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Monday, April 28, 2008

My Life: Soundtrack by Pearl Jam

Artists are often credited for providing the soundtrack to our lives and we can usually remember what we were doing or even how we were feeling when a song or album was released. Many bands have songs that mean a great deal to me, from all genres of music, but one band has made the music that I connect with the most, and they've done it with every album release; that band is Pearl Jam. What I'll be doing in this post is sharing what I was doing as each album was released and how it may have affected me and I'll share my favorite songs from each one. You'll see that on a few occasions, their music was much more than the background of my life but some of their material paralleled my situation and feelings at times. I hope that after reading this, you'll think of an artist or group that has been a big part of your life and share your thoughts in a comment, or maybe write your own blog about it.

August, 1991- "Ten"
This album was released during the last part of Summer that followed my Freshman year of high school. I had heard a little about the band and seen their videos for "Alive" and "Evenflow" but I was still rocking out to Van Halen's F.U.C.K. album so the whole Grunge scene hadn't earned my attention yet. I cannot remember for sure if I bought the album before their appearance on MTV Unplugged in March 1992, but what I know for sure is that their performance on that show grabbed hold of me and I listened to this album every day for a very long time. Most fans and critics have held this album in the highest regards and maintain that it is their best. I think that this is definitely their most emotionally charged album and ultimately is the album they'll be known for. I don't think any band could ask for more when they have songs like this to represent them. Favorites on the album are "Evenflow", "Jeremy" and "Black".

October, 1993- "Vs"
It was the early part of my Senior year when Pearl Jam performed on the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards in September. They did two songs, "Animal" and "Rockin' In The Free World", and Neil Young joined them for the second song which was one of his own. The performance of "Animal" ignited me from inside and to this very day it has the same effect. After seeing them perform that song I was beyond excited for the album to come out and, luckily for me, it was released less than a month later. I drove to Tower Records on Blackstone in Fresno during my lunch break and bought that album along with Rush's "Counterparts". The timing was perfect because I had just installed a CD player and a second set of speakers in my car after my dad gave them to me out of his van since he was selling it. Unfortunately my love for the new PJ CD, which I announced loudly and proudly, would come back to bite me when my deck was stolen after a month or so. Lucky for me I had a solid system at home and eventually I replaced the deck in my car and kept rockin'. Favorites on the album are "Go", "Animal", "Daughter", "Rats", and "Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town", which has become known as "Small Town" on live recordings. A song titled "W.M.A." is an excellent showcase of former drummer Dave Abbruzzese's skills and is among the first few I plan to learn when I start drumming.

December, 1994- "Vitalogy"
Following high school graduation, I spent some time up in San Jose with my dad, doing work on his flooring jobs with my uncle who is also in the business. My uncle and I did a lot of late-night work at one particular job and got really close around that time, which was great. He and I have always shared the same interests in bands we listen to and we did a lot of music shopping together at some of the more obscure and independent retail stores. It was during that time that Vitalogy was released and it was a much different sound than I was used to hearing from them, but not in a bad way. This album features "Betterman", which has become a live staple and always starts as a sing-along with the crowd. The song was actually written by Eddie Vedder long before he joined Pearl Jam; he introduced it by saying "it's dedicated to the bastard that married my mama" at an Atlanta concert which was broadcast on the radio. During this period in my life, I was still unsure of what I wanted to do but I was happy and the music had a lot to do with that. I saw Pearl Jam live for the first time on their tour supporting the Vitalogy album but Eddie was ill and sang only 7 songs before leaving the stage. Upon Ed's exit, Neil Young fans were treated to a live preview of the album "Mirrorball" which was an album he recorded with Pearl Jam as his band. Favorites from the Vitalogy album are "Nothingman", "Corduroy", "Betterman" and "Immortality".

August, 1996- "No Code"
This album was released during a bit of a rebirth for me, following a particularly dark time in my life. After working for my dad for a while, I decided I wanted to have some time for myself since my summer following high school was filled up with very little relaxing or spending time with friends. I had a red Camaro IROC-Z and I wanted to have some fun which I did, but it was a bit too much fun. I got a few tickets, one of them in excess of 100 mph on Highway 99, and started getting a bit lazy. I didn't have a job, wasn't going to school, and started making stupid mistakes with money so my dad felt I wasn't headed in the right track. I ended up moving in with my sister at her request; after I was in her wedding she thought it might be fun having me around. Her husband is a software engineer who was trying to get his own business going so he enlisted my help to do some office work so he could focus on building the business. I remember spending days at my brother-in-law's office trying to learn a program to build web pages as he wanted to become a website builder and host for his customers. The first song on the album, "Sometimes", played a lot and really matched the mood as I slaved away in the quiet office with its sleepy pace.

This album was labeled "experimental" by many critics which I would say is accurate but the core of the sound was still signature Pearl Jam. One song that caught my attention immediately is "Present Tense" and it wasn't just because of the sound. The message of the song is basically to live in the present tense and not worry about what happened in the past and it fit my state of mind at that time perfectly. I was really feeling useless and upset about how I had gotten myself into the position of feeling like a burden to my sister and an obligation to my brother-in-law, but that song turned it around and made me realize that I had to move past that and start doing good for myself and that those around me would benefit from that outlook. Shortly after my epiphany, I started working at Jamba Juice and a new and incredible chapter of my life began. That album is what started making me listen to the songs, not just the music, and the meaning of their lyrics. Favorites on the album are "Habit", "Off He Goes", "Present Tense" and "Mankind" which was sung by guitarist Stone Gossard.

February, 1998- "Yield"
The release of this album came after my first year working at Jamba Juice. I was already a "team lead" which meant that I had keys and was responsible for opening or closing the store depending on my shift. I was making great progress in terms of my own personal goals and also looking towards moving up at work as well. I had moved out of my sister's house and was renting a room in a house not far from hers. I bought this album the night before it was released at the old Virgin Megastore by Arden Mall. Tower Records was also known for doing the same thing on occasion and I couldn't resist the chance to have it before everyone else would. I got the CD, immediately opened it and played it in my car on the way home and then took it inside and put on a pair of headphones to completely submerge myself in the new sound; if you haven't invested in a great pair of headphones, go do it now because you will experience things that regular speakers can't quite articulate. Right from the first track, I knew this album was special and I still feel that it is their strongest album since "Ten". A song called "Given to Fly" is the song that really pulled me in from this album but I had no idea just how much it would mean to me later on. The first five songs on the album are excellent tracks, and are some of my favorite songs of theirs.

A funny thing happened that night as a drunk driver came crashing into the house next door after bouncing off my truck which was in my driveway. I heard two loud bangs over the music but I thought it may have been a trash can being knocked over or something of that nature. Shortly after the loud bangs, there was a knock on the door which was accompanied by a voice, "This is the Sacramento Police, can you some to the door please?" I opened the door to see a pickup truck buried in our neighbor's house and the front axle of the truck ripped off completely. At first, I think the cops may have assumed I was the driver because their tone was not friendly and they were questioning me about how long I had been home. I quickly pointed to my truck, the small truck that his bounced off before plowing into the front corner of the house next to us, and explained that it was my truck he hit. The driver fled the scene but could not have gotten very far because there was some blood on the windshield so he was definitely hurting. There was an open bottle of Vodka in the car and a glass with ice in it. This guy wasn't just drinking and driving, he was having cocktail hour in his truck. In the bed of the truck, there were aluminum bats and baseballs and the cops concluded that he probably was drunk and out hitting balls at a batting cage before the accident; I thought that was a pretty good guess. The mess was cleaned up and I was given a name of the registered owner of the truck but nothing ever came of it.

Just a month later, I got tangled in my first disastrous relationship when a manager trainee was at my store and things went from professional to personal pretty quickly. Little did I know that the manager of the store was orchestrating the whole thing and guiding her to me. Things went well enough for a while and were at their best when I was promoted to Assistant Manager of the store. Everything started to fall apart after she moved in with me and she was missing the city (San Francisco) where she was living when we met. To make a long story short, things got bad and we went our separate ways.

After a few months, tragedy struck our store when one of our team members took his own life. We attended the funeral service and I presented his parents with a poem I wrote about their son titled "Strength In Memory" and to this day I wish I could remember it completely because I was very proud of that piece of writing I had done. The end of the poem contained a piece of "Given to Fly" which read "sometimes is seen a strange spot in the sky, a human being that was given to fly". That song took on a whole new meaning after that experience and every time I hear that song I think of him. He only worked with us for a few months but he left his mark. Needless to say, the "Yield" album marked a very significant period in my life; a time filled with progress, happiness, heartbreak, and tragedy. Favorites on the album are "Given To Fly", "Faithfull", "MFC" and "Lowlight".

May, 2000- "Binaural"
This album came out after my time at Jamba Juice ended and I had come full circle back to a period when I was shifting through meaningless jobs and trying to find myself once again. I left Sacramento and moved back to Fresno in December of 1999, hoping to open my own Jamba store and wanted to be around my hometown and my old friends again. That decision turned out to be a huge mistake and after conflicts with the manager of the Fresno store, I was no longer on the path to having one of my own. The biggest problem revolved around the birth of my first nephew, on December 29th of 1999, and I learned all I needed to know about the manager I was working with because of that. After leaving Jamba, I was working for a while at an insurance office doing "telemarketing" type work and just in the early stages of a new relationship when I got the new album. My relationship didn't last, mainly because the girl I was with had been in a few horrible relationships before, one of which spawned a son, and she was not wired for happiness. Her tendency to create hostile situations and always bring tension let to the end.

As with each album that has been released, nothing bad that may be happening in my life can take away the joy I have when I'm on my way to pick up a new Pearl Jam CD. My friend Daren came with me and we popped it in immediately when I got it. The first thing that came to mind when the opening track "Breakerfall" came on was "this sounds like The Who". I know that Eddie Vedder is a big fan of theirs and he had done a few performances with them and has covered them on occasion during live shows so I'm thinking a bit of their sound rubbed off on him. One of my favorites is "Nothing As It Seems", with an intro that sounds as if Mike McCready was channeling Neil Young's grunge-laced guitar style to open the track. This album is very solid and one of their very best albums to date, with an incredible blend of acoustic and electric guitars; even a Ukulele. The track "Insignificance" has a sound reminiscent of Soundgarden which makes sense since this is the first album featuring drummer Matt Cameron, as he was their drummer before joining Pearl jam. The title of the album refers to a method of recording music in which speakers capture not just the music from the instruments but the space around them as well; "Binaural" means "of both ears". This method was used on a number of tracks on the album. Favorites, other than those mentioned above, are "Light Years", "Grievance" and "Evacuation".

November, 2002- "Riot Act"
I remember hearing the first single off this album, which was "I Am Mine". I was working with my uncle on a job and it came on the radio. It was a very reflective song with a positive message of empowerment, despite its downtrodden drinking song delivery. I had started looking for tech jobs after graduating from Heald just a month earlier with an Associate Degree and after working for a lame Internet provider I got a job at Intel. That was when I met my friend Pete, who quickly became my best friend since moving to Sacramento and was in my wedding. The album was released along with "Nirvana" which was a compilation of that band's hits. It included "You Know You're Right" which was the last song recorded by the band before Kurt Cobain's tragic suicide. I purchased both albums but didn't get to the Nirvana album until after wearing a few grooves in the new Pearl Jam CD. I was back on track and things were going well and the rocking upswing of songs like "Save You" were an appropriate match for my optimistic state of mind.

Eddie was influenced by punk and that influence is clearly evident. He had inducted The Ramones into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and sported a Mohawk to make the event more fitting. During the time between the release of the last album and Riot Act, President George W. Bush was elected into office after a controversial election process including a recount as requested by candidate Al Gore. Eddie expressed his disapproval of Bush with a track on Riot Act called "Bushleaguer" and jokingly wears a Bush face mask during live shows when performing the song.

I think during the time after I started working at Intel and meeting Pete, I was the happiest I had been since I first had started at Jamba Juice, which was huge for me. Work was great and everything else followed suit as well. Unfortunately, Pete left Intel to go back to school and shortly after that my contract ended but I found another position at Intel and after a week off work I started in my new position at almost double the pay. Shortly after taking the new position, I got my driver's license suspended from a previous ticket I hadn't taken care of. I ended up back at my sister's house once again while I handled that situation but it helped me finally get on my feet for the last time and start making better decisions. I found a place renting a room in a townhouse from a woman who was basically never around, so it was like my own. At this point, I had been seeing my wife Kacy for a few months and things were going well. She was making a lot of trips up to see me before we decided to move in together. This marked the very first time in my life that I had a great job and a great relationship at the same time.

May, 2006- "Pearl Jam"
This album came just before our wedding, and Kacy surprised me with this CD one day; what more could any man ask for? I had it all, but I must say in all honesty that this album took a long to get used to; in fact, I'll let you know when it happens. By this time, we were knee deep in preparations for our wedding and completely fed up with the crappy apartment we lived in during the longest portion of our relationship. Songs on the CD such as "Worldwide Suicide" marked Eddie's disgust with the state of the world under the leadership of President Bush having been re-elected in a near landslide victory over John Kerry. One song I love which infuses a bit of what I call "surfer sound" is called "Unemployable". Eddie was a surfer before emerging as frontman of Pearl Jam and you can hear that influence in the song. If there is one thing I've always loved about this band is their ability to make great "ballads" and this album provided the inescapable track "Gone". This album got put on the backburner despite a few gems that I discovered several months after receiving the album. I've more recently resurrected this CD from the bowels of my car's armrest console and am willing to admit that I may have not given the album it's deserved attention.

I'm looking forward to hearing what this band delivers next, as they always have some kind of new direction or sound to share with each release. With every album, there is a certain predictability which leads to the anticipation of at least a couple solid rockers, and a slow track or two, one of them as a closer. Many would criticize a group for this, but to me it's what makes each release that much more exciting because while I know what may be coming I have no idea what it may sound like. I'm curious to see how the songs from the next album reflect my life or even the world me.

Now that I've shared the timeline of my life, and how it aligned with the release of these albums, I'd like to hear from you about what artist or group has had this kind of effect on your life and what you were going through when their music captured you.

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