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.
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.”
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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