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A Lion Unleashed: The Enduring Legacy of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy”

In an excerpt from his new book, ‘Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation,’ author Steven Hyden looks at the band’s breakthrough video, how it helped reshape pop culture, and how it changed its creators in the process

Jarett Sitter

On Tuesday, author Steven Hyden will release his new book, Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation, from Hachette Books. Below is an excerpt of the chapter on the song “Jeremy.” To purchase a copy of Long Road, click here.

Before we examine “Jeremy”—unquestionably one of Pearl Jam’s most famous and iconic songs—as a piece of music, a music video, and a signifier of social problems, we must first discuss it as a metaphor for shifting power dynamics inside Pearl Jam in the early ’90s.

Naturally, we’ll begin by discussing Jeff Ament’s collection of floppy hats.

When Pearl Jam’s bassist started playing his instrument in 1981, the year he turned 18, his musical role models were the Who’s John Entwistle and Kiss’s Gene Simmons. At first glance, it’s hard to imagine two musicians—one quiet and stoic onstage, the other bombastic and blood-spitting—who are more different. Entwistle, for one, is perhaps the most technically gifted bass player in rock history; Gene Simmons, on the other hand, is not.

But upon closer examination, there is one essential attribute linking Simmons and Entwistle to Ament—they were all players who demanded the audience’s attention, in a manner that isn’t typical for bass players. Simmons did it with his loud, brash sartorial choices, and Entwistle did it with his loud, brash bass tones. Ament in the early ’90s decided to take both approaches.

Hachette Books

Following Simmons’s example, Ament took to wearing tams—also known as rastacaps—onstage. Coupled with his excitable, athletic stage presence, these hats made Ament impossible to ignore in Pearl Jam’s early music videos, immediately distinguishing him from at least 90 percent of bass players in rock history. Eddie Vedder was the obvious focus, but Ament was the second most recognizable member of Pearl Jam in those days. In essence, he forcefully assumed a “second in command” role usually fulfilled by the lead guitarist, and he did it by dressing like Gary Oldman’s character in True Romance.

But Ament also emulated Entwistle by pushing his bass to the front of Pearl Jam’s music. And he did this on Ten by using instruments that were unusual for a rock bassist at the time—fretless and 12-string basses. This guaranteed that Ament’s tones would stand out in a way that bass didn’t in most alternative rock bands.

Ament first utilized 12-string bass on the Mother Love Bone songs “Stardog Champion” and “Holy Roller,” from their only full-length album, 1990’s Apple. He borrowed the instrument from Cheap Trick’s Tom Petersson, a pioneer of the 12-string bass whose metallic and melodic playing on songs like “Gonna Raise Hell” and “Need Your Love” had caught Ament’s ear as a teenager. Back then, Ament would often describe songs he loved by Kiss, Cheap Trick, or Aerosmith by humming the bass line instead of the guitar riff or vocal melody. When he wrote his earliest songs for Pearl Jam, he was determined to put his bass at the center of the music. It was, in a sense, a power move. But it also genuinely reflected how he heard music.

You can hear Ament’s 12-string bass most prominently on two Ten tracks, “Why Go” and “Jeremy.” On the latter song, especially, the bass is the most prominent part of the music. Not only is the central riff played by Ament, but you barely hear the guitars at all. (The second most audible instrument is cello.) Anyone who attempts to hum the music has to perform the bass line. It was as if Ament’s teenaged self had scored a victory for bass-obsessed kids everywhere.

On subsequent Pearl Jam records, however, Ament found that he had to temper his use of the 12-string bass out of musical necessity. By the time of their third LP, Vitalogy, Vedder was playing guitar, which meant there were now three guitar players competing for space in the upper ranges of the music. Given that the tactile clanging of the 12-string also lurked in that same sonic space, Ament realized “there was already a lot happening on that frequency,” as he put it in a later interview, and pulled back to a more conventional supporting role.

But this retreat didn’t stem only from musical concerns. It also reflects power struggles over creative control and a shift in the hierarchy within the band. When Pearl Jam began, Ament and Stone Gossard were the acknowledged leaders—they were the most experienced musicians, they put the band together, and they wrote most of the songs. But by the time of Vitalogy, Vedder had assumed the leadership position.

Ironically, this process began with the video for Ament’s song “Jeremy.” When the video exploded into the public consciousness in late summer 1992, nobody was talking about Ament’s bass playing. The focus was almost entirely on the singer.

It was “Jeremy”—more than the Singles soundtrack, “Hunger Strike,” or any other song on Ten—that elevated Pearl Jam from popular rock band to genuine cultural phenomenon, and Vedder from budding rock star to generational spokesman. This was compounded by the relative slowness of pre-internet culture—“Jeremy” hung around for a long time, finally winning a Video of the Year trophy at the MTV Video Music Awards a full 13 months after it first aired in August 1992.

You don’t have to be a Pearl Jam fan to recall images from the “Jeremy” video, especially if you happened to be young and watching MTV regularly in the early ’90s. Jeremy wanders a forest alone, drawing his childlike pictures. At school, he is taunted by classmates whose faces are frozen into teasing rictus grins. At home, his parents similarly freeze him out. So he’s sent back to the woods to vent his demons. And then there’s that shocking ending … which was widely misinterpreted due to MTV’s censorship.

More than any other music video made by a commercially successful alt-rock band at the time, “Jeremy” was a scathing critique of conformist mainstream American culture. Not only is the American flag surrounded by flames—though not quite set on fire—but a classroom of students doing the Pledge of Allegiance is equated with their performing a Nazi salute. There’s also a reference to Genesis 3:6, a Bible verse about how the arrogance of humans led to the destruction of the Garden of Eden.

The “Jeremy” video was not subtle. But despite all these highly charged visual provocations, which were devised by director Mark Pellington, the video is undoubtedly centered on Vedder. Amid the clips of the video’s A story, starring actor Trevor Wilson, we see Vedder seated on a stool and relating the lyrics with extreme intensity. This image of Vedder rhymed with Pearl Jam’s recent MTV Unplugged episode, which was still playing constantly on the channel. He looks in the video almost exactly like he did performing “Jeremy” on Unplugged three months earlier, effectively burnishing his emerging icon status. This version of Vedder—a furrowed brow clad in various shades of brown corduroy and denim—is still embedded deep in the collective cultural memory of Pearl Jam.

When I interviewed Pellington in 2017, he said his decision to spin his camera around Vedder—the video literally revolves around him—was intended to draw in the audience by creating the illusion of “an electronic campfire.” Thanks to Pellington’s directorial nudging, we are made to feel as though we are sitting in a circle around Vedder, pulling us deeper into his fatalistic and riveting storytelling.

As a story song, “Jeremy” combined a real-life incident with Vedder’s own bad childhood memories and imagination. The inspiration came from the tragic story of Jeremy Wade Delle, a 15-year-old boy from Richardson, Texas, who took his own life in front of his classmates on January 8, 1991. In the video, a shirtless Jeremy tosses his teacher an apple before pulling the trigger. In reality, Delle briefly left class after his teacher told him to get an attendance slip because he arrived late that morning. He returned instead with a .357 Magnum and declared, “Miss, I got what I really went for.” And then he shot himself.

The video created a sensation—and transformed Delle into a folk hero—though it depicted his parents as uncaring and inattentive. In real life, they had sought out counseling for their son after he was diagnosed with depression. The song’s dramatic embellishment likely derived from Vedder’s own troubled relationship with his parents as a teenager, as well as the preoccupations with murder and mental illness as evinced in the “Momma-Son” songs—“Once,” “Alive,” and “Footsteps”—from Ten. Ultimately, the anti-parent sentiment made “Jeremy” feel more universal as a teen angst anthem than a brooding character study about a troubled Texas teenager might otherwise be.

For the video, Vedder’s interpretation of Delle’s story was further extrapolated by Pellington, who was grappling with his own difficult memories from childhood. His father was ill with Alzheimer’s at the time, which dredged up “feelings of alienation and loneliness and child abandonment and all those really primal feelings that speak to kids,” he told me. Pellington was also guided by Vedder, who related Delle’s story as Pellington scribbled visual ideas on index cards. He then wrote a treatment on his computer, which crashed. Forced to rewrite the treatment, what “poured out of me and was probably a little more stream of consciousness and a little more writing on emotion rather than logic,” he recalled.

When it came time to shoot Vedder’s sequences, Pellington found Pearl Jam’s singer to be a natural actor, and he knocked it out in three takes. “What really pushes it though, and makes it transcend into something artistic that lasts, is Eddie’s performance,” he said.

What Vedder does in the “Jeremy” video quickly became another source text for anyone who wanted to caricature him—the theatrical hand signals that act out lyrics, the exaggerated facial contortions that emphasize those cheekbones, the sudden explosions of neck-bursting rage. But during the first, say, hundred times I saw the “Jeremy” video, I found Vedder to be an electrifying manifestation of all the horribly relatable feelings he was singing about. It was as if he took what was lurking inside your guts, put it inside his own body, and then proceeded to purge it in a spectacular body-quaking spasm. As Pellington put it, “It was an internal thing that he was then unleashing in a very contained space.”

Perhaps if I had been five years older, this would have read as corny or ham-fisted because Vedder dared to not allow himself any ironic distance from what he was conjuring. Most adult rock stars in his position would protect themselves by being at least a little patronizing to their teenaged audience. But Vedder earnestly channeled the tangible rage, fear, and loneliness felt by all young adults without apology or arched eyebrows. There is nothing ironic about the “Jeremy” video. The result is a historic work of teen-centered art.

If Vedder was a natural at expressing the essence of his songs in the music video format, “Jeremy” would ultimately become a symbol of how Pearl Jam didn’t want to conduct its career. This narrative began in earnest the same month that “Jeremy” became the toast of the VMAs in September 1993, via a Rolling Stone cover story written by Cameron Crowe. The profile includes an anecdote related by Ament about Mark Eitzel of American Music Club complimenting him on “Jeremy” but adding, “But the video sucked. It ruined my vision of the song.”

“Ten years from now,” Ament says, “I don’t want people to remember our songs as videos.” Vedder immediately agrees, promising that the next Pearl Jam record won’t have any videos, a vow that would hold true for the next five years.

“I don’t even have MTV,” Vedder adds.

The idea that the “Jeremy” video somehow ruined the song has been subsequently taken as gospel in conversations about Pearl Jam’s career. Which doesn’t make any sense to me. Yes, the video is a little heavy-handed and it was certainly overplayed by MTV throughout late 1992 and early ’93. But it stuck with people because the filmmaking is compelling and Vedder’s performance is magnetic. For the majority of viewers, the video enhanced their enjoyment of “Jeremy.” If the video had truly “ruined” the song, it’s unlikely that Pearl Jam would have continued playing “Jeremy” regularly on every tour they’ve ever done since.

When I spoke with Pellington, he forwarded a different, less parroted theory about how the band—and Vedder specifically—reacted to the fall-out from “Jeremy.” It was related to a common misunderstanding caused by MTV’s censorship of the video.

In Pellington’s original edit—which is now commonly available on YouTube—Jeremy is clearly seen putting the gun barrel in his mouth. While you don’t see him literally commit suicide, the implication is obvious. MTV, however, insisted on cutting these crucial frames. This made it unclear whether the frozen, blood-splattered faces of his classmates we see at the video’s end signify their horror over Jeremy’s death or their own deaths at Jeremy’s hand. MTV’s prohibition inadvertently changed “Jeremy” from a video about suicide to a video about a school shooting.

This perception unwittingly was aided by Vedder’s lyrics, which could now be interpreted differently in light of the edit. The most underrated aspect of “Jeremy” is the cleverness of Vedder’s storytelling, which for the most part does not come from Jeremy’s point of view. Rather, he speaks on behalf of the classmates who abused him. In their eyes, Jeremy appeared to be a “harmless little fuck” until their teasing “unleashed a lion,” causing him to lash out and bite “the recess lady’s breast.” (This detail suggests that the fictional Jeremy had already been an outcast for years, since his grade-school days.)

“Jeremy” is really a song about everybody around Jeremy. This narrative construction puts the listener in the place of the villains rather than the hero, an approach no doubt inspired by a multitude of Pete Townshend songs about marginalized loner freaks, from “Happy Jack” to Tommy. The exception is the first verse, in which Vedder writes from an omniscient perspective that paints Jeremy in a more sinister light—the pictures he draws by himself allude to fantasies of revenge and dominance, with Jeremy’s “arms raised in a V / as the dead lay in pools of maroon below.”

In the video, this is muddled further by the casting of Wilson, a darkly handsome young man whose rich brown hair and high cheekbones bear more than a passing resemblance to a teenaged Eddie Vedder. This puts the idea in the viewer’s mind that Jeremy is Vedder, who presumably eluded authorities all these years ago in order to relate his story. Again, this is possible only because viewers originally couldn’t see the gun go in Jeremy’s mouth at the end of the video.

Editing out the “offensive” content actually made “Jeremy” more dangerous and even irresponsible. “For 98 percent of people, it’s, ‘Oh, he shot them.’ And that’s just wrong. It’s just that the censorship made the meaning different than the real meaning,” Pellington maintained. “Later, real kids shot people and said, ‘I was inspired by ‘Jeremy.’”

In Pellington’s view, that’s the real reason Pearl Jam turned so hard against music videos. “I’d also be like, ‘See? Videos are fucked up, man.’”

On February 2, 1996, a 14-year-old boy named Barry Loukaitis entered Frontier Middle School in Moses Lake, Washington—a community about 180 miles east of Seattle—carrying a hunting rifle, two handguns, and dozens of rounds of ammunition. Walking into his fifth-period algebra class, he shot and killed two fellow students and his teacher.

At the trial, Loukaitis’s attorneys claimed that the boy was inspired by two pieces of media: the Stephen King novel Rage, about a disturbed teenager who takes his algebra class hostage, and the “Jeremy” video. “This boy is Jeremy,” one of the lawyers argued. But this defense failed—Loukaitis was subsequently found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences plus an additional 205 years without the possibility of parole.

Nineteen years later, in an article for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell seized upon the Loukaitis story as the beginning of the “modern phenomenon” of school shootings. “There were scattered instances of gunmen or bombers attacking schools in the years before Barry Loukaitis, but they were lower profile,” Gladwell writes.

According to a 2018 study conducted by criminology professor James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, there were actually more school shootings in the early ’90s than in the years afterward. The difference now is that each school shooting is taken more seriously. They seem more impactful because the media and general public dwells on them more. For instance, the week before Ten was certified platinum in May 1992, a 20-year-old man named Eric Houston returned to his former high school in Olivehurst, California, and shot and killed three students and one teacher and injured 10 more people. Five years later, this tragedy was turned into a made-for-TV thriller called Detention: The Siege at Johnson High. In the film, former Silver Spoons star Rick Schroder plays a character based on Houston while Henry “The Fonz” Winkler portrays a police officer who tries to coax the shooter into surrendering.

It’s unlikely that a contemporary school shooting would ever be turned into fodder for a crass, low-rent thriller. But the existence of Detention: The Siege at Johnson High speaks to how dysfunctional ’90s culture was. Throughout the decade, there was a toxic strain of entertainment that catered to the rage and entitlement of disaffected young white men, ranging from nü-metal acts like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock to the lecherous likes of the Girls Gone Wild and American Pie franchises. This aspect of the ’90s remains fraught for the people who came of age during the decade, particularly given the harsh judgments of younger generations. There’s a part of me that appreciates growing up at a time when pushing the envelope was encouraged and often rewarded. At that time, the cool kids were fighting against political correctness because it was usually aligned with right-wing, repressive movements. An edgy indifference toward moral and ethical consequences defines a lot of the culture I grew up with during my formative years, and if I’m honest, that conditioning hasn’t totally left me.

But pondering cultural detritus like Detention: The Siege at Johnson High causes me to believe that a certain kind of numbness had set in among my generation by the end of the decade. Cool indifference gave way to spiritual impotence, where people watched and listened to terrible, vacuous entertainment because it was the only way to feel anything. A collective belief in the meaninglessness of modern existence had inevitably led to self-destruction.

The degree to which any of this influenced Pearl Jam is unclear. What is apparent, however, is that Vedder would never again write songs that expressed sympathy for disaffected and potentially violent white guys. Instead, Vedder began criticizing those people in his lyrics.

On the next Pearl Jam album, Vs., he wrote often about female protagonists bristling against the control of the men in their lives, a theme that spoke even more directly to the reality of Vedder’s childhood—and the hostility he harbored toward his stepfather well into adulthood—than the heightened melodrama of “Jeremy.” And then there’s “W.M.A.,” in which Vedder wrote directly about his own white privilege.

It was inspired by an incident in which Vedder and his friend, a Black man, were accosted by two police officers one morning outside a rehearsal studio. “Compared to me, this guy looks as respectable as fuck. But they started hassling him, and that just blew me the fuck away,” he recalled. “I was just really wound up by it. I had all this fucking energy rushing through me. I was mad. Really fucking angry. I got back to the studio and the guys had been working on this thing and I just went straight in and did the vocals, and that was the song.”

Intentional or not, “W.M.A.” plays like the anti-“Jeremy.” Once again, Vedder takes an outsider’s perspective, only this time he looks upon the protagonist with disdain. Whereas Jeremy bit the recess lady’s breast as an expression of his inner turmoil, the “white male American” takes “his mother’s white breast to his tongue,” a sign of his privilege and indulgence. He’s not the cursed victim of “Jeremy” but rather a spoiled kid gifted by the circumstance of his race and gender, having “won the lottery by being born.”

Nevertheless, the “Jeremy” video continued to link Pearl Jam to the ’90s “troubled young man” entertainment complex long after the decade ended. In a 2016 New Yorker article by Daniel Wenger, the video is cited as part of the “intractable cultural script” of school shooters. Wegner highlights the scene that visualizes the “arms raised in a V” lyric, showing Jeremy in apparent triumph as a forest fire rages around him. This same pose has been re-created in photos and videos posted by numerous school shooters, including Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people and then himself in 2007 at Virginia Tech.

Pellington, who later filmed a PSA about gun violence in 2014, was asked by Wenger what he would do differently if he could make the video today. “I’d pull focus right up to the gun,” he replied. “That’s the proper shot.”

As for Pearl Jam, “Jeremy” marked a turning point in their engagement with the popular culture of the ’90s. The video put them at the center of public attention, which made them—particularly Vedder—extremely uncomfortable. It wasn’t just the attention, but rather the culture itself, that proved incompatible with the band. Pearl Jam was part of a wave of artists in the early ’90s—many of whom were musicians, though it was also expanding to film and literature—who were against the mainstream status quo. But the anger and rebellion that fueled their rise quickly metastasized into something altogether gross and untenable.

Pearl Jam had helped to rapidly remake the culture. But the revolution no longer was theirs. Soon, they would look for a way out.

Excerpted from LONG ROAD: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation by Steven Hyden. Copyright © 2022. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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