23. Pearl Jam - Jeremy

Being a little ahead of the curve (surprisingly) when it came to the popularity of grunge music, I already owned Pearl Jam's album Ten for a while when the video for "Jeremy" was released in 1991.  It was already one of my standout favorites from that spectacular album, but the video made me understand and appreciate it even more.  I've often written about being oblivious to song lyrics, and "Jeremy" was no exception back in '91.  So when I saw the video for the first time, I thought, "What the hell is that?!"  The video completely captured the freneticism and desperation of the lyrics.  It took a song that I already really liked and turned it into a song that I loved.  A lot.  Hence it being here at #23.

The music for "Jeremy" was actually written by Pearl Jam's bassist, Jeff Ament, before the recording sessions for the Ten album even began.  It was dark and moody even as an instrumental, mostly in part to the introduction (and outro) of the song, with those cool harmonics at the end.  I, like many, assumed that the introduction was a guitar and bass playing the same line to give it some extra depth.  We were all wrong.  It was actually an overdubbed line that Ament played on his brand new twelve string Hamer bass.  I've often praised bassists for providing the necessary bedrock on which a great song can be built, but I'm glad to give credit to a bassist who stepped into the limelight and crafted and crafted a brilliant song.

Then you add singer Eddie Vedder's haunting lyrics on top of it, and "Jeremy" becomes a song that nears perfection.  It's the perfect marriage of a theme with a melody.  For those who don't know (and back in '91, I was one of them), "Jeremy" is a song based on the 1991 suicide of Jeremy Delle in suburban Dallas (as well as Eddie's personal experience with a kid in junior high school*)  There's even a blog devoted to his suicide and the song.  The song tells the story of a kid we all knew (or even were) back in our early teens.  He's the quiet, reserved kid who has few, if any, friends.  She's the one who's picked on by some, but largely ignored by most.  They're the kid that you struggle to remember their name when you're at the end of summer vacation. 

The thing that really strikes me about Eddie's lyrics is the fact that he's not writing the song from Jeremy's perspective, but from the eyes of one of his classmates.  Many songrwiters, like Morrissey or Robert Smith of The Cure, write songs from the perspective teenagers like Jeremy.  But Eddie took the side of the bully, to a certain degree, and tell that side of the story.  There's culpability for the emotional damage done to Jeremy.  It doesn't all just land on the shoulders of the troubled teen alone.  Other people helped damage him and give him those scars that ended up in violence and tragedy.  Eddie, singing as the classmate, acknowledges his own responsibility:

Clearly I remember

Picking on the boy
Seemed a harmless little f*ck
But we unleashed a lion

But they weren't the only ones.  Kids like Jeremy don't become that way just because they're picked on at school or have a bad experience with a girlfriend.  It starts, as does all formative emotional damage, at home.
Parents are the first ones who have an opportunity to affect their children's emotional stability, both for the better or for the worse.  It's clear that Jeremy's folks chose the latter path:

Daddy didn't give attention

To the fact that mommy didn't care
King Jeremy the wicked
Ruled his world

Eddie sums up the scarring events of Jeremy's suicide in front of his classmates with one simple, yet haunting line.  "Jeremy spoke in class today."  As the video shows, it was a day like any other day.  "3:30 in the afternoon, an affluent suburb, 64 degrees and cloudy."  Jeremy spoke in a way that will forever haunt the souls of his teacher and classmates, making one last devastating statement with no words at all.  It was probably the most self-assured thing he ever did in his life.

And although Eddie Vedder's voice has inspired other singers (or has been outright stolen - I'm talking to you, Scott Stapp), his vocal delivery for "Jeremy" is absolutely perfect.  He's able to sing the lines with the gravity that they deserve, while also weaving in an emotional complexity into them.  He sings it like a fifteen year-old would - full of anger, doubt, cockiness, fear, uncertainty, yet also with a remnant of that childlike sense of wonder.  Near the end of the song when he sings the "Hoo hoo hoo"s and the plaintive "Woah"s over and over again, he really captures the way teenage boys can get all worked up and have their desperation and anger build and build until they explode.  Eddie's delivery throughout the entire song is a perfect representation of what Jeremy and his classmates must have felt that day, and most days before it.

Since the lyrical storyline is so powerful, it's easy to overlook the powerful music and melody that Jeff wrote and the rest of the band plays.  After Ament's cool bass opening, the music starts pretty restrained, with a simple drum line and guitar riffs, smartly letting Eddie's vocals and lyrics shine.  But as the song goes on, the music increases its intensity, building to a climax, again following the tone of the lyrics.  Lead guitarist Mike McCreeay adds some high end guitar work while rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard helps move the song along with his guitar playing.  At the end, they even bring in a cello to give some extra diversity and depth to the song.  The song ends with Jeff's great outro and is over, leaving you emotionally spent.

"Jeremy" isn't a song that you listen to in the summer with the top down on your rented convertible while you're on vacation in San Diego.  That's what Katy Perry's "California Gurls" is for.  For a song that's going to be listed at #23 on a Greatest Songs of My Life, it has to have more depth to it, so it moves you, rather than plays while you move.  It's a song that makes you think long after it's done, just like a great movie.  "Jeremy" succeeds on all those levels, and that's what makes it a Hall of Famer.

For a moment, at the beginning of the video, a bible verse flashes on the screen.  Having previously been a youth director at a Presbyterian church, I knew the verse, Genesis 3:6, was from the Adam & Eve story, but didn't know exactly what it was.  When I read it, though, it made sense.  Original sin.  Genesis 3:6 - "When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it."

(Recommendation #6:  The brilliant and thought-provoking video for "Jeremy" was directed by Mark Pellington, who went on to a directing career in films, most notably the underrated mind bending thriller Arlington Road, with Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins.  If you haven't seen it, I'd highly recommend it.)

* Here's a quote from an interview with Eddie Vedder:

I actually knew somebody in junior high school, in San Diego, California, that did the same thing, just about, didn't take his life but ended up shooting up an oceanography room. I remember being in the halls and hearing it and I had actually had altercations with this kid in the past. I was kind of a rebellious fifth-grader and I think we got in fights and stuff. So it's a bit about this kid named Jeremy and it's also a bit about a kid named Brian that I knew and I don't know...the song, I think it says a lot. I think it goes somewhere...and a lot of people interpret it different ways and it's just been recently that I've been talking about the true meaning behind it and I hope no one's offended and believe me, I think of Jeremy when I sing it.)

(Palate Cleanser #12: After listening to such a bummer song, you might need something to lighten things up a bit. A pop-perfect song that has absolutely no emotional depth to it. I mentioned it before, so here's Ms. Perry and "California Gurls.")

24. The Rolling Stones - Shattered

As I get older, I find that I am respecting The Rolling Stones more and more.  They're a band that I dismissed when I was younger as old guy music.  Mick Jagger was more of a charicature of himself and Keith Richards was just a medical miracle - proof that constant physical and pharmacological abuse of the human body doesn't always end in death.  Ron Wood looked like the guy with the weird hair that they brought up from the audience to play a guitar that wasn't plugged in, Bill Wyman was my math teacher on bass while Charlie Watts was my grandpa on drums (and four drums at that!).  I never really gave them a fair shake until about ten years ago, when I started listening to their music and judging it on its merits, rather than letting my preconceptions get in the way.  So now I'm on board.  There is pure genius in there, and lots more than I ever gave them credit for.  So I am a much bigger Rolling Stones fan than I was. 

Although there are more critically acclaimed songs released during my lifetime, "Shattered" is the one that has always impressed me the most.  It may not be the most perfectly crafted song, but that's exactly why it's on my list.  The entire song oozes casualness.  A guitar sound has never matched the personality of its player better than Keith Richards and his 1975 Fender Telecaster.  You can almost picture the guitar smoking a cigarette and mumbling, all the while drinking shots of Jack Daniels.  There's something about the guitar sound in "Shattered" that just blows me away.  It's deceptively simple, but it matches the style of Mick Jagger's vocals perfectly.  Although Keith Richards always said that no matter what guitar he got, "give me five minutes and I'll make 'em all sound the same."  But not in "Shattered."  The guitar sound is so liquid that it melts all over Mick's vocals, like syrup dripping down your fingers.

The whole song is written as if they were performing it on the streets of Manhattan.  There's absolutely no studio feel to "Shattered."  It seems like Mick is just making up the lyrics as he goes along, delivering so many of the lines in that improvisational matter, as if he's just impressed himself with that cool line he just sang.  In keeping with the band-on-the-streets theme, when the guitar solo comes along, it's easy to imagine Mick taking a few drags from a cigarette or sipping some coffee to combat the cold wind rushing down Fifth Avenue. What a kick it would be if they actually did that - all bundled up, with just two drums and a cymbal for Charlie, a couple little kicker amps for Keith and Ronnie.  Heck, they don't even need a bass player.  And Mick just doing it all without any amplification at all.  What a great experience that would be.

Anyway, back to the music.  Charlie Watts plays the drums like he's just a timekeeper, staying out of the way of the rest of the band.  Bill Wyman's bass playing is forceful, but relatively simple.  He helps match the pace of the drums with some quick playing of his own.  The rhythm section of The Stones has always been utilitarian, but also rock solid.  Again, guys putting their own egos aside for the good of the band and the song. 

The lyrics work so well with the way that Mick delivers them.  There are so many lines that, when sung, sound off the cuff as if they just occurred to him.  Every time he sing-songs "Life's just a cocktail party," I just love it.  So many singers lose themselves in the precision of hitting the notes that phrasing and inventiveness fall by the wayside.  Not with Mick.  Many people complain that he's not all that great a singer and I would vehemently disagree.  He's not a great technical singer, but he brings a depth to his vocals that have inspired countless others, most notably U2's Bono.  Neither could hold a flame to the vocal perfection of a Harry Connick Jr., but singing just isn't the notes, now is it?  I also love the backing vocals.  The way the "shadoobies" and the "shattered"s are sung by one backing vocalist while spoken by another also adds that street vibe to the song.  And "Shattered" is all about the street vibe, both musically and lyrically.

"Shattered" is an ode to late 70's New York.  Manhattan in 1978 was much different than it is today.  The streets were not as safe, clean or as nice as they are now, nor were they as homogeneous or corporate.  The streets had soul in the 70's and 80's.  When Mick says that his town (New York has always been his American "home") is in tatters, he's not too far off the mark.  Late 70's New York was a living dichotomy - the richest and poorest all thrown together - a primordial stew of the human condition.  Hope and despair were bedmates.  Mick captures that sentiment brilliantly:

Love and hope and sex and dreams
Are still surviving on the street
Look at me, I'm in tatters!
I'm shattered 

So even though he's in tatters and the whole world is falling down around him, that unbreakable New York symbiosis of optimism/pessimism persists, and this guy isn't even from New York!  One of the trademark songs about New York in the late 70's was written by a guy from Dartford, Kent, England.  But he encapsulates it so well he might as well be a New Yorker:

Pride and joy and greed and sex
That's what makes our town the best
Pride and joy and dirty dreams and still surviving on the street 

All of those things are still surviving on the street, thirty years later.  Even though it was a song written for a specific period and place, "Shattered" can resonate still to any big city.  And I still love its style, which still sounds improvised and fresh, even after listening to it dozens of times.

For the longest time, when The Stones played "Shattered" live they played it much quicker than the album version and I really don't like it.  They've taken the casual nature of the original and tried to turn it into a rock song.  Many songs are better live (like "Secret World" by Peter Gabriel), but this isn't one of them.  I do, however, have to give them some props for the version that they play of "Shattered" much more recently.  After poring through a bunch of YouTube videos, I finally found a live version that I really liked, so I thought I"d share it, too.

I have to admit that the pun was definitely unintended about the syrup running down your fingers.  Sure, part of my brain knew that The Stones had an album called Sticky Fingers, but honestly, I was just trying to come up with a thicker, slower moving liquid that fit the visual metaphor I was trying to describe.  I'm not as smart as you might have thought...

25. Run DMC - Walk This Way

Rap might have been headed for the fate of disco had it not been for the unlikely pairing of rap pioneers Run DMC and hard rock veterans Aerosmith.  Their collaboration, "Walk This Way," exposed rap music to a whole new audience - white kids, especially suburban white kids.  And considering where I grew up and who I was, a white kid living in the suburbs of Los Angeles, that meant me.  But here's the kicker.  I was already a Run DMC fan when their 1986 album Raising Hell came out.

I had originally been exposed to rap with the silliness of "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang, but then moved on to Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J and, of course, Run DMC.  The first album I bought of theirs was King of Rock and I loved the rock elements that they brought to rap.  They took the drum machine beats and the scratching of samples and added a harder element to it that was little heard at the time.  I also loved the back and forth of the high pitched Run paired with the gravelly vocals of DMC.  Run DMC was a band that pioneered mainstream rap while remaining true to their roots.  Much like Nirvana, they didn't make music for the masses, the music they made brought the masses.  So although they had enjoyed some success prior to "Walk This Way," that unlikeliest of pairings changed rap forever and laid the groundwork that would eventually become hip-hop, where more complex music and sung vocals were mixed with the rapping.* 

It's hard to believe now, especially given the fact that Run DMC are now basically extinct rap icons while Aerosmith continue to put out popular, relevant (to most) rock music, but back in 1986, their fates were reversed.  Run DMC was a band on the rise in the rap world and Aerosmith had become a cautionary tale of egos gone awry.  They were the hard rock Beatles who had gotten back together, but then made a sucky album and were falling off the cliff to obscurity.  That all changed when Run DMC DJ Jam Master Jay received an album from a friend of his to search for cool beats and scratching opportunities.

DJs often ripped the labels off their records so no one would know what beats they were using when they were scratching.  Jam Master Jay received Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic this way.  Jay had no idea who the artist was or what album it was.  He was working on a scratching technique with the opening riff from the fourth track when producer Rick Rubin told him it was a famous rock song from Aerosmith.  Jay just shook his head and said that either way, it was an awesome beat.  Rubin then tried to convince the band not only to record it, but to record it with Aerosmith.  Jay & Rubin called Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry and suggested the collaboration.  Brilliantly seeing it as a new opportunity to get their music heard by new fans, Perry said, "It took me all of a minute to say yes,"  Run, on the other hand, had his doubts.  Reading through the lyrics, he thought, "What the hell is this?" and didn't want to do it.  But Rick & Jay were persistant and a few months later Joe Perry and Steve Tyler met up with Run DMC at their studio and cut their portion of the track in a day. 

The result was a song that Run DMC wasn't even sure would make the album.  But Rubin insisted it was brilliant, and "Walk This Way" was put on Run DMC's 1986 breakout album, Raising Hell.  That album became the first rap album to go platinum (it ended up going triple platinum) and "Walk This Way" was the crossover hit that rap had never had before.  Suburban white kids who had never given rap the time of day were now rapping along with Run & DMC with their friends in the car.  

And it's easy to see why.  It starts off with the iconic drum beat from the original (although it's cleaned up with a more modern sound).  But by the second iteration of the riff, Jay scratches it into something completely different.  Aerosmith fans around the world were tilting their heads to the side and saying, "Huh?"  Then Jay scratches the opening guitar riff and it's clear this is a whole new ballgame.  Just as Steven Tyler's lyrics are set to kick in, you instead get the iconic back & forth rapping of Run & DMC.  Their vocal styles are so opposite that they become complimentary, going together like orange and blue on the color wheel.  When they get to the chorus, though, Steven Tyler comes screeching in with his trademark wail for the choruses, punctuated by Run & DMC's interjections.

The combination of the two, supplemented by Jam Master Jay's masterful scratching create a song that is greater than the sum of its parts.  An experiment that seemed doomed to failure sparked a whole new way of looking at rap music in relation to its pop, soul & rock cousins.  Nobody holds back on this track.  Steve Perry plays a guitar track that is in many ways superior to the original and there's a crispness and vitality to Steven Tyler's vocals that are augmented by the more modern production values of the mid 80's.  Even with the intensity of Tyler's vocals, DMC & Run hold their own, feeding on the energy of the sung vocals.

The lyrics are verbatim from the ones that originally came from Steven Tyler's brilliant sophomoric mind that's eternally stuck in fifteen year-old mode.  He eloquently phrases what every young man wishes he could.  He throws around sexual similes and metaphors like he got them at a 99cent store.  Steven Tyler's the Edgar Allan Poe for the horny teenage male.  It only takes a few lines to see why:

So I took a big chance at the high school dance
With a lady who was ready to play
It wasn't me she was foolin'
Cause she new what she was doin'
When she told me how to walk this way

Now we all know that they're not really talking about walking, so there's the double entendre that has always been a bedrock of rock & roll lyrics.  Originally, they were meant to get lyrics past the radio censors, but as time went on, they just became a more fun and interesting way to phrase the real intent you were going for.  And no one, and I mean no one, does it better than Steven Tyler.  And although rappers no longer bother censoring themselves about their sexual exploits in their lyrics, back in 1986, you couldn't get away with that.  So it was a perfect combination, both lyrically and musically, for Run DMC and Aerosmith.

Back in 1986, I really doubt that Run DMC & Aerosmith knew that they were basically transforming the rap that we had always known into the hip-hop that we know today.  But it's those happy accidents that end up changing the landscape of everything - from play-doh to post-it notes.  (Just for fun, Here are nine things that were invented by accident.)  And although the collaboration between these two bands wasn't technically an accident, but rather a collection of seemingly inconsequential things, the influence of this convergence is unmistakable.  Beyond the influence, though, is the fact that this song still kicks ass almost twenty five years later.  And like every song on this list, if it comes on the radio or my Ipod, I'm staying for the ride.

*I have to give credit, though, to the likes of Africa Bambaataa, who were the first to add rock elements to rap songs, but Run DMC took that combination to a new level.

(Fun Fact #615:  One day, the members of the band went to go see the (then) new movie, Young Frankenstein, starring Gene Wilder.  There's a scene where Dr.
Igor asks him to "Walk this way," and then proceeds to walk off screen in a very silly fashion. 

(Fun Fact #523:  Although I think that "Walk This Way" by Run DMC is a fantastic song, there are those that I'm sure disagree with me.  While doing my research for this entry, I found a cool review of Run DMC's career, including some notes on "Walk This Way."  So I thought I'd share an opposing position in all fairness.  Here's what Tom Breihan had to say about the Raising Hell album, and "Walk This Way" in particular:

Raising Hell is generally considered to be the group's all-time classic, and it certainly has its share of classic moments. Rick Rubin had by this point taken over production from Larry Smith, and he kept the group's thunderous stomp while adding a host of sly sampled musical touches: unbelievably funky bells on "Peter Piper", a great cartoonish piano line on "You Be Illin'", a dirty Southern-rock guitar riff on the title track. Run and DMC had also stepped their rap game up; "It's Tricky" is basically as good as the two of them ever got, spitting quick-tongue witticisms and yelling booming threats with equal abandon. The album, however, has a ton of filler: the goofy human-beatbox jam "Hit It Run", the ridiculously tossed-off dis "Dumb Girl", the utterly blatant Slick Rick bite "Perfection". And "Walk This Way". "Walk This Way" totally fucking sucks, a weak and half-baked novelty-rap jam which got them (and Aerosmith) all over MTV but which sounds no better for having anticipated the commercial possibilities of rap-rock.

So I'm guessing "Walk This Way" isn't #25 on Tom's list, huh?)

Not much to do with Run DMC, but I gave a shout-out to Africa Bambaataa as one of the first to mix rap and rock.  One of his coolest examples of this is a song he did with John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, called "World Destruction."  I thought I'd just put the video here in case you were interested.