We all have a soundtrack to our lives – those critical songs that take us back to some precious memory the second we hear a few quick notes while surfing the dial. A good song – tethered to sweet, sad or blissful memory – will drop you right back to that spot, day and date, every single time – allowing you to re-read the story of your life.
Green Day’s Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) may be a little on the nose for this story – but it was playing the day I drove off from the apartment I shared with my post-college roommates; as I said goodbye to the frivolous single life and moseyed on to what would eventually become an engagement, later a marriage, then homeownership, parenting and ultimately divorce. A lot happened after I loaded up that Ryder (and while I have songs that mark pivotal moments along that journey) – it’s Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) that played at the pitch perfect moment.
The same goes for my wedding day – a postcard perfect beautiful swatch of mid-October Indian Summer. I was married at 10 am (the beginning of an afternoon and evening full of festive parties and after-parties (yes – the plural is intentional)). As my wedding party exited the church and made a beeline to the limo, we stepped into the car as U2’s Beautiful Day came over the sound system. It wasn’t planned – the driver actually asked if he wanted us to hunt some music (this being the age before Pandora’s box would open and grant us all On Demand streaming music of our exact choice). Once he hit WBCN (which was still a thing thereby proving my sage status), we barked the order “THERE! RIGHT THERE!!!” We drove off to the reception thinking back upon a lovely ceremony capped by U2’s celebratory anthem and while later down the road, my marriage would ultimately end – I offer these three truths:
1. Nobody stands before a rapt crowd of their friends and family and says “I do” (while secretly dreaming of a day when they “Don’t“)
2. If pressed to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing because what happened – happened – and couldn’t have happened any other way. All roads led to here, where I am at this very moment. They made me the man I am today. I like this guy. So yeah, I wouldn’t change a thing – for better or for worse.
3. It was a Beautiful Day indeed.
And then there is Pearl Jam. I cottoned to the Seattle-based alternative rock band when I was a Sophomore in college at UMASS Amherst. I remember the exact day I heard them and it was probably a day or two, too late.
My first exposure was when they appeared on Saturday Night Live to perform a two-song set; Alive and Porch. They were promoting their debut album release ‘Ten‘ – which was just started to attract some crossover attention. The night that they were scheduled as musical guests was also the night that Sharon Stone was set to host – hot off her blistering performance in Basic Instinct. That’s a film that had totally captured the attention of the mainstream filmgoing audience so this was a big show, indeed. (As an aside – it’s interesting that what is largely a fever-dream rendition of the types of flicks that often play on Cinemax After Dark could cultivate such a national obsession. I chalk that up to time and place. No way a movie like that makes the same type of box office splash in this day and age.)
Stone clearly drew us in that night but Pearl Jam was my takeaway.
At UMASS, there were three Must See TV shows if you happened to be in the dorm at that time (pre-DVR):
The Simpsons on Sundays, Seinfeld on Thursdays and SNL on Saturday nights of course (the latter of which was often missed due to more extra-curricular concerns off campus. Hey – those kegs of discount, room-temperature beer weren’t going to drink themselves.)
But if we came for Stone – we stayed for Eddie.
Pearl Jam absolutely slayed that night – tearing into both sets with such sound and fury, signifying everything. Things were changing in the music industry – moving from bubblegum pop to something with a bit more substance. Nirvana arguably led the charge BUT they were always destined to burn bright and then eventually fade out no matter what fate befell Cobain. They were too punk to handle megastardom.
Pearl Jam felt like a different animal – as much a product of the grinding, grunge movement as they were the natural evolution of what artists like Neil Young had started. All I know is they got my attention pretty quickly and I scampered out the next day to buy their CD – one that I put on heavy rotation throughout that Summer and into the next school year.
When I think of college, I think of Pearl Jam. The sad thing is – I could have had a more indelible image (than that SNL appearance) tattooed to memory if I had taken my buddy Joe up on his offer to go see them live at our Student Union Ballroom two days prior. I offered up some pithy excuse (“Sorry dude – Seinfeld’s on.“) and let him fly solo. I’m sure my rejection had more to do with the fact that at the time, I was making roughly $12 a week at my student job minding the residential area’s Munchie Store (so named because it sold Munchies and was obviously built by a stoner). The $8 fare for front row tix in a room that held maybe 200 people was just too steep. Let that visual paint itself. 200 people at a Pearl Jam concert in a room smaller than most Starbucks for a ticket roughly the cost of a Venti Mocha and I said “No“.
OK – I take it all back. If I could go back in time, I would change ONE thing. I’d sacrifice one week’s worth of D.P. Dough Money to see Eddie and co. take to the stage at the split second before their careers would rocket to the stratosphere. I missed out the first time. Joe didn’t. I still kick myself for it.
After I graduated UMASS in May 1994 – I had a tiny bout of depression settle in. That’s probably one of three times in my life that I felt that affliction as I am usually more of the sunny, happy people. But – I loved that school and that surrounding area. UMASS was as essential to me as food and water – and suddenly I was on the outside, looking in. I still had friends there – underclassmen who had semesters to finish and more memories to make – where as I was now in the Big Wide World trying to make something of myself with a degree that I wasn’t even sure was really for me. Not anymore. Not wanting to be a Journalist (no matter how many articles I had published to date) and not sure of what I should do, all I could say is “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” That was my sad mission statement.
So, I took a job at Putnam Investments in Boston, MA. I only did this because I made the foolish mistake of ponying up for a car – my first car – and each month when that payment came due, I saw my savings shrink exponentially. I just wasn’t making enough money at my job manning the grill at Papa Gino’s to afford a sparkly blue Dodge Neon.
If there has ever been a more depressing sentence than that last, I challenge you to find it.
So – when one day – one of our miserable delivery drivers bellowed this proclamation – “Does anybody want to make more money then you are making here?” – I followed that ape right to his sanctuary which would turn out to be working as a client service representative in the corporate world, right in the heart of Boston’s Financial District. I applied, interviewed and was hired in rapid succession. Here’s a friendly tip, kids. That’s how you make it big in the Corporate America. When they are desperate for phone monkeys, any pulse will do.
I took that job in August 1994 and promised myself “One Year and Then I’ll Get Back to Doing Whatever” (I presumed writing, teaching, giving the world Zumba – anything but what I was presently doing). A couple of months later, Putnam had relocated me from their swanky Boston high-rise to a nondescript office park in the middle of Franklin, MA. I didn’t have to wear a suit everyday but what I traded in high-end couture I gained in dead-end obscurity. The only saving grace was the bar that was perfectly positioned at the end of the street leading to our office. Once I arrived with a battalion of equally thirsty twentysomethings, we brought that place back from the brink of tax armageddon. Alas, that’s a tale for another day.
Still, I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do and now I wasn’t even in the place that made consolation at least palatable. I mean – Boston in your early-20’s is seductive. A guy can choke down a lot of aggravation and stress by merging into the hustle and bustle of the Big City. It makes you forget how miserable you are for a little while.
But that arduous commute from Weymouth to Franklin every day (70 minutes at a spell) just made me think long and hard at who I was, what I wanted (or didn’t have) and where I was going (which was to freakin’ Franklin!!! Aghhhhhh!!!!) My buddy Justin called me one Thursday afternoon – before the long Columbus Day weekend – and offered to have me come out and visit him on campus (and see all of those old friends I had left behind). I took him up on it without a moment to spare. Sure, it was a 2-hour drive BUT once I got there – I’d be home.
At that time, I had a nicely assembled Pearl Jam catalogue that I would just throw on repeat. So the two-hour ride to Amherst would fly by as I loudly sang along to all of the songs. I knew (and still know) all the words. Whenever a beloved track would come on, I would listen and then step back to replay it all over again.
That first weekend trip led to many. I wasn’t out there every weekend but it was enough to feel like my home away from home. Actually – at the time – I’m pretty sure I looked at my Mom’s place in Carver, MA as my home away from home. That’s just where my stuff was. It was out in Amherst, among my people, where I truly felt cozy and warm.
So 5 o’clock would roll around most Fridays and I would point my nose westward – getting out in time to join the group for whatever they had planned – which was usually hitting The Pub in downtown Amherst for libations followed by pizza at Antonios or following Justin and his new friends as we ambled out to Hobart Lane or someone’s off-campus apartment to guzzle lots of cheap keg beer. I’d stay the whole weekend so it wasn’t all parties, all of the time. Far from it. We’re renaissance men with a wide range of tastes. We would check out movies, play whiffle ball, grab food – and talk. Lots of talk. To this day, I always say I am the greatest fan good conversation ever had and I credit those days for expanding my communication skills (both while I was a student and when I was merely visiting). That’s where and when I learned to talk my talk.
Every time I would make the trek, I would pop in a Pearl Jam CD – often times bringing it to Justin, Rich, Joe and the others and sharing what I had found (although Joe was and is the music guru so he always had it first. I just did a better job of selling it.) Vitalogy led to No Code which led to Yield which led to Binaural and so on and so on. Of course, Ten and Vs. were always in the playlist, too.
There was one song (off of Vs.) that I played every time I got in the car – my own little ritual – whether I was headed there or back again.
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
I seem to recognize your face
Haunting, familiar yet – I can’t see to place it
Cannot find the candle of thought to light your name
Lifetimes are catching up with me
That song stuck with me.
After awhile, I didn’t go out as often as I used to. I think that song spoke to me on some deeper level. It’s haunting, bittersweet and sad – but a little wistful, too. It sort of hit me right time and place and in some way warned me about sinking too deep into the well of nostalgia.
It is my favorite Pearl Jam song – hands down, bar none – maybe because it became my cautionary tale. There is something comforting about finding your place in the world and then growing roots but the more I listened to that song, and the more I made that trek – the more I realized that lifetimes are catching up with me and that getting stuck in one place – or one frame of mind – is not the way forward.
Nostalgia is a tricky thing. It makes us feel all warm and fuzzy for the good old days. But these days are pretty damned good too – and if that’s the case – the future is bright. It’s important to let the past inform who you are now. Those who do not learn from history are indeed doomed to repeat it.
So I looked to another Pearl Jam song to pave my way forward.
I was headed to Putnam’s annual Summer BBQ (something that companies just don’t do anymore and this one was probably the last big corporate blow-out I attended). Pearl Jam’s Wishlist came on the radio – the first time I had really listened to it. As Eddie Vedder wound through a vivid personal checklist of all the things he wished he could be, I saw my future and my hopes for it.
I wish I was a sailer with someone who waited for me
I wish I was as fortunate as fortunate as me
I wish I was a messenger and all the news was good
I wish I was the full moon shining on a Camaro’s hood
I made my own list – one that is always growing, no matter how many items I check off of it. Keeping your wishlist well-stocked is a healthy way of life.
Right now, I wish I had Pearl Jam tickets for their big show this Summer at Fenway. I tried to get them through a pre-approval offering this week on Ticketmaster but got waitlisted. Following that, I had a last-minute saving grace offered by another friend with an extra code but he got blocked at the gate, too. After three unsuccessful attempts to score me tickets (each time getting unceremoniously booted to the beginning as my payment began to process) – all of the tickets were gone. I was disappointed for a moment but then realized that my time will come.
I’ll get to a live show again – and when I do – I guarantee that show and the music that Eddie and co. sends into the night will find me exactly where I am – exactly where I need to be – wrapped in the gauze of newly made sweet memory.
And I’ll always remember where I was when it hit me just right.