By Stacia M. Fleegal
TW for brief mentions of physical and verbal abuse
I decided a long time ago that art is the source of my faith—in humanity, in beauty, and in the possibility for transformation. The first piece of art I ever connected with was Ten, the first album by Pearl Jam, which has been my favorite band for 25 years. On April 29, 2016, I saw my ninth Pearl Jam show in Philadelphia, where the band played Ten front to back in its entirety while I had a kind of multilayered awakening about who I was, am, and might become. Stay with me here.
A large contingency of Pearl Jam superfans refer to themselves as The Faithfull, after a Pearl Jam song of the same name. Another large contingency cringes at the term. I hover in between, as I’m wont to do, because I’m a superfan but participating in superfandom is inevitably tricky and, well, cringe-worthy. It’s tricky because I don’t trust people as easily as I used to, and I don’t actually know everyone who lurks under the umbrella of a name for a group that promotes peace, love, and Pearl Jam. They can’t all be peaceful and loving, right? Just because you love the same band I love doesn’t make you like me, or me like you. And it’s cringe-worthy because good god, there are other things to talk and worry about besides what some guys in a band did over Fourth of July weekend.
Still. I am, conceptually, one of the Faithfull. When I love and connect with art, unlike with most people, it’s forever. Pearl Jam (along with poetry and my central Pennsylvania woods) are my church. The 4/29/16 show was a transcendent experience for me, at a time when I thought all my Pearl Jam-related transcendent experiences were, like grunge, of the past. I was wrong. Hearing the songs that jump-started my lifelong obsession, live, in order, as an adult, was a powerful retrospective of my longing to belong.
Once…upon a time…I could control myself… (“Once”)
Once upon a time, an 11-year-old girl was given a tape by her dad, and she died and went to flannel heaven. Remember tapes? Me too. Look. It’s said we all love the music and fashion of our adolescence, and I embrace that; but it was purely about the music for me, not some scene. My mom and stepdad were hyper-strict and I was on physical and cultural lockdown until age 17. I spent a lot of time in my room with headphones on, making cassettes of borrowed albums and songs I recorded off the radio—unmarked, unlabeled cassettes—while sandpapering my jeans. That was my ’90s. These songs, these bands, these tapes, they were my closest friends.
And I loved Pearl Jam the best. I loved that Vedder Sharpied “PRO-CHOICE” on his arm during Unplugged. I loved the love vibe of their music, how they exemplified the general DIY aesthetic of alternative music in the early ’90s. But mostly, I loved that these were adults raging about the myriad plights of adolescence.
Adolescence is when I began to live what I can now articulate as the perpetual tension between my dominant introversion and my occasional bursts of extroversion. I was mouthy and opinionated at school and never left my room at home. I was hated in both places. No one got me no one got me no one got me, and I knew it was all my fault. If I could just control myself, my passions and artistic expression and righteous indignation, if I could just reign it in and wind it around some vehicle or channel, maybe I could be loved?
Maybe (s)he’ll see a little better set of days (“Evenflow”)
The vehicle was a pen, and the ink flowed into angsty adolescent poems. I’m not ashamed, and here’s why: I spent the first half of “Evenflow” on April 29 looking for my best friend’s jacket in another section. In our excitement, we “checked in” one section over from where we were actually supposed to be sitting, left to score drinks, and didn’t get to our real seats until after the lights dimmed. She realized her jacket wasn’t where she thought she’d mistakenly left it. I excuse me-ed and so-sorry-ed my way through section 107 and miraculously found her jacket, then have-a-great-show-ed my way back to 106 just as Mike McCready tore into a blistering solo. I texted another friend who’d felt meh about the guitarist’s efforts the night before: “Idgaf what he did last night, ‘Cready is on. point.” I was floored, and floored about being floored. This is a pee break song for many fans, the one that PJ plays at nearly every show, trademark unique setlists be damned. I wonder how often the musicians themselves have thought, ugh, again? AGAIN, the angsty hallmark of their collective adolescence? Can’t we just forget about that one for a while?
Nope. All these mile markers have their place. There is no room for shame if you’re going to live with passion and authenticity in the moment. How can you later point to that moment, that song, that poem, and say nope, that was wrong? It wasn’t. It was just then. I accepted my own mascara-smudged adolescence during the utterly incendiary guitar solo of a song I’ve heard a thousand times before.
You’re still alive, she said. (“Alive”)
My last nearly-four years as a Pearl Jam fan, I have also been a mama. “Alive” is about a son. “Alive” is the first Pearl Jam song I ever heard; 21 years later my son almost didn’t survive his first night on earth, and I almost didn’t survive living with his father. “Alive” was a song intensely personal to Vedder when he wrote it, but which changed meaning through fan interpretations and transformed into an anthem of affirmation. “Alive” was the song that started all of this for me. Two and a half decades later in Philadelphia, “Alive” was the song that was playing when I gave in and let myself rejoice that, despite all we’ve been through, I still am, and so is my son.
Maybe someday another child won’t feel as alone as she was (“Why Go”)
Why go home? Why hop around the country for almost eight years and then return to my rural hometown of barely 7,000 people and a shiny new Walmart? Why, when my adolescent self had so longed to escape this tiny cell, would I return here, of all places?
Because I had nowhere else to go.
Home and I have a contentious relationship. Unlike with “Alive,” where people tend to focus on the words of the chorus rather than the verses, “Why Go” is a song that relies on the hissing, growling vehemence of the story that unfolds in the verses rather than the chorus’ mantra. The chorus always ranted past me because, as a sad, lonely, angry teenager who simultaneously loathed and craved the four walls of her bedroom, I related to that abused, institutionalized young girl. And mommy agrees. Then, it meant, “why BE home?” So I left, and things were fine until they mortally weren’t, and I heard, “why NOT home?”
Tattooed all I see, all I am, all I’ll be (“Black”)
I’m not much of a crier, but I cried during “Black” on April 29. There is a legacy anguish to “Black,” because we’ve all had a broken heart, every last one of us (and if not you, then either fuck you for lying or why are you listening to this music ever?). One of my favorite things about Pearl Jam is that my love for them isn’t tied to another person. I’ve never shared the obsession with a boyfriend or even a close friend (more on this later). People associate ME with Pearl Jam, or credit ME for converting them into fans, but not the other way around. I followed PJ all on my own. They’re mine. As such, “Black” is not a song that sends me spiraling off into memories of lost love; there is no face in my mind when that song plays, nor was it the soundtrack to any one breakup of note. So when my throat felt kinda scratchy in the second verse, I cleared it, fought against it for a few minutes. Then my friend put her hand on my arm, and her touch at the precise moment of the peak lyric, I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life, I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky, but why why why can’t it be mine? just completely dissolved and gutted me. I ugly-cried to “Black” at age 35 with nearly 20,000 people around me, you guys. I did it for myself, for all the times I’ve broken my own heart. I mourned all the me’s I’ve tried and failed to be. I have no regrets—not about where and who I am now, not about crying, and not about telling you this.
And the dead lay in pools of maroon below (“Jeremy”)
Because I grew up without MTV, I didn’t experience Pearl Jam the way nearly everyone else did. I didn’t see the video for “Jeremy” until years after it came out. When I finally did, I poured over it as another dimension of art I already loved. But it was never my favorite. I raise my arms into a V like everyone else when the time comes, but out of ritual, not stoke. It was different on 4/29. Ask anyone who was there. The energy of the songs played in order was some alchemy of nostalgia and renewed defiance, as if somewhere between the band’s deciding to play the full album and the crowd realizing what was happening, we all, performers and audience alike, were able to re-interpret this sequence of songs in a new, collective way. Look at this first thing we/you made, and look at this first thing we/you love, still. It really IS rad, huh?
But it’s more than that. This song might be about a troubled kid who blew himself away; but in America in 2016, “Jeremy” is also a reminder of how parents can fail their children and how easily anyone can obtain a weapon. My faith in art comes easily. I wish my faith in humans did, but all I could think about was how we’re a country of amnesiacs. “Jeremy” was written 25 years ago and we still have the same problems and then some. More art, please.
The sea will rise, please stand by the shore (“Oceans”)
One of my first thoughts when I realized that Pearl Jam were playing all of Ten that April night was the beautiful sucker-punch that I would at last get to hear “Oceans.” A song typically reserved for shows that occur near breaking waves, this inlander never thought she’d hear it outside of some vacation-of-a-lifetime situation. I soaked it up like sun and salt and sand. After all these years: a first. Imagine that.
Would you hit me? (“Porch”)
I for one am crazy about the slow jam variation of the opening to “Porch.” I love clapping to it. This is a visceral song anyway: an F-bomb right out of the gate, an onslaught of question-demand-dismay, a raw response to being left before the love leaves you. Some part of my body should pound its pulse. The lyrics are fragmented, enjambed, the way I’m learning memory of traumatic events is nonlinear and distorted. I let my mind meander like fingers over frets during the “Porch” solo to all my comings and goings, lovings and losings; because if it’s not already abundantly clear, Ten holds my most pivotal and formative feels, and “Porch” is the quintessential “left” song by a band lyrically obsessed with leavings. My life has been made and broken and re-made dozens of times on porches. I thought about my mother kicking me out of my house when I was 17—on the porch. I thought of how I wished she’d just hit me instead of shoving her toxic cocktail of rage and degradation down my then-timid throat. I thought of being dragged across a stoop and threshold, years later, by a man who picked up where she left off, who called me names AND hit me. I escaped both oppressors, left those old selves behind on those porches. The self-loving sadness I felt during “Black” rose with new, aggressive energy during “Porch.” It pounded from my fists into the air as the solo crescendo-ed into the last chorus and round of yeah-yeah-yeahs. Tellin ya. Music saves.
I won’t be taken, yet I’ll go (“Garden”)
The solemnity of this song scared me as a kid. I was hip enough to symbolism to reason that “garden of stone” referred to either a cemetery or a cityscape. Mostly I think about dying when I hear it. How we are all headstones once we stop walking.
To the man above her, she just ain’t nothing (“Deep”)
I always vibed with that bit of lyric from this gritty song, long before I’d ever heard the term rape culture. Vedder has always expressed compassion for women and women’s issues, and some of the band’s most popular songs are from or include a female perspective. So while Vedder’s commentary on selfies didn’t come until later in the show on April 29, I want to talk about it here. I thought about catching glimpses of myself in the mirror at various low points of my life and not knowing who I was. Is that what I look like? I asked then because my eyes looked dead and my bones poked through my skin. I ask now because I kinda look like a real person again. So when Vedder made some snark comment about young girls posting pics of themselves to social media for validation and approval, and he called it “dangerous,” I paused. Brand new feelings brewed in me. When I post a selfie and someone likes it or compliments me, it might not be “deep,” but it does undo one verbally abusive comment I’ve endured. It brings a tiny part of me back to life—vibrant, of-the-moment, check-out-my-new-leather-jacket life. It shows me that people can be kind. For one split second, I wanted the whole show to stop so I could scream, dude, don’t tell girls how and when and where to seek validation! The real danger is people feeling invalid! In short, I disagreed with my hero. It’s ok to disagree with your heroes, and they can still be your heroes if you do. Learned that at a Pearl Jam show.
I’ll open up (“Release”)
April 29 was cold and drizzly. I drank bourbon in the parking lot and tried to warm up. My best friend of 20 years went with me, and it was her first time. She was a trooper in the more sensible shoes I made her change into (if you know someone who can be genuinely excited FOR you regarding something that hasn’t ever really excited her, and she can do it in platforms, hold onto that person with everything you’ve got). She dealt with my squeals and random effervescent trivia all day long. Before “Release,” the last song of the album, Vedder addressed the crowd for a long time. He talked about death and loss, and the song’s personal meaning for him, and just as I was standing there thinking that I’d never seen him speak so openly about himself, I felt my friend beside me. I didn’t touch her or see her, I just felt her respond emotionally to Vedder’s utterance of the word “father.” She lost her father last year. It was unexpected and sudden and she is still devastated. I don’t know how long I watched her watching Vedder speak, but I do know that I could see her being moved and changed by his spoken and sung words. I saw her become part of that ecstatic crowd, taking panoramic photos of them with a huge smile one minute and weeping among them the next. I thought, how have I never given this woman my second ticket before? Why don’t I share this band with those closest to me? What happened to me decades ago, when the Pearl Jam switch flipped inside of me and I decided, this is holy. This is truth and art is truth and art might be all I believe in, ever—I saw something similar happen to her during “Release,” with the crowd’s energy swirling into the band’s energy and all 20,000 of us uplifted and not alone anymore.
Listen. It’s not only WHAT art can make us feel. In 2016 in America, it’s THAT art can make us feel. The Pulitzer novel, the iconic photograph, the avant garde film…or the first rock album that ever knocked you over. Art grounds, moves, connects, inspires, and changes us.
“I will see that band any time, any place,” my friend told me afterward. “I believe now.”
Stacia M. Fleegal is the author of two full-length and three chapbook poetry collections, most recently antidote (Winged City Press 2013). Her poems have appeared in North American Review, Fourth River, Barn Owl Review, UCity Review, decomP’s Best of 10 Years anthology, Crab Creek Review, Knockout, Best of the Net 2011, and more. Her essays have appeared at Quaint Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine and Delirious Hem. She co-founded Blood Lotus, teaches online writing courses for the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing, and works for the Peace & Conflict Studies department of a private liberal arts college in central PA. She’s @shapeshifter43 on Twitter and blogs at anotherwritingmom.wordpress.com.