Some songs are just larger than life. More than just your typical verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, outro etc. There are a select few that are an out-of-body, emotional movement. It’s hard to even classify or describe them. One of the beautiful things about music is that fans have the ability to identify their own personal soul-touching gems. Then there are others that are just universal. Credit Pearl Jam for having at least two – “Release,” and the one and only … “Black.”
Recently, I’ve been spinning various versions of “Black” – thinking deeply about the song, what it means to me and all the different ways it could mean something so heavy to anyone that hears it. There’s one that I find to be the superhuman of the superhuman.
April of 1994. I was on vacation visiting my grandparents with my cousins in Naples, Florida. Pearl Jam had announced they will broadcast their Atlanta concert live on numerous radio stations. My cousins and I were completely submersed in the Pearl Jam world (and still are). My older cousin doctored up the fossil of a radio deck in the living room / Grandfather’s office where the three of us were staying. He found it. There was a station in Naples that would be getting the live stream. There was one problem; we had to go out for a wild night on the town with the family. Most likely a four hour dinner where us kids would blend sugar rush, sun-burnt antics with completely falling asleep, face-planting at the table. Don’t get me wrong, we loved every second of it. But this night was a Pearl Jam special. In 1994! If we didn’t catch it, the world may end.
My cousin happened to have an old cassette tape. He didn’t care what was on it. It was getting rewound and we would attempt to record the show in the “A” slot of the old radio. A four hour dinner felt like four days. As we got home we sprinted to the radio. Did it work? A couple of cranks and prayers and … Yes!
The three of us stayed up all night, listening to this epic show at a ridiculously low volume, not wanting to wake anyone up or let them hear what we were doing. How they must have wondered why we were so eager to go to “sleep” on vacation.
Three things stuck out to me after listening to that show: 1. Another reminder – this band is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. 2. “Better Man” was debuted. “it’s dedicated to the bastard that married my mama.” 3. “Black.” The most amazing version of the song (or any other song) I had ever heard.
The intensity, raw emotion, delivery and sentiment had me half frozen, half tear-filled. I have never seen a video of this performance. I’m not sure if there even is one. A quick Google and Youtube search produced zero results. But that’s ok. I don’t think I want one. The audio is moving enough and gives me a canvas to paint my own picture.
It’s so easy to get caught up in how moving “Black” is overall and how great the melodies are that the lyrics sometimes take a back seat. Take for example the word “tattooed,” used several times. “Tattooed everything,” “tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I’ll be.” There are so many other word choices that can have been used there instead. Easier, more common words and phrases. Tattooed? It changes everything. A tattoo is meant to be permanent. It’s usually meaningful (you either never forget what your tattoo symbolizes or don’t even remember getting it). Then there’s “all been washed in Black,” “turned my world to Black.” An incredible lightning bolt of impact, in just five words. And don’t even get me started on the “I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life” outro. Can’t. There are no words.
What was also different about ’94 Atlanta – Fox Theater “Black” is that it included a vigorous “we belong together” tag at the end. It was the first time I had heard it like that. Not on the album version, it’s become somewhat of a common end rap over the years. Find yourself in the right live setting, among a crowd that gets it, and you may experience the loudest silence, or perhaps you’ll be part of a unified wave – arms wrapped around each other, heads held high or low, swaying back and forth, just getting lost in it all.
There’s a small part in Cameron Crowe’s PJ20 film where Eddie Vedder discusses “Black” and what it means to him:
“It’s a true story, something that I really felt – and I still feel every time I sing it.”
There are few things more fragile or emotionally ripping than the feeling of missing. Especially if you know they (or you) are not coming back. Everyone has someone or some experience this song can relate to – whether it’s old or lost love, a friend, family member, an experience, a place or a thing. “Black” makes that tattoo itch. “Black” is a tattoo unto itself. Ironically, it can be comforting.
“…And all I taught her was .. everything. That’s All.”
2016 is big year for Pearl Jam. A tour was just announced, it marks 25 years since their debut record – Ten was released, there’s an anniversary special on all five horizons and I’m sure much more we don’t even know about.
I offer this as a thank you. As a letter of appreciation. I would rarely include “Black” on a top song list because I don’t want to do it a disservice – including it with others that have catchy hooks and big choruses. It’s more of a piece of art blanketing the sky, surfing the seas, tattooed in the emotional lock-box. There for multiple purposes, always at the right time. Somehow we survive.
April 3, 1994:
“I don’t think
These people understand.
Oh you don’t understand.
No one understands.
We belong together……..”
Do do do do dodo do