Steven Hyden Delivers A Comprehensive Career Overview Of Pearl Jam

by Benjamin Ray

pearljam_longroadbook_350For a long time, the most complete Pearl Jam biography available was Five Against One, Kim Neely’s book that was written in 1998 as Yield was being released and the band was continuing its fade out of the spotlight. But another 24 years has passed since then, and Pearl Jam is still thriving, releasing new albums and touring regularly, finding time for solo projects and worthwhile causes, and still putting on long, bravura live shows.

In short, they were due for a more comprehensive career overview, and Steven Hyden has delivered in spades with Long Road. A lifelong fan, Hyden writes in a casual, conversational tone but with the authority of a professional music journalist who knows his stuff. It’s that mix of enthusiasm and critical clearheaded-ness that makes this a quick read; longtime fans may learn things they didn’t know, casual fans will be able to trace the arc from Ten to “Just Breathe” to Gigaton, and everyone will walk away convinced that the Seattle quintet is one of the greatest American rock bands of all time.

Hyden tells the story chronologically, but this isn’t as much a biography as it is a critical assessment of the band’s body of work, how they fit into the musical landscape of their time and what the band meant to him as a teenager in the 90s in the Midwest. Familiar beats such as the Mama-Son tape, the “Jeremy” video, Eddie Vedder swinging from the rafters during “Porch,” the Ticketmaster battle, etc. are relayed, although Hyden spends less time on Ten and more time on Vs. and Vitalogy

He also points out that Pearl Jam, more than most of their peers, were not afraid to write songs from a female point of view, and gets into specific criticisms and praise of individual songs. The book also focuses on some of the interpersonal relationships between the band members; the push and pull between Vedder and Stone Gossard, for example, that helps make the music great, or the broken dynamic between Vedder and former drummer Dave Abruzzesse.

The chapter on Dave is one of the more entertaining ones; Hyden clearly feels he was the band’s best drummer, as Jack Irons and Matt Cameron only get passing mentions and Dave Krusen is only mentioned once in passing (which I found odd). Abruzzesse was fired from the band after Vitalogy for, among other things, doing an interview with a drum magazine during the band’s self-imposed media blackout and for buying a shiny new black Infiniti with his rock star money (Vedder did not approve).

Hyden relates how the band adapted in order to survive when so many of their peers faded away; the decision to record an album with Neil Young, the decision to double down on their musical direction with No Code, the decision to release every concert (but one) from the Binaural tour and the hiring of Matt Cameron around that time, and the hiring of Boom Gaspar on keyboards during Riot Act. The book also details, with horrific detail, the conditions and events that led to nine fans dying at the Roskilde festival, and how that event still weighs on the band members (even to this day). And Hyden is not shy about offering his opinion on any of this; he calls the band out on lackluster songs and questionable decisions, which makes this a compelling narrative.

If there’s any criticism of the book, it’s that Hyden seems to run out of things to say after Vedder’s Into The Wild soundtrack, and therefore doesn’t really give much criticism or thought to Lightning Bolt, Backspacer or Gigaton, other than to single out certain songs or lyrics of note. I should add here that he also ignores “Inside Job,” the phenomenally beautiful song that closes the band’s 2006 avocado album, but that’s not his fault. He makes up for it by ridiculing the term “Jamily” that some people think fans call ourselves (we don’t).

And, to be fair, there’s not really much new to say at that point. The band’s fans remain legion and committed, and the band responds in kind by still putting out long and varied live shows year after year. I’d note here also that if you are interested in hearing up-to-date live music or deep cuts from the guys, check out their SiriusXM radio station.

Missing from the book, aside from dirt and mudslinging, is interviews with the band members. Hyden writes in first person and notes that anything the band had to say was already said in Cameron Crowe’s PJ20 documentary in 2010. Fair point. As noted, this isn’t a band biography as much as a personal narrative, with Hyden inserting how the band affected him as a teenager, as a dad, as a man, and as a music critic and historian into the story. And as he clarifies, Pearl Jam was never about chasing trends nor were they pursuing their own isolation, and their dedication, focus and integrity has allowed them to endure for 32 years and going.

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