Surely one needs to realize that when you stake all your life on your music then there could be the chance of an ultimate failure as a result of one’s efforts. Like the thousands of pretty blondes whose lives get destroyed in the effort of becoming the next Jayne Mansfield or Cameron Diaz, why should Pearl Jam’s efforts necessarily become the next The Who or even The Ramones—why should they be given any special privilege? If one believes Cameron Crowe’s recent PBS documentary Pearl Jam 20 , then Pearl Jam has to be the whiniest band that has ever existed, because apart from a few good songs, their catapult-like trajectory into the national and international consciousness ought to be the norm—or at least that is what Mr. Crowe’s documentary would have you believe.

I say this only because Cameron Crowe’s documentary, which showed the Pearl Jam’s alleged heroic testimony before Congress as they called out the monopoly of Ticketmaster in setting prices for concert tickets, made this band something other than a rehash of ‘70s stadium rock with a lead singer with a Bono complex. Instead they were true revolutionaries who took their humble Seattle beginnings to the level where throngs of bodies showed their couple-hours long allegiance of ecstasy in terms of the massive collective dancing undulation to songs like “Better Man” or “Jeremy.” For Pearl Jam, this thronging only made sense on a national, if not international, level with a Congressional seal of approval.

On the other hand, I have a bootleg of the Velvet Underground playing live at a small club in Austin, Texas in 1969. I bought this tape in New Orleans in the 1980s. I never saw The Velvet Underground live, since the band had broken up long before I even started listening to music—let alone listening to rock music. Yes, there was a deliberate making VU more than it was as hip in the 1980s. Yes, the VU hung out with Andy Warhol—but Lou Reed, et al., didn’t think they deserved to be rock stars unlike Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam testifying Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa-like before Congress. If one follows Pearl Jam 20, then whomever Cameron Crowe hangs out with must be an “interesting” band that a film director thinks deserves to have rock stardom. He will make your most personal frustration a federal case!

I don’t blame Pearl Jam for wanting to make a living, nor do I mean to belittle their desire to be big time global rock stars. I don’t mind their concern for the ridiculous ticket prices that their promoters made for their live concerts (although there is something called supply and demand here)—but why must musicians become known on such a national or international level in the first place? It is not the price, but the importance on a global level that is at issue. Does Pearl Jam deserve such honor and recognition? In their dispute with Ticketmaster, I don’t think Pearl Jam understood this distinction—they thought their price indicated their importance, and consequently they thought that they could set their high price at a level lower than what Ticketmaster said it was. Their easy assumption of their global importance was to get lower ticket prices in thinking they were deserving of national or international fame. Yet, if Pearl Jam was so little in the eyes of Ticketmaster, then they ought to have continued playing sleazy bars. But in their own self-importance, they thought they deserved the protection of the law to make themselves as famous as they have become.

In light of this, why does Pearl Jam deserve a PBS documentary that shows their earnest attempts to be the next big global rock stars? Crowe’s documentary shows the paradox of wanting big fame while wanting to keep it real to the emotional/music basis of what makes the music in any way compelling, let alone compelling in terms of the fans who like this kind of music. According to the film, it’s apparently all about Seattle and you had to be there, but simultaneously we the audience are supposed to care about this experience which is only Seattle idiosyncrasy. We are to care especially when the band is worried about its various drummers, which the documentary didn’t mention. Don’t worry about Mudhoney or the Young Fresh Fellows—those were Seattle bands that didn’t matter to Cameron Crowe.

But then again, I was one of the few back on the ’90s who thought (and who still thinks) that Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous sucked big time. That movie, for all it’s exhilarating presentation of youthful life on the road as you experience those who make music which can speak to large audiences, is nonetheless all about how you ought to get sucked into the rock ‘n roll way of life (albeit eschewing the drugs and sex part of it) because somehow rock ‘n roll is supposedly important. Its depiction of Lester Bangs is supposed to save it, but then Lester Bangs was a brilliant idiot. Once again, if you weren’t there then you don’t get it. I understand many personal experiences required you to be there, but if all you have is rock ‘n roll solipsism, then I must ask why you would continue to take those drugs. They’re boring and futile.

While not being the biggest South Park fan, I must admit that such talk of “rock” as important in the way that you had to be there makes me want to knock on walls like a Cartman version of an Orkin man, and look for hippies in order to keep them from eating out the foundation of anything that makes one wish to be big without taking the hard shots of inevitability.

It is hard to say that rock is not important, but it is just as hard to say that it is. Ultimately, these Cameron Crowe type paeans to rock (like the Pearl Jam 20 )  sing to gods which are silly and unworthy of worship, even if they have a lot of influence. His version of youth doesn’t deal with any serious questions regarding who one ought to be in terms of what is the best way of life.

And Pearl Jam? Were they really that good? I didn’t believe it then in the early ‘90s for Pearl Jam 10, nor do I believe whomever is so big now is all that good. Pearl Jam has some good songs, but in his suicide Kurt Cobain was better, and his suicide ought to say much regarding how good that kind of “grunge” music was. Not too good. No Walker Percyean ex-suicides here!

But then Cameron Crowe would call my “analysis” cynical. So be it. With Pearl Jam 20 he’s a fabulist, and insofar as he continues the narrative that rock will save the world or yourself, he is a fabulist in a way that presents illusions that are untrue. In this way he’s full of it.

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Articles by John Presnall

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