On occasion I find myself trying to figure out exactly how much time and money I’ve spent on Pearl Jam.
It’s a dangerous and daunting task as the answers are invariably ‘never enough time’ and ‘way too much money.’
If you deducted Pearl Jam from my life I would likely have a sizeable savings account; spent far fewer hours standing in general admission lines and merchandise lines and ticket lines; alienated fewer friends with my endless chatter about Pearl Jam and done something productive with my spare time like, I dunno, learning how to play the ukulele. (Just kidding, I tried that. Thanks Ed.)
On the other hand, if you did erase Pearl Jam from the story my life, there’s a good chance I might not be alive.
And on the anniversary of Pearl Jam’s April 29, 2016 concert in Philadelphia where they performed their debut album Ten from start-to-finish, I have found myself thinking about how much this band and their fans mean to me.
Eddie Vedder tells the story of how over the years, Pearl Jam fans transformed the meaning of “Alive,” the first song the band ever wrote together, and the third track on Ten.
The song tells the story of how a teenaged Ed discovered the truth about who his real father was, and how he had passed away before he had the chance to get to know him.
The song’s repeating refrain, “I’m still alive,” he explains, was a curse. His father was dead but he was still alive, and left to deal with the consequences of that revelation.
“Cut to years later and larger and larger audiences and they’re responding to this chorus in a way that you never thought,” said Ed. “Folks are jumping down in the aisles and using their bodies to express themselves and belting it out and singing along, “I’m still alive,” en masse.”
The song had begun to take on a life of its own.
“So every night when I’d look out on this sea of people reacting in their own positive interpretation, it was really incredible. The audience changed the meaning of these words. When they sing, “I’m still alive” it’s like they’re celebrating and here’s the thing — when they changed the meaning of those words, they lifted the curse.”
One year ago today, I was lucky enough to be in the audience when Pearl Jam took their fans back to where it all began: Ten. That night, they helped me lift my own curse, and for that I will be forever grateful.
As I waited for them to come onstage that night, I thought about all the reasons why I was there.
The two years leading up to that concert had been a particularly difficult period of my life. The world I had created for myself had crumbled under the weight of a toxic relationship and the crippling depression that followed. A promising start to a career in journalism slipped through my fingers as I was forced to leave the country and return home to my parents so that they could help me get better. I left my friends and my life behind, suddenly cleaved in half. Whether or not it was true, I felt abandoned by everyone in my life.
For nearly eight months I felt mute, as my mind ate me alive from the inside.
Wanting to die is a strange feeling: it smothers you and infiltrates every fibre of your being. I felt reduced to one incessant refrain in my head: I want to die. I want to die. I want to die.
Nothing could distract me from it for very long. When I tried to read, my eyes flitted over the same few words for hours. I tried listening to music, but I had left in such a hurry that the only music I had access to were the handful of albums that I had on my phone.
Ten happened to be one of them.
I couldn’t talk to anyone, but I found that I could let Eddie Vedder talk to me. I had listened to Ten a countless number of times, but in those lonely hours, I heard it in a way that I never had before.
I found a focus in Ed’s voice, a touchstone that I could return to when my own voice became unbearable. It brought light to the darkness of my mind, a sheltering hand protecting the flickering candle as it threatened to go out.
Mike and Jeff and Stone and Dave hung out on the porch with me too, long into the nights that I needed them to be there for me. My family and Pearl Jam became my sole support systems.
On the day that I found out that my ex had been contacting and threatening my family, I slid into free fall.
Sitting in the bathroom of my childhood home, I tried to end my life.
It was just me, the sound of a wall clock ticking nearby and my pain. I pleaded with whatever power there was out there in the universe to let me go, to release me, just please let me go.
And then out of nowhere, Ed’s voice popped into my mind. He was singing “Release,” the penultimate song on the album.
“Oh dear dad, can you see me now?” he asked, gently. I thought about my own dad and how he would feel if he could see me then.
I tightened my fist and continued.
But Ed persisted, “I am myself like you somehow.”
I thought about my mom, sleeping a few feet across the door and how it would feel for her to find me like that, my face so like her own.
“I’ll ride the wave where it takes me,” Ed’s anguished voice began to rise.
“I’ll hold the pain, release me.”
I began to sob quietly. My entire life seemed to plane into one moment as Ed’s voice began to breathe light and life back into me.
I decided to let him help me through that night.
When the morning light arrived to find me still alive, I let my mother gather up every sharp object in the house and hide them away. Over the next few months I saw a psychiatrist and a therapist. I went outside into the sunshine again, and let it brown my pale skin. I read books. I listened to more Pearl Jam.
And with the help of my family, I rode the wave until those awful voices in my head telling me that I didn’t deserve to live became kinder and gentler.
A year later, I had returned to Canada and started to rebuild my life. It was a process, and a constant struggle of (as Ed says) learning to live with the pain by mixing light into grey.
I still felt cursed by the past. I was having a hard time forgiving myself and the people who had hurt me, and I realized that I had one more favour to ask of Pearl Jam. I got it into my head that I needed to hear them play “Release” to me live — a song that had eluded me at previous concerts.
That is how, after a cumulative 28 hours in line over two days in Philadelphia, I found myself dead-centre in the second row of the pit on April 29, 2016.
As I waited for the show to begin, I tried to soak it all in: the excited chatter of the grown men around me who looked like Christmas had come early, the kid who had appeared out of nowhere and was trying to trade his popcorn for a bottle of water, the committed stillness of the two women on the rail in front of me and the two guys with their red “Vedder” jerseys who had camped out overnight.
I thought about the people I had met so far. The night before, I exchanged tickets with a guy who was at his 198th Pearl Jam show. Tonight was number 199, and two days later in New York City, he would make it to number 200. The guy who I stood next to the night before (hi, Scott!) was at his 80th show. Then there was the guy who was at his 40th show, alongside the guy celebrating his 40th birthday, and the girl who had followed them around the world.
I thought about the mother-daughter duo from the day before. The daughter wore a t-shirt with a picture of herself onstage with Eddie Vedder: when she was younger, she had made a wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Her heart condition meant that she still had to take frequent breaks to nap in the car as we waited in line. In the meantime, her mom shared homemade muffins with the rest of us.
I thought about Joshua, the Love Boat Captain, and Ed’s dedication to him the night before. I thought about the couple who married at the concert and how Ed sang one of my favourite songs to them, “Picture in a Frame.”
And I thought about the strangers, who are now friends — Shawn, Mariana, Steve, Adrienne, Tricia M, Robin, Tricia CW, Chris, Jeremy and Brian — who saved my spot in line and let me stash my posters in their cars and brought hot coffee and water and pizza and donuts to share.
As the familiar strains of “Master/Slave” began to fill the cavern of Wells Fargo Centre, the guard in front of us pointed to something way up in the back.
It was an orange flag that read “Pearl Jam 10 South Philadelphia Sell Outs.”
My skin began to tingle with excitement as the cheers rang out and Ed and Mike and Jeff and Stone and Matt and Boom walked out onto the stage.
I suddenly felt that same old light begin to fill my being, and sensed that something special was about to happen.
For as long as I live, I will never forget the moment the audience realized that Pearl Jam were about to play Ten from start to finish. Every time I hear the deafening screams on the bootleg as the first few chords of “Even Flow” play, it makes me smile.
Pearl Jam was playing Ten from start to finish. I let that sink in.
I later found some videos of that night that were filmed from behind the stage, where you can see the crowd as the night goes on. My favourite moments are during, “Alive.” I can see myself in the front, looking full of life and joy, affirming that yes, I am still alive.
The thing about Pearl Jam concerts is that no two nights are alike, and you never know what songs you’re going to hear so it was never a guarantee that I would get to hear “Release.”
So as the band stormed through Ten, track after track, the intensity ratcheting up with every passing moment, I was so caught up in the action that it didn’t even register that “Release” was coming up.
When they finally paused, it dawned on me that I was about to get my wish.
Ed took the break as an opportunity to explain that when they had woken up that morning, they had no idea they were going to play Ten. But he had received a picture of the flag the arena had dedicated to them and realized, how could they not?
As he began to introduce “Release,” I felt a lump begin to rise in my throat.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about it as we’ve been travelling — there have been a lot of requests from a lot of good folks that are going through some pain and needed a bit of healing maybe with a song or a dedication to a lost loved one, something like that. And it’s no surprise because it’s just part of life: we cannot avoid the grave. We can prolong it the best we can but you never know if it’s going to be something sudden, something senseless — you might be able to expect it, but that probably is not going to help the sadness.
And I know some of us out there, we’ve lost brothers, we’ve lost fathers, we’ve lost sisters, we’ve lost kids. And this song was about losing a Pop and this song was one of those healing songs,” Ed said, his voice choking with emotion.
“And it’s not going to lessen the blow of any kind of tragedy but at loud volumes, or alone, or with a lot of other people, sometimes it just helps you get through. Because you can’t get around it, you don’t get over it, you don’t get under it, you gotta get through it or else it never goes away.”
Everyone else in the audience seemed to disappear as he spoke those words — words that I needed to hear. Words that were setting me free.
As Ed dedicated the song to Colin McGovern and his brothers, I watched through a blur of tears.
Every emotion that I had felt over those two years swelled in my chest, and I thought about the enormity of the loss the McGovern’s must have felt.
The next seven minutes were life changing and life affirming.
Just before Ed started singing he whispered, “Help me,” to the audience, asking us to help him. It was a tiny moment, but it felt like so much more to me.
There I was, having travelled nearly 4,600 km to Philadelphia and spent nearly 28 hours in line over the two nights, just for the chance to hear Ed and the boys play a song, and to help lift my curse so that I could let go of the past.
To then have Ed ask for my help to sing the song that had saved my life seemed to bring things full circle. I realized that I was exactly where I needed to be, and that all of the bad things that had happened in my life happened for a reason.
Ed’s voice droned as if in prayer, every inch as vulnerable and honest as the day they recorded that song some 25 years ago.
I joined my fellow 18-thousand or so fans in the choir, our voices reflecting back the pain. In a way, hearing that mournful sound helped diminish my own pain because it showed me exactly how much was out there, and that we all carried it with us wherever we went, but hey, we were all still alive.
And we would help each other get through the pain, so that eventually, bit by bit, song by song, it would go away.
My curse lifted that night. I was finally freed from the memories of my past.
I still don’t understand all of the reasons why the things that happened to me happened in the ways that they did. But I do know that my experiences have brought me closer to my family than ever before, and that is one concrete thing that I am grateful for. I have learned to embrace the parts of me that are quick to sadden, quick to assume the worst and quick to be overly critical of myself. I work with those voices every day, letting them tell me when I need to ask for help, and to remind me that I am strong.
I also try to carry the spirit of Pearl Jam with me every day — the understanding that simply being is not enough — that you should make the most of your time on this earth and try to be a force for good in whatever small ways that you can.
They’ve taught me to stand up and speak up, and to take risks, even if those risks are small things like travelling to new cities by yourself and meeting new people, because I’ve met some amazing people through Pearl Jam.
This summer, I’m taking my mom and dad to see Ed on tour in Italy. They’re not sure if his music is quite to their taste, but they know that his music helped save their daughter. And the next time Pearl Jam are on tour, I hope they’ll come with me. Together they saved my life, and I’d like to be able to share that feeling of being so full of life that it makes you sing at the top of your lungs: “I’m still alive.”