I still can’t recall all the details of when I first heard Pearl Jam, but I do remember being hooked instantly after hearing their song “Alive”. It was sometime late in 1991 or early 1992. Another day of pretending to be sick, staying home, and watching MTV most of the day. The video for “Alive” came on, and I was transfixed. It wasn’t just the music and lyrics, but also watching the energy and passion that Pearl Jam performed that song with on the video. Soon enough, I was pretending to be sick a few more times so I could stay home and watch MTV for the chance to watch the video again.
Why not just get their album Ten? Well, I did. I bought the cassette, cd and vinyl of the album. I bought the cd before I had a cd player. That’s how hooked I was. The problem was, the track used in the video was a live version of “Alive”. It wasn’t on the album. I liked the album version, but it was seeing the guys perform that song that pumped me up with life.
Soon, I was buying anything and everything I could that was Pearl Jam related. Music, shirts, posters and more. It’s what lead me to hanging out a lot in the Old Market at various record stores like Dirt Cheap, Stage Door, Antiquarium, Drastic Plastic and Homer’s. I was always looking to buy some rare import Pearl Jam single from Holland that had a random B-side track. A number of the staff at Dirt Cheap knew me by name and would always hold Pearl Jam stuff that came in so I could have first chance to buy before anyone else. I accumulated a ridiculous library of Pearl Jam music.
This was pre-internet, so I couldn’t download bootlegs or read up on the latest comings and going with the band any time I wanted. It was investment and commitment on my part to track down any new music or information. This was due to finding a band that seemed to voice everything I was thinking and feeling inside. I experienced a lot of lonely periods growing up, but suddenly it didn’t seem so lonely. Someone else knew what it was like.* They may have been 1,727 miles away in Seattle, but there was someone else.
*I know the band has often shared about the pressure they felt of so many echoing what I just said about their words and music inspiring lives and giving hope. It’s a pressure that almost ended the band prematurely.
They influenced my art, my creativity and my thinking. Eddie Vedder, lead singer and main lyricist of the band, was one of two individuals that inspired me to start writing.* I was in a study hall and was messing around with my own lyrics to Pearl Jam’s music.** The first time I wrote creatively on my own.
*The other individual was Henry Rollins.
**It was the most productive study hall ever.
The band’s music and lives were also a factor* in me not choosing to go to college right after high school. A decision that altered the trajectory of my life for the better, I believe.
*The main factor? Well, I was considering going to Nebraska Wesleyan to study art, but I wasn’t keen on everything else with college. The school college counselor really liked the idea of me going to Nebraska Wesleyan because he “never sent anyone to Nebraska Wesleyan”. I remember thinking, “You’ve never cared one bit about me, had no concern till now where I was going to school, and now you just want to use me to pad your resume?”** It was the difference maker for me, and I started to change my mindset toward not going to college right away.
**That thought was also interlaced with a number of f-bombs. I was seventeen.
The summer after I graduated from high school is when I became a Christian and started following Jesus. What helped me in that? It was the song “Alive”. I was entering into a new phase of life. I was glad to be done with school, but I had no idea what the future held. I was anxious. I wanted hope. I wanted life to have meaning and purpose. I said all this in a rambling prayer to God, and then “Alive” came to mind. I had hope. I had no idea what I was going to be doing, but I knew something was coming my way. And sure enough, I got involved in missions work.
Those first years in ministry I enjoyed sharing my story with other people my age because I liked talking about how Pearl Jam was an influence on my life and faith. After I would share, I would end up talking with someone afterward about Pearl Jam and their music.
In 1998, I was driving a 15 passenger van, and hauling a trailer, during the night in the middle of an ice storm. There was one other person in the van with me, Josh. I was on a theater tour, and I had a performance to get to in a few hours*, to a place a few hours away, after switching vans. I lost control of the van going over a bridge on the interstate. I was all over the road, but then lost it. Headed toward the guard rail, all I could see was darkness, and I thought I was about to die. I’ve sometimes heard other Christians talk about being in similar situations, and how passages of scripture come to mind. Not me. I just started screaming/praying for Jesus. The van slammed into the guard rail, but thankfully the momentum didn’t carry us through it. We slid along the guard rail for roughly a hundred feet. The van was totalled. The van hit the guard rail on the front left, where I was driving. The area was compacted, but I walked away from it. I didn’t have a scratch. Josh hit his head slightly on the van, when we hit, but he walked away with nothing wrong either.
*The performance did not happen, obviously. The rest of the team showed up, shared their stories and talked about missions to the Hesston College student body. My future wife, Jana, was in the audience that day. It was the first time she heard about me. She, along with everyone else, prayed for me (and Josh).
In the aftermath of the accident, I thought about few things. However, I replayed a song in my head that seemed to help me sort through why I was still alive. The song was “Given To Fly“, and Pearl Jam had just released it. I had heard it on the radio before the tour started, and it stuck with me. I believed there was a purpose to me walking away from the accident unscathed. What is that specifically? I don’t know, but as the song states, I thought I was being “given to fly”.
And what a life I’ve had since then. I still think I am “given to fly”.
It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly twenty years since I first heard Pearl Jam. There is an upcoming documentary film that details Pearl Jam’s twenty years so far. When I heard the guitar riff, from “Given To Fly”, start near the beginning of this documentary, it transported me back to the 90’s. It reminded me of how this band influenced me in a variety of ways. It reminded me of how God used them and their music to make decisions to become a Christian and get involved in missionary work.
I am looking forward to experiencing the film.