This is dedicated to Ti-Lin Todd Sun. I’m forever grateful for him telling me to listen to his cassette tape.
I started to draft this article over six years ago and could never navigate my brain and heart well enough to find the right words to adequately describe why Ten became so meaningful to me when I was a kid and how it remains a pillar of my interpersonal development. I realized this week as Pearl Jam is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the album that I could spend another six years tinkering with words and it’ll never be perfect.
I have to settle with offering a glimpse into my mind back in 1991 when I was an incredibly anxious teenager trying to figure out who I was and how to comfortably and confidently be myself. The following is my relationship to a few songs on Ten and I hope – at the very least – an expression of appreciation and gratitude for all it has meant during my life.
Once (upon a time)
I was born in 1976 and the music I consumed throughout the 1980s was a combination of pop, rock and metal. The topics covered in most songs were about partying, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Meanwhile, older bands that had songs with deeper themes seemed outrageously old at the time. Anything released before 1980 felt like the Stone Age; even Queen seemed like a relic from the distant past and they released a studio album in 1991 – the same year as Ten.
It all started with a cassette tape that a friend convinced me to listen to earlier in the day. I listened to the cassette on a beat-up Walkman in the dark that night in my den. What I did earlier that day or in the subsequent weeks, I have no idea. But I remember the first time I listened to Once kick in. It sounded so good and different from the type of music I usually heard. A couple of songs later, Alive immediately caught my attention and captured my imagination.
It has never let go.
Regardless of where I am or what I am doing, Alive always inspires me, improves my day, produces goosebumps, and gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling with a general sense of, “Everything is going to work out.” Sometimes I cry. I realize Alive was not meant to be a “feel-good” song, but it always has been for me.
I did the math and it seems accurate to report that I’ve listened to Alive north of 1,200 times. It’s fair to say I hear it on accident or on purpose 3-4 times each month.
(3.5 listens per month) x (12 months in a year) x (30 years) = 1,260 listens
And that significantly undercounts my younger years when I’d plow through Ten on repeat multiple times a week. If there is any one song my friends and loved ones would associate with me – it’s Alive. I’m quite certain I wrote down in my will that it should be played at my memorial service. I absorbed this song as an anthem. A mantra. Something that was mine.
I did not see Pearl Jam in concert until the late 1990s. While I knew the band was becoming famous and more popular, my interaction with other Pearl Jam fans was limited. The internet was not really formed so the primary options for hearing music were from the people physically close to you or through the radio or MTV. I was not surrounded by mobs of people that also loved Ten; I had some friends that liked it and others that would make fun of me for always listening to them. One friend would mock me by saying, “Pearl Jam!” in a high-pitched voice as if I would add them into any conversation we might be having; he was not completely incorrect!
After 30 years and 1,200+ listens, Alive still can take my breath away. I considered how to express my thoughts about the song and even hearing it in my head creates waves of emotions. Loss, sorrow, power, and defiance just to name a few. In high school, I didn’t know why it was written; I didn’t know what the lyrics were supposed to mean. I just knew how they made me feel.
How they still make me feel.
Chills. Tears. A surge of energy that makes me want to run through a brick wall.
It gives me all of that damn-near every time I hear it.
“Son,” she said, “have I got a little story for you
What you thought was your daddy was nothing but a…
While you were sittin’ home alone at age thirteen
Your real daddy was dyin’
Sorry you didn’t see him, but I’m glad we talked”
I had no idea this was an autobiographical story by Eddie Vedder until years later. The words related close enough to my experience losing my father when I was eight-years-old. It’s the beginning of the song and connects with some of my earliest fully-formed memories, which detail the night my father was killed. He was a detective with New Jersey State Police and he was shot and killed instantly while performing a drug raid on a meth lab. I lost my father suddenly and Alive touches on that type of loss while also expressing frustration about questions that will never be answered. There is grief and confusion leading to the following.
Oh, I, oh I’m still alive
Hey, I, oh I’m still alive
Hey, I, oh I’m still alive
Soaring vocals with an exclamation, “I’m still here surviving this shit.”
The song slithers around and lands on this verse.
“Is something wrong”, she said, of course there is
“You’re still alive,” she said, oh, and do I deserve to be?
Is that the question?
And if so, if so who answers?
The search for meaning; it’s right there. “What is the purpose of life and who can tell me how to solve that riddle?” This hit on thoughts and emotions I grew up with throughout my life. I was born with significant heart defects and only one functional kidney. They removed the undeveloped kidney when I was one-year-old and I had another surgery when I was four to get additional blood flowing to my lungs. My blood oxygen count would always be low and it would inhibit my activity level. I got winded and flushed easily though otherwise looked “normal” except for a couple of large scars on my back and flank.
My routine was meeting with cardiology specialists every six months and wondering if my heart was still functioning well enough to keep living. It was a hell of a thing to get accustomed to though that was the schedule for me and my family. Before he died, my father would join my mother and I to drive to a hospital in Philly and later to a medical center in New Jersey for check-ups twice a year. It was blood work, EKG, x-ray, and an echocardiogram in the morning followed by meeting with the cardiologist in the afternoon. And every six months we’d all wait quietly in that doctor’s office to learn my new prognosis.
The cardiologist would come in, attach my x-rays to the wall and report that everything was still looking good. It was clear to me as a young child that my cardiologist did not know how or why I was still alive. Literally. I know this because I asked. The combination of heart defects and how they attempted to compensate for it with a BT shunt when I was four-years-old created a system that served its purpose. The medical folks didn’t know how long that would last because patients with congenital heart disease typically died. The take home message was always, “Keep doing what you’re doing” and considering I was trying as much as possible to “be a normal kid” it was not the most specific guidance.
Then my father died and my mom took me every six months to the medical center, which then staggered to every 12 months. She explained to me years later that she erred on the side of spoiling me when I was young because she figured I could be dead at any moment. It was a challenge to incorporate two competing internal values of, “I’m really conscientious, anxious and shy, I want to do the right thing” with, “Holy shit, I could be dead soon and I should do whatever feels good!”
My sense of life and longevity were more tenuous than most kids my age. Between my heart condition and the sudden death of my father, I grew to both embrace and resent my heightened awareness of death and dying. I thought it made me wiser and more mature than my peers in some ways. Goofing or clowning around never appealed to me that much; I became so serious. I was always the mediator with friends.
I internalized that I was fragile.
Wrestling with living in the moment and planning for the future became a new task around high school. “What might I do for work when I grow up? I guess I have to go to college, right? I guess my heart is going to keep pumping for me and I have time. What do I do with this time?” So in addition to the normal avalanche of anxiety in high school when I equally wanted to assert myself to convince people that I was cool AND become as invisible as possible, I was also pondering existential questions about life and death. Which brings us to:
I, oh I’m still alive
Hey, I, oh I’m still alive
Yeah, I, oh I’m still alive
Ooh, I’m still alive!
Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!
Soaring. Defiant. Passionate. “I am fucking breathing and I’m right here. I am a walking and talking medical curiosity and I’m not going anywhere.” It’s a celebration of will and survival. It’s triumphant. The guitar comes in and takes you on a ride for a good minute or two.
I continue to hold onto Alive as if it’s mine while also knowing it is shared by millions of other Pearl Jam fans that have their own story to tell. My late brother and I had a conversation in his basement within the last 10 years that I’ll never forget. I think he noticed the gleam in my eyes while Alive played in the background. With our friends around us my brother teased, “You think he’s singing about you.” Without pausing a moment, I sincerely replied:
As a young teenager my only notions of romance and love were gleaned from pop culture, a couple of Jackie Collins novels I secretly read, and my sister’s Cosmopolitan magazines. I was pretty damn sheltered! Though like anyone else, my hormones were starting to kick into hyperdrive and the desire to be in a romantic relationship raged. Most other goals in life faded to the background because the idea of having a girlfriend occupied the vast majority of real estate in my mind. Sure, there were classes and homework to contend with though high school became a mental gauntlet of trying to get noticed by a member of the opposite sex while also trying to avoid doing anything that would draw attention to myself.
Clearly, these goals are not aligned!
There were less distractions during this time so whatever one might fixate on could stay present for a long while. I had a 40-minute bus ride to and from school each day where I mostly sat alone listening to the same rotation of albums through my Walkman, which was later upgraded to a Discman. I often fell asleep on the bus because I stayed up way too late most nights either playing videogames or watching television. The hours immediately after school were typically dominated by The Disney Afternoon or spending time with friends playing whiffle ball, basketball, football, or street hockey. We’d take a lap or two around the local mall or hang at a friend’s house playing videogames. There was little opportunity to connect with people outside of my immediate friend group. I saw people at school and then everyone went their separate ways. Unless you rode a bike to their house or called them on the phone, you did not communicate with many people outside of your immediate family and neighbors. I was fortunate to have a small group of friends though my world was small.
Girls seemed like an alien species and the anxiety that bloomed when I was around them was crippling. It’s that time of life when you can develop a strong crush on someone you barely know. And with a routine that did not change nearly enough, that crush could be nurtured and rehearsed internally for weeks and months on end. In high school, I was of the mindset that someone in my class was the most interesting and beautiful girl I’d ever seen. This thought persisted for over a year and it was crystal clear to me that a relationship with her would never happen – and at the same time I thought about it all the time. I eventually worked up enough courage to shot my shoot, and it failed spectacularly.
I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life
I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky, but why
Why, why can’t it be, oh, can’t it be mine?
Ooh, ah yeah, ah, ooh
Devastating clarity, that’s what Black is to me. Again, I was a naïve teenager and didn’t know shit about romantic love – yet I knew what it felt like to harbor an unrequited “love” for someone. The anguished question that concludes the song played in my head throughout my days. “I’m a good person. I’m kind. I could be good for someone else. Why can’t I communicate that? Why am I so incredibly terrified?” This song provided a means to feel and process those emotions. It’s fair to say I wallowed in it at times. Years later in Pearl Jam Twenty, Eddie Vedder said about Black, “It’s a true story, something that I really felt and I still feel every time I sing it.”
Considering how Black can transport me back to that young insecure kid with stars in his eyes pining away for a girl I was too afraid to talk to…. I think I know what he means.
The final track on Ten has always been haunting in my mind. The song is contemplative and deliberate, and hones in on one’s relationship with their father. Again, another song that seemed to hit on thoughts and emotions I had struggled with since my father was killed. My family went to some therapy sessions soon after he was murdered in 1985 though I was only nine-years-old at the time and they never seemed to help all that much. I had family, teachers, and other parents that looked after me though it’s not like people go out of there way to ask, “How are you doing with your father being dead?” Even if they asked, I’m not sure I knew how to verbalize what I needed or how I felt.
Honestly, the biggest concern for me during those high school years was not upsetting anyone else when the death of my father came up in conversation. Friends of friends or acquaintances might ask me something about my parents and I’d have to say, “My father died in the line of duty” or something like that and their face would go white as a sheet. I’d always fill in quickly, “It’s okay. It’s okay. I don’t mind talking about it. You didn’t upset me.” I was motivated to make them comfortable.
Oh, dear Dad, can you see me now?
I am myself, like you somehow
I’ll ride the wave where it takes me
I’ll hold the pain, release me
Oh, oh I
Those lines seared me at the time and allowed grief that I didn’t have words for to take shape. I am myself, like you somehow. “Would my father approve of me? What would we talk about? Am I like him? He was so different from me though there must be part of him in my personality, right?” My father was a beast of a man; a freaking superhero. He won college weightlifting trophies and served in Vietnam as a Marine. He then was in the Army National Guard and became a State Trooper eventually getting promoted up to Detective where he worked undercover on mob stings and drug rings. He seemed a giant; gentle at times and also fierce and imposing.
“Would he allow his son to be consumed by the fear of making a fool of himself? Would he force me out of my comfort zone? And how could I live up to his image. His stature?”
I will never have answers to these questions, and I’m smart enough to know my brain isn’t going to stop asking them. I have to do the best I can with the information and resources I have available.
Oh, dear Dad, can you see me now?
I am myself like you somehow
I’ll wait up in the dark for you to speak to me
How I’ve opened up, release me
Release me, release me, ah, release me
Oh, oh I
Oh, whoa, ah ooh, ooh
The longing in this verse always electrified me. It’s 30 years later and hearing the song by myself around a campfire will result in me getting lost in thought about my father. From the defiance in Alive to the desperation in Black and the grief in Release, Ten gave me a new set of tools to understand myself.
And it all sounds so damn good!
I finally saw Pearl Jam in concert for the first time in 1998 at an amphitheater in Camden, New Jersey. It’s a city across the river from Philadelphia and I was able to finally get tickets and go with some friends. It so happened that it was also the 13th anniversary of the exact night (August 28th) my father was killed. I knew I wanted to embrace every moment of the show and I really hoped to experience Alive in person.
They opened with Release. Given how strongly that song reminds me of my father and the relationship we never got to have, I imagine I was supercharged emotionally. I bounced around on the lawn throughout the first 15+ songs and stayed on the outskirts of any mosh pits while doing the occasionally bump-into-someone out of exuberance. They played Black and by that time in my life I had been in two different long-term romantic relationships and had my heart truly broken; the song always reminds me of my younger self though now there’s a mixture of nostalgia with a recognition that I’ve matured.
Then Alive started.
I only recall that I had a single goal – I must crowd surf. I never experienced crowd surfing before and the life-is-fragile-and-tenuous part of my brain might have said, “Stop, you could get dropped or trampled. Your heart can’t handle that madness. Take it easy!” completely lost out to the part of my brain that shouted, “Embrace this fucking moment!” The good news is I’ve always been a slender guy and have remained around 165 pounds to this day. The better news is that after I appealed to various big dudes nearby to pick me up, they happily obliged and quickly I was on top of the crowd. The bad news is I completely lost my friends because being light means I enjoyed a looooong trip across the lawn while Alive blasted from the stage.
There are moments in life that pass you by and only upon reflection do you realize how special they were. You retrace steps and try to remember what a moment was like because it only becomes important with new information.
This, my friends, was not one of those occasions.
While surfing across a sea of strangers on a steamy August evening, I knew that this would be forever in the Top 10 Experiences of my life. That awareness puts so much pressure on me! I wanted my eyes to absorb every possible detail. I wanted my ears to encode every note. I wanted my body to remember feeling both weightless and unnerved as I could fall back to earth at any moment. I tried to be a limp sponge of a human being soaking in every split second of that experience.
I wish I could recall more details about that ride across the crowd at this point in my life. At some point I landed back on solid ground and the world was both unchanged and completely different. I may have asked to be put up in the crowd again or I may have slowly navigated back toward my friends during the encore break. I just know I was so incredibly happy that I embraced that moment.
“I fucking crowd-surfed during Alive. For a long time! That was amazing.”
In the days following the concert, I moved away from New Jersey to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota. I had commuted back-and-forth to a nearby college from my mother’s house for four years after high school, so it was the first time I truly left home. I parlayed all the interpersonal awareness and distress with my inclination to be a mediator into a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and now it was time to get training to become a psychologist. I still had many lessons to learn and plenty of growing pains to confront, but damn, that concert came at such a critical time in my life.
The anxious kid scared of dying and being perceived by others left his friends behind to be seen by everyone and experience a moment of passion and blinding enlightenment for himself.
Now that’s a metaphor!
Thank you, Pearl Jam.