Return of the Madness
A detailed glance at obsession, music and mental health through four Pearl Jam shows in three weeks
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK editor
It was an incident that was innocent enough to not have even felt like an incident. It was nothing. It was breathing and blinking and walking and chewing gum, only not nearly as consequential.
At this moment, which at this time had yet to even qualified for “incident” status, my boss had passed by my desk with a copy of the latest schedule. I usually get my schedule about two weeks in advance, and I usually have the same schedule every week, unless I’ve already asked for a change for whatever reason.
I smile, say thanks, and carry on with my work. I didn’t look at it for five minutes. What’s the point? There’s no stellar information there, it’s the same thing every week. And if it’s not, I’m almost always consulted before to make sure I hadn’t already made plans. It’s not a bad gig in that respect.
So, a few work-related tasks later, I take a sip of my water and glance down at the schedule. And there’s something I didn’t expect:
An extra day off.
Thursday, to be precise.
Where’s Pearl Jam playing that day?
This whole Pearl Jam thing has festered inside me for more than a decade now. My friends call me obsessed. I counter that I just know what I like, and I happen to like Pearl Jam more than any other band. They’re not the only band I like — I could rattle off 100 bands right now that I absolutely love without exaggeration — but they’re without a doubt the band I’ve invested most emotion, time and money in. Concerts, records, CDs, cassettes, t-shirts, posters, stickers … it’s been a little ridiculous.
It was understandable and almost expected when I was 16, but to be sitting here now, at 24, more into a band who doesn’t know who I am than ever before, surprises even me.
I’m not complaining, and it could’ve been anything. I’m a sports fan, too, and I could’ve been that fan flying out to visiting stadiums to catch the team. If it were sci-fi I’d be at the conventions. Stamps, cars, coins, it wouldn’t have made a difference. I happily fell into a band and never got sick of them.
Some of my exploits, which I think are quite modest — I met one guy at a Boston show who will have seen them 9 times on the first leg of this tour alone — have netted me some friends and plenty of great memories.
What happened over the past three weeks was more of that. Great songs, great drives, great friends and great memories. And, funny enough, it all started in Albany, N.Y., a city in which I didn’t initially expect to catch the band.
I was in my car when it hit me that I was already half an hour past the start of the sale time for Pearl Jam tickets. Hartford, specifically, a Saturday night show slotted for May 13. Frantic swearing and dialing occurred.
Fortunately, the lovely Rachel Hodges was still home and picked up quickly, but Hartford was sold out. More swearing filled my Nissan as I trekked down to southern Massachusetts.
Sanity returned, and a back-up popped into my head.
“Is Albany still available??”
Albany was scheduled for the night before. Sure enough, there were still tickets. And because the Ten Club (Pearl Jam’s official fan club) seats fans by seniority, I was no worse for wear. I was just going to Albany instead of Hartford, which really wasn’t that bad. It just meant an extra half hour of driving and getting a Friday night off instead of a Saturday.
On this particular trip, I was accompanied by buddy and Static And Feedback cohort Bruce Hutchings. With him at the wheel, I was free to take down the scenery and attempt to add to the most glorified of all devices in American literature — the road trip. But, in all honesty, this was about 3½ hours to get there, and it was raining most of the way, obscuring the usually scenic view of western Massachusetts’ green hills and landscapes.
But that didn’t stop the conversation. For example, I didn’t expect that, while entering the Pittsfield area, Bruce and I would be trying to see if we really did still remember all 50 state capitals. I was hung up on Pierre, while Bruce stumbled on Tallahassee. That works out to about a 90 for each of us, just short of a gold star but probably good enough for some sort of smiley-face pen doodle from the teacher. If you have a drink in your hand, toast your Grade 3 teacher this instant and go practice your cursive ‘Z.’ Now. Before recess.
Eventually, we arrived, pulled into a parking garage across the street, and made our way over to the ticket office so as to beat the rush. And our seats were … on the floor! Section 5, row K, right smack dab in the middle, right where the River Rats drop the puck at the Pepsi Arena. We celebrated this by making our way over to a very crowded merchandise table outside the arena, where I picked up a green t-shirt with a righteous eagle-and-fist design and a handful of stickers. And then, it was off to the bar.
Now, I’d driven through Albany a few times, but I never had the chance to really stop and take in the city. And their downtown area is really nice, with wide sidewalks and plenty to do. Bruce and I planted ourselves down at the Bayou Café on Pearl Street for burgers and a pitcher (or two) of Magic Hat Fat Angel, which has since become my favorite of the Magic Hat brews. A good beer before a show can make all the difference, people.
Making our way back down the street to the show, we settled in about 20 minutes before My Morning Jacket took the stage. And this fact should not be understated — My Morning Jacket is awesome.
Pearl Jam usually doesn't disappoint in their choice of openers. On this 2006 tour, My Morning Jacket, Sonic Youth and Kings of Leon will open different sections of the tour, while a Midwest swing sees the band splitting the bill with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Past openers have included the Buzzcocks, Supergrass, Johnny Marr and the Healers, Ben Harper and Mudhoney… not a bad band in the lot, and they all happen to be personal favorites.
My Morning Jacket did not disappoint. I had seen them in the past, but it was before the release of Z, one of the best albums of 2005 and a great step for the band, one that sees them move from just rock into spacey, adventurous atmospheres. They went through their time in a fabulous fury, though, wrapping up around 8:15 after a 40-minute set.
And after a brief chat with our neighbors (two of whom guessed I was 32… then guessed 34 … yikes), “Master/Slave” — the music that opens and closes the Ten album — echoed through the room while the house lights were still on. Instant cheers fill the place and frantic fans scramble to their seats. There’s only about a minute before the building is completely black, save for a faint blue light illuminating the stage.
Across walks Boom Gaspar, to a chorus of “Boooooooom”s from the eager patrons, where he stands at his Hammond B3 organ. The opening chords of “Wasted Reprise” ring out. And Eddie Vedder walks across the stage to the microphone. As he sang, the other members of the band quietly filled their places on the stage: from left to right, lead guitarist Mike McCready, Jeff Ament on bass, Matt Cameron on the drums, Stone Gossard on guitar. Stone quickly crunched out the opening riff of “Life Wasted,” and the rest of the band crashed in perfectly.
Good lord, it hit me. For the first time in 18 months, Pearl Jam was about to kick my ass.
Along with Albany, I had the opportunity to catch the band in East Rutherford, N.J., and Boston twice. The travel shows had a different air than the two in what amounts to my backyard. It might be the crowd, it might be the mindset. For Albany and New Jersey, I left my place at noon. For Boston, I hopped on the T around 6 towards North Station, then hopped back on the way home. In Albany, Bruce and I were fortunate enough to be hosted by some of his friends for the night, while after the Jersey show I hopped back in the car with the mighty Jon “Cooch” Couture and drove another four hours back to his apartment in the Whaling City.
But the crowds were significantly different in each city. Albany had an enthusiastic crowd, but sort of a general rock feeling. They could’ve been the same people to watch the Flaming Lips, Queens of the Stone Age or the White Stripes under the right circumstances. Not that they were without enthusiasm, far from it. The Albany fans definitely screamed their share, and they also danced more than any Pearl Jam crowd I’ve ever seen. And when the house lights come on during the “hallelujah” part of “Do the Evolution”? They were there to throw their hands up and chant along. This sight, by the way, is very intimidating for the first-time viewer, as it scared the crap out of Cooch in Jersey.
Boston crowds, as in everything else, are crazy. For the Red Sox, Patriots and apparently, Pearl Jam, Boston attendees are barely a rational bunch, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is no shortage of enthusiasm. Sometimes, in a lot of these circumstances, it’s hard to know whether or not it’s genuine, but for these two shows it wasn’t an issue.
The band opened with “Release” the first night, and the crowd singing was loud, in key, and at times overpowering Vedder’s vocals. Forgive the expression, but it was truly breathtaking. The sight and sound of the band and 20,000 backup singers moving perfectly into the lyric “I wait up in the dark / FOR YOU TO SPEAK TO MEEEEEEE….. / I hold the pain / RELEAASSSEE MEEEE…….,” oh, well, I’m still not sure how to describe it. I guess you had to be there, and I certainly hope you were.
I know for a fact Rachel was at this show; she was more than excited to be there and subsequently spent the first hour of the show trying to keep an overzealous 15-year-old fan (who clearly didn’t belong in these particular seats) out of her face. But aside from that and an illness that struck with about 20 minutes to go in the show, she had a blast.
By the way, it should be noted that Rachel was responsible for these tickets, too. The ticketing system went down just as they went on sale, and after a half-hour of trying I had to go to work. She kept plugging away, though, and nabbed what turned out to be the closest I’ve ever sat to see the band. Right on.
The singing in Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden was even more intimidating the next night, and a week later in New Jersey, Vedder noted as such to the crowd in the Continental Airlines Arena.
“You know, you’ve got a few chances left to sing, but I gotta tell ya… Boston was louder.”
Their reaction? “Booooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”
God bless Devils fans, each and every one of them.
“Yeeahhh! Scott Stapp is an Eddie Vedder wannabee! Creed sucks! They suck ass! Whoooo! Scott Stapp sucks!”
And thus were the sounds of a fella coming out of the Continental Airlines Arena men’s room, clad in a Hawaiian shirt, New Jersey Devils hat and Devils gold medallion on a gold chain. He said this directly to me, then variations on that to whomever he made contact with in his travels, which included a lot of circling. Sure, his observation probably was a little timelier in 1999, when Creed was still in the public consciousness and Stapp actually had some sort of sway over general rock fans, no matter how undeserved. But still, the sentiment was appreciated … I think.
The Meadowlands complex is an interesting place. For example, they have an official sign in the parking lot that says “BOX OFFICE,” underlined by an arrow pointing … directly to a portable toilet. It’s easy to make fun of New Jersey, and I try not to because there are genuinely nice parts and people in the state… but man, sometimes it’s really hard to lay off the easy hit.
The parking lot scene was a tailgating one, with the typical barbecue misadventures and games of catch that you’d expect. With the humidity at about 99%, however, Cooch and I stayed in the car with the AC on listening to WFAN for a good while. Take that, ozone layer.
What was not typical, however, was one patron who parked fairly close to us. He and his friend got out, both dressed very nice in Dockers, shirts, ties and shoes. The driver got out, opened his back seat, and pulled out some clothes and a pair of sneakers.
“Oh,” Cooch said. “Now that makes sense.”
Of course it did. He’s just out of work, and wants to take in the show as comfortable as possible. However, this guy had no trouble disrobing down to his boxers in front of whoever could see (I was trying to admire the chain-link fence at this point) and was soon clad in jeans, a T-shirt and a Yankees cap.
Cooch: “What’s this guy doing? Ohhhh….”
What was he doing? Well, with his car door open, he dropped to his knees, with his eyes at window-level. Hold for 5 seconds. Then the stream begins to appear on the pavement.
It’s a special kind of person that will kneel and piss in public with a urinal within eyesight. And it’s also this kind of person (with New York license plates) that is probably doing his best to make sure that New Jersey’s reputation stays just the way it is.
But as interesting as the venues and the travel and the fans are, they’re not the reason for this obsession. If that were the case I’d just take in gun shows; I imagine the clientele are pretty fascinating.
No, the reason is the music, and on all four nights, the music was amazing.
Albany had a few genuine surprises contained within the setlist. “Red Mosquito” was the first, but the band ripping into both “Satan’s Bed” and “Rats” in the first encore was flooring. “Satan’s Bed” had been done last as a one-off attempt at State College in Pennsylvania in 2003, and poorly at that, with the band not really remembering how to play the Vitalogy track, while “Rats” hadn’t made any appearance since the end of the 1998 tour.
Albany was also the first time through many of the songs on Pearl Jam for me, and nothing disappointed. “Comatose,” “Life Wasted,” “Severed Hand” and “World Wide Suicide” are thundering live, while “Army Reserve” takes on a much grander, sweeping feel, mostly due to the reverb on McCready’s lead guitar. “Come Back” was also played off-the-cuff that night, much to everyone’s enjoyment (especially Bruce).
The highlights of the night, though, were the older songs, which was the biggest surprise to me. If I have to pick, I’m a much bigger fan of the latter-day Pearl Jam work than the early stuff, but “Why Go,” “Jeremy” and “Porch” were jaw-dropping that night, with “Porch” featuring a tortured, feedback-driven midsection that recalled the best moments of a Sonic Youth jam. The night was capped with an excellent reading of “Alive,” making the old-song revival complete.
Both nights in Boston saw the band tackle “Inside Job,” the new record’s epic closer, featuring McCready on a Jimmy Page-like double-neck guitar. “Inside Job” has a much edgier feel live, with the band performing the intro entirely electric and drawing the coda out a bit more than on the album. On Night 1, the band paid tribute to Bob Dylan on his 65th birthday with versions of “Forever Young,” featuring just Vedder and Ament, and “Masters of War.” “Red Mosquito” and “Rats” were back on this night, along with an excellent version of the b-side “Down” and the Lost Dogs track “Sad.”
The second night in Beantown was much more intense, however. Opening with “Severed Hand” and slamming right into “Corduroy,” there was a frantic feeling through the House that Bourque Built. The four-song run of “Insignificance,” “Army Reserve,” “Garden” and “I Got Id” was one such section where I felt like I didn’t have time to breathe. Through every song that night, the band was just totally on and slamming through every song. It made the first encore’s mainly acoustic bent welcome — I was damn exhausted at that point, so hearing “Man of the Hour” was refreshing. But a soaring version of “Black” was just around the corner, as well as an even-more-rocking version of “Alive.”
I think it was at this point where Bruce (filling in for Rachel) told me that he felt like he was going to cry. I understood where he was coming from.
And this was before “Leash.”
Now, a bit of history.
To begin, Pearl Jam fans are crazy. They are absolutely insane. They will go to any length to hear a specific song. Sure, they all love “Even Flow,” but if one of them gets to be in attendance to hear the band play “Sleight of Hand,” well, that’s 1,000 times more meaningful.
There have been song campaigns in the past, most notably the “Breath” campaign of 1998. After a show at Boston Garden on April 11, 1994, “Breath,” a track from 1992’s Singles soundtrack, disappeared from setlists. But in 1998, beginning in East Rutherford on Sept. 8, fans started holding out signs reading “Breath” as the band walked back for the encore. The band laughed. More fans and more “Breath” signs filled Madison Square Garden at the next show on the 10th. On Sept. 11, every level of the Garden was covered by signs that read “Breath.” Vedder acknowledged the crowd:
“You fucking cocksuckers. You fucking bitch! You fucking … You know, we come up here as a collective band and we give, and we give and you just fucking want more. And you know what? You deserve it.
This is like some kind of, this is like organized religion here. I've never seen anything like it. Do you see what's happening? You see what’s happening. The third night in a row, right? Third night in a row this shit’s been going on.
Well fuck you. We're gonna play it."
They played it, and the place went nuts. The next show, in Hartford, saw the band greeted with “THANK YOU” signs, and another rendition of “Breath.”
Signs have been popping off an on since, most famously at the second of two Madison Square Garden shows in 2003 with a banner that read “Play Leash You Pussies.”
The call for “Leash” had been on with a vengeance ever since. The morning after the first Boston show, I discovered upon my internet travels that the band had sound checked “Leash” before the show.
They had last played “Leash” at the Boston Garden, on April 11, 1994.
Watching 20,000 collectively lose their minds is something to behold, and during the second encore of the second Boston show, this was in full effect. Starting with what might’ve been the greatest version of “Why Go” ever played to begin with helped. “Life Wasted” was roaring again, and Vedder, calling an audible, ran to each member of the band and played “Smile,” with Ament on guitar and Gossard on bass. A beautiful version of “Indifference” followed, with the crowd really overpowering the band on the line “I will scream my lungs out till it fills this room…”
In the slight break that followed, I noticed a sign on the floor. It read “Do not play LEASH here tonight.” Clever. I liked that.
And, according to the roaring version of “Leash” that followed, so did the band.
I could probably never totally describe how crazy it felt to be in that building at that time. It was as if there were fans falling out of the balcony. Everyone was jumping and screaming and slapping high- fives… total madness. It was a beautiful thing to be a part of.
And it was that beautiful madness that drove me to be there. It was that madness that made me, upon the discovery of an extra day off, hop online to scope out the ticket situation — I could have two tickets near the stage at face value if I acted right then.
I announced my thoughts to the office, that I was “50/50” on whether or not I was going. Cooch laughed a bit at me, good-naturedly.
10 minutes later, he approached my desk.
“I have to be honest: I’m thinking about it now.”
An hour later, he was in. Perhaps it was the intrigue into that very madness that drove him. All I know, to paraphrase his own words, was that in the span of an hour, he went from not driving 438 miles roundtrip to see Pearl Jam to… well, yeah.
It had been a while since I’d driven a long distance in a short time, but the drive really wasn’t that bad. I didn’t even feel any ill effects until about 2½ hours into the trip back. And, of course, the show made it all completely worth it, including hearing the fabled Mamasan trilogy —Alive, Once and Footsteps — backwards in the first encore.
I also realized I had been taking Eddie Vedder’s pre-sets for granted. At a handful of shows, Vedder takes the time to walk out before the opening band with the guitar to play a song or two (or, sometimes, four) as sort of a thank you to all the folks who showed up early to catch the opening act.
I was pleasantly surprised, in that he doesn’t do it every show. Cooch was nearly stunned.
“I’ve never heard of anyone else doing that.”
“Really?” I countered. “Well, yeah, I guess no one else does that, huh.”
“No, really, they don’t. That’s… that’s kind of awesome.”
Later on, he told me, “they seem to actually care about their fans.” And he was right to think it, between pioneering the “official bootlegs,” keeping ticket prices below standard for big rock shows, giving fans the best seats in the house before Ticketmaster can get their hands on the stubs, fan-club-only records at the holidays, new setlists every night, 2½-to-3-hour shows…
Well, if they don’t care, they certainly have me fooled.
I sometimes wonder if I go too far. Do I have too many CDs? Do I go to too many shows? Do I care for this band too much?
Because of this, I’m often very interested to what my friends have to say about the band after seeing them, usually with me. Cooch noted that he finally got what the fuss has been about, that Pearl Jam understands that what makes an arena show great is the emotion involved, and that the crowd and the band feed off of each other greatly. And he genuinely had a good time, which made me happy. I don’t want to drag people 240 miles from home for nothing.
Bruce was gushing. He noted that “they’ve climbed so far up my list; the last two shows were two of the best I’ve ever seen. They’re amazing.”
The second Boston show might be the best I’ve seen, though it’s hard to say; I was in attendance at the first of two Madison Square Garden shows in 2003 (later released on DVD as Live at the Garden) and I was witness to the 4½ hour monster on June 11, 2003, in Mansfield, Mass., which saw the band complete their “Every Song in the Book” experiment over three nights at the Tweeter Center.
After all is said and done, it never feels like enough. But, strangely, and as much as I wanted to see them at the East Coast closer in East Rutherford the following Saturday, it never feels like too little, either. It always feels just right.
I’m 24 years old now. I’ve grown up with this band. Their songs have invaded my life, their shows are the best entertainment I could ever ask for.
And that feels all right with me.