Long Road (2)

Maybe I should mention that I am a lifelong Cubs fan. So when Pearl Jam plays Wrigley Field, it’s worlds colliding for me. In 2016, for the 2nd show, I had a seat on the field. Walking into Wrigley Field is a surreal experience anytime. The bright green grass, the ivy, the scoreboard… I grew up watching afternoon games with my Grandma Helen. I remember the first night game. Mark Grace was my favorite player. Needless to say Wrigley Field is special to me. Being a Pearl Jam fan has taken me to many places I’d have otherwise never been, and center field looking up at the stands is one of them. That was 2 years ago, and it was the last show I’ve been to.

When I look at a timeline of my Pearl Jam concert attendance, its very telling. The first show, as I mentioned in part 1, was in 1998. In October of 2000, I went to a show in Chicago with a close friend who was unable to attend that first show. In April of 2003, I took a then girlfriend to a show in Champaign, IL, which REALLY pissed off my buddies. To make up for such an egregious act, I bought us tickets for back-to-back shows later that summer- June 12th and 13th, Bonner Springs, KS and Council Bluffs, IA. These 2 concerts back-to-back were the turning point in the way we went to shows. If you don’t know anything about Pearl Jam concerts, this might sound ridiculous to you, i.e. the “2 shows lady” in Wisconsin 2011, who said “You guys are going to 2 shows, 2 shows? Why 2 shows, aren’t they just the same show?” in a thick Wisky accent… but Pearl Jam plays incredibly unique setlists every night. If they play 30 songs in Kansas and 30 in Iowa, there will be 45 to 50 different songs played between the 2 nights, with only a handful of repeats. Again, I love stats, so here are some to try and drive home the point of the uniqueness of each Pearl Jam show:

Shows I’ve attended: 30
Songs I’ve seen: 910 (average of  30 per show)
Unique Pearl Jam songs I’ve seen: 148
Unique Cover songs: 60
Songs I’ve Seen the Most: Even Flow = 26
Times I’ve Seen “Wash” (Wrigley 2018 night 1’s opener) = 1

By the way, I have an app on my phone that tracks all these stats. It’s a great app- PJStatTracker- and there is no way I would have these stats without it.

So it’s very rare that my group of friends, and a large portion of the Pearl Jam fan base, attends just one show. Pearl Jam often plays shows in pairs or even blocks to make it easier for fans to attend multiple nights. If Night 1 is for Joe Public with hits like Daughter, Elderly Woman, Betterman, Just Breathe, Alive and Evenflow, then Night 2 will likely be for “the serious collector” with something from deep in the catalog, like Dirty Frank, Bee Girl, Rival, Bugs or Ghost… songs that the average fan is probably going to think suck but a touring fan might be super stoked to cross off their list of white whales.

In 2003, we weren’t thinking about white whales or deep cuts. We were still green in terms of shows and travel. But this crew that assembled would become the crew that, to this current date, is still attending shows together. We’ve added to our crew since then, but for the past 15 years we’ve tried to see as many shows as possible together.

The first night was at what was then called the Sandstone Amphitheater, right outside Kansas City. Just as we were about to get out of the car to walk into the venue it began to storm- crazy torrential downpour storm. Could be revisionist history but I don’t think it’s ever rained that hard since…wait, maybe PJ Wrigley 2013…maybe. Anyway, we waited in the car for what seemed like an hour, but was more likely 5 minutes, before we decided to make a run for it. Maybe we thought they might start the show regardless of the storm, maybe we were drunk, I can’t really say.  What I can say is that we were soaked by the time we got through the gate and huddled with a bunch of other wet fans under some type of tent area. I am pretty sure it was Beau  (oh yeah I am using real names today) who had the idea to buy rain ponchos, or we saw people wearing them or whatever, but Beau was the one who ran through the rain to get them for us. Clutch move by Beau.

Another thing I remember from the show is Mike McCready playing the Even Flow solo from his ass after he slipped on the wet stage. It was such a rock star move.

Also I remember that it seemed like my beer was always full… so I drank a lot of rain water that night. I drank a lot of beer too. I guess there are two more things I remember- getting the hiccups after the show because I was trying to eat my McDonald’s too fast (gross) and that we got lost trying to get back to Beau’s dad’s place.  Well maybe I remember some other stuff- drunken phone calls to then girlfriends back home, Beau’s dad yelling at us to shut up, and sleeping on the floor.

The next morning we popped up and made our way to Council Bluffs. The 4 of us had to share a room at one of those hotels that has theme rooms. Ours was like Hawaiian or some shit. It had straw shit everywhere and a gross hot tub. Did I mention we were inexperienced travelers? I am pretty sure we were all broke, or at least we weren’t managing our funds well. None of it mattered because the shows were so incredible. I remember a good deal of the Council Bluffs show. They opened with “Arc,” a song they have, to this date, only played live 9 times. They also played the Police song “Driven to Tears.” They played “Daughter” into the Ben Harper song “My Own Two Hands.” They ended the show with a 2nd encore of 4 cover songs. First was the Beatles’ “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” a song I had never heard but instantly fell in love with. Followed by Victoria Williams’s “Crazy Mary,” the Clash’s “Know Your Rights,” and Uncle Neil’s “Rocking in the Free World.”  That was my 5th show and I was so in love. I was so excited and felt so at home. I wanted to see 10 straight shows the next time they toured.

But that’s not what happened. From 2003 to 2009, I only saw Pearl Jam twice. They opened for Tom Petty 2 nights in a row in St. Paul in 2006. The shows were great- I saw one with Beau and his wife and one with my Dad. Both nights Ed came out and played a song with Tom Petty. Beau does a pretty spot on impression of Petty saying “maybe if you cheer a little louder Mr. Eddie Vedder will come out an sing a tune for us.”

Overall during those years, between 2003 and 2009, I was becoming more and more of an alcoholic. I was becoming more and more enslaved to the bottle. My world was really small. I wasn’t always sure where rent was coming from. I didn’t have a credit card (thankfully) and I didn’t really use the internet. I didn’t really know much about Pearl Jam’s tour schedule. I wouldn’t have ever thought about traveling outside the midwest to see them. Being an alcoholic really took away a lot of the things that made me, me. I wasn’t playing basketball as often. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t really listening to music. Just living in a small sad world, surrounded by people, but really lonely.

In April 2009, I attempted to stop drinking for the first time in my life. It was then that I bought Mookie and a Jeep. Around that same time I bought tickets for an Eddie Vedder solo show in Memphis, TN. It was a 10 hour drive and I didn’t have a license, but Beau did, and it didn’t take much convincing to get him on board. In June we headed to Memphis; neither of us had ever been there. We had never traveled this far to see a Pearl Jam show and now we were traveling all this way to see Ed solo. This trip was another really important trip for me. It was one of those moments early in my attempts at sobriety that made me realize life wasn’t going to be lame and boring just because I didn’t “party.”  Beau and I went to Graceland and it was creepy, and awesome, and historic. We lined up with all the couples and families to get our photo taken for 10 dollars. It’s a really hilarious picture. We were having a great time.

That night we went out on Beale Street. It was a struggle. I was 3 months sober for the first time in my life. I was feeling really awkward and uptight around a bunch of drinking. I suddenly had zero social skills. I was unable to speak to a stranger- hell, I couldn’t even make eye contact with anyone. I had been the life of the party for years and now I was a shell. Beau was frustrated, I was frustrated. We called it a night.

The next afternoon we were the first people to show up at the pre-party, ready to give being social another go. We grabbed a table and a couple sodas. This time I felt confident that I’d be able to speak to people given that these were like-minded people. Within 30 minutes, the anxiety had crept back in. It’s like when you have to wake up early so you are worried you won’t be able to sleep, and then worrying about not being able to sleep causes you to not be able to sleep. It was happening again- Beau and I were stuck, neither of us able to speak to strangers, neither of us wanting to speak to each other. The frustration was again growing when out of nowhere, a light southern voice spoke to us, “Hey is it just y’all two sitting here, would you mind if my brother and I joined y’all? There are just no other seats in here.”  Beau and I laughed, the stress releasing from our faces, “Please sit with us. We would love for you to sit with us and talk to us. We came from Des Moines and are really sick of talking to each other.” We all laughed and our new friends, Lisa and Blake, sat down. Lisa was a gift from God that day. She was chatty and friendly. She was exactly what we needed, exactly when we needed it. Years later, Blake and Lisa and their families and their friends are all really great friends with our friends and our families. This random brother and sister that needed a place to sit.
They are such good friends of ours that meeting them overshadows the fact that Beau and I actually met and shook hands with Eddie fucking Vedder later that night.

The whole night was like a religious or out-of-body experience. It was surreal. There were tears in my eyes at several points. The amount of emotion I felt was at times overwhelming. This small and beautiful theater and Ed’s giant, powerful voice.
When we met he said “hey Cubs fan, alright” pointing towards my hat. I again found myself speechless, unable to mutter a single word back. It was amazing.

After that we were completely stoked on Pearl Jam again. The fire was lit. I was back. Sober life was fucking awesome. I had the sober high now.

A few months later Beau and I, with some other friends from town, met Lisa and Blake in Chicago for 2 Pearl Jam shows at the United Center. You know, the house that Jordan built, no big deal.  This was really the first time I had seen Pearl Jam doing a full length show since Council Bluffs in 2003. A lot had changed in my life. A lot had changed for the band. The band was a huge draw and my fan club seats were in the very back of the venue, the 3rd to last row from the top. Back then, fan club seating was by seniority and during my drunk years I let my membership lapse (like everything else in my life) so I had a shitty 10 Club number and was sitting on the moon. Whatever. I was a bit pissed, but still really excited.

Then it happened. The lights went down. Philip Glass’s Metamorphosis #3 came on. The band walked out. Ed, in that deep voice, said “Good Evening” then there was long applause, maybe 10 seconds, but they didn’t start playing just yet. Ed spoke again, “We’ve got a lot of emotion to get through tonight so…let’s get through it together” and Long Road started.

I fucking broke down. Ed was talking about things going on with them and going on with the band, but here I was thinking about all the shit I had been through and all the dark, hard times, and looking at what life could be like beyond all of that, and he said those words to start the show. He spoke directly to me in a crowd of 20 thousand people.
You can hear it here (Good Evening, Long Road).

Early in the show they played “Come Back” for a friend of theirs who had died. The song always reminds me of my brothers, Jon and Josh. I have really had dreams like Ed describes in the chorus and the 3rd verse, and when you first stop drinking your dreams are super vivid so I had been having these types of dreams that felt so real.

“And every night, what I’m waiting for
Is the real possibility I may meet you in my dream
And sometimes you’re there
And you’re talking back to me
Come the morning I could swear you’re next to me
And it’s okay”

A few songs later they played “Man of the Hour” , another song typically dedicated to someone who has passed away. This night it was again, for a friend of the band. Also again, I thought of my brothers. It’s possible that this was my first truly cathartic moment. I don’t believe that you can really mourn the loss of a loved one as an alcoholic, at least I don’t believe I had. I remember the way McCready made the guitar echo on the line “he was guiding me, love, his own way” …the pause…and the final lines of the song:

“Now the man of the hour is taking his final bow –
As the curtain comes down I feel that this is just goodbye for now.”

They opened the first encore with The Who’s “Reign O’er Me.” I remember really screaming out the line in the song “Oh God, I need a fucking drink,” not because I needed a drink, but because I needed to scream something.  They followed that up with the song “Life Wasted”:

I have faced it, a life wasted
I’m never going back again
I escaped it, a life wasted
I’m never going back again
Having tasted, a life wasted
I’m never going back again

They also played Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done.” It was around the time that Michael Jackson had died, and Ed spoke about Michael being a big influence just before playing it.

This was all, again, very powerful, very moving to someone who was recently sober. It reaffirmed that I was on the right path.

….a couple months later I relapsed.

All that positive reinforcement, all the things going right, I still relapsed. In fact I relapsed a week before going to Philadelphia to see Pearl Jam 3 more times. I ended up drinking at the first show and blacking out during the encores, then staying sober for the 2nd and 3rd shows.

I would relapse several times over the next couple years before I ultimately stopped drinking for good in 2011. I believe that these first sober concerts, these moments spent doing something I really love to do with people I really love to be with were incredibly important in my eventual recovery from addiction. It showed me that life was better sober. For me, there is no argument that can be made that life is not unequivocally better sober. It also showed me that the world was so much bigger than I had previously been aware of. When I got sober I really started to explore it, and Pearl Jam was often the vehicle. Like I said in part 1, I’ve seen 20 shows since that first sober show in August of 2009. I saw 19 of those shows sober.

I thought I could finish this Pearl Jam story in 2 posts, but over 2800 words later it’s clear I can’t.

Maybe Part 1 of this series was in a way, is similar to my first show ever- it was short and just kind of rocked. Part 2 was like deep cuts, long and rambling, featuring some things you might have to look up later. It was for the serious collector. And Part 3… it’ll probably be a greatest hits type of show, but it hasn’t been written yet.

#staytuned

oh… and here is the picture of Beau and I from Graceland:

me and beau at graceland

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