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 Post subject: A Guided Tour of Vitalogy
PostPosted: Fri December 28, 2012 12:20 pm 
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A Guided Tour of Vitalogy

Preliminary Thoughts


Full disclosure: Vitalogy is my favorite Pearl Jam record, and my favorite record of all time. Beyond that I’d also argue it is the best, and most important record of the 90s, and should be regarded as amongst the finest albums of all time by any band—not only because of the quality of the music, but because it is one of the only mainstream musical statements I can think of that addresses head on how the culture industry perverts art and destroys its emancipatory possibilities, and the record does so without any cynical or ironic detachment. It is not a record about the causes of modern alienation, but it is a record about the ways in which we are systematically denied the tools needed to meaningfully cope with that alienation.

Vitalogy is arguably their only concept album, even all the other records have certain themes running through them. This is not to say that every song on Vitalogy is directly a part of the concept—that would be a little too self conscious for the way Eddie writes—but clearly Eddie is writing to address a very specific set of questions, and this colors just about every song on the record.

Vitalogy is an album about reification, which is the process of turning a subject into an object—in particular the reification and commodification of art and artists. This means it is also an album about the loss of agency, of any sense of control over the forces in your life and the ability to infuse them with meaning. The artist is at the mercy of the industry that produces him and the celebrity culture that mythologizes him. What drops out is any sense of intimacy and connection between the artist, his work, and the people it reaches. It is all mediated through the culture industry and stripped of real meaning and value---turned into something easy to consume and reproduce for maximum profit and minimum engagement.

As an artist, dubbed not only one of the leaders of a new and vital period of music, but even named ‘the voice of his generation’ this is something Eddie would have been particularly sensitive to. The fact that he is a true believer in the healing properties of music (there is a reason his personal biography is largely a history of the music he has listened to) makes this even worse. He spent his life wishing and hoping for the chance to reach an audience with his art, not to be famous, but for the chance to establish a connection through which we can experience meaningful forms of community, solidarity, and love with one another. And for a few brief moments he was a part of a vital music scene(in the best sense of the word—a collection of musicians who all knew each other, made music together, fed off of and inspired each other) making music of real value to themselves and the people who heard it. And just as quickly that moment is gone—turned into ‘grunge,’ mass produced and distributed as fast as copies could be made, completely devoid of the sentiment and mission that made the original stuff so powerful

What do you do in that situation? How do you respond when your art is co-opted and highjacked and there is nothing you can do to stop it—when you become a symbol of everything your music takes a stand again (think of how socialists feel seeing Che Guerva shirts sold in the mall)? What is left for you when your life has lost its meaning, when you have lost your agency? This is why Vitalogy is an album about life and death. There is a palpable sense of suicide hanging over the entire record, and the death of Kurt Cobain crystallizes and gives extra urgency to what was already there. Sometimes death is the last authentic act open to us—the one gesture we can make that we think cannot be taken away from us. And so Vitalogy is written as a suicide note, but in the shaky hand of someone who has not yet committed to going down this road. It’s a last desperate chance to reestablish some sense of control over a life and its dreams. There are three paths ahead. There is the suicide of spirit that comes from accepting things the way they are, a mental surrender. There is the literal death of suicide interpreted either as defeat or a defiant act of forfeit. Or there is the choice to pick yourself up and fight back, to construct new forms of meaning and reclaim what was lost.

Vitalogy does not answer which path the singer takes, which is part of its power. The listener needs to interpret that for themselves, to read their own battles into the music and draw the lessons that they need. But the way the band answers is clear from the subsequent history. The speech at the grammys, the fight against ticketmaster, the scaling down of the fan base, the no video, minimal media exposure policy are all attempts to recapture the music and the humanity of the artists behind them. My two personal favorite lyrics in the early Pearl Jam catalog are found in Breath and Leash, two songs not otherwise known for their excellent writing. “I am lost, I am no guide, but I’m by your side, I am right by your side” and “If I knew where it was I would take you there, there’s much more than this.” This is the spirit that has always animated Pearl Jam’s work in its finest moments—that sense that while they don’t know the answers, they are troubled by the same questions, and will stand with you while we discover the answers together. You cannot adopt a position like that and remain a larger than life figure, as the former requires that you are grounded in the lives and experiences of your community and the later makes you larger than life, someone who dispenses wisdom and offers certainty, rather than someone who searches for them. And the next few records that follow Vitalogy are an attempt to reclaim their identity as fellow seekers (although ones granted a certain degree of insight and wisdom from their trials) rather than messiahs.

A quick word on the album art. Vitalogy is an aptly chosen title, as the record is a record about life, its value, and what it can do when the forces that sustain it are tainted. The Vitalogy book aims at a life of purity, offers rules for ‘life prolonged indefinitely’ and identifies the forms of corruption and self-pollution that threaten it. But it is also clear that while the book makes promises, they are ultimately a lie—the life they offer is an illusion, the methods to achieve promise not life but the annihilation of the self and the passions that make us human and make life worth living. In the end the book and its promises need to be rejected, and we need to accept that the life we have may be short, and may be bitter, but it will be honest, and it will be ours.

Last Exit

Last Exit has always been my favorite of the album openers—not simply because of how good the song is but because of the way it sets up the entire record that follows. It’s not just the first song on the record—it begins an entire experience

It is clear from the discordant tuning that begins the song that there is something new happening here. Once opened with Master/Slave to set the mood, and Go had its own ‘tune up’ sequence but in both cases they were fully realized pieces of music. The tuning process before Last Exit gives it (and with it the record) a sense of immediacy that what came before simply lacked. Those songs may have been heavy, and they may have been urgent, but they didn’t have that sense of capturing THIS particular moment in time. It is almost like Last Exit (and with it the record) pours out of the band—as if they walked into a room, picked up their instruments, and the record spilled out of them.

Musically Last Exit is a desperate, almost violent song. The crashing drums, the jagged lines of the guitars—it’s a song you can cut yourself on—and the various peaks and climaxes of the song lack any kind of clarity, mirroring pretty much perfectly the desperation and confusion in the lyrics.

Last Exit is the first half of a suicide note, written in confusion, anger, and commitment—the issue at hand, what the record will try and work through, is whether the commitment is to life or death

The first verse makes it clear that a life has spiraled out of control—“Lives opened and trashed, look ma watch me crash, no time to question, why’d nothing last?” This is not the cry of a person dying of depression or apathy, but a flame burning itself out—one that doesn’t know how to slow down and take control over the frantic pace of his own life, of events quickly spiraling out of control (the parallels to the rise of the band, the destruction of Eddie the human and the birth of Eddie the symbol, should be obvious) This comes across just as powerfully in the set of lyrics that didn’t make the song, although these are perhaps a little more resigned than the set of lyrics ultimately included.

“Die on a hilltop, eyeing the crows, waiting for your lids to close but you want to watch as they peck your flesh…Ironic that they go for the eyes first…”

It’s a wonderfully evocative image—a body exhausted, watching the crows circle and descend, refusing to grant the morbid wish to watch your own destruction. Of course you won’t know how the story ends if you walk out on it.

The second set makes the suicide theme even more prominent:

“Once resigned, dictating your demise seems only fair
Built in effect of the system…control
If one cannot control his life, will he be driven to control his death”

The use of the words system and control is important here. There is a sense of being trapped by forces that are beyond our own ability to master—the way in which events spiral out of control seemingly without any input from the people who live them. In the end the only act of control, the only act of agency, open to the person involved may be choosing the circumstances surrounding their death.

And that’s what the rest of the song is about—death. The question becomes what kind of death. Clearly death as suicide is present as subtext throughout the song, especially with the 3 days lyrics—the image of a body lying for days waiting to see if the body is discovered, if the act itself has meaning. But death can also be interpreted as a moment of rebirth—a phoenix dying to rise again, and the elemental imagery present in this part of the song (the sun, the ocean, the idea of purification, masks burned away, past burdens drowned, shedding skin) gives one a sense of hope and optimism, although all of these processes will be painful. A life is at a crossroads—and either the person will walk away stronger than they were before, or the journey is going to break them, but clearly a choice must be made—things cannot go on as they were before…for better or for worse.

Vitalogy is a time of reflection made standing at that crossroads—reviewing the circumstances that led the singer to them and weighing which path to take. At the end of the record a choice will have to be made. Eddie’s plea to let his spirt pass is a cry for some form of closure. Life simply cannot continue in this state. This is his last chance, the possibility of healing through music—the last exit on a road heading inexorably towards destruction.

Spin the Black Circle

Spin the Black Circle is a love song, plain and simple—a joyous celebration of how much music means to the singer, the places that it takes him, the path it offers to some form of transcendence and meaning. It’s a celebration of vinyl because A: vinyl allegedly sounds better (I’m not calling that into question—not owning a record player I can’t comment on that one way or the other), and B: because vinyl is in some ways a relic, a hold over to a time when (the singer believes) music was purer—about the experience of the music rather than the image and marketing behind it

So STBC is a love song, about a love in some ways more pure (I won’t say powerful but I’m not too happy with this word choice either) in some ways than even sex and romance, as music just allows you to take what you need from it without demanding anything in return. It is difficult to love someone from a position of weakness since that sort of love will require sacrifices of the self that you may not be in a position to give. The music is there for you when you need it most—when you are at your weakest and just need something that is unconditionally yours.

One of the things that makes STBC an interesting song is the way they chose to approach it. It is one of the most aggressive and heaviest (although in a celebratory way) songs the band has ever written, with Eddie shredding his vocals—like he loves so much it hurts. The lyrics also parallel the thoughts of a drug addict—the junkie who cannot live without his next hit, the anticipation of lovingly bringing the needle down—the way, as Eddie says, the process is ritualized (music is a ceremony as much as it is a collection of sounds). The anticipation of what is to come is almost as important as the event itself. Given the (fairly accurate) grunge stereotype, a song with music this aggressive and vocals so frantic should be nihilistic—a song about pain and the inability to escape it. Quite possibly it would be a song about addiction (hence the drug language)—and STBC is a song about addiction—but it is a healthy addiction to once, an addiction to the healing powers of music and the path to transcendence that it offers. It is a wonderful inversion in that way, a song about life sung in the key of destruction.

It’s an essential lead in to Not For You as well—the anger and hostility in that song doesn’t really make sense without first coming here and sharing in the exultation.

Not For You

The slow burn of Not For You’s riff puts the listener in mind of lit powder keg right before the explosion—the song traces the deceptive calm and the mild crackling of the spark working its way up the fuse. There is an undercurrent of barely contained rage running through the entire song, released during the chorus but quickly bottled back up during the verses, and ultimately fizzling out during the outro. There is a temporary relief found in catharsis, but there is not resolution. But resolution is not necessarily what the song searches for either. The reference to the myth of Sisyphus (a greek myth about a guy who is punished in Hades by having to roll a rock up a hill only to have it fall back down when it reaches the top) is telling here. He is almost certainly referring to the Albert Camus essay that interprets the myth. Camus argues that the only proper orientation to the absurdity of life is to revolt against it. Even if the revolt can never be successful, it is the act of revolting, of rejecting absurdity, that gives life meaning. And Not For You is directed in part against the people who forgot that, who abandon their youthful ideals once they become difficult—once the payoff is not immediately forthcoming.

Not For You continues with the sacredness of music theme begun in STBC, in particular what it means to the young—the way in which music helps us realize that regardless of how big and impersonal the world may get, there are others who have experienced what we’ve experienced, and we find solidarity in the music we share. In particular music is supposed to be the voice of optimism and hope, representing a purer vision of a world with more justice than the one we live in.

This, at the very least, is the importance with which Eddie has invested music, and is why the ‘corruption’ of music, the commodification of art and artist, is so damning. Rather than a source of authenticity and transcendence, it becomes something to be exploited—to put songs about rebellion and change into the service of selling products, to turn music away from community and solidarity and towards trends and fads. Music moves away from life and towards, if not death, then a type of marketed unlife. It rejects the position of revolt and moves towards an empty acceptance.

This plays itself out throughout the verses. The warning to youth not to lose the restless energy and optimism that is the hallmark of what is best in the young. The plea to the old to not forget where they came from and what they left behind. Sandwiched in between are the shots at fame (the chanting in the bridge, the ‘small my table’ lyrics). Much of that is obviously reflecting the personal claustrophobia Eddie was feeling at this time, the burden of being an icon, the ‘voice of a generation.’ But this should not be understood solely as an anti-fame rant. At its root is the way in which the position he has is unearned, a fabrication of the media and the culture industry. Eddie is a symbol, not a human being, and the deeper solidarity he envisions calls for a more intimate relationship than this—knowledge of one another as human beings, not as things. *

And so Not For You is an accusation—a shot targeted directly at the people who not only forgot what music once meant to them, but forget what it meant to have hope not only in some kind of transcendence, but some kind of immediate transformation of this world. It accuses them of surrender, acceptance, and in many cases collaboration. Not only have they forgotten this feeling, they now actively work to undermine the possibilities of realizing it. They pervert the shared vocabulary of revolution, change, and meaning. And this is who the music is not for. It is not for the people who look to music for style, rather than substance. It is not for people who look to music for money, rather than meaning. It is not for people who accept the world the way it is, rather than working to transform it. If you are one of those people then this is not for you.

*as a footnote of sorts, Eddie may just be wrong on this. Any kind of movement, even one as abstractly formulated as the one he is striving for, requires its symbols, and he clearly had a similar symbolic relationship with his musical heroes (see Pry, To). Reacting to people cheering you as a disposable marker of what is currently popular is one thing, but it is never clear on Vitalogy whether or not Eddie is willing to assume the mantle of leadership for the people willing to look deeper. This is something he makes his peace with on the later records, but not here.

Tremor Christ

There is a lot going on in Vitalogy but one of the main themes playing itself out is the desire for purity in the face of corruption—a desire for the salvation of music, and the salvation of self in a world where both are threatened, perverted, distorted (I’ve long felt Red Mosquito needs to be on Vitalogy, as it is addressing these same themes).

RM poster SLH has made the argument that Not For You should be seen as working itself out over time, rather than capturing a particular moment—and her interpretation makes a great deal of sense segueing into Tremor Christ. It picks up in the aftermath of a metaphorical shipwreck and while the song is exhausted you can cut yourself on its jagged sounds and sharp vocals. Musically Tremor Christ does a wonderful job evoking the stormy feel of the song. The subject had succumbed to the superficial ease of temptation, the promise of reward without cost. Slight surrenders of principle, seemingly innocuous decisions quickly spiral out of control. The smallest oceans still get big big waves. It turns out that there was a steep price after all, demanding payment in terms of lost love, lost innocence, lost purity. Both the art and the artist suffer for the easy choices, for the refusal to see the hidden price of playing the game instead of choosing to move Sisyphus’s rock. We’re left with an exhausted artist, passion bleeding itself dry, and the emancipatory promise of the music drowning in the wake left by the industry.

The second verse, chronologically, comes before the first one—it’s a flashback of sorts, what happened to the subject that lead to him washed up on the shore. The Devil is seductive, and it is rare for the angels to reach an artist before they’ve accepted his bargain, to let him know exactly what is at stake. We can hope for angels but if we’re honest with ourselves we know it is going we’re going to have to learn to fight the devils (this theme returns in Corduroy and Satan’s Bed).

While the subject is wounded, he isn’t dead yet. The second half of the song is a fighting creed, a declaration to resist, to forgo temptation and endure hardship, to do what is necessary to regain control over his soul, the only prize the devil ever seeks. And the song ends with the eerily calm determination to turn the boat back to the water, enter the waves and prepare to fight, with nothing on his side but faith in love (love of music, love as meaningful attachment and solidarity, love as purity), and the knowledge that the struggle itself has meanings. The liner notes of Not For You intimate that Eddie has at least a passing familiarity with Albert Camus, and this really starts to play itself out in the moments of defiance on Vitalogy (here, Whipping, and Corduroy). There is never any guarantee, or even expectation of victory, but it is the fight that preserves our humanity. There is no promise that he’ll find what he is looking for, and in fact he may be too far gone to be redeemed, but he is willing to accept responsibility for the mistakes made, and he is willing to keep searching for the possibility of a wavering, uncertain salvation (tremor Christ). Since that is all we can have, it will have to be enough.

Nothingman

Nothingman can be seen as something of an outlier song on Vitalogy. On the surface it appears to be a simple love song, albeit a beautiful one. It is gentle, fragile, with a bittersweet melody and a wistful, regretful vocal performance. Nothingman sounds like a memory, from the opening sounds of a guitar coming into focus to the final goodbye. And it works well as a love song—the story of a man who took for granted a powerful, dynamic woman, stifling her until she finally had to emancipate herself from him. And is so often the case, he did not understand what he actually had until it was gone and it was too late to bring her back. And now he’s left with nothing but the memories of what could have been.

But Nothingman, could also be read another way—the woman as a stand in for art, music, purity, or any gift we have that we abuse and take for granted. And if that’s the case Nothingman fits perfectly into the general themes and conceptual arcs of Vitalogy. And given the fact that Nothingman was written during these sessions, when Eddie was clearly grappling with these issues, this seems plausible. The tone of the song, the sense of regret and loss, need not change under this interpretation. In fact the song is still trying to accomplish the same thing—it is only the object that is different.

So under this read Nothingman picks up right after Tremor Christ—in some ways it reflects the failure of Tremor Christ—the ship was turned around too late for redemption. And now the passion that the subject had, for art, for music, for life, has been permanently tainted by the commodification and objectification of art and artist. The music is lost to him, existing mostly as mockery rather than a source of hope, escape, and transcendence. He is no longer able to call on it, and it refuses to take him anywhere. He no longer deserves the gifts, and the muse has moved on to someone who will (hopefully) not make the same mistakes. There is clearly a sense of guilt animating Nothingman, but this isn’t surprising. Eddie has always (and especially in this period) struggled with a sense of his own worth—wondering why he received the attention, the money, and the fame when there were so many other artists (in his opinion) far more deserving than him.

So where does this leave the subject? Under this interpretation the outro lines make a great deal more sense, especially read as foreshadowing immortality. There is the reference to the sun, to fame, celebrity, inauthenticity, and the false light that it provides under which nothing can really grow. He’s stuck there, blinded and trapped while slowly burning away into nothingness, and we’re left only with the memory of what could have been, and a warning not to make the same mistakes.

Whipping

Whipping is one of the outlier songs on Vitalogy, around the level Betterman or Nothingman. Connections can be made, but it isn’t immediately obvious what its relationship is to the broader themes of the record.

Musically it sounds like a protest song—a call to arms. STBC may be a harder, but it isn’t as angry or propulsive as Whipping is. STBC is more a moment of joy so intense you can’t stand it. Whipping is a song of defiance, and the music carries that feeling. It is music to take a beating to, complete with moments to catch your breath in the chorus, and some wordless howling by Eddie underneath the music leading into the first chorus (and during second chorus and outro as well).

So it’s a protest song of some kind. The album art clearly draws attention to abortion, but it isn’t a song about abortion per se. The lyrics make no specific reference to abortion as a political issue. Whipping is a template, to be used when and as necessary.

Whipping is a protest song, but it isn’t really a song about fighting back, which only makes sense in the context of Vitalogy. Vitalogy is a record about enduring, about Sisyphus continuing to push the rock despite the apparent futility of the act. The enemy is so big, so totalizing that resistance can only be personal, an act of self-purification rather than political engagement.

The choice of title is telling here. Whipping is associated with the image of the master and the slave, the punishment for disobedience, for not obeying the arbitrary rules that you never meaningfully consented to. And while there were occasional slave revolts, much of the resistance was personal, finding ways to keep your dignity and endure (and perhaps fight back in subtle ways) in the face of seemingly overwhelming, almost totalitarian force. It’s also worth considering that the reason the slave system lasted as long as it did was its effectiveness in keeping slaves isolated from one another. The numbers, and in important ways the power, were on the side of the slave, but what was missing was the communication and organization necessary to resist. As long as we fight back as individuals, rather than as a group, we cannot win. Defiance will be personal only. And there is a nice tie in later with the whip cracks at the start of Satan’s Bed, another song about personal defiance (although one centered more around authenticity than the bull headed endurance of whipping).

The lyrics reflect this throughout the song. It begins with images of protracted suffering. Too wet for a raincoat to matter, so much blood spilt that a bandage would be useless. It continues in the second verse. Too suspicious for help—there are always consequences and strings attached. There is anger at the people responsible for making the decisions that trap us (a shot at the culture industry in the context of Vitalogy, but easily read as a shot at conservative politicians, or whatever the listener needs it to be). There is also a sense of inevitability about the fight at this point. Too late to turn back—no choice but to endure. And as the song progresses it moves from a solitary act of pushing the rock to a greater sense of solidarity (a la Not For You). Some of the I’s become We’s—why must WE trust, I’m just like you, think We’ve had enough, we all got scars (again—the whipping), they should have em too. There is a moment of hope here. That even if nothing can be done but push the rock, at the very least we don’t need to push the rock alone.

I’ve always been a little uneasy about the placement of Whipping on the record. It is a bit jarring after Nothingman, which is fine except the pace is immediately slowed back down with Pry, To. Thematically it works with Corduroy, Not for You, or Satan’s Bed—the other moments of imperfect resistance, and makes sense surrounded by those songs, but it isn’t quite clear where it works best (perhaps this was the best spot for it). Thinking on it a bit I wonder if it might have been better placed between Corduroy and Satan’s bed (or after Satan’s Bed), moving Bugs up to earlier in the record.

Pry, To

On the surface it as cute, jaunty little jam, seemingly thrown off. But Ed’s call for privacy, muted the entire time, becomes increasingly desperate until this turns into an urgent claustrophobic call for help. The casual air of the music obscures the real sense that the walls are closing in

The liner notes for pry, to are particularly telling in this regard.

Nightmare

In this disease the patient, in time of sleep, imagines he feels an uncommon oppression or weight about his breast or stomach, which he can by no means shake off. He groans, and sometimes cries out though oftener he attempts to speak in vain. Sometimes he imagines himself engaged with an enemy and, in danger of being killed, attempts to run away, but finds he cannot. Sometimes he fancies himself in a house that is on fire, or that he is in danger of being drowned in a river. He often thinks he is falling over a precipice, and the dread of being dashed to pieces suddenly awakens him.


So the call for privacy, for peace and space to clear your head, is speaking to a powerful sense of dread, not just the whining of a famous cry baby. This song helps establish the frame of mind and mood for Immortality, at the climax of the record.

And then of course there is the ‘play pry,to backwards moment, where you can hear Eddie chanting something along the lines of ‘Peter Townsend how you saved my life.’ The fact that this message is hidden is significant. Music, once an immediate form of escape and release, is perverted, taken from him, its healing properties now buried, hidden, difficult to extract

Pry, To is one of the reasons why I have some issues with Whipping’s placement on the record. There is some need to relieve the tension from the Tremor Christ/Nothingman run of songs, but the strides that are made are immediately lost in Pry, to. It cheapens them in a way, especially since Pry, to is such a short piece and it moves immediately into Corduroy. Plus the segue from Nothingman’s sad silence into Pry, To works well musically, and taking out whipping makes Corduroy, the centerpiece and probably the most important song on the record, even more cathartic as it comes without the temporary reprieve granted from Whipping. However, the A Side/B Side division, which does not come up on CD, could be a factor here. It's possible they wanted to end the A-side on a note of defiance, with Pry, to serving as more of a reprise, a 'previously on Vitalogy' moment before Corduroy.

So Pry, to is the first of the ‘filler tracks’. Is that a fair label? I don’t think so—certainly not here at any rate. Pry, to never makes any of my mixes—but I think it is pretty clear that it plays an important role in ratcheting up the tension before Corduroy, a reminder of what is at stake that makes its message of resistance all the more powerful.

Corduroy

Corduroy is the high point of the record, the climax if you’re looking for a happy ending, and the start of the descent into Immortality if you aren’t. It’s also (I think) the most important song in Pearl Jam’s catalogue—their mission statement, if you can put it in those terms. As such there is much more going on here than a diatribe against fame, and limiting it to that does the song (and a great injustice.

The Vitalogy booklet offers us a few subtle clues about the song. It’s significant that it shares a page with Pry, to, as the former is essentially the introduction to Corduroy, the passage on nightmares the reality that Corduroy confronts and attempts to transcend. All we have for Corduroy is a picture of Eddie’s teeth, all in bad shape and, as he said in the interview a few pages back, “analogous to my head at the time”. In the same interview he calls it a relationship song but the relationship between an individual and a mass public, an individual who opens himself up for others, and in the process of that exposure loses his humanity. Is that the inevitable price of being an artist, of following a muse? Does it have to end in the exploitation of the artist and the commodification of his work? These are questions running throughout the album, but Corduroy is where they all come together.

The pages that surround Corduroy are worth looking at too. There is the discussion of ‘self-pollution’ and while this is obviously not a song worried about the evils of masturbation, it is worried about the pollution of the soul, of the ways in which we miss how seemingly pleasurable behaviors and experiences gnaw at our humanity and sense of self until we are left, without realizing it, as a shell of the human being we had originally set out to be. The following page has a few paragraphs on the sanctity of child birth, the crime that comes from bringing unwelcome children into the world, the importance of being grounded and at peace before you begin creation, the value of self-knowledge, knowing who you are, where you are going, and why you want to be there. The parallels between these questions and the importance of authenticity and meaningful creation that run through the record should not be too hard to spot.

This section of the booklet ends with Eddie reflecting on the discovery of a dead child, abandoned in a ladies room trash can. There is no judgment in his story, only hope that the soul of the child gets another shot at life, and sympathy for a young girl, alone and in pain, trapped without having anywhere else to go, or anyone else to lean on. No one can face what the girl has to face for her, but someone could have been there to hold her while she does it. These themes will play themselves out during the course of the song.

And of course there is the story of the corduroy jacket—Eddie getting them cheap and then seeing them sold many many times over once he became famous—the jacket symbolic of the problems with image, the artificially of celebrity, the creation of meaningless connections (that dressing like someone famous establishes a meaningful bond) that supplant the real ones.

Corduroy opens with its slow, ominous build, tentative at first but building in power (as if the music is steeling itself for a fight) that crashes into the first verse and its provocative opening lines, delivered with a weary defiance. You wait your entire life for your dreams to come true, but what happens if they arrive tainted? What happens if, by realizing them, you end up losing yourself? You’re left with no choice but to reject everything you ever wanted in the hopes of personal salvation. It’s a devastating step to have to take, but that’s the price the subject is forced to pay. And so Corduroy is a song about purging yourself of those corrupted dreams, of freeing yourself so you can start over. And the details are vague enough (as it the entire record) so that the listener can read their own struggles, their own demons, into the lyrics and the music.

And so moving into the second verse the process of rejection and emancipation begins. The ‘rewards’ that come with playing the game, with subjecting your art and your person to the forces that dehumanize it in the name of profit are simply not worth it. Better to walk than run on their track, better to starve than be forced to subsist on the food they feed you. Better solitude and authentic isolation than the fake intimacy that comes from millions of people knowing the image of you that’s been created and mistaking it for the real thing, burying you in the process.

In the third verse we move back into the Sysphisian/Camusian language of struggle for its own sake. The singer is engaged in a battle with himself, to restore his own humanity, and this will come not from beating your foe, but from rejecting and resisting him. And there is the reminder (he’ll come back to this later) that even if the act is by necessity one you have to engage in alone, you are not the only person in the world dissatisfied with the artificial superficiality of our culture and the way it is destructive of authenticity and meaning. There are others fighting back too (we saw this in Whipping, the way the language moves from personal endurance to a collection of individuals engaged in the same fight)

The song continues with its laundry list of rejection. There is a call to trust your own eyes, your own experiences, your own intuition rather than accept what you’re told. No one else can and should tell you how to live your life or define what matters to you. Their values, regardless of how seductive they may be, need not be yours. It is your humanity that they are trying to buy, and we can never lose sight of the fact that the costs that must be paid will have to be paid by you in the end, and the real you—the one that existed before fame, before the temptation, before the creation of that artificial construct posing as you. The language becomes the language of the slave (or the martyr depending on how charitable you want to be). There is a willingness, almost an insistence, to suffer physically if through that suffering, through that resistance, there is a chance to restore your humanity. Cut up and half dead, paying debts in blood, all in an attempt to find some kind of reset, to turn back the clock—to end up alone like he began. On the surface it sounds like a defeat, but at least once alone he can begin to restore his own humanity, to be a person he is rather than the thing he had become…

We move into the plaintive bridge. Everything has chains, absolutely nothing’s changed. The freedom is illusory—the costs are still there. There is a recognition that life is always going to be a constant struggle to preserve your authenticity, your soul, and your self from the larger forces that will spend the rest of your life alternately seducing you or bludgeoning you into submission. But there is that moment of solidarity that is so important in Pearl Jam’s music—that sense that even if this struggle is ultimately a personal one, one we have to engage in alone, we do not have to be alone while we do it. The world is full of people facing the same demons, fighting the same fights, and they are a source of strength. That’s the power of music, what Eddie fears is being lost and what Vitalogy is in part an effort to save—music’s ability to bridge the distances between people, to restore that sense of solidarity. At its best music reminds us that we are never really alone—that we are part of a shared community and that music is the language that unites us. The artist is a part of this process, but the reward comes not from the money or the fame, but from the chance to be a part of the creation of meaning. When we forget that the music loses its power and the artist loses his soul.

And the lyrics finish with this declaration of emancipation—the realization that what is most valuable in life is the freedom that comes from authenticity, and that if we are willing to suffer for it, to fight for it, this cannot be taken away from us. Our freedom can be given up, but it cannot be stolen. And so the lyrics conclude with the realization that while he has to fight the battle alone, as long as he is willing to fight, he’s already won.

This is where the outro music leaves us. It’s the sound of a bitter, difficult, struggle, but at the same time there is a gritty sense of triumph to it. Since then (live) Corduroy has become an independence day celebration, rather than a declaration of war against long odds, because we know how the story ends—or at least that the worst is over and we’ve come through it. But the studio version lacks that celebratory tone because the fight is just beginning (we see this with Alive too) and the happy ending is a long way away, if it even comes at all.

Bugs

Flip to the page on Bugs in the Vitalogy songbook and you’ve got a great big picture of a cockroach, and that’s it. Not the most subtle moment in the booklet, but Bugs is not a very subtle song.

Bugs is a difficult song to listen to at times, at least casually. It’s a wry, sarcastic spoken word piece accompanied by an out of tune accordion and percussion that sounds like someone stepping across a field of swarming roaches.

In some ways it’s a depressing piece to follow the tentative, but somehow triumphant, Corduroy. Bugs is a song of descent, of gradual surrender, and takes back the progress and momentum of the previous song.

In this song it seems pretty clear (to me anyway) that the Bugs are meant to symbolize the music industry and the intrusive celebrity culture that is so destructive of art, authenticity, and even life, but the bugs can represent any force that’s hostile to those principles. Bugs are a good choice of metaphor for Eddie to use for this piece. They are faceless, identical, amoral, and have an inexorable sense of inevitability about them (waiting…waiting…). They only want to feed themselves and expand and care nothing for how they affect the lives of those they need to feed off of (flashbacks to Rats are not inappropriate here). There are too many to kill, to many to reason with., and in the end there is no choice left but to give in. He never fully does, as Bugs is immediately followed by Satan’s Bed, the last moment of real resistance on the record, but you leave Bugs wondering just how long the subject is going to be able to keep fighting back against a foe, an industry, a trend, a collection of social values so much more powerful than he is—especially if he remains alone, one man staring down the swarm.

Beyond the thematic fit there is something powerful about Bugs as a statement. While the presence of the accordion and music like this is less impactful after discovering an artist like Tom Waits, including a song like this on a record from one of the best selling bands in the world is a wonderful fuck you gesture and artistic statement directed at an industry that habitually takes whatever innovative art they can fine and distributes bastardized clones as quickly as they can be assembled. It is a declaration that there is something intangible at work here, that there is a core to the music that cannot be copied, duplicated, or even defined, and a refusal to be a party to any attempt at doing so.

Satan's Bed

Bugs ends with the main characters surrender, his resignation and acceptance that the forces arrayed against him are simply too much and that it isn’t worth fighting anymore. The accordion cuts out and you’re left with an image (or at least I am) of the main character walking off into darkness or being overrun. But either way we lose sight of him.

Satan’s Bed picks up right where Bugs leaves off. The first thing we here is the sound of the whip, ordering the slave back to work, but when the music comes back in we’re in a different space than we were at the end of Bugs. It’s dirty, raunchy, argumentative, and seems to say “I don’t feel like taking any of your shit.” The music is a repudiation of the surrender at the end of Bugs, and the lyrics advance the same theme and feeling. It’s a refusal to be an image instead of a person, a celebration of imperfect authenticity. There is a relaxed playfulness to the song that is also a welcome break from the tension on the rest of the record. The urgency is still there, but there is a confidence lacking elsewhere, but Satan’s Bed really escapes the claustrophobic feel of the rest of the record, as if by making the song’s central declaration “already in love” he’s lifted a huge weight off of his chest and can breathe easy for the first time in forever.

The first verse frankly admits the power of the temptation, the allure of giving in, of accepting the rewards that come from surrendering principles, taking the easy way out. The temptation is always there---constant (Sundays Fridays Tuesdays Thursdays the same), uninvited (you know he don’t wait/sometimes the special guest he don’t like to leave), and powerful (I always want to give in). So what stops him from surrendering?

The answer, as it tends to be in most of Pearl Jam’s music, is love, a purer, healthier, more authentic kind of love. The song doesn’t specify what sort of love, which is probably deliberate. It could be his relationship with his girlfriend/wife (I don’t’ recall if he was married yet at the time, but he was still with his pre-fame partner), it could be his love of music, or it could be the more meaningful forms of friendship and solidarity he has in his life. But in all cases these relationships predate the temptations and trappings of fame, surrender, or selling out, and however imperfect they are, are powerful because the expressions of something more authentic and pure, a relationship unmediated by the promises and expectations of others.

The second verse develops the theme of authenticity further, and is one of my favorite verses in the catalog. It rejects the social standards of a celebrity consumer culture demanding that everything in life should be easy and perfect, its superficiality and materialism, and reminds us that its understanding of happiness and contentment is not only illusory, but unnecessary, as the thing in life that is most valuable and meaningful (authentic and unmediated love) is above and beyond these illusionary standards—in fact, they may only be achievable if we actively reject those standards. And we don’t need to look to celebrity heroes and voices of our generations. It requires no fucking messiah. Love is something we can find and create for ourselves.

The bridge is a brief throwback to Bugs, almost a reminder of where he has come from. That the rewards offered from surrender, acceptance, selling out, come at a great price, an endless cycle of torture and rewards. But there is also a realization that this is inevitable—it is the nature of life, and that whether or not you surrender or dedicate your time here to trying to move the rock you’re going to have to accept that every existence will be a series of victories and defeats, rewards and punishments, joy and sadness. There is no way around this, and the best we can do is find the right kinds of love that can help us endure and if we’re lucky, find moments of triumph.

And the third verse brings us back to the Satan metaphor and reprises the themes of the rest of the song. In case it wasn’t clear there is the declaration that he hasn’t given in—that despite the temptations he has yet to shake Satan’s hand, or, if you like, suck his dick. There is a desire to accept the hardships in life for what they are, and to live it as best we can, imperfectly for sure, but in a way that is true to ourselves. If we’re going to fail we’ll jump off our own cliffs. If we’re going to rise we’ll do it on our own power. We won’t take the easy way out or conform to others expectations for ourselves. It’ll be difficult at time, and while the possibility of an angel coming to rescue us is comforting, we also have to learn to accept that they probably aren’t going to make it, and that we’re going to have to learn to live for ourselves, to save ourselves, on our own---but never truly alone as long as we are in possession of a better kind of love.

Betterman

We know that Betterman was written long before the Vitalogy sessions, and presumably long before he had his concerns about art, commodification, and fame that dominate the album. So if there is one song that isn’t directly related to the larger overall arc this is clearly it. Having said that, there are still some connections that can be drawn, some likely intentional (set up by the artwork in the cd booklet) and some simply reflections of universal themes and a general point of view that consistently show up in Eddie’s writing

Satan’s Bed ends with the declaration ‘already in love’ and the song is about the importance of a purer, authentic, healthier kind of love that keeps us grounded. It is significant then that the Vitalogy booklet transitions from Satan’s Bed into Betterman with its passages on love and marriage. The booklet advises us to approach any kind of binding relationship carefully, to ensure that we’re doing it for the right reasons, and not out of a misguided sense of lust, obligation, or ignorance. It warns us not to throw away something sacred and powerful by making poor choices that leave us trapped in an enervating, destructive relationship. The connection to Betterman is obvious, as it is a song about spousal abuse and destructive relationships, about trapping yourself and not knowing how to free yourself from a bad situation. At the same time it’s a tender song, recognizing that underneath all this is a desperate desire to love and to be loved, an all too human need for it that forces us to do things we wouldn’t normally do, accept what we’d rather not accept, both the realization that without it we’ll never fully be complete and the fear that if we don’t settle right now we may never have it. That’s why the dominant emotion in the song isn’t judgment, but empathy. What’s tragic about the woman’s situation is that most of us would surrender to our fears and make the same mistakes she did, the same errors that trap us, and like her lack the strength to get out.

And so while Betterman wasn’t written for Vitalogy, it fits in a way. It tries to explain why people surrender and give into the forces that threaten to destroy them, out of a combination of fear and naiveté, and the way in which once the initial surrender is made, it is so difficult to hold onto who you are, what you value, your authenticity and the purity of your live. Once trapped, it is so much easier to stop moving the rock and learn to rationalize the position that you’re in.

Aye Davanita

I’m not a big fan of the instrumental, personally, and when I put together my Vitalogy as a collection of songs that I want to listen this one never makes the cut. And even when considering it as a piece of art I’m not really sure exactly what to make of it. The music is casual and jaunty—possibly meant as a breather sandwiched as it is between two emotionally intense songs, lacking words so you don’t need to process anything—like those little sorbets you sometimes get between courses at the kind of restaurant that’s fancier than even a place that serves 10 dollar eggs.

The booklet offers us a little bit of poetry, and as it was deliberately put there it’s probably worth looking at:

She laid alone
During her best days
As a work of art
Reading naked on the bed

Spent some of her best days
Cleaning carpet from her hair
Spent her worst days
Owing you the pleasure
Of taking blame

Spent her whole life
Disbelieving in her worst fears
A work of art
A work of art

It’s a striking, evocative poem, whose central message (if I’m interpreting it right) seems to reaffirm the central importance of authenticity and salvation. That we’re all capable of being our own artists, our own messiah, if we choose to live our lives as we see fit and choose to rise above both the expectations of others and our own fears. And it doesn’t matter if no one sees it, hears it, or knows about it. In the end the most important audience is ourselves, and the most important judgment about the success of our lives is the one we render for ourselves. In this way the poem seems to anticipate much of No Code, although here this sentiment is still an ideal, not a reality. The subject is capable of recognizing the truth in these sentiments, but that’s not the same thing as being able to experience them, as the last two songs on Vitalogy make very clear.

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 Post subject: Re: A Guided Tour of Vitalogy
PostPosted: Fri December 28, 2012 12:22 pm 
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Immortality

Although Stupid Mop is the end of the album, Immortality is the climax, where all the questions that have been running through the record are revisited and where the subject sees what he has learned and tries to resolve his issues as best he can.

It’s clear from the message from a family member in the liner notes that death was on Eddie’s mind, and the picture of the Indian Chief Big Bear, looking 80 and so young and at peace is included as a reminder that a long, happy life is possible, but Immortality is not a song about aging—it’s a song about learning to cope with life so that even thinking about aging becomes possible. On page 28 in the booklet there is an index/glossary and immortality is one of the words. Its definition is ‘ability to live by dying’ and this is as good a place to start as any. There’s a seeming contradiction in this definition as it argues that only by dying can we live, and certainly there is an extent to which the song takes this idea seriously—that we can end up being so overwhelmed and overrun with life that only by letting go of it can we find the space we need to truly exist. But we can also interpret this more in line with a more life-affirming theme that runs throughout Pearl Jam’s entire catalogue—the need to let go and emancipate yourself from the thoughts, expectations, and demands of others so that we can find the space necessary to take stock of our lives, find peace, and if need be, start over.

As a song, Immortality (and really the record as a whole) is a battle between these two definitions. It’s why the record starts with Last Exit. The album is a last desperate attempt to create the space necessary to take control of a life that has spiraled out of control. It has to end, either by making peace with it and finding a way to cope, or by finding a new type of life, an immortality in suicide where you’ll live forever without pain, hurt, or obligation.

The music at the start (and running throughout) is heavy, loaded with a sense of both foreboding and expectation while still managing to be open enough to allow for the movement and soul searching in the lyrics. They really could not have set the mood more perfectly than they did.

Immortality opens with one of the more compelling opening lyrics in the catalogue (‘vacate is the word’) and vacate was an expertly chosen word with which to begin the song. While it can imply a sense of leaving what it actually means is empty, and the entire first verse describes the emotionally void and hollow existence that the subject is living, a life without comfort, without meaningful connections (artificial tears), that seems to chew up and spit out everyone it can get its hands on. It is nearly impossible to find your bearings in a life like this—wisdom can’t adhere. It’s a lonely verse for a lonely existence.

Moving into the chorus, the truant is clearly the subject of the song. Given the context of the album I take the ‘home’ to be the meaning found in art and music, the power that it has to heal and the community that it can create, and to live in that space is the wish that he wants to hold on, but it is abstract enough that the listener can insert their own source of meaning. The sun takes us back to the opening of the record and the chorus of Last Exit. The sun illuminates and punishes us with its light, warms us and burns us—we need it, but if we get too close to it we’re lost—a metaphor for the way in which the culture industry uses up and destroys art and artists. There’s a way out—a trapdoor in the sun and through that door immortality? We don’t know, and that’s what the song wants to find out, if the only life possible is the one granted by death, or if we can find a different type of escape.

The second verse situates the song much more squarely in the context of the record—acknowledging that the life, the fame, leave you feeling used, like you’ve lost control of the most intimate aspects of yourself. The industry is merciless, using people up and spitting them out as quickly as it can, without any concern for art or artist—all sacrificed in the name of money and trends and swept out through the crack beneath the door (it isn’t even opened to allow for a graceful, dignified exit). Earlier on the record (Bugs especially) the subject had contemplated surrender—abandoning the rock and just choosing to play the game, but it’s clear in the end that this is no real option (a myth, according to the liner notes. The part of you that surrenders, that achieves a type of immortality, isn’t really you. If you surrender you’re executed anyway, you lose the part of yourself that matters, that is authentically yours, watching your words and art lose their meaning and fade away (the scrawl dissolved….and the cigar box is allegedly the place where eddie stores his lyrics)

We have a quiet, meditative solo gradually building in urgency, the whispered thought of immortality leading into the final, frantic verse. The subject is getting desperate—he cannot stop the thought of suicide, of the need for escape. He’s utterly lost, running in the dark (ironic given the close proximity of the sun) and he realizes that he has to make a choice. He can’t stay where he is, as the longer he remains the more of himself he loses, stripped, sold, auctioned, no longer his. He can choose life or he can choose immortality. As is fitting for Eddie’s writing the choice isn’t made for us—we don’t know what he chooses or what we ourselves should do, and the music essentially freezes in place, continuing for a minute and a half without really going anywhere, leaving us stuck at these crossroads.

I think we can draw some conclusions though, especially given the evidence we have after the fact, and it is worth drawing them here as I think this is the real climax of the album. The entire record is utterly empathetic to the choice of suicide. Not endorsing it, but understanding the feeling of being trapped, claustrophobic, like you’ve lost complete and utter control over who you are. And it understands that many of the things in life that give us meaning, music, art, passion, love, are tenuous and easily corruptible, and that in their perversions they become a source of weakness, not strength. But throughout the record there are these moments of, if not hope, at least fight and determination. While it understands the motivations behind suicide it rejects it and chooses life, choosing it because the struggle for authenticity and for love has meaning, and because the purest forms of happiness require the kind of love and solidarity you cannot find alone. Immortality cannot be the answer as it is a move we have to make by ourselves, and the lesson in Vitalogy, and throughout their catalogue, is that even while no one can create our standards for us, or move the rock for us, even though we have to do these things ourselves, we cannot do them alone. The possibility of love makes the struggle, no matter how difficult, worth it in the end.

Stupid Mop*

Originally I looked at Stupid Mop as just a weird art piece, a sort of fuck you to the music industry—“Look what the biggest band in the world is sticking onto its latest album” It is hard to imagine a piece less commercial, less prone to commodification, than that one. The singer who made the band famous isn’t even on it. And I still think there is some truth to that. It’s not the only story, but it is one. I also think that’s one of the reasons why Supid Mop is the last track on the record. In a time before CDs were the exclusive vehicle for listening to music I don’t think they wanted to interrupt the flow of the record. Stupid Mop was there because there was nowhere else to really put it

But I also think Stupid Mop serves a purpose, although I don’t think it is about Eddie. It’s the road not taken, in a sense. There is nothing said in Stupid Mop that hasn’t really been said elsewhere on the record, in Eddie’s own voice. I described the end of Immortality as a crossroads, where he has to choose suicide/immortality or life. We never learn the choice but the clues are there throughout the record that he’ll choose life in the end, even if it is the difficult choice. And he does that because despite it all he has art and meaning in his life, inspiration and love. And as long as those are there, as long as he has outlets like this record, he’ll make it in the end. The subject of Stupid Mop lacks these things. In fact, what makes the song so creepy is the desperate, sad, almost pathetic desire of the main character for the love and clarity that she lacks. The closest she can approximate to love is violence (shades of Betterman) as any contact and any connection has become meaningful and intimate. The closest she can come to expressing her trauma is her inane ramblings about her mop and her ability to clean the floor. It’s also a cold, clinical song, and I think that’s also deliberate—Ed’s disdain for the way we treat emotional and psychological distress—the lack of empathy and compassion. The pictures in the booklet there are telling. Two Victorian looking men preparing to lecture young people about the straight and narrow life (tellingly, the last thing listed under the lecture subjects is ‘On industry and economy the highway to wealth and fame’ exactly the bloodless worldview that the record rails against).

And so Stupid Mop is not about Eddie’s state of mind. We saw his state of mind in the rest of the record, and I think if this was meant to reflect Eddie it would have been in his voice, and likely in song. Vitalogy is already such a nakedly personal record that it’s not like the thoughts conveyed in Stupid Mop would have been too much. It’s a character study---where anyone could end up without the kind of support that we need to make life meaningful and worth living. The ‘would you kill yourself, yes I believe I would’ is too hamfisted to be a cry for help, and his description in an interview of Stupid Mop as the ‘most moving song we’ve written to date’ makes more sense if it is Eddie writing about someone else, as he historically places his own experiences as secondary to those of others. I think it would have worked even better as a hidden track a la master/slave, but unfortunately for myself I wasn’t the one arranging the record. It adds some interesting flavor at the end—where Eddie could have ended up without love and music, without Beth, Pete Townsend, the band, and Vitalogy—his last exit.

If you made it to the end thanks for reading and thank you to everyone who participated!

* For a take on Stupid Mop as one of the truly essential tracks on Vitalogy I can’t do better than to refer you to Angus’ piece in his SOTM thread, which is as close to a definitive pro-stupid mop take that you’re gonna get. But since I don’t entirely agree with his take I can’t fully endorse it either, for all its excellence.

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