Last week, in a fairly innocuous news story, St. Vincent shared a behind-the-scenes warmup ahead of a performance in Asheville, North Carolina. The song choice felt left field — Pearl Jam’s 1994 deep cut “Tremor Christ” from their third album Vitalogy — but knowing a bit about Annie Clark’s history, it made perfect sense.
Growing up in Dallas, Clark was, like many in the ‘90s, a devoted Pearl Jam fan. In an interview with NPR about how the 1991 Pearl Jam song “Jeremy” influenced her decision to become a musician, she explained:
“I was just completely obsessed with Pearl Jam. When I was first playing guitar when I was 12 and writing my own songs, I was doing an Eddie Vedder impression. Like, that’s how I was learning to sing.
I mean, everybody liked Pearl Jam at that time. Everybody liked Nirvana. Everybody even liked, you know, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and it was just like that was the wave, you know? I always felt like, oh, you like Pearl Jam? Oh, well, do you know this B-side? Do you know this rarity? Because I have all those tapes. You know, it’s like you’re a kid, and you finally have something that expresses that which you don’t know how to express. And you have this way to construct your identity.”
When I was growing up in North Orange County during the same period, I felt a similar draw towards the music of Pearl Jam. In that pre-internet time, it was difficult for most people to go beyond the albums and the singles for their favorite bands, but being a Pearl Jam fan in the ‘90s rewarded tenacity. They released compact disc singles of more songs from Ten and Vs than would ever become radio hits, with the b-sides that were contained within them, songs like “Yellow Ledbetter” and “Footsteps,” becoming as integral to the Pearl Jam mythos as any of their more widely released recorded work.
And live, well, that was a place where Pearl Jam really distinguished themselves. Even in their earliest days, Pearl Jam would punctuate performances with one-off covers, debut previously unreleased material, and churn out improvised jam sessions. And while many of these moments would disappear into the ether the moment after they occurred, live recordings surfaced and became something that fans would trade and that many record stores would sell as bootlegs. Even as someone about to enter high school, Pearl Jam was a rabbit hole I could dive as far into as I wanted, finding an outlet for my emotions and an entry pass to a secret cult, without even knowing there were other members.
In an act that sounds so antiquated I might as well have been walking uphill in the snow both ways, I would make my parents take me to the local swap meet to thumb through racks of CDs. In a stall between off-brand car cleaning products and gourmet popcorn, I was eagerly looking for better recordings of Pearl Jam’s cover songs and rarities, spending my meager allowance money on music that wasn’t even guaranteed to sound good. It was an obsessive mode of fandom that rewarded in unexpected ways, not because I was becoming an expert in Pearl Jam, but I was also absorbing the band’s vast number of influences.