Pearl Jam is still alive.
Thirty-one years after the release of their first single, the anthemic “Alive,” the Seattle-based grunge rock group continues to fill arenas and stadiums — including Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena earlier this month, a venue they’ve performed at nine times over the years.
Even though he’s done extensive deep dives on the Black Crowes and Radiohead, American author and critic Steven Hyden has always been attracted by Pearl Jam. Their “totally unique” career arc so fascinated him that it led to his fifth book, “Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation.” In it, he hopes to appeal to hardcore fans of the legendary Seattle group while enhancing others’ appreciation of them beyond 1990s grunge stereotypes.
To Gen X, the Pearl Jam Family is the equivalent of the Baby Boomers’ (Grateful) Deadheads: they travel to multiple shows when the band goes on tour, collect memorabilia such as city-specific stickers, and debate which live version of a particular song was best.
Hyden’s first book, “Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me” in 2016, addressed rivalries between artists and their loyal supporters such as the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones, Biggie vs. Tupac Shakur, Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift and more. He is well versed in the psychology of fandom.
“I think one problem is that, sometimes, if someone is too much of a hardcore fan, they don’t have perspective on the things in a career that maybe aren’t good, that didn’t work,” Hyden said. “And it’s harder for them sometimes to place the band in the context of their times and what was going on in music.”
He doesn’t believe Pearl Jam can be compared one-to-one with anyone else in rock or pop. “They were so huge early on, in large part because they were on MTV all the time, and they were on magazine covers and they were on the radio, very much part of the mainstream media world.
“And then by the end of the decade going into the 2000s, they had transitioned to this point where they had virtually no media profile at all and were still able to maintain a large audience where they could play arenas and even stadiums,” Hyden continued without skipping a beat. “And that’s true even today.”
Thirty-plus years is a lot of ground to cover and provide larger context, but Hyden weaves in and out of Pearl Jam eras through his book’s chapters, the way Eddie Vedder would swing from the rafters in 1991 and ’92. He touches on both high and low points, one of the lowest being when Vedder was heavily criticized and booed for wearing a George W. Bush mask to sing “Bu$hleaguer” during the 2003 “Riot Act” tour.
“Long Road” is structured like a mixtape, with 18 songs ranging from Pearl Jam classics to rarities and a few covers for good measure acting as starting points for telling a mix of personal and universal stories.
This isn’t the only time Hyden thought structuring a book like an album was a fun and creative way to tell a story. “I use that on my second book, ‘Twilight of the Gods.’ Each chapter is named after a song by an artist that’s covered in the chapter,” he said. And those chapters are structured similarly to an album, with an A side and B side.
“It’s about more than just that particular song,” he said. “Usually that song is a way into talking about a particular aspect of their story.”
Reading “Long Road” feels as if you’re in an endlessly engrossing conversation about Pearl Jam with a fellow admirer. “I want my writing to feel like listening to a record, or at least like you’re talking to your friend while a record is playing,” Hyden said. It probably helps that besides being an author he is also a noted podcast host. “I want it to rock, I want it to be fun. I want it to feel like a party, too. So when you’re done reading the book it feels like you just walked out of a good show.”
Having passed the literary version of the “five albums test,” which gauges whether bands or artists have five great albums in a row, Hyden is looking to become more involved in documentaries. A dream project would be to do something on one of music’s all-time most interesting characters, Warren Zevon. “He’s straight out of, like, a film noir book.” Hyden’s already looking further down the long road to his next project.
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