Pearl Jam's Existential Moment

By Glenn

Earlier this year Cameron Crowe and Ridley Scott directed a movie called "Pearl Jam 20" based on the twenty-year career of our old favorite band.  It was released in the height of our most recent and grown-up bout with existential despair.  To those who know the Pearl Jam, the film chronicles their storied career with never before seen backstage clips of early concerts, candid interviews with members of the band and live "fan cam" footage of the Roskilde disaster, which we will use as our point of reference in discussing Pearl Jam's existential crisis and how it parallels our own.

Is this just another day? This god forgotten place. 
First comes love and then comes pain. Let the games begin.

The first hint of an existential crisis we ever had was in college.  After not completing multiple papers, it became obvious there was no way to escape a failing grade in two introductory level English courses.  It wasn't the first time we experienced academic difficulties - the downward slide began in high school and only got worse at college number two.  We knew what depression was and had felt that before, but this was worse.  Before it was about personal frustrating/failing with a backdrop of unpleasant circumstances out of our control.  Now the direness of the situation led to a loosening of our grip on the plan, the path, we had been holding onto our whole lives.  If we fail out of college, then what?

At the same time as we were loosing our grasp on academia we tightened our grips on existentialism.   We read Being and Nothingness by Sartre over breakfast every morning and mentally explored the true senselessness of existence.  We also read the Arusha Accords to get a better handle on what precipitated the Rwandan genocide.  Belief in god, fate or UN intervention had disappeared years ago, but it's much different to feel how pointless our existence is than to just consider it as a theoretical point.  When the immediate and (always fleeting) pain of this life hits us, we have to stop and consider why we walk down this path of our lives, no matter how loosely defined it might be.

Is this just another phase? Earthquakes making waves.
Trying to shake the cancer off. Stupid human beings.

The pain of being (and playing) Alive hit Pearl Jam on June 30, 2000.  At that point as a band they were mature and somewhat listless, like a single dad in his 40s who hasn't seen his kids in fifteen years.  The mainstream popularity of the early and mid nineties were gone and that year's Binaural was their worst album to date.  Though it included gems like Light Years, Thin Air and eventual acoustic favorite Of The Girl and was the first new Pearl Jam album we purchased on release day since Vs., it still sounded dark and ugly.  The rockers "rocked" only in a technical sense.  We loved Nothing As It Seems at the time, but in retrospect just doesn't hold up compared to any of Yield's singles released two years prior.  As the PJ20 narrative states, things were already a bit rocky before they hit the stage in the medieval capital of Denmark.

It's an art to live with pain. Mix the light into grey.
Lost nine friends we'll never know. Two years ago today.

History might never know who was actually responsible for the crowd surge that suffocated nine people during the rush to the stage.  The organizers of the Roskilde Festival blamed Pearl Jam.  The police blamed no one.  The families of the victims blamed Anders Breivik.  The correct answer was to blame the mentality of crowds, which as always is excitable, ugly and contagious at the same time.  Would Pearl Jam blame themselves?

In 1996 Eddie Vedder said during a concert in New York at the base of World Trade Center Building 7:

"I just want to address y'all again - you know, if someone got hurt until the point that they weren't living anymore, I don't think I could ever play again. Some bands go on - we couldn't. Music is not that important."

Until this event, Pearl Jam were going through all the motions you would expect from a band of their stature and composition trying to navigate the music industry, maintain artistic credibility and earn a livelihood.  Roskilde and the guilt associated with it, came like a gust of wind to knock them off the path they had spent ten years creating as a band.   The nine who suffocated probably would have preferred the wind to gust in their direction, but their unceremonious deaths earned them an escape from this world and the song "Love Boat Captain."  Pearl Jam's existential crisis is fully documented PJ20, including how they came out of it to grow stronger as a band.

Are we as strong?  We are individuals, not a collective group of people writing and singing songs for an even larger, less collected group.  Our problem is not just should we continue as a band but should we continue as human beings?  By continue, we don't have to just mean "continue living" since being alive is the perpetual state for all of us not part of the 3322 Fetal-Americans aborted every day.  We can make the choice to kill ourselves before our eventual deaths (as certainly some of those 3322 do) but less extreme are the other choices we can make, such as foregoing the day to day activities of our life that suddenly lose all meaning in and of themselves or as means to a similarly meaningless end.

And the young they can lose hope cause they can't see beyond today.
The wisdom that the old can't give away.
Hey, constant recoil. Sometimes life don't leave you alone.

After our worst semester of college we finally began to lose it.  It isn't just our frustration with ourselves and the inability to perform academically but a growing fear that even if we succeed there would be nothing waiting for us.  The questions start to change from "Why can't I do this?" to "Why am I trying to do this?"  We sheepishly break up with up with our romantic partners and suffer through our part time employment like the zombies of those full time adults you see in a county elections board office.  We know our behavior is irrational and borderline self-destructive but it also feels like these real-life, immediate problems have forced us to confront meaninglessness.  We're miserable but also feel like we can see the stark reality of life and human existence better than before.  It feels liberating.

Existential crisises, like financial, do eventually abate and the more well off you are the better you come out of it.  External factors knock us into despair but external factors also bring us back to the ephemeral world where we worry about money, the search for love, friendships, economic justice, who green lighted "the Marriage Ref," 90's music and other bullshit that doesn't matter because nothing matters.  Note that the search for love and economic justice - what Bertrand and Nipsy Russell would both agree should be two of the most important things we devote our life to - are placed in the same realm as "The Marriage Ref."  This might sound like blasphemy but we needn't be stoned to death in Lahore to recognize this truth and get beyond it.

That when all is lost there will be you.
Cause to the universe I don't mean a thing.
And there's just one word I still believe and it's love.

Roskilde produced an existential crisis for Pearl Jam as a band in the same way being unemployed and watching Syrians die to overthrow their government produces an existential crisis in us.  Because even though nothing matters, some things (giving your life fighting against an oppressive government) just seem to matter more.  Love can also be one of those things, with two caveats.  The first is that we sometimes feel as if a long-term emotionally fulfilling relationship is impossible.  That makes us despair more but also clears away the pining and the loneliness.  Conversely, searching for love can be a distraction from true existential despair that we sometimes need.  How can we force ourselves to accept meaningless if we find what feels like meaning in a partner or - in the case of our Mormon and Catholic friends - multiple partners?  Finding love might alleviate our immediate suffering but it certainly doesn't alleviate the larger suffering of this pitiful species.

Saul Alinsky said that once we accept our own deaths we're free to live and only care about our lives in so far as we can use them to tactically promote a cause we believe in.  Is it worth fighting for democracy and against oppression if all suffering (including ours) doesn't really matter in the long run?  Our species and civilization will likely be long gone in 100 years, if not sooner.  In the scope of human history and in our current world economy, most of us were born on at least second base - though out of that group not all think we hit a double.  Those of us who know better should probably follow the advice of modern philosophers/scientists/shamans like Sam Harris who create a haphazard sense of morality: maximize pleasure/happiness of all beings and minimize harm.  It might seem like transitioning from a discussion of existential despair towards moral imperatives is logically inconsistent, but unless we kill ourselves what choice do we have?

Eddie explains Love Boat Captain and talks about the Roskilde incident.

The band plays Love Boat Captain at their 20th anniversary show in Wisconsin this year.


  1. I love this so much. I think that the question 'Is it worth fighting for [anything] if all suffering (including ours) doesn't really matter in the long run?' is the most important question anyone can ask, and as people whose existential compass has been greatly influenced by Pearl Jam, I think we ask that question daily in at least a small part because of them. And to see in that documentary their own struggle with that question was very heartening and reaffirming of that visceral connection I've felt for them all these years

  2. This is beautiful Glenn. Hearts out.

  3. A sobering Monday read, but not disheartening. What is the meaning of life, if any? Who knows and who cares? Making meanings is much more exciting. And in the end, who doesn't love Pearl Jam?