I am fascinated by a band’s first album. This is before everyone knows their name. While they can still get in a van and stop at a gas station and eat at a diner and not be huge. This is before they are as good as they one day will be. These are the songs they have been working out late at night for years. This is the album they would make if they could only make one album.
Dreary bongos and a snare, a shaker, half a voice in the background, a guitar whines. Is this the song or are they just warming up? “I admit it.” But not I. IIIIIIIIIIII. Or eyeeeeeeee. Or aaaaaayyeee. The drum is like a metronome beating on the head of the body that the voice comes out of. The only words that have any breath in this cacophony are the I and Once. What was I once? I… Once….. Won’ce. Wince. Meaning is certainly secondary.
So iconic. So wrapped up in all that has come since. It’s hard to untangle all of it, to not see the faces and places flash by and listen to it simply as music. It feels like the voice has more to say here than the first track, but not so much that he wants to overshadow the others. The pain is in the guitars. The headache is in the drum. The unstopping pace of this world. The thump on the head. It’s an unending conversation. There is something cathartic about howling the parts we know at the top of our lungs. I know someone should come by and tell me to keep it down, or ask me what’s wrong, or call the cops. But they don’t. I live in this cocoon of adulthood, of teenage angst, of my own house, my own skin. And I feel broken in it, safe in it, fake in it. Something is wrong in this world and someone should fix it. But, isn’t that me. Shouldn’t that be me? Is adulthood merely a test of what I can get away with?
One riff blends into another. But just as we are comfortable with the vibe it changes. I can hear you now Eddie. I can make out what you are saying and what you are asking. And the questions are just as salient now as they were then. Should I be allow to have lived this long? I had so much energy as a child, so much oddity. And now I am this boring old man, this tired cliche, this failed everything. Why should I be allowed to live when far better people have passed? “Is something wrong she said? Of course there is.” Just hearing this makes me want to crawl inside a cupboard and hide. Inside a lazy susan. Inside a bottle. Inside a pillowcase or somewhere safe. Anywhere safe. Is there such a thing as a safe space? This world has us surrounded, and always has. Lots of times I want out. Good gawd I want out. But it won’t let me. I can’t take off these headphones. Or this skin. Or these bones.
This feels like a call back, the undone completion of Once. A thought was interrupted and now we must finish. But Eddie is more sure of his place here, as the voice, as the spokesman. Second song in row where the voice is talking about the position we put women in. Does anyone do that? Then or now? Try to understand the world from someone else’s point of view? Does anyone start out with the thought that I….. I….. might have been the one to fuck things up. Let’s ask questions about what I have done to make this world a worse place. I am sure it must be my fault. I am sure it is something I did, and therefore something I can fix. And that question “Why go home? Why go home?”
Wait. What? Where did those big guitars go? That big voice? Someone hits a single string. Pulls on it. Again with the “Her” motif. Not a song about what she did wrong. After all, “She gave me all she wore.” But a song about how love, and life, and this reality are terminally flawed for all of us. There are kids at play, and I can feel there laughter, but my thoughts are still… twisted. And now the voice is trying to be a guitar. The guitar is trying to be a voice. Everyone wants to be a painter. But the only color they have to work with is black. The relentlessness here is in the keyboards. The pounding in my head are the black and white keys. There are things in this life with no solution. No matter how much you love the future, or love the past, or love the now. There are some knots that simply won’t be unwound. Some wounds that will never heal. Some catastrophes we simply will not avoid. Life will be what it was before we all got here, what it will be when all the suns have all faded, slowly, out. Black.
I can’t hear this. Won’t. I want to run away from it. Really. The video. The shootings. All that has come since. I want to not hear this. What caused Jeremy? Folks picked on him. He was mentally bereft. Mama didn’t care. Whatever anguish lives inside the adolescent heart, the American heart, the tenth generation of American hearts, it will all be reduced at some point to clickbait, to a headline, to workout music, to repetitive stress, to a sign of the times. It’s all so prophetic and so tragic. And this is our greatest failing. That those with energy and passion find outlet in violence and channel it into anger and vengeance. As if this was the only thing Jeremy could have done, or said. The only time he had a voice. The only thing he had the will, and skill, and capability to say. It’s my fault after all. Clearly I remember.
Wait. The voice in unison with guitars. Major chords. Big waves washing over, and then receding. Bass drum. Maybe my moodiness won’t become my undoing. Perhaps I have something redeeming inside me. Twenty-five years and I still have no idea what Vedder is saying here. Perhaps he, like me listening, is just riding the wave. Ohmming. Praying. Meditating.
What the fuck? Back to dissonance. Back to big rock. The music is a thousand miles an hour. Like a highway. Like time. Like the meals we cook in microwaves. Like the love that comes and goes. An album of teenage relationships. Of short lived races. Of sitcoms. Of YouTube videos. Of passing faces on big roads going 80 mph, all of them, and me, zombies in coffins quickly moving towards death and our collective, final, imminent death. Was home really so bad you had to leave? So much shouting on the porch.
Again with the welcoming opening. Someone has found me. Out here in the cold. Someone who knows, who welcomes me, who allows me to come. Was it so long ago when we were homeless? And alive? And loved each other. Or is it just an admission that you can’t run from the world no matter how much you might want to? You can’t make time go slower or faster. You can’t run or jog or grab a train in time. You can only move one day at a time, no matter how much you might like to have it be otherwise. There is only this slow plodding walk up the side of a steep and treacherous mountain, with beautiful switchback views and vistas, with terrible cliffs, and satiating streams. You can avoid none and keep none of it. You have little choice in the matter but to walk at time’s pace, laid out by the drums, buoyed by the guitars, pattered with keyboards, smeared with blood. Day on day on day on day on day on.
This far into the album I will admit I am warped in the head, and if anyone came up to me right now and tapped me on the shoulder I might growl at them, or cower in fear, or kiss them on the lips, or hide. I feel nearly not human. Unthinking. I can only hear my heartbeat in that high hat. My blood in the drone of the guitar. The scratches on my corneas with every wah-wah of the guitars. And I know there’s a voice there saying something, but honestly I can’t hear it. My body is this mess of wires untied. And every time we get them untangled we are called away to work, or to class, and when we come back they are once again a mess. Was someone here? Has someone always been here? Are they ghosts or voices? Did I not fix them before, and again? Am I in an asylum imagining all these things? Can I please wake up? Will you please wake me up? Someone come tap me on the shoulder and wake me up? Please.
There is a guru on a mountaintop who knows I am on my way to meet them. Who has watched me my entire life and seen all the silly lines I took to get up here. When I get to my guru a smile across that serene face. I need never make this climb again. I need never lose. Guru will teach me that the whole universe is available in a grain of sand, a drop of water, all things, each thing. When I climb to the gates of heaven my father will be there waiting, and all the fuckery of this earth will pass away. All the problems of the flesh, all the pleasures, can be overcome by howling at the top of our… lungs? no, those are gone. Heart? gone. Consciousness. Will that last? Can you yell with awareness? Always?
That same riff from the beginning comes in again. Hearing this album I have been reborn. I am a newborn. A child. Hopeful. Everything, once, again, (all the love and loss and agony and laughter and begging and completion and affection and peace) is possible. Maybe even probable. Let’s do this living.