Twenty-five years after their first album helped usher in a new form of musical expression, Pearl Jam is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I was a senior in college when that debut record, Ten, was released in August 1991. A week later, my father, a 48-year-old non-smoker, would lose his startlingly-short battle with lung cancer.
In the swirling aftermath of his death, Ten expressed, concretely and beautifully, the darkness that had taken hold of me. It also offered a sustaining reprieve. Twenty-five years later, Ten is still helping me salve a wound I’ve come to understand will never fully heal.
In the weeks and months after my father’s death, as I tried to make sense of what had just happened, I was forced to confront the reality that some things don’t make sense. That lesson, which everyone learns eventually, tested previously unassailable assumptions about the solidity of the ground beneath me. I am subject to unknowable, uncontrollable and devastating forces. I am vulnerable, walking along an invisible cliff.
“Once”, the first track on Ten, captured the mixture of fright, disbelief, powerlessness and rage churning inside me. “I got a bomb in my temple that is gonna explode” proclaims lead singer, Eddie Vedder, over a pulsating guitar riff that is the embodiment of grunge. “Once upon a time, I could control myself” he laments. I, too, no longer had the certainty of self-control. My mind wandered to strange new places where I experienced unrecognizable feelings.
Like the protagonist of the album’s first single, “Alive”, I understood I was still living but wondered “do I deserve to be?” Why am I still here while my father is not? The senselessness was debilitating, leaving me stunned at “how quick the sun can drop away,” as Vedder sings in “Black”.
I would go jogging, hoping the exertion would resuscitate me. But instead it became an act of physical retribution; I kept telling myself to run faster, run faster until I nearly collapsed, as if trying to punish myself for my father’s death. Worse yet, I battered myself mentally, telling myself as I applied to law school and pursued a law degree that I wasn’t smart enough to follow in my father’s footsteps as a lawyer.
When my first law school grade came back an A-, a storm of self-flagellation immediately blew in, darkening an initial sense of pride and exhilaration. Who did I think I was? I was a nobody who had gotten lucky. I still had three grades outstanding and there was no way they would be as good. When that prediction bore out, I was triumphant, mocking myself for my fleeting bout of self-confidence.
“Release”, the last track on Ten, gave voice to my inner struggle like no other song before or since. I heard myself in Eddie Vedder’s defiant declaration: “I’ll ride the wave where it takes me / I’ll hold the pain”. I, too, wanted the pain. It defined me and connected me to my father. It was an expression of loyalty to him and kept him close.
But then came the final chorus and Vedder’s half-prayer, half-demand: “Release me!” shouted over and over and over again—both imploringly and with the threat of violence, the clipped wah-wah guitar chords reverberating against some invisible restraint. “Release me! Release me!” I shouted along, headphones at a deafening volume. But to whom was I screaming? To whom was I making my demand? To God? To my father?
Eventually it became clear I was screaming it to myself. Demanding to be freed from the emotional prison I had constructed in my head. That simple lyric, “Release me!” shouted repeatedly, angrily and with defiance, was able to penetrate the self-loathing enveloping me like some viscous shroud. It made me recognize what I was doing to myself and gave me the voice and conviction to fight back.
It has been a lifelong struggle. I’m not fully released. Twenty-five years later, I still feel a heaviness that tempers my ability to laugh with abandon. Like my 11-year-old son does. I want to feel his lightness. There are times when he transmits it to me, through a touch or a look or in words, and it is magic. But of course I cannot rely on him for that. He will not be a perfect distillation of happiness, a personification of lightness, forever. It would be unfair of me to burden him with my need. And so the heaviness remains. I still hold the pain.
Twenty-five years later, Ten allows me to touch that darkness, to honor it, granting me entry to that deepest, truest part of myself, the part that will forever define who I am. The part where death has taken up residence in the living. Where a son never got to experience his father as a person. And where a father never got to know his little boy as a man.
Ten affords a place where I can feel at ease. Where, strangely, I feel a mastery of life, a competence born of grief. But it also has the power to shake me from the inside out. It gives me the keys to release the darkness. Perhaps not permanently, but long enough to know life’s beauty once again.
Pearl Jam’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is about more than music. Like all great art, it’s about empowerment. Pearl Jam has empowered me to forgive myself for wanting to carry the burden—and for wanting to set it aside.
// Moving Pixels
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