Pearl Jam & rock star dreams

Yesterday, Pearl Jam began celebrating their 20th anniversary two years early by re-releasing their debut album Ten. It has the original recording, remastered versions of the whole album, and a few bonus tracks. In honor of this release, I'm taking a minute to share a few thoughts.

A good band can sell records and concert tickets; t-shirts, posters, and various other band related merch; swag and memorabilia. Even not-so-good bands can sell all that stuff (I won't mention the Jonas Brothers).

It's easy to differentiate what separates the good from bad... mostly talent and/or years of hard work. But what is it that separates good from great. Remember, good bands can be successful and immensely popular. Sadly, some great bands are often overshadowed by lesser bands. So what makes a great band?


Who influences whom? Many credit Kurt Cobain and Nirvana for the viral spread of the grunge genre, but fail to recognize The Melvins or the Pixies - two of Kurt's biggest influences. And while Nirvana's Nevermind album is lauded for the birth of grunge, many forget that Pearl Jam's Ten was released a month earlier.

Between the two, which band holds more influence. Pearl Jam, or Nirvana? Nevermind outsold Ten, but sales is not the tell tale sign of greatness. Pearl Jam is still recording new music, and Kurt's career was cut short (by drugs, depression, and a shotgun). But a lasting career vs suicide can't determine who's more influential. Both bands have been cited as influences from a wide range of acts from Christian one-hit-wonders The Normals, to neo-butt rockers Nicklebck.

I honestly don't think I can give a final definitive answer. I can only speak for myself (and a few others).

In eighth grade, my friend Matt asked me to write a song for his band (he was in a grunge band of his own). I'd never written a song before, but he said it was easy. Influenced by Pearl Jam's track listings, Matt told me "All you have to do is pick one word for your title, and write something that fits that title." I still have the lyrics to that first song I wrote (Reach) around somewhere.

My friend Tommy was a junior high student when Ten first came out. He - like many others our age - identified with this new musical movement. But Tommy was special... naturally musically gifted. After watching Pearl Jam's 1992 MTV Unplugged performance, Tommy bought a guitar, and taught himself how to play every song on Ten. Listening to Tommy's music now, you don't hear a shred of anything resembling Pearl Jam, but without their inspiration, Tommy might not be playing the guitar today (17 years later).

In 2002, Tommy and I (and a few other friends) took a road trip from Boise to Seattle for Poor Old Lu's reunion concert. Three guitars, a snare drum sized practice drum pad, a handful of drumsticks, and a Danelectro Honeytone Mini Amp rode along with us in Steve's Suburu GL station wagon. During that long boring stretch across Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington, Tommy plugged his guitar into the travel amp and started playing some Pearl Jam tunes. So, while Steve drove across the barren scab-lands, Nate kept beat on his practice pad and I sang along. We held our own personal concert inside Steve's GL. Our set list: Once, Corduroy, Alive, Wishlist, Betterman.

It's on that road trip that I finally lived out a part of my boyhood dreams. This may or may not be a well known factoid, but the kid in me has always wanted to be a rock star. From hanging out in my friend Willie's bedroom as a 6th grader playing other people's songs on his Casio keyboard, to writing my first song for Matt's band in 8th grade. From running sound at dozens of coffeehouse concerts to hanging out with P.O.D. at Tomfest. That's been the person I've always wished I could be. I can sing and play guitar. But I'm not that good. I enjoy being on stage, but I'm not charismatic enough to captivate thousands.

But when I was singing those Pearl Jam songs with Nate, Tommy, and Steve... I felt for the first time like I could actually be a rock star. My voice fit those songs. And I was making music with three of the best friends I've ever had. Somewhere along that lonesome highway between Ontario Oregon and Yakima Washington, I had one of those perfect moments - that experience where time is suspended and you know that life is as it should be.

We had an amazing weekend hanging out in Seattle. We went home. Tommy, Nate, and Steve started a band and I helped manage them for a while. My moment as a rock star passed but I still sing along with the radio and sing lullabies to my kids. Most days I realize that the quality of my singing restricts me to performing only for an audience of One. Except when a Pearl Jam song is played. When I'm singing along with Pearl Jam, I still feel that roadside feeling I first discovered seven years ago.

So, I may not be able to settle the Pearl Jam vs Nirvana dispute, but I will testify on Pearl Jam's behalf. As far as I am concerned, Nirvana was a good band... Pearl Jam is a great band.

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