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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: But First, Pearl Jam

It’s “Yellow Ledbetter” time, with help from our old friend Steven Hyden

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Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 81 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re exploring Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” with help from our old friend Steven Hyden.

The history, the backstory of Pearl Jam, and by extension the backstory of late ’80s and early ’90s Seattle, the coolest rock scene on Planet Earth at that or any other time, the mythic and teenage-identity-defining musical genre and lifestyle brand known grudgingly as grunge—this backstory is well-documented, let’s say. Books, movies, podcasts. Let’s not get too bogged down.

I hope that’s OK. If you are hankerin’ to get bogged down in the broader Pearl Jam or the Seattle of it all, let me enthusiastically recommend two books to you. Our friend Steven Hyden in 2022 published a book called Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation. Excellent book. I dug the chapter that ties Eddie Vedder’s arc into the Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga version of A Star Is Born. Eddie is both Ally and Jackson Maine; that was great. My second recommendation is a book called Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, by the author and critic Mark Yarm, published in 2011. Super-informative and also grody as all hell.

My favorite anecdote from Everybody Loves Our Town is when the bass player in a Seattle band called Cat Butt takes a dump on the hood of a white Camaro. The bands Mudhoney and Cat Butt are on tour, and they’re hanging out in an apartment complex or some kinda condo situation in Davis, California. And Cat Butt’s bassist, a guy named Dean Gunderson, is inexplicably enraged by the mere presence of a white Camaro in the parking lot. He says, “That was another LSD night. The car offended me, I don’t know.” So he takes a crap on the car. Dean is like 6-foot-7. And then Dean says, “The guy actually came out, and we watched him try to get it off: He backed the car up and slammed on the brakes so it would roll off the hood, but it ended up rolling back towards the windshield wipers. It got stuck in there, and he drove off.” Wow.

This is a Cat Butt song called “Big Cigar.” Sometimes a big cigar is just a big cigar. Tell me this song doesn’t sound like a white Camaro furiously backing up and then pulling forward in a futile effort to dislodge a giant bassist turd on the hood.

So that’s grunge. OK? That’s uncouth. All right. Fine. Let’s try again. So there’s this band Green River. Forms in the mid-’80s, puts out a couple EPs and one album called Rehab Doll in 1988. Relatively unknown—at least at the time—outside Seattle, and only briefly successful even within Seattle. Cool band, but this is a very low Good Songs Percentage situation. These dudes wish they were putting up Spin Doctors numbers. Here’s Green River, though, with a legit Good Song called “Swallow My Pride.”

So Green River in 1987 play a show in L.A. opening for Jane’s Addiction. The two big Jane’s Addiction albums haven’t come out yet. The “Been Caught Stealing” video, Lollapalooza, “alternative rock,” none of that shit exists yet. This is ’87. But the dudes in Green River are standing just offstage watching a pre-national-fame Jane’s Addiction kick ass in front of like 2,000 hometown fans. Jane’s Addiction is blowing through, I don’t know, let’s say “Mountain Song.”

And some of the guys in Green River are thinking, Oh my god, this is the greatest band in the history of the world, and meanwhile, some of the other guys in Green River are thinking, Oh my god, this is the worst shit I’ve ever heard in my life. And then the dudes in Green River all look at each other, and break up. And the dudes in Green River who thought Jane’s Addiction sucked—including lead singer Mark Arm—start the band Mudhoney. The lovely and pugnacious and supremely excellent and Cat Butt–friendly band Mudhoney. In 1988, Mudhoney put out an epoch-defining debut single called “Touch Me I’m Sick.”

Meanwhile, the dudes in Green River who thought Jane’s Addiction kicked ass—namely bassist Jeff Ament, and guitarists Stone Gossard and Bruce Fairweather—form a new band called Mother Love Bone, who I will describe, glibly but not inaccurately, as the Jane’s Addiction, if not the Guns N’ Roses, of Seattle. These fellas are led by singer, songwriter, guitarist, and ultra-flamboyant rock star Andrew Wood—the band name Mother Love Bone being one good example of Andrew’s flamboyance—and these fellas have one bonkers outrageous Good Song that goes a long way toward forgiving their quietly woeful overall Good Song Percentage. This is a quality-not-quantity situation. “Chloe Dancer / Crown of Thorns” is LeBron James; the rest of Mother Love Bone’s songs are the rest of the circa-2004 Cleveland Cavaliers.

In March 1990, shortly before the release of Mother Love Bone’s much-anticipated debut album, Apple, Andrew Wood dies of a heroin overdose. The chapter in Everybody Loves Our Town about Andrew Wood’s death and the immediate grieving aftermath is quite moving, and all the more moving given all the lewd, Camaro-befouling debauchery of all the chapters surrounding it. A collection of Andrew’s friends and/or former bandmates—including Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, the guitarist Mike McCready, and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell—form a one-off Andrew Wood tribute supergroup called Temple of the Dog. And this dude sneaks briefly into the mix, as well.

Eddie Vedder. Born in Evanston, Illinois. Then living in San Diego. Eddie’s a soulful surfer bro. Eddie’s processing some family trauma. Eddie dropped out of high school. Eddie’s got carefully guarded rock-star aspirations that embarrass him. Eddie loves the Who. Eddie loves the Clash. In a sneaky way that’s quite a broad ideological spectrum, rock star–wise, loving both the Who and the Clash. The Who harbored a great deal of integrity, despite their quite famous rock-star grandiosity; the Clash exuded a great deal of rock-star grandiosity, despite their quite famous integrity. Eddie, when he jumps on the immortal Temple of the Dog song “Hunger Strike,” has only very recently hooked up with Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, and Jeff Ament. Temple of the Dog is a one-album affair. Chris Cornell goes back to Soundgarden, etc.; “Hunger Strike” takes a year or so to blow up on MTV. But now Eddie, Stone, Mike, Jeff, and drummer Dave Krusen—the first drummer, out of five total; there’s too many drummers, don’t worry about it—these five guys form a new band, briefly called Mookie Blaylock, and permanently called Pearl Jam.

But let’s not get bogged down in the backstory, right? So I’m 13, I’m clueless, I don’t know shit about anything, and certainly I don’t know shit about pretty much any of the bands I just mentioned, I basically only know what MTV tells me I need to know, and now MTV is telling me I need to know this guy.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.