I read a great book by one of my favorite authors recently, Songbook by Nick Hornby. Hornby is the author of High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch among others. At times, I think Hornby is writing about my life. If you took Fever Pitch, set it in Kansas City, and adjusted KU basketball for Arsenal soccer, the book is about me.
Anyway, Songbook is a quick little number that Hornby wrote as both a tribute to his love for music and to raise money for charities including the school that helps his autistic son lead a somewhat normal life. In Songbook, Hornby writes about some of his favorite songs, how he came to know them, how they’ve affected him, and where he was in life when he first heard them. (Examples: “I’m Like a Bird” by Nelly Furtado, “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen, and “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin.) For a fellow music junkie, it’s a great read. I was a little disappointed he didn’t write about 20 Clash songs, since he’s well documented as a big fan. I suppose he did expand my horizons a little, though, since I had heard of maybe five of the songs.
While reading, I thought it was such a great concept that I should do something similar if I was going to be serious about writing on a regular basis and sharing the results with my friends. Music has always been extremely important to me (quick, name a song. I’ll associate a specific memory with it in five seconds and offer a couple pieces of useless trivia) but in the past couple years I’ve come to appreciate just how big a role music has played in my life. I’ve started to analyze why I’m drawn to certain songs, artists, and genres. I’ve tried to put songs in more of a historical context, rather than tying them to specific moments in my life. Finally, I’ve begun exploring the evolution of music, working back from songs I like now, or enjoyed five years ago, to find the music that inspired those songs. Below is my first of what I plan to be many attempts, hopefully getting better in quality over time. I’d like to do one a week and will try to come up with some fancy title to differentiate these pieces from my other entries. I promise not to write too often about the Clash, Pearl Jam, and Neil Finn so you actually get some variety. That said, week one’s selection falls within D’s Holy Trinity of Music.
“Even Flow” – Pearl Jam, 1991
While I knew “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a great song, and understood it was something different than anything else I had ever heard, I can’t say that’s the song that changed my life or even the way I listened to music. Despite really liking it, I distrusted Kurt Cobain and his anti-establishment stance. My musical interests were slow to change, and in the fall of 1991 I was spending more time listening to Public Enemy’s Apocalypse ’91 and Prince’s Diamonds and Pearls (coincidentally the last good album either put out). So while I heard the first shot of the revolution, I didn’t realize a revolution was under way.
I don’t recall the first time I heard “Even Flow”. I’m sure I had heard it here and there periodically during the late spring and early summer of 1992. Pearl Jam may have played it when they appeared on Saturday Night Live, which is the first time I really noticed them. I famously missed their appearance at KU’s Day on the Hill and an opportunity to hear it live a few weeks later. In fact, the first time Pearl Jam really had any effect on me was a couple weeks after Day on the Hill. I was at Louise’s West, someone played “Alive” and the bar came to a stop while everyone sang along with the chorus. Forget the fact “Alive” is a great song on its own, it was one of those special moments when you first really hear a song and the experience is dependent on how others are enjoying the same moment.
By early July, my music tastes had started to shift a little. Kansas City finally had a semi-alternative station, so some of the music I had ignored and even hated for years was suddenly making some sense to me. I’m not sure how many times I heard “Even Flow” the weekend of the Fourth of July. I just remember that the song seemed to be everywhere. We heard it on the radio while driving or hanging out at someone’s home, in bars, and the video was constantly on MTV. From the Thursday of the holiday weekend to the following Tuesday, when I bought the album Ten, “Even Flow” completely changed the way I felt about music and the kind of music I listened to.
The ultimate version of “Even Flow” is the “live” studio version, which was used in the video and eventually became the de facto radio version. Unlike the album version, which starts with a quick cord on the guitar, this version starts with the classic Eddie Vedder growl followed by the rest of the band jumping into the fray. The “live” version is angrier, dirtier, more powerful, and infinitely the better of the two. The heavy effects of the studio version are muted, and instead of sounding like he’s singing in the world’s biggest echo chamber, Eddie’s voice sounds like it’s screaming at you from a stage of a small club. It leaps out and smacks you in the face. Despite being “alternative”, there was a familiarity notably present in the song. Whether harkening back to 70s arena rock, or the anthemic early years of U2, while sounding different at the surface, there was a foundation that made you comfortable and engaged you.
The images offered by the video are the classic Pearl Jam image. Five young, dynamic musicians leaping around the stage. Sure, they had long hair, but they looked nothing like Poison, Warrant, or the other bands that just a couple years earlier had dominated the airwaves. Their performance was over-loaded with passion. It spilled over to the audience, who were clearly loving every minute of it. The video’s high point came when Eddie Vedder climbed up the light supports, swung from the scaffold for a while, and then leapt into the crowd. Along with the image of Kurt Cobain’s face covered by his hair, this is arguably the image that defines the music of the 90s. In musical terms, Pearl Jam is a much better band today than they were then, but I miss the passion their performances had then.
In this case, the story isn’t about any great meaning to a song. It’s about where I was in my life and how the song fit in. The summer of 1992 was a great one. I turned 21. We first moved into the big yellow house in Lawrence. The Bulls won the NBA title. One of the greatest Olympic games ever. I was discovering what my politics were during the presidential campaign. I realize it was a time when I first had the confidence of an adult. In retrospect, I understand a lot of that was false confidence based on the fact I had a valid ID that showed I was 21 years old. Apparently, all it takes is being able to drink a beer in public to cast aside lingering adolescent doubts. However it was a feeling that it seemed everyone in my circle of friends had, and we spent the entire summer celebrating putting our childhoods behind us. Each time I think of any of those events, I think of how Pearl Jam and “Even Flow” were the musical constants; the soundtrack to the next chapter of my life.
There’s a great line in High Fidelity: “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Along those lines, I’ve always wondered if it is phenomenal music that makes a time period great, or is it the events in a time period that elevate the status of the songs you were listening to then? Can I not recall any negatives from the summers of 1992 or 1983 because the music was so good, or was I having so much fun that even the worst crap they could put on the radio became a classic because of the memories associated with it? Musically, 1992 really was a great year. Nirvana was busy breaking down doors. The first wave of crossover hip-hop was in full effect. Mary J. Blige’s first album was keeping R&B in the game. Whether I was listening to “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix a Lot, “Tennessee” by Arrested Development, “Real Love” by Mary J. Blige, “Friday I’m in Love” by the Cure, “All I Want” by Toad the Wet Sprocket, or “T.R.O.Y.” by Pete Rock & CL Smooth it seemed like everything I was listening to was great.
A few months earlier, you never would have seen the Cure or Toad the Wet Sprocket in my lists. Since the late 80s, I was all hip-hop and R&B all the time. I would have turned my nose up at complex, whiney, college music. “Even Flow” cracked that close mindedness open and suddenly I was listening to rock again. Bands like REM that I hated out of ignorance were now in heavy rotation on my headphones. After five years of wanting to only play music with a lot of bass that could piss off people around me, I was suddenly interested in guitars and drums again, along with attempting to figure out what the songs were about. (I was under the mistaken impression that every alternative song was about something important. This lead to countless frustrating hours trying to figure out songs that had no real point. It was just the sound and the way the artists dressed that made them alternative. Not any magic lyrical content.)
What makes a great song? I don’t think there’s a special formula since it’s a highly personal judgment. I think “Even Flow” proves, at least in my case, that it’s often the environment in which you first hear the song, and the events that correspond to you learning and loving the song that are at least as important as the quality of the lyrics and music. “Even Flow” is a great song even outside of the context of the summer of 1992. Its status is elevated, however, when you consider how great that summer was and the fact it was the song that changed the way I think about music, and the type of music I listen to. Eleven years later, I still crank the volume way up when it comes on. That’s as high a testament to its greatness as anything else.