My review of this book is not totally fair because I picked it up knowing that I like Pearl Jam – I don’t love Pearl Jam. But author Steven Hyden loves Pearl Jam so he delves deep into everything. And I mean everything – including Eddie Vedder’s looks, various comments he made during shows throughout the 1990s, how the band dressed, and how what was going on in the world at the time seemed to always be in the context of the band. But that’s what music critics – who are also diehard fans – do. So I can’t really blame him.
Because I’m a causal fan, what’s most interesting about Long Road are the ripple effects Pearl Jam had on another bands, the role they played in the rock music scene over the last three decades, and why the band has outlasted many of its peers. Reading about how Stone Temple Pilots got a hard time for being a PJ rip-off (I don’t agree), the grunge movement in general, Alanis Morrisette spawning riooott grrrlll rock rip-offs (I agree), and what music looked like before and after Kurt Cobain’s death was fascinating. What I found less intriguing was Hyden combing through quotes from the band’s many former drummers, the seemingly-endless Neil Young talk, and comparing Cobain and Vedder. Although I usually love details, in terms of this book, the bigger picture is more captivating to me than dissecting small Pearl Jam particulars.
An example of the “bigger picture” is when the author points out that in the pre-internet early 90s, when PJ was getting big, alternative music was hard to get a hold of for a lot of kids. Those who lived in small towns without “cool college radio stations or independent record stores” didn’t have access which is another reason alt-rock mattered to them so much. I had access to all the music anyone could ever want and I retroactively feel bad for those kids. Now, in a post-internet world, where people live is inconsequential because we all have the same access to everything.
A big part of what kept me reading were Hyden’s outstanding pop culture references. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Cameron Crowe! Hyden clearly loves Crowe as much as I do as he talks about the movie Singles, the documentary Pearl Jam Twenty, and the tv show Roadies with the utmost admiration and respect.
- His description of the use of the song “Present Tense” in The Last Dance: “…to convey MJ’s relentlessly forward-facing posture after acting like a vindictive dick during his playing career.” I totally missed that song when I watched the documentary and I’m glad Hyden mentions it.
- Hyden thinks PJ’s fight with Ticketmaster is “the single most misunderstood aspect of their legacy.” It’s unfortunate that the band was on the right track but didn’t have the backing to pull it off. Instead of people viewing the situation as “Ticketmaster sucks and we should do something about it” most thought it was futile because Ticketmaster was too big to fail. And here Ticketmaster is, all these years later, still sucking and failing.
- The second half of chapter 14 is all about Vedder handling the soundtrack for Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild which of course is based on Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book of the same name. It never occurred to me that Vedder found a lot in common with Chris McCandless so all that was fascinating: “Chris McCandless was the type of martyr that Vedder was inclined to romanticize.”
- Chapter 17 is my favorite because it talks about Bradley Cooper singing “Maybe It’s Time” as Jackson Maine. I knew that Cooper met with Vedder before filming, and it’s clear he adjusted his voice a few octaves making it similar to Vedder, but the fact that in true meta form Vedder covered the song three times live a few months after the movie was released was news to me. Those clips are definitely worth watching because it is easy to see where Cooper drew from to get across his character’s pain via the “roughhewn country-rock” voice I adore. Additionally, Hyden explains that the song “is about the struggle to change and the need to accept that some things will just happen where we like it or not.” A tough lesson brilliantly described. He goes on to say that “Maybe It’s Time” sounds a lot like a song Vedder might have written for a later in life PJ album – “[taking] stock of an uncertain world and [expressing] gratitude for the unconditional love and foundational stability provided by his family.”
More good stuff:
- Hyden classifies PJ as “punk rock arena rock” which I’d never heard before and find totally accurate.
- He points out that in the early days, guitarist Mike McCready dressed like Stevie Ray Vaughan – something I had never noticed!
- On the trajectory of the band’s career: “The power of Pearl Jam’s MTV Unplugged is that it occurred at the beginning of their career, not the end.”
What made me roll my eyes:
- The CONSTANT references to Neil Young, The Who, and Bruce Springsteen. We get it – the band (especially Vedder) had their influences. Got it.
- Hyden liked Scott Weiland (me too) but doesn’t like Dave Grohl. What?!
- Trying to decipher the difference between “alternative” and “indie” rock. Who cares? What’s important is what he says next: “This is what time does – art always outlasts the rhetorical baggage people attach to it in the moment.”
- The idea that PJ is similar to the Grateful Dead because of bootleg tapes.
On what sets him apart as a singer: “Vedder’s uncanny knack for cutting straight to the heart of the matter for millions of teenagers with his voice and lyrics.” Also: “the go-for-broke power of his voice”
“Just because a sentiment has been repeated so many times that it’s become a cliché does not make it any less genuine or true.”
“Great songs plus great musicianship will almost always overcome any deficiencies for how to creatively approach making records.”
“Their early work was about fighting for your own place in the world; their later work was preoccupied with the fear of losing that hard-won place.”
On Vedder giving Rock & Roll Hall of Fame speeches: “He’s good at giving speeches about music he loves. And he’s always been very public – and generous – about being a fan and paying homage.”
“The band that had once acted out the rebellion of a generation was now here to provide solace, reassurance, and ballast to those same people as they aged.” That thesis kept my attention throughout the book – that Pearl Jam isn’t afraid to evolve. They may be singing songs from decades ago (as well they should because they are great songs) but they perform them differently. I love Poison, but clips I’ve seen of Bret Michaels makes me a little sad because he’s become a nostalgia act. That being said, the Michaels of the 1980s is what people pay to see but I imagine it’s a tough place for him to be in at 60 years old.
- Even though I’ve read it many times before, reading about all the grunge frontmen deaths again was rough. Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Andrew Wood, Scott Weiland. Breaks my heart.
- I’ve seen Pearl Jam once and the show I attended is referenced in the book: April 1, 2003 in Denver!
Pearl Jam fans should definitely read this book. As for rock and roll/pop culture fans, they can take or leave it in terms of content. But in terms of research and writing, it’s an excellent read.