“The music you loved as a teenager is the sweetest music you’ll ever hear; that music will be, in all likelihood, the greatest, wildest, purest love affair of your whole life.” – Rob Harvilla, 60 Songs that Explain the ’90s.
As a kid, my taste in music was indiscriminate. Whatever was on the radio was my jam. Whatever videos played on Mtv were my vibe. (Did I understand as a fourth grader what was happening in Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love” video? No. Did I nevertheless sexy-cat crawl around across the room like Betsy Lynn George every time it came on? I very much did.) I knew all the words to every song in the zeitgeist of this era. I could name any tune in five notes or less, Air Supply to ZZ Top. Most of us could, to be honest. Such is life in a monoculture.
This is how the soundtrack to the childhoods of Baby Gen-Xers/Elder Millennials(1) were compiled—by someone else controlling the dial while you rode the hump seat in the back of a Honda Civic, aided and abetted by every latchkey kid’s favorite babysitter, VH1. Volume one of the soundtrack was decided this way, I should say. When we got a little older, we got to executive produce the follow-up, and since volume two included the self-actualization of our puberty years, it picked a lane.
I remember the moment that the music that would be my music became my music. It was at 3:30 in the afternoon, 64 degrees and cloudy, in an affluent suburb (or so the intro to the music video set the stage). The chalkboard was blank, and the sun was lemon yellow when a man in a corduroy jacket started singing about a kid named Jeremy. It’s a core memory, the first time I watched the video for that Pearl Jam song. I angsted, I ached, I sobbed. The lyrics gutted me, as did the true story on which they’re based. The music is also gutting, beginning slow and eerie before taking the audience inside the titular character’s mind, his rise to anger and descent into hopelessness, his anguished howls provided through the proxy of Eddie Vedder.
A person can’t experience what I felt the first time I heard and saw “Jeremy” and it not instantly become their favorite song. A fourteen-year-old person also can’t say their favorite song is one about a kid taking his own life at school in front of his classmates without raising all the eyebrows, but as this was the ’90s, no one voiced any of their concerns out loud.
Pearl Jam was my gateway into grunge music(2), and the flannel, the Cameron Crowe’s Singles, and the Mtv’s 120 Minutes of it all quickly usurped my identity. I like to think this would’ve happened no matter when I discovered ’90s alternative rock—that had I not been so fortunate to have come of age during this era, this music would’ve still had the same effect on me. Maybe I wouldn’t had dedicated one day a week to dressing “like Jeremy” (I 100% for real did this- loose fitting Levis, plain white-T, re: the video) had I first experienced that song in my 30s, but I know it still would’ve moved me like it did back then because great poetry transcends the times. Anguished howling does also, when done the way Eddie Vedder does it. So does nuanced, modulated slurring, apparently, because I’ve never known what the fuck Eddie’s saying in “Yellow Ledbetter”, but I know how that song makes me feel, which is probably how it makes us all feel, which is how it’s supposed to make us feel.
As an artist(3), I’ve come to understand that this is what I’m always chasing. How to feel universal in the specific. How to make others feel it with me. I don’t do this on purpose or with an agenda; I think that my subconscious has just determined that connection—the me in the we, the we in the me—is the only worthwhile endgame for any creative quest. Not because I’m naturally altruistic, but because a part of me will always be trying to save Jeremy from himself, and this is the only way I can think of to try.
Last summer, my family visited Seattle for the first time. I’m a parent of two daughters who currently are coming-of-age, one of which discovered Pearl Jam around the same age that I did. Because Eddie Vedder is a meritocracy, he required no undue influence from me to win her over, and because parents of my generation over-compensate for their own lacking positive childhood memories, my partner arranged for us to privately tour London Bridge Studio(4), the place where Pearl Jam’s Ten was born. Here, my daughter and I touched the keys of the piano used on “Black.” We stood beneath the famed rope Eddie swung from during recording sessions. We huddled together in the sound booth where many famous grunge songs(5)--including Jeremy—were recorded. And then we got to listen to the master recording of that session, vocals only.
It was better than meeting Eddie Vedder in person. (I say that having never met Eddie Vedder in person, but given the space between us on the social ladder, the stakes are low that I’ll be proven wrong about this, as much as I welcome the opportunity.) It was better because it was like going back in time and meeting only my favorite part of him, the part of him that helped me form one of my favorite parts of myself. The “adjacent possible” part connecting us both, because his art begat mine, because no artist is an island, and we’re all tied together by commas and coordinating conjunctions.
I don’t know that I’d still say that “Jeremy” is my favorite song, and it’s not because a grown-ass person can’t say that their favorite song is about a child dying by suicide without raising all the eyebrows and everyone thinking there’s Something Wrong With You.
OK, so maybe that is why, a little bit. But what won’t ever change is that “Jeremy” will always be my favorite song on volume two of my childhood soundtrack, which we can all agree, is the most coveted title of any song anyone’s ever written.
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(1) There is no definitive name for the mini-generation of people born between the years 1978-1983, and we need to change.org that shit.
(2) Yes, I am aware that “grunge” is a controversial adjective, rejected by many artists who the label was bestowed upon, but I’m still using it here with affection and reverence because there’s no better word.
(3) An artist of the writer persuasion, not the musical kind, sadly, as growing up I had no access to musical opportunity nor musical people aside from the slackers in garage bands I dated too many of.
(4) Maggie, our tour guide, is one of the too-few female sound engineers in the industry. She is brilliant and fucking rad, and if you have the chance to visit Seattle, it’s worth triple the cost for her to show you around London Bridge.
(5) I could write an entire novel about what it was like to hear the master recording of Chris Cornell laying down the lyrics to “Hunger Strike”, dedicating many chapters to the breaths we could hear him taking between lines.