I’m in St. Louis, in the front row for Pearl Jam’s almost sold-out show at the Scottrade Center.  Eddie Vedder is sitting on a monitor maybe 12 feet from my face.  The house lights are on, and Mike McCready is on my left, finishing the last strains of “Yellow Ledbetter,” Pearl Jam’s usual live coda.

Vedder peers into the crowd, a cigarette in the hand that rests on his knee.  He’s done for the night.  He knows it, the crowd knows it, I know it.  He looks tired.  His hair is half wet lank, half frizzed curls, and his leonine face shows every one of its 45 years.

But he looks like he’s at peace.

I’m envious.

One night before, after kicking off my first-ever rock n’ roll back-to-back by watching Pearl Jam in Kansas City, I’d sauntered next door to the ring of bars that abuts the arena in order to meet a friend.  While I waited for him to show, I took in the Pearl Jam video that had been conveniently timed to play on the big screen above me.  I watched as the 2003 version of Vedder stalked the stage in short hair and a polo shirt opened jauntily to three buttons.  He looked angry – the whites-of-his-eyes stare he used so effectively in the “Jeremy” video didn’t look like an act.

But most of all, he looked uncomfortable in his own skin.

I thought of myself.

Tickets to Pearl Jam’s Kansas City show had come my way late, through my friend Matt, who had a seat available in his company’s suite.  I was thankful I’d get to see the show, but knew I would be ashamed to be watching with the bourgeoisie.

After I arrived at the Sprint Center, and when Matt introduced me to the other people who’d be in the suite, I froze.  They were all so grown-up, I thought.  I was scared; I don’t yet wield the trait I most associate with being an adult: the ability to be nice to people, regardless of whether I like them.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to talk for long with the doctor Matt was glad-handing, and soon, I’d found a like-minded soul with which to share the concert.

And oh, what a concert it was.  I’d forgotten – whether because it had been too long since I’d seen Pearl Jam on their own, or because I’ve bought into the mentality that Pearl Jam is no longer a sexy band to like – how good Pearl Jam is.  As they tore through songs familiar to most -“Animal”, “Wishlist”, and “Insignificance” – and songs familiar to all – “Black”, “Alive”, “Daughter” – I liked them even more.  Hyperbole flashed through my brain like a Roman candle on a black July night.  Eventually, I settled on this:

I was watching what could be the most important band of my lifetime, at the peak of its powers.

It wasn’t just the songs.  Vedder commanded the crowd like an expert kite-flyer, tugging exactly when he needed, giving slack when the wind pulled away.  From my perch high above, up with the rich and semi-powerful, his band looked thrilled to be playing.   And he looked thrilled to be at the front of it all, as he talked with what seemed like genuine affection about Kansas City’s surprising beauty, and as he dedicated a song to favorite son Willie Wilson after donning Wilson’s jersey and faking the first steps of a stolen base. (Wilson’s best move.)

He was contemplative at the right times, bringing two native Kansas Citians to the stage.  One, a veteran of the Iraq war, had appeared in a movie for which Vedder had performed a song.  The other, an Olympic bobsledder, stood awkwardly with a bass around his neck as Pearl Jam finished the night.

As for me, all I could do was wish for something I didn’t have – I wanted to be among the plebs, down on the floor.  I wanted to prove, if only to myself, that I didn’t belong in my hoity-toity surroundings.

I had my chance a day later.

My friend Casey and I left for St. Louis a scant 14 hours after I’d watched Pearl Jam torch Kansas City.  Before the back-to-back started, I’d been only lukewarm about the idea of watching the same band two nights in a row.  But as we drove east on I-70, I recalled the goosebumps I’d experienced and decided there was no place I’d rather be going.

A few hours later, my excitement was amplified.  A member of Pearl Jam’s fan club, Casey had had the opportunity to buy his tickets early.  The only catch: while he could be sure they’d be better than average, he didn’t know exactly where we’d be sitting.  As he walked toward me from the ticket booth, he said, while unfurling the envelope he was holding, “I have good news.”

Row: 1.

We’d be in the front row in a 20,000 seat arena.  For Pearl Jam, one of the few bands I’ve supported through thick (Ten, Vs., Riot Act) and thin (the band’s most recent album).

My initial reaction – jubilation – was soon replaced by a dose of good old-fashioned Protestant guilt.  Did I deserve this?  I’m only a Pearl Jam fan, after all; I’m not a Pearl Jam superfan.  I’m sure there were those in the crowd who would have hacked off a gonad for my ticket.

Casey and I fell over ourselves to get into the arena so we could see where, exactly, our seats were.  As Band of Horses (disappointing live, both times) finished their set, we scrambled to the front to find that our seats were even better than we could have expected:  Behind the rail that separates the crowd from the band, about four chairs left of center.

Unease washed over me again.  I would be staring Vedder & Co. in the eyes as they delivered their songs, and I’d be doing so from three yards away.  I thought back to times when I’d been on the other side of that relationship and remembered how much I could tell about the audience watching me – about what I’d thought about the balding middle-aged man foolish enough to pay so much to watch a basketball game.

Soon, I was afraid that Vedder would be able to peer into my soul, divine that I didn’t like him and his band as much as the guy next to me in the ‘Alive’ T-shirt, and likely, have me escorted from the premises.

(Additionally, I thought about my burgeoning neck beard, the people behind my sky-scraping self, and my choice of wardrobe.  My sea foam-colored American Apparel T-shirt was rather out of place.)

Then the show started.  My worries were almost literally pushed from my brain by the speakers placed four feet from my face.  The sensory load was overwhelming:  sight, of a strikingly youthful Jeff Ament and a bouncy Mike McCready; sound, of songs like “Elderly Woman”, as familiar to me as the driver’s seat in my car; and touch, as I alternately leaned over the rail in front of me and stood at rapt attention, taking in as much as I could.

Pearl Jam’s St. Louis outing wasn’t as impressive as its Kansas City one.  The band seemed tired, and the crowd wasn’t quite as enthusiastic.  There wasn’t as much geographic specificity, save the token appearance of a St. Louis Blues jersey with ‘Pearl Jam’ on the back.

Nonetheless, and if only because of my vantage point, it was a transcendental experience.  Despite my unease and my fear of exposure as a fraud, I shared a laugh with Ament when he pinged a guitar pick off my bowed head.  I caught the set list that McCready threw my way, quickly giving it to Casey, who’d arranged for this experience.

But mostly, my eyes stayed on Eddie Vedder.  We made eye contact a few times – once for four or five seconds before he broke away to deliver one of his musical sermons.  But I’m sure he’d remember me no better than he remembers any other front row sycophant.

Eventually, it was done – or almost so – and it was just Vedder and McCready.  McCready on my left, picking his way through Ledbetter for the fans in the balcony.  And Vedder, looking tired but happy, mere feet from me.

I cursed under my breath.  I hadn’t brought a camera.  With the house lights on, the picture I could take would memorialize perfectly everything great about the night – my proximity, the worn look in Vedder’s eyes, the Corona at his side.  And I had forgotten.  Typical.

I looked around.  Maybe one of these trigger-happy picture-takers would send me a photo or two.  I looked at Vedder again and thought back to the night before.  Not to the concert – to the post-concert footage I’d watched outside.  I realized that I was the Eddie Vedder who’d been on the screen.  I was worried about what I should be doing, about how I should appear.

I should be taking a picture, because it would be nice to have in 20 years.  I should be able to deal with the people who inhabit a luxury box because, dammit, I’m 32 years old.  I should be able to enjoy the front row more, because people would kill for these seats.

A younger Eddie Vedder thought he should look a certain way onstage.

But the Eddie Vedder in front of me didn’t much care.  He took a slow slug from his Corona, well aware that this show hadn’t been quite as good as his last.  But okay with it.

As I stared at Vedder, I realized that it didn’t matter what I should have been doing.  It was okay if I didn’t quite fit in with maturity – with the corporate types who inhabit a luxury box.  And it was okay if I didn’t fit in with youth and exuberance – with the two brothers on my right who probably knew in which key every song on Vitalogy was written.

Most of all, it was okay if all I wanted to do was stare at Eddie Vedder, a man who’s obviously survived a few of the roller coasters that life throws at all of us, but also a man who’s learned who he is, what he likes, and that, probably, it will all work out in the end.

A man deserving of my admiration – not because he’s a terrific songwriter, a polished performer, or a foe of Ticketmaster.

A man deserving of my admiration because those three minutes – him sitting on a speaker, me in the crowd below him – painted a portrait of the man I want to be.

But I don’t want to be Eddie Vedder.

I want to be myself.

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Comments

comments

  1. Andy
    I think you're wrong about the most recent album being weak, but to each his own. I do want to know if seeing any of those songs performed live changed your impression. I had that experience w/ "Do The Evolution" - I thought the recorded version was not good, but seeing (and hearing on several bootlegs) the way they perform it live elevates it to being a great song. Re: Flip in general - keep up the good work.
  2. Nathan
    Paul, absolutely brilliant writing here. The ending of this piece was really powerful.
  3. Dave
    Kicking my self daily for not going in KC last week. Sadly, I could find no one willing to spend the $80+ per ticket to go with me and I guess the stones beneath my zipper aren't big enough to take in a show on my own. They have been the one band to survive my likings for almost the entirety of my listening career, I enjoy them even more than I ever could have during my prepubescent years belting out Jeremy every time the video came on while I was secretly screening MTV from the basement so my parent's wouldn't know. Today's Eddie Vedder is all that is right with music. I can only hope that a handful of the bands of now can transcend time and genre the way Pearl Jam has.
  4. pragmatism
    i know you're not big on fancy stuff like proper grammar and research. but, in the present subjunctive when you are referring to people it should be "if i were......" you're right. you should love yourself more. maybe then you wouldn't publish hateful screeds condemning the entirety of a country based on your half-baked beliefs regarding personal responsibility.
  5. Chris
    Nice work Paul - I too saw Pearl Jam back to back in 2003 (West Palm Beach and Orlando). Sadly, I am unable to verify Eddie's satisfaction with his lot in life at that time as compared with what you saw in the video
  6. Phil
    Awesome article. Still have chills.
  7. Fazerski
    "A man deserving of my admiration – not because he’s a terrific songwriter, a polished performer, or a foe of Ticketmaster. A man deserving of my admiration because those three minutes – him sitting on a speaker, me in the crowd below him – painted a portrait of the man I want to be." If the tables were turned, do you think Eddie Vedder would find you "deserving of admiration?" "Pearl Jam Donate $200,000 To Haiti Relief Effort Rockers PEARL JAM are to donate $200,000 (£125,000) to the Haiti earthquake relief effort. Charities Partners in Health, Doctors Without Borders and The Lambi Fund of Haiti will be among the agencies benefitting from the cash, according to the band's website." http://www.contactmusic.com/news.nsf/story/pearl-jam-donate-200000-to-haiti-relief-effort_1130191 Somehow, I doubt the feeling would be mutual. In fact, I'm sure the opposite would be true - if he knew anything about the "front row sycophant" that kept making eye contact with him he'd be repulsed by you.
  8. cp78
    If you were Eddie, I probably would not like you as much because I wouldn't be reading your great articles on Flipcollective (and my wife would have a huge crush on you.....she wasn't as lucky with her fan club tickets in Buffalo last night as your friend Casey was).
  9. Sam
    @Paul excellent column as usual @Fazerski & pragmatism So did you give as much money as you could to the relief efforts in Haiti? Pearl Jam can afford $200,000. But that is not the point here. The beauty of America is that anyone can say almost anything he or she wants. It happens that I agree with many of Paul's points in the Haiti article. Yes, what happened there was a horrible tragedy. Yes I did donate money. But there is some fault to the people who made decisions such as having six kids they could not support driving them into a life of poverty in some shanty town. Call me a racist or whatever you want, but it is a free country. Are you personally harmed by what Paul said? Then please stop clogging up the comment threads on all his columns with the same tired complaints.
  10. Dan
    Nice article Paul. I'm a PJ "superfan" myself and will be pulling the back-to-back shows next week at MSG. I can only my luck is as good as yours when I pick up my tickets. I'm glad you were able to experience them live again, as I believe they're one of the true great live acts out there. How long did they play? About 2 and a half hours I'm guessing. Fazerski - It's pretty clear you have an axe to grind when it comes to the whole Haiti thing, since you're obviously taking Paul's words out of context and meaning. Your blockquote was about seeing a man sitting on stage, being totally comfortable with who and where he is, and being at peace with everything around him. Being content. It had nothing to do with anybody's individual ideals. To turn that around and make it about Haiti is arugmentative and lazy.
  11. pragmatism
    @sam: yes, yes i did. i agree that everyone (including people who disagree with your hero) can say whatever we want. that includes fazerski and i being able to post comments here. can't have it both ways sporto.
  12. LJ
    Nice work Paul. I always enjoy reading your music musings.
  13. Chad
    Paul, I agree with much of what you said about Pearl Jam being a powerful and legendary band of our generation but I just saw them here in Buffalo last night and came away very disappointed. Back in 2004 they came and gave me one of the top three concerts of my life so I was very excited to hear they were coming back. To add to it, my fiance had never seen them live and was equally energized for the show. While they played a long and interesting set, they failed to play either Jeremy, Black or Even Flow which I, arguable, consider to be their top two songs. While I understand some misgivings they may have about Jeremy live due to events that occurred after its release, to not play at least one or both of the other two seemed like a slap in the face to long time fans. I left very unfulfilled and saddened, perhaps due a little to being so spoiled from the previous show. All in the same, I am hoping for future shows to erase this and place them back in their rightful spot as I do still consider them one of the greatest and most influencial bands of my lifetime.
  14. BC
    @pragmatism "i know you’re not big on fancy stuff like proper grammar and research. but, in the present subjunctive when you are referring to people it should be “if i were……” If you're going to be a grammar nit on the internet, at least make sure you're not missing the fact that the choice of language is a specific pop culture reference.
  15. Matt
    Great article though I too disagree about the latest album; I really like it and would argue that 'No Code' is more of the thin. As was said, to each his own. I saw the show in Indianapolis and loved it, my biggest takeaway was gaining more appreciation for how good Mike McCready is with a guitar in his hands.
  16. Justin Bourne
    Paul, great job dude. I can relate to the topic, and it's awesome you pulled it from Pearl Jam performances. Good stuff.
  17. @schneby
    Paul, Nice piece. Eddie Vedder probably looked at you too and wished he was a little taller.
  18. Sam
    @pragmatism I think you misunderstood what I meant. And reading my comment again it was a little unclear. I meant that the Haiti article is one piece that Paul wrote. To continually bring up that one piece in regards to every one of Paul's pieces, including ones unconnected to that topic like this one, is rather unnecessary. That was the meaning I intended in the last line.
  19. Anonymous
    Paul- Writing what you feel strongly about, whether or not it is the popular opinion, is as admirable as the way Vedder was feeling up on that stage. Keep on going, you're wonderful at this. Great writing, week after week.
  20. AJ
    Great post Paul. I'm not a big Pearl Jam fan myself but can completely relate to finding the sort of... clarity that one can find while truly experiencing music. What a powerful thing it can be. Keep the good work coming. Miss your stuff on ESPN.
  21. Joseph
    @pragmatism - "that includes fazerski and i..." Really? I know you're not big on fancy stuff like proper grammar but when you are the object of your own sentence, it should read "that includes fazerski and me..." Can't have it both ways, sporto. Cheers!
  22. 81
    Paul, Interesting article.
  23. Not Chad
    @ Chad: "While they played a long and interesting set, they failed to play either Jeremy, Black or Even Flow." Sounds like a dream setlist to every one of the longtime fans I know. They don't pander to those who think their best songs are also their biggest hits. They got off that train a long time ago. Just because there's no music video, doesn't mean it's a bad song. Sheesh.
  24. nicejewishgrl
    Paul~ I can't agree with you more, the most freeing, serene thing in the world is being totally comfortable in your own skin. Short, fat, tall, skinny and even with neck stubble... Funny, how that's the one thing I pick out of your article, while others only see the musical value or even those 2 (Fazerski and Pragmatism) can manage to draw out some imagined negative spin. Great article, thanks for reminding me what's most important.
  25. Jon
    Pragmatism and Fazerski, for guys who hate Paul Shirley, you certainly are dedicated readers. Mind you, I hate Sarah Palin, but I just can't stop myself from reading her book over and over and over again, because I like to have something to bitch about. That is how I choose to spend my time. Seriously? Thats how much you guys suck? Not only that, you try your hardest to let everyone know about it.