Issues of mental health have perhaps never been more at the forefront of American life than during these bizarro-world, COVID/lockdown/BLM/MAGA-years of 2020 to the present. Anxiety levels have shot up and depression rates tripled during the first year of COVID, alone. Given the realities of life in 2022, many have had to address some tough questions. What to do with our feelings of intense disappointment, existential crisis, and rage? Do we ignore them, suck it up, and move on as best we can? Do we turn inward, and punish ourselves for not handling things better? Do we lash out at our transgressors, real or perceived? Or are there other options?
This may be a perfect time to look back to one particularly remarkable song from the early 1990s and a time when the so-called Seattle grunge scene ruled popular music. Saying that a song can change your life is often a cliché, but Pearl Jam’s “Black” can probably help change some lives. This is especially true with the live MTV Unplugged performance of this heavy and, yes, quite dark song. “Black” provides a blueprint of sorts for navigating the challenges that so many are facing today.
To briefly recap, grunge was the last major, American-born, rock ‘n’ roll movement (coming right before Britpop took off). While today the genre is well-regarded as an important part of the history of popular music, it is also generally associated with a lot of pain and, famously, angst. In fact, of the four most well-known grunge bands, three of their front men would die prematurely either of heroin addiction, with the 2002 death of Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, or suicide, both Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, in 1994, and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, in 2017. But there is a reason that people loved, and still love, grunge, and there is a reason that those groups blew up the pop charts and MTV’s video rotations in the ’90s.
Grunge was rooted in traditional rock, but also brought serious punk and metal influences to the mainstream. There is a lot of pain and, famously, angst at the heart of grunge, but the music is also inspiring in that it often directly addressed that darkness in a raw and authentic manner. In doing so, the music resonates deeply with fans, from the top-40 crowd to classic-rock diehards to serious hip-hop fans. If all any of us really want is some truth, few performances deliver more than “Black”, and especially the live, acoustic version from the group’s set on the then-popular, MTV Unplugged television series.
“Black” was first heard on Pearl Jam’s 1991, breakout debut album, Ten, the first in a run of multi-platinum and platinum albums, and then played on Unplugged the following year. The group possessed the power of arena rockers like The Who, the edginess of punk, and a unique and iconic singer in Eddie Vedder. Vedder filled arenas with his voice, while still managing to be poetic and even intimate at the same time. In the band’s performance of “Black”, they would convey an epic personal struggle, rife with loss and anger, but they would also find their humanity in the process.
At the time of “Black”, Vedder had his own struggles, including dealing with the aftermath of a troubled childhood in song, and then the crush of instant and immense fame. But Vedder and company were able to stay grounded enough. Shortly after the band’s initial commercial breakout, they would consciously step back from the spotlight, and start a long, steady run of success with a smaller but devout following. Consequently, Pearl Jam became a model of stability and longevity in that Seattle music scene.
For the Unplugged performance of the song, each of the band’s five members is seated on stools in front of a dark, shimmering backdrop, and a small but rapt live audience. The music starts with pretty acoustic guitar and Vedder’s soft but soulful moan. Vedder’s first lines, and he is the band’s lyricist, are typically murky, yet poetic, and reference sheets, a woman’s legs, and some cosmic, timeless love. Vedder’s reference to himself as the “earth” to his partner’s “sun” is beautiful enough, though it also foreshadows a certain over-reliance on another person. Vedder makes it clear that these memories are of a love that is very much in the past.
The rest of the band establishes something like the setting for a musical psychodrama, within which Vedder will work out some serious issues. Grunge therapy. Stone Gossard, who wrote the music, plays a dojo, with a subtle but substantial-enough rhythm. Mike McCready plays a lead guitar part that he has described as Stevie Ray Vaughn-inspired, acoustic blues-rock. Jeff Ament provides the sort of deep, acoustic bass lines you would expect in a song called “Black”. Drummer Dave Abbruzzese’s rhythm (Dave Krusen plays on the studio version) is sharp but restless, and never entirely lets loose.
In the center of all of that is Vedder. Throughout the song, he pulls from inside himself not only emotionally but physically, from deep within his diaphragm. He also showcases some remarkable vocal skills.
The song is Vedder’s intensely autobiographical story about hanging onto an ended relationship, but doing so is so painful that it is like “cradl[ing] broken glass”. Those memories, now turned “black”, are ingrained in him to the point that they seem permanently “tattooed” to his psyche. Hearing the innocent laughter of kids only further reminds him of how much he is hurting. Vedder’s inner conflict comes out, at one point, with his effortless switching from his powerful baritone to a sweet falsetto, and back, in an instant. You can hear every bit of his longing, anguish, and anger, as it builds. Vedder finally sings that as unwilling to let go of this woman as he is, he knows she is not coming back. Then comes the real killer.
During the song’s bridge, Vedder sings of one of the universe’s crueler injustices: the knowledge that not only is the former partner permanently gone from his life—but that she will eventually be a “star in somebody else’s sky”. At this point, Vedder is somewhere beyond heartbroken and entering what almost seems to be a mental health crisis: “Why can’t it be, oh, can’t it be mine?”
Two-thirds into the five-and-a-half-minute song and the three guitarists start in with a stirring and hypnotic backup vocal line: “Doodoo-doo-doo-doodoodoo”, over and over. This, too, is crucial to Vedder’s psychodrama. As he sings, yowls, and twists in the wind, the chorus is constant and unchanging. The chorus seems to represent no less than the universe itself. That is, the chorus is surprisingly powerful and constant, even while seeming almost entirely indifferent to Vedder’s struggle. There does not appear to be anyone or anything that is going to swoop in and rescue him. Vedder stops singing, and the chorus continues on, carried by Ament’s falsetto.
That chorus does also, however, serve to reassure. It further provides Vedder the framework and the space for him to work through this crisis. Otherwise, like that obnoxious (but entirely accurate) saying goes: the only way around is through.
As the bridge ends, Vedder digs in even deeper and improvises two additional, final lines not heard on the studio version. As the song hits its emotional depths, Vedder sings passionately and desperately: “We, we belong, we belong together, together!”. This is where he hits his personal rock-bottom of despair and rage. What else to do when the “sun” of your orbit disappears and you feel like you are going to spin out forever? As he shrieks and moans, he starts to oddly rock his whole body on his stool. For the final line, Vedder is scream-singing with about as much emotion as a singer can emote at one time. Mid-line, with his eyes closed, his head starts to shake…and vibrate. Or something. This, too, looks odd for a moment, but it is all entirely authentic human drama. Vedder finishes: “We, we belong, we belong toge-ther! Yeah,” and he is utterly spent.
As dramatic as this is, this performance is not inspiring in the same way that some other iconic performances are, such as a Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” or Aretha Franklin commanding “Respect”, but it really is an all-time performance in its own right. “Black” is an almost perfect convergence of very real personal crisis and pure artistry, and the effect is transcendent.
In performing “Black” Pearl Jam and the audience benefitted from sharing a deeply human experience, where the artists and the audience know that no matter how alone or uniquely broken anyone feels, they really are not alone. There is magic in that. Vedder has since described the doomed relationship in “Black” as being a blinding, cosmic love, especially as first love. But, as he further explained, there are risks, too:
It’s very rare for a relationship to withstand the Earth’s gravitational pull and where it’s going to take people and how they’re going to grow. I’ve heard it said that you can’t really have a true love unless it was a love unrequited. It’s a harsh one, because then your truest one is the one you can’t have forever.
It is a helpful explanation, yet there is more to unravel in “Black”.
Let’s consider how Vedder expressed his feelings, and how he did not. In “Black”, he never sings that he is expecting to move on, or that the sun will come out tomorrow, or that there are more fish in the sea, or any of that. Yet, crucially, nor does Vedder turn his immense angst and rage in on himself in an act of self-pity or self-flagellation. In his lyrics, he is not blaming himself for having necessarily done anything regrettable in the relationship. Nor does he direct that rage toward his former lover; she does not seem to have wronged him, or toyed with his emotions, or anything else; he even acknowledges that she gave the relationship her “all”.
In the end, Vedder understands that his ex-girlfriend’s path in life and love simply will no longer involve him. Of course, varying levels of self-pity or blame are not uncommon for the broken-hearted; it’s human. Yet neither option brings true and lasting relief, either. What Vedder does do with his angst and rage here is quite special: he projects it all out into the universe.
On a personal level, Vedder is on record as an atheist, due to a lack of evidence, and he has been vocal in his opposition to religious fundamentalism. Some other small insights: a broken family left Vedder feeling alone in the world at an early age, while surfing has been a crucial part of his life since his earliest teen years. This at least partly explains “Black” and Vedder’s ability to live so squarely in the moment, and his relationship with the ocean, the tides, and the universe. In any event, “Black” can also be seen as a remarkable expression of a certain faith of some sort—even if that is just a belief that the universe is slightly more benevolent than it may seem.
Walking through the deepest pains and fears, and that dark place that is “Black” but then coming out the other side, one may see that the aforementioned “tattoos” are not permanent. Since the early ’90s, Vedder has had a solid reputation of being a decent and well-respected individual, and personally, he has married, divorced, and married again. It would be interesting to ask him if he experienced growth, a lesson, an epiphany, or a “message” of any sort specifically after delivering that Unplugged performance.
Perhaps at that moment, he found himself in that place where the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson make sense: “‘tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Of course, to take such a bold leap as Vedder did, it may also be crucial, or even an absolute necessity, to have strong influences and inspirations, his beloved rock ‘n’ roll, and the best of bandmates, and a strong heart and soul. All of which, of course, was provided to Vedder by the universe.
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