He serves a function, has a point to his life. Me, I listen to records and tell people what I think of them -- like there's any meaning to THAT. I bitch about it (Man, I had to listen to 13 Pearl Jam CDs yesterday!), but my hands are soft. My dad used to come home from work with hands covered in grease, which no amount of mechanics' soap could ever eradicate. He stood behind a counter 10 hours a day; I sit in front of a computer, trying only to be clever. The word guilty comes to mind. I try to tell myself this is real work -- fucking feels like it -- but I know, deep down, it's only a passion, and there is a difference.
Holy fuck! They just covered "Timeless Melody" by the La's. Kind of a bar-band version, but still . . . the La's. You'd think with the records and bands that they love, that they revere, that they do their best to become, that Pearl Jam would be much better. I mean, look at the covers they do: "Fuckin' Up" and "Rockin' in the Free World," by Neil Young; "I Got You," by Split Enz; "Baba O'Riley," by the Who; the La's song, Arthur Alexander's "Soldier of Love." Shouldn't their own songs be better? Shouldn't we expect them to be?
Or maybe I'm just confused right now.
By the way, I just called my pop and apologized to him for wasting my college education.
So far, fave disc is No. 9 -- no fucking "Even Flow," which by this point I know better than my own last name (okay, I mean the music, since I still can't make out half the lyrics, ALL of which sound like, "Eslmn gikihoit sdnoih nk jhikhg nmhi yijs lk ogknk hkkn even flow"). The one thing I've taken out of this experience, aside from an aneurysm and a mild stroke (which occurred during the San Sebastian performance of "State of Love and Trust," from the Singles soundtrack), is how brilliant/mundane PJ really is. I always suspected Eddie V. and his backup band wrote two songs (Loud-Fast and Soft-Slow), with an occasional blending of the two ("Given to Fly" comes to mind, perhaps because it, like all PJ songs, is currently playing on my hi-fi), but this experience has proven it to me, and then some. I mean, I can no longer tell the diff between ANY of the songs off the first record, and from the sound of things on some of these discs, neither can they (how can Eddie V. forget the lyrics to "Even Flow?" Especially since he's been making them up for years?). Give me a full set of "Do the Evolution," "go," "Breakerfall," "animal," "Corduroy," "Whipping" and I'm in -- catharsis, without the poor-poor-me pathos.
I wonder, though: Could I take 25 (okay, 13) live four-sided two-fers in a row by a band I love -- say, the Replacements or the Who or Costello or Randy Newman or Sly and the Family Stone or AC/DC or the Jam or X? Doubt it. Being a fan doesn't mean you need to be obsessive; it means you explore your options, safe and secure in the knowledge that you can return to your favorites when everything else proves, at least for the moment, a little disappointing. At the end of the day, yeah, I might listen to "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" or "Unsatisfied" or "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea," but that's only because I spent the whole afternoon trying on a whole bunch of other shit to see if it fit. I want to hear different things every day, not the same thing all day. I have my favorites, but the beauty of rock 'n' roll is that they can be replaced at any moment.
There's something sick and cynical about the release of 25 live albums, which sell for anywhere between $12 (Amazon) and $17 (Borders). They know the diehards are gonna buy every single one; they're Eddie-whipped. And even if they buy three, four, five, PJ rakes in a tidy sum -- especially since the discs are packaged like giveaway product, in cheap cardboard. God forbid they weed through the dross (and there's plenty, even if you're a fan) and pick out the best "Fuckin' Up" or best "rearviewmirror" instead of subjecting the fans to this greedy game of Russian roulette (God forbid some kid blow his allowance on the Landgraaf disc, with its aggressively shitty version of "Even Flow"). I understand the desire to head off the bootleggers -- somewhere in my collection of boots, I even have a double-disc PJ show from 1994, bought for the Who covers (dunno why) -- but wouldn't a, oh, triple-disc best-of-Europe collection have done the same thing? Then they could have stuck the dross on a Web site, allowed fans the chance to preview selected cuts, then made the MP3s available for 99 cents a download. Seems more practical -- and more fan-friendly, despite the gesture of making these available in bulk. Or how about selling all 25 in a marked-down bargain-priced box, at the very least: You want them all? Give us $150, and you get all 50 discs. The band still makes a nice profit, the fans get the whole set (with, ya know, multiple versions of the same songs), and the bootleggers are stopped dead in their greedy little tracks. Who's greedy now, Eddie?
Here's how I see it, and it took me a couple of discs to figure it out: This isn't about beating the bootleggers, no matter how Eddie and Epic will try to pawn that off as their mission statement. If anything, it's a tribute to bootlegs, right down to the "Trademark of Quality" logo (an old boot staple) that appears on the inner sleeve of all 25 discs. But it's not really that, either.
It hit me during the second disc of show No. 13, recorded in Katowice, Poland. These 25 discs are simply -- and not so subtly, the more you listen to them -- a gift from the band to the band, a sloppy, smelly celebration of Pearl Jam and how cool it is to be a member of Pearl Jam and getting to hang out with other people that are also members of Pearl Jam.
This is about Eddie Vedder performing in front of audiences -- such as the one in Katowice -- that treats every mundane between-song story he manages to stumble and mumble through as though it's a cross between one of Aesop's fables and the Bible. Michael Jackson has South America; Pearl Jam has Europe.
Seriously, you think they'd actually try to pull this 25-disc shit in America, where people just wanna hear "Jeremy" and "that old '50s song" (you may know it as "Last Kiss"), relive their frat-boy glories from the early '90s for a moment? No freakin' way. The Europeans greet every song -- even the ones off No Code, ferchrissakes -- with wide-open arms. Even the most dedicated American PJ fan couldn't fight the urge to grab a beer during "Red Mosquito."
Have you ever noticed -- and probably not -- that "Sometimes" sounds like something from a musical? Like something Barbra Streisand ought to be performing?
I just skipped ahead to the Hamburg, Germany show -- No. 23, if you're keeping track, and the set believed to be the best of the bunch. And, well, it is, getting "Even Flow" outta the way early, skipping "Jeremy" and "Alive" altogether, and sticking to the songs they sound like they actually care about playing. Which, for the most part, seem to be other people's songs: Disc 2 has Victoria Williams' "Crazy Mary" (making its only appearance on tour), Arthur Alexander's "Soldier of Love," and finally, the Who's "Baba O'Riley."
Of course, if they hadn't actually covered a Who song after flirting with the idea for more than two days' worth of music, it'd be like watching Boogie Nights and not seeing Dirk display the Diggler.
"Speaking as a child of the mind." I think that's what Eddie just said, and I've no idea what it means -- doubt he does, but it, like, sounds good. Christ, I've spent the last 36 hours or so absorbed in Pearl Jam, and I still have no idea why: What makes this band so special to warrant such behavior on their part (or, for that matter, ours)? The discs reveal an arrogance previously only hinted at (cf. the band's refusal to make videos). The performances range from excellent to piss-poor; the covers are interesting at best (the La's) and obvious at worst (the Who, Neil Young -- as though attaching these names to their own will elevate their oft-mundane brand of arena-rock); and the banter in between is so pat and rehearsed (how many times can Eddie mention he surfs, and how tedious does it become when he keeps referring to the band members as pieces of machinery?). Every now and then, I do find myself falling in love with a song I've never before paid attention to ("Grievance" off the 6/4/00 Manchester disc sweats out of the stereo, and I've even found a version of "Given to Fly" I can endorse without crossing my fingers), and last night, I must admit I stopped reading to listen to that same Manchester show in its entirety; that night sounds kinda magical, or maybe that was the pot talking. For the first time during this whole process, I hear now why you like "Corduroy" -- it's five songs in one, a little beautiful and a little brutal. It's Pearl Jam in miniature.
Having spent so much time with this band in the past two days, I've switched my opinion a dozen times: I've been angered, amused, dazzled, disinterested, tuned out, turned on, bewitched, bothered and bewildered. And, yeah, bored. Songs I love on one disc I can't stand on another; songs I hate on one disc I crave on another (for some reason, I love to hear "Jeremy" on every OTHER disc). For years, I've been bothered by PJ, perhaps because way back when, I chose sides: Kurt vs. Eddie, and all that. I recall seeing the band at small club a decade ago, when PJ played in front of dozens on a weekday night. I remember thinking even then, "They belong in an arena," and I didn't mean it in a nice way; they were bombastic, ham-fisted, heavy-handed . . . and boring, classic-rock radio come to life and done to death. A few years later, I saw the band at an arena on a college campus and was even more conflicted: Theirs was not a crowd I wanted to be associated with. Theirs was alternative rock for the homogenous audience; they didn't play music, but instead fit a format. What's astonishing about PJ now is how little they've actually evolved since then. These live discs resurrect a memory I have of those two early shows -- Eddie's mumbled-grumbled asides, the power that gives way to pomp, the guitars that fill an arena but leave me feeling a little empty inside. For one moment, I truly loved Pearl Jam: Vs. sounded like revenge. Everything since then has seemed, for whatever reason, less important: I've moved on, moved backwards (even now, I anxiously await my Amazon.com order with a CD of Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends, which I've never upgraded from my mom's vinyl), moved forward (which reminds me: Gimme some of dat new Fatboy Slim when it gets here, willya?).
Fact is, I love music too much to spend another second with these discs (I've made it through nine in their entirety, two by skipping around, and two more with the sound pretty much turned all the way down). I don't wanna hate a band that doesn't deserve to be so loathed (save it for Creed), and I don't want to waste another moment of my life listening to "Alive" and "Black," songs I hated long before I heard them 13 times each in two days (and that's just listening to the radio). Hell, I got a 17-disc Beatles bootlegged box set waiting for me. Christ. What have I done?
To be honest, I have no idea how many I made it all the way through. (I say made, because I've also given up.) I had a system, I think, but somewhere along the way I got mixed up, confused by countless versions of songs I used to enjoy (endure, at any rate) that have now turned against me. The dozen renderings of "Go" surround my brain like a moat, not letting anything in or out; it truly is "five against one" -- me. There's so much "Corduroy" between my ears, I hear it rustling even in my sleep, and I look in the "rearviewmirror" and only see more "rearviewmirror." If you lose your way in the midst of this maze of setlists and virtually identical piss-poor packaging, there is no trail of bread crumbs that will lead you back out.
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[Speaking of the packaging, figure a dozen or so listens before the in-and-out of the rough cardboard sleeves renders each disc unlistenable. Unfortunately, No. 18 -- from Ljubljana, Slovenia -- couldn't make it past one listen, but that might just be because it starts bad (the blown riff on "Corduroy" almost ends the show one song in) and ends worse (with "Indifference," and how).]
And I guess I'm still lost, but not really between the Czech Republic (Praha, No. 14) and Norway (Oslo, No. 25). I guess I'm lost between a time when I gave a shit what the new Pearl Jam CD sounded like and now, when it took me 15 to 20 minutes just to remember the name of the disc they put out this year. (Bi . . . something. I forget.) It feels like decades separate the two. Try as they might, 25 or 13 or even a couple of live shows don't do much to remind me of the former, but it does shed some light on the latter.
Why don't I listen to Pearl Jam anymore? Maybe it's Eddie Vedder's justoneadaguys shtick (see: well, all of 'em). Or maybe it's because the good stuff (the entire first side of the Hamburg, Germany set, especially the first four songs, and Berlin's disc-ending "I Got Shit") is good, but the bad stuff (might as well skip the Salzburg, Austria, set entirely, and the ponderous version of "Long Road" that begins -- and ends, frankly -- the Katowice gig) is worse. To be honest, they might as well have tried this in 1994, because by then, they'd stopped writing anything worth hearing a dozen or so (slightly) different versions of.
Guess what it comes down to is this: Who knew former drummer Dave Abbruzzese was the heart and soul of Pearl Jam? Come back, Dave; Eddie needs you.