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.")

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