Twenty-five years later, Ten allows me to touch a darkness that will forever define who I am.
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.