Powering through all phases with Pearl Jam's 'Grievance'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
“Have a drink, they’re buying…”
Those words come after an unusual, pounding beat on the drums, in some time signature that’s somewhere north of a waltz and way past a typical 4/4 that I’m not musically or mathematically inclined enough to recognize. Those drums are strange enough to grab attention, and then the words, following a group of slashing guitars, sound downright bizarre in contrast.
It’s class warfare in the best way. Quickly, within the singer, detached disdain turns to outright fury as the story moves on through lies, surveillance and apathy, all the worst aspects of this society and future ones balled together within pulsating rhythms and fiery passages.
Plenty of times, in those spare moments between stresses at work and playing the songs I play to keep myself focused and animated, I have this fantasy about this ultimate trash/blues/punk duo with a singer that’s more Mark Arm than Morrissey screaming these songs, shredding on a guitar more by ripping strings than ripping off note-perfect solos and having everything punctuated by a do-everything drummer, someone who knows when to go off in a fury and when to pound a 4/4 beat like the world could end.
And, the other day, I had a vision of that imaginary band furiously burning through Pearl Jam's “Grievance,” an appropriately furious song that calls into question all loyalties, national and local, ruminates about existence and calls for some kind of higher plane, whatever it might be, all in the space of three minutes.
There are a lot of moving parts to that song, and it’s not an obvious one to have a stripped down version of, say, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion rip through. But beneath all the layers, all of Mike McCready’s spacey atmospherics and Stone Gossard’s chunky rhythms, it can really be stripped down to three elements — Eddie Vedder’s screeching vocal breaks, his power-chord rhythm guitar and Matt Cameron’s raging drums, at once intricate and pounding. There aren’t riffs in the song through the guitar or vocals as much as there are drum riffs and rhythms; Cameron, more than anyone else in a band of rather strong personalities, is dictating the direction of the song and its various elements.
They take this song and burn the club down with it. It’s righteous and loud and unrelenting, and after they’re done, there’s no sound save for the quick, obligatory “thank you” from the singer, and they move on with their set. No one at the bar notices, except for maybe one person in the back who recognizes the song. And there’s a 50 percent chance that person thought that version sucked.
“Progress laced with ramifications / Freedom’s big plunge”
“Grievance” arrived on Pearl Jam’s 2000 album Binaural, which certainly was not a big seller and was a transitional album of sorts. It was their first with Cameron behind the kit, their first without producer Brendan O’Brien since their debut Ten and it found them grappling with their record label again about the best way to release their music. The tour in support of this album would eventually give way to the release of 72 live albums documenting nearly every night on the road, and another business avenue was discovered.
But the label people don’t know music as much as they know how to market it. The real scholars of music are usually the musicians and the folks trailing and documenting their every move. If I wanted to talk about the importance of this song, I’ve always had the person in mind whose brain I’d like to pick.
Another fantasy involves talking to various folks who are no longer here to talk to. Sometimes they’re writers, sometimes they’re historic figures and politicians, but more often than not it’s Joe Strummer. There is little evidence that points to any kind of conclusion other than one where Strummer lived and breathed music, taking in every note he could hear and immediately placing it in some kind of context as he reached for the needle to play that song again if he could.
With all of the shifting pieces of “Grievance,” and how it can still be boiled down to its raw essence without losing any of its urgency, it reminds me, if not in sound, then in spirit of a classic Clash song. And this is the kind of thing I’d like to ask him, in an imaginary conversation where he’s blowing my mind with songs and sounds I’ve never heard. And in a breath where he’s momentarily out of life-changing music (he’s really just flipping through his records to grab the next thing here), I could ask him about some songs that I love that I think he’d like. And I’d ask about “Grievance.” Of course he’s heard it, but let’s hear it again anyway.
“For every tool they lend us / A loss of independence”
Of course these are all delusions made safely within the realm of context. I’m not having a conversation with Strummer any time soon, hopefully, and I doubt I’m going to hear some punk band in a club destroy this song in that specifically beautiful way. But it speaks to the power of the song, that 14 years after it landed in the laps of unsuspecting listeners, it could still conjure up these random, intricate worlds, and that its lyrics could still hide so many nuggets worth mining.
Track it down on most of those 72 live albums or one of the myriad bootlegs released since, and even if the structure of the song doesn’t change, the intensity does from night to night, shifting from a mid-set rocker to an absolute barn-burner, with Vedder screaming and the band thrashing away as if this song was going to make or break the night.
It’s that kind of intensity on the best versions of that song that keep me coming back. Listen to the version from Houston in 2000 that was immortalized on the Touring Band 2000 DVD, or a take from London earlier that year where Vedder nearly loses his voice screaming, “We’re all deserving something more.” Jump ahead a decade to Sept. 11, 2011, in Toronto, and that intensity is still there, with the band walloping away behind with an energy not of a new song but of one whose message is unfortunately still relevant.
So they keep singing it. Its message stays in rotation and it keeps filling in the gaps between radio hits in the setlists and between meetings at work, and it keeps fueling conversations, real and imagined, keeping listeners on their toes with the volume cranked up and its words smoldering through the speakers.
“I will feel alive as long as I am free.”
Aug. 7, 2014
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org