So, me and a bunch of musician buddies trundled down to Gunwharf last night to see Twenty, Cameron Crowe’s documentary celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Pearl Jam’s seminal album Ten.
It was pretty decent, though there was a general sense that it wasn’t quite what any of us were hoping it would be. With hindsight, however, it’s not entirely surprising that Twenty is a work of mild hagiography. For a start, Crowe was the guy behind the movie Singles, and a major booster for the Seattle scene in its infancy; secondly (and as highlighted by the film itself) Pearl Jam made the decision early in their career to say “no” to doing music industry stuff that they didn’t want to do or couldn’t maintain control over, so they were hardly going to sign up for deep surgery (let alone a hatchet-job) after twenty years of refusing to be dragged over the coals of music journalism. This way, they get to stand in the carefully stage-directed light of the two-decade anniversary of grunge, but on their own terms; a chance to tell the story in their own words, to own their own narrative to some extent.
A few snippets of period interview footage featuring one Kurt Cobain are a pointed reminder that said narrative control is denied to those whose pieces got taken off the gameboard: Twenty may be hagiographic in a folksy sort of way, but poor Kurt was elevated to an uneasy sainthood when the ink on Pearl Jam’s press buzz was still fresh, much like his own. The true tragedy of Cobain’s suicide is that he never got to show the world he’d licked his demons, and – by extension – the world itself. But the mythology of rock can’t pass up the easy meat of those who burn out rather than fading away, and Cobain will remain among its pantheon of pietà for as long as there’s money in selling his image, broken on the wheel of fame, a martyr to the alienation of a generation. Pearl Jam’s sainthood is different, a quieter litany of honesty and penitence; there is little mass-marketable glory in their refusal to participate in the music industry’s increasingly desperate circus of amplified personality and public pain.
That’s not to portray them as noble mendicants, of course; while they may not be living the Hollywood rock-star lifestyle, their survival as a band that continues to release new music and tours off the back of such must look enviable to today’s young musicians, and the contemporary interview footage suggests that none of them are living the hand-to-mouth grind of the fallen star. Pearl Jam have made what looks to be a comfortable living by doing things on their own terms, though lurking beneath the narrative surface of Twenty is the suggestion that it was not always an easy journey to make (and a persistent undercurrent of reminders that being a proper musician is just as much a job of work as any other artistic vocation). But with the exception of a few minutes taken to dwell on the tragedy at Roskilde and the personal aftermath of such (which, to be fair, would be hard to treat in greater depth without seeming tacky, self-aggrandising or both), the band’s post-Ticketmaster travails are painted with broad strokes, their second decade handwaved across the border with an alacrity born (one assumes) of Crowe knowing his target audience: the serious but unromantic business of a mature band writing new material and organising their own global tours lacks the tragic mystique of their origin story.
And so the lion’s share of the movie covers the formation of Mother Love Bone from the ashes of Green River, the tragic-but-inevitable death of frontman Andrew Wood, , the forming of the band that became Pearl Jam, and the gradual apotheosis of a shy and earnest Eddie Vedder, some handsome kid from beyond Seattle who sent in a demo tape featuring a voice to die for. Twenty‘s greatest triumph is perhaps the way it captures Vedder’s transition from promising young frontman to self-appointed voice-of-the-underdog; there’s an amazing bit of footage from an early Pearl Jam set in Vancouver (a support slot for Alice In Chains, if I remember correctly) where, midway through their set, Vedder witnesses the sort of heavy-handed security procedures that were a big feature of the era. After dropping a handful of lines from a song to mutter – over the mic, but almost more to himself than anyone else – about how fucked-up a thing it is for some bull-necked guy in a bomber jacket to beat some kid up for the sin of rocking out at a show, there’s a sudden shift; the to-this-point mellow and shy Vedder undergoes an astonishing phase change, the rapid and unexpected flourishing of righteous anger channelled almost immediately into his performance. It’s genuinely incredible; you can see the guy age maybe five years in a few seconds, and within the space of a few lines that earnest young man becomes the snarling channeller of inner turmoil whose frontmanship turned a skilled but otherwise unremarkable hard rock band into one of the pillars of a generational movement. That transformational trigger has its tragic echo in the Roskilde disaster; if you asked me to novelise Pearl Jam’s story, that would probably be the thematic spine I’d use to hold the work together. (It would be, unsurprisingly, a darker story than Crowe’s telling, though I like to think it would have a more transcendent ending as a result. What that says about my relationship to Pearl Jam’s music by comparison with Crowe’s is left as an exercise for the reader.)
I don’t know if it happens to everyone, but I find that reliving my youth through media output like this makes me feel very old. Naturally enough, a big part of that comes from seeing one’s teen heroes age twenty years within the compressed temporal frame of a few hours, going from daftly-dressed kids in their early twenties goofing off and having fun on noise-fuzzed camcorder footage or home-cloned VHS scrapings from MTV, to serious musicians in middle age, their eyes haunted sporadically by the ghosts of their pasts. (Though it should be noted, with a degree of envy mixed with admiration, that Vedder remains youthfully handsome and clear-skinned by comparison to his band-mates, despite still being a smoker, and his voice – spoken and sung alike – has become deeper and broader in terms of its range for a fairly minimal sacrifice in its raw power; a modest charm flows off the guy in waves, and – much as one of my friends said as we walked back into town in the drizzle – one likes to imagine him shrugging off formality and inviting you to “just call me Ed, man”.
But I think the real reason Twenty makes me feel old is because, in the terms of the outlook on life I had when the most important events it portrays took place, I am old – almost unimaginably so, in fact. It sounds laughably overdramatic and emo of me to say so, but when I was fifteen I really didn’t think I’d make it out of my twenties alive, let alone sane… and with that remembered alienation and restless nihilism still as fresh in my mind as they ever were (or so it feels), it’s hard to reconcile those feelings with the fact that I’m now the sort of person whose formative favourite bands have serious and worthy documentaries made about them. Twenty, then, says as much about how its audience have grown up and come to terms with the world as it says about the band’s own struggle to make peace with itself.
I guess I can live with that. (Like I get a choice, right?)
This is one of my favourite Pearl Jam tunes. Yes, I’m fully aware that it’s one of their most simple and obviously anthemic the-kids-are-all-right numbers, but frankly I don’t really care; it said what I felt at the time, I can still remember that feeling, and that’s enough for me. Pipe up with your own favourites in the comments, if you like. 🙂
“Will myself to find a home / a home within myself… “