Pearl Jam Versus Nirvana: The Final Countdown

IF NUMBERS COUNT for anything, Pearl Jam wiped the floor with Nirvana. In its first week of release, Vs sold five times as many copies as In Utero did in its first week: nearly a million where Nirvana shifted under 200,000 units. Pearl Jam also cleaned up at the MTV Video Awards, and got to jam with legendary-survivor-from-the-era-when-music-really-meant-something Neil Young.

Of course, unit-shifting and trophies don’t automatically equate with kudos or significance. But many of the critics who’d sneered at Pearl Jam as a corporate cock rock scam began to take them seriously this time round, while even Kurt Cobain seems to have retracted some of his bile and acknowledged Eddie Vedder as ‘authentic’, thus effecting some sort of reconciliation between the pair.

Why have Pearl Jam overtaken Nirvana? Why have they swelled as a phenomenon, where Nirvana appear to have partially succeeded in sabotaging their career? Simply put, whereas Cobain has recoiled from the power that was his for the grabbing when Nevermind went through the roof, Vedder has embraced the mantle of Rock Saviour – not greedily or even eagerly (he seems as troubled by stardom as Kurt), but almost with a sense of duty. One example says it all. In MTV news footage of the first Vs tour date, Vedder greets the audience: “How’re ya doing?” A pregnant pause. “Cuz l worry about you guys, y’know?” A massive cheer.

This is Vedder all over: he comes over as a sort of elder brother offering guidance, support and consolation to his faithless, directionless flock of twenty something youth. Contrast that with Cobain, who seems stunned by the fact of his mass audience, and is thus unable, or unwilling, to connect with them. Which is why he barely speaks onstage. In recent interviews, Cobain has retracted some of the contemptuous comments he made about the metal kids who bought Nevermind, but he’s still clearly aghast at the notion of people looking to him for answers or leadership. Probably because he feels just as, or even more, lost and incapable as any of them.

Both Vedder and Cobain grew up fatherless, without a proper male role model (in ‘Serve The Servants’, Kurt sings: “I tried to have a father/But instead I had a dad.”) Village Voice critic Ann Powers writes of Eddie: “The mess he is represents the desire to become a man, something nobody’s sure how to do right now.” But where Eddie tries to take on the role of surrogate ‘good father’ to his audience (with its high divorce rate, so many kids in America grow up in broken homes), Cobain just isn’t up to being a mentor. And where Vedder writes songs about neglect and abuse (‘Jeremy’, ‘Alive’, and, on the new album, ‘Leash’), Cobain’s voice is the raw, unmediated howl of his own abused ‘inner child’

Vedder tells stories (‘Leash’ is about a troubled teenage girl whose over-anxious mum puts her in a mental home); Cobain spews incoherent angst. His cut-up method of lyric-writing works against easy identification, holds out no redemptive vision. And while that makes Nirvana’s songs more challenging than Pearl Jams’s, it doesn’t offer much in the way of catharsis or consolation. Which is what ‘the kids’ get from Vedder.

Pearl Jam are The Clash to Nirvana’s Sex Pistols. Like The Clash, Pearl Jam’s vision of rock is humanist, heartwarming, inclusive, and thus deeply traditional. Pearl Jam’s success is based on the notion that youth can be marshalled into a unity of alienation, and somehow make their collective power felt. Which is why their music – blues rock and funky boogie given a glossy, panoramic, CD-friendly production – is rooted in the early Seventies, the last time people still believed in counterculture. Whereas Cobain’s songs fuse the melodic aggression of the Pistols (Glen Matlock was a Beatles fan) with the faithless, proto-punk despondence of Sabbath.

Nirvana’s point – from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ through to ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ – is the same as The Sex Pistols’: rock rebellion is a fraud, it’s high time the concept of youth culture was killed off. And so In Utero is a self-indulgent, solipsistic record, Cobain singing the millionaire rockstar blues. Typically, the only part of being a Rock Saviour Cobain can relate to is being crucified. In that respect, In Utero is a bit like the bitterly disillusioned second album Rotten might have made if he’d stayed in the Pistols.

Where Vedder reaches out, Cobain says, ‘Leave me alone’. The most telling song on In Utero is ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, because it’s torn between the regressive fantasy of going back to the womb, and the dread of being engulfed. Cobain begs to be hoisted back to sanctuary with his head in “your umbilical noose”, he wants to be sucked back into “your magnet tar pit”. While it’s probably reductive to identify the “you” in ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ as Courtney Love (mind you, her first love offering to Kurt was apparently a heart-shaped box full of sea-shells), the song does reek of shame about retreating from the world into house-bound hermithood. The line about “meat-eating orchids” is a classic castration-anxiety image (vagina as Venus Fly Trap), but the song as a whole suggests that Cobain would rather be infantalised and emasculated than struggle to be a man.

The title Vs is probably meant to evoke conflict and torn loyalties, the kind of inner turmoil that Bataille captured in his declaration: “I myself am war.” But the point about Vedder – and it’s what makes him a Rock Hero in the most conservative sense – is that he doesn’t give up the fight.

The title of In Utero whimpers the exact opposite; it’s isolationist, retreatist, defeated by the contradictions of being a rebel-millionaire kingpin in a bankrupt and outmoded rock hierarchy. All this means that Vedder is probably the ‘better’ human being (at least, more dependable in a scrape), while Cobain is the greater artist. Vedder could never write a song as disturbed and provocative as the near-misogynist ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, or as pitifully self-absorbed as the me-and-the-missus-are-martyrs-too ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’. Eddie’s too decent, too generous, not petty or pathetic enough.

Put Vedder and Cobain together and you’d have something close to a whole human being.

© Simon ReynoldsMelody Maker, 25 December 1993

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