When is listening to and loving music just not enough? At what point does a song or a band speak to their fans so directly that they feel the need to form a deeper, more permanent connection with the art and the artist? Or, to put it simply (and personally), why did I decide to get a Pearl Jam tattoo in 1994, and why do I still love it as much today as the moment I first got it?
Pearl Jam's iconic stickman, which is featured on the cover art of the band's debut single, "Alive," has had a prominent place on my left ankle for nearly twenty years now, and remains my first and only tattoo. And even though PJ's studio output has been shaky and somewhat lackluster in recent years, I've never once regretted getting that ink. It's not only a constant reminder of a truly great period in my life (I was a sophomore in college when I got it), but also a proud symbol of when I fell completely in love with music, and how much I love music to this very day.
Whenever any diehard Pearl Jam fan tries to convince the unconverted of the band's greatness, typically they will inevitably say, "You've got to see them live." And indeed, PJ truly shine in a live setting, where their songs take on a vitality that isn't quite captured in the studio. My first time seeing Pearl Jam live came at the end of March in 1992 (two days after their first and only show at First Avenue), when the band played a free show at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
At the time, "Alive" was getting some national radio play, and the video was starting to make some waves on MTV, but the breakout success of "Even Flow" and "Jeremy" were still awaiting the band, and they played this show like they clearly had something to prove and new fans to win over.
After opening with "Oceans," a slow song -- a trait that the band continues to this day -- frontman Eddie Vedder playfully chastised the fans who were already crowd surfing, telling us that they had to move the show from the Marquette Student Union to a campus theater to accommodate the swelling crowd -- that they didn't normally play in places with seats in them, and they didn't want anyone in the crowd to get hurt. After those words of warning, Vedder asked us coyly, "You ready to kick some ass? Let's do it!" And with that, the band tore through a fiery rendition of "Even Flow" as the crowd exploded in a mass of crowd surfers and flailing bodies.
It was truly an electric moment -- one that I hadn't ever really experienced before, and one that I won't soon forget. From that moment on, I was lost in the riotous spell of Pearl Jam for not only the rest of that memorable 70-minute performance, but also for years to come. These songs became the unruly anthems to the end of my awkward adolescence, as Ten provided the moody soundtrack to my fitful final months in high school and beyond.
Here's video of that entire performance -- to this day it's unquestionably the best show that I've ever seen.
I was able to see PJ again that summer at Alpine Valley on the second Lollapalooza tour before I moved from my hometown of Waukesha to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota. By that point, grunge had steamrolled the music scene, and the Northwest's unruly, angst-ridden anthems were blaring out of dorm rooms, Walkmans, and car stereos all over campus.
Most of the lasting friendships that I made throughout college started with a shared bond over music, and many of my most memorable nights in the Twin Cities have featured a concert taking place at some point in the evening -- a trend which still holds true today -- as I quickly became a regular at First Avenue and the many other clubs in the area.
By the time Vs. came out in 1993, Pearl Jam were the most popular band in the world -- sorry Nirvana fans -- selling nearly a million copies of their second full-length album in its first five days of release, an industry record at the time. But the band, and especially Vedder, were clearly having a difficult time adjusting to their newfound fame, and did their best to self-sabotage their career -- by refusing to do any videos for the new record in reaction to the ubiquitous "Jeremy" clip, and retreating as best they could from the intense spotlight of the music world. No matter what kind of internal struggle was happening with the band, the music itself still had an insistent urgency and lyrical percipience that appealed to me, perhaps even more so than on their debut.
While I absolutely loved Vs., as well as the defiant stand the band were taking against the industry, it was their fight against Ticketmaster that ultimately made me treasure the band even more. While additional fees and taxes are now commonplace when purchasing most concert tickets, during the summer of '94, Pearl Jam canceled their entire tour in protest of Ticketmaster tacking on new, mysterious extra fees to a set ticket price that PJ were keeping affordable to strengthen their connection with their dedicated fans, even while their popularity was clearly spiraling out of control.That rebellious stand kept me from seeing my favorite band live that year, but I was wholeheartedly in favor of their boycott of "Ticketbastard." And it was then that I decided to stand with PJ in a small but visible way, and finally get the "Alive" stick-figure tattooed on my ankle after a couple years of talking about it. It was a hell of a lot more than nearly all of the cowardly bands of the '90s did to support them and their significant cause at the time. Pearl Jam was left mostly alone in their doomed fight against the conglomerate ticket giant.
So, I headed to Ace Tattoo in Golden Valley with two college friends, one who was getting a tattoo along with me and one friend who got some work done there previously and recommended the place. We had some drinks to calm our nerves a bit, but I knew that there really wasn't much to my tattoo. It wouldn't take too long, and whatever pain was involved would be minimal at worst.
But, I wasn't quite prepared for the tattoo artists to joke with me about who could get the job done the fastest when I presented them with the cover of the "Alive" 7-inch. I wasn't interested in any of them trying to set a land speed record on my flesh, no matter how simple the design was.
After the first initial stings of the needle, it really wasn't that painful of a process, and it was over in less than a half-hour. You feel a definite adrenaline buzz after getting a tattoo, and I was thrilled to have my love of Pearl Jam forever be a visible part of me. But I do remember foolishly asking my friend if I shouldn't get my ankle wet for a few days for fear that the ink would wash off. He laughed at me and said that it was permanent and nothing was going to wash away my tattoo now.
Sadly, I would have to wait a full year before I could show off my tattoo amongst Pearl Jam fans at one of their shows (at back-to-back Summerfest gigs in Milwaukee and an epic Soldier Field show in Chicago), as their feud with Ticketbastard kept them from playing the Midwest for quite a while. But I was quite proud of my new ink, and happier still to proclaim my love of the band to the world at large, especially when some fair-weather fans jumped ship when the group got a little weird with Vitalogy and No Code. Once grunge fell out of fashion, a lot of people forgot about PJ or dismissed them and the grunge movement entirely, but my love of the band only grew stronger as their fan base shrunk, and my ink tied me to them in a visible and visceral way.At first, my family didn't get what my tattoo was at all. Since I was the first person in our family to get one, I received some strange glances from them initially. But when I described to them my deep affection for Pearl Jam and their music, and how this song -- for me at least, never mind Ed's darker inspirations -- represented an uplifting celebration of life and all that comes with it, they grew to be rather fond of my new ink and what it stood for.
As I've grown older, and my love of music has not only expanded but enriched my life by leading me towards some fulfilling job opportunities, my bond with my tattoo has come to represent not only my connection with Pearl Jam, but with music in general. The black ink has faded ever so slightly over the years, as has PJ's somewhat erratic studio output, but for me, each time I glance at my tattoo I'm reminded of that overwhelming sensation that I felt the first time I ever saw Pearl Jam perform, and how my passion for music has continually led me down some pretty exceptional paths in my life. I'm still alive, indeed.
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