“Black” by Pearl Jam (1991)

My best friend in high school was this stout Italian kid named James. You could usually find us sitting outside the mechanical engineering room, doing the Statler and Waldorf thing while waiting for our friends to get out of class. We traded handwritten letters every day (in addition to passing notes during the classes we shared) for almost four years straight. I wish I had those, especially since James is kind of a nut hole these days.

We talked a lot about music in those days, and by the time junior year of high school rolled around (’91-’92), I was pretty deep into my hip-hop phase. My tastes maybe stretched farther than the average 15 year old, but in terms of rock, I was more an alternative guy than a hard rock guy. I owned albums by Jesus Jones and R.E.M., but not Guns ‘n Roses or Metallica. James was firmly into grunge, and while I dug Nirvana (”Come As You Are” was my jam for a minute), I kinda sneered at Pearl Jam and STP, who James loved. I derisively called it something like “crazy white people music”, which totally made sense because James was a crazy white person.

Pearl Jam’s Ten came out in late ‘91, and it was a solid year before I discovered it. Remember, I didn’t have MTV (if you’ve been reading this whole series hopefully you’ve figured that out). So I wasn’t hit over the head with the “Jeremy” video. Plus, I didn’t listen to rock radio. It was KISS FM (urban), WBLS (also urban), Hot 97 (dance-pop), Z-100 (Top 40 with a dance lean) and WPLJ (modern adult contemporary) for me. My exposure to Eddie Vedder and co. literally came second-hand from James.

Then “Black” wound up in rotation on Z-100 and my mind was fucking blown. What constitutes “soul” is something that will be debated many years after I’m dead and gone, but I will say that Eddie is one of the most soulful singers I’ve ever heard. 25 years later, I remember that being one of the first thoughts to pop into my head after “Black” sunk in. “I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life/I know you’ll be the sun/In someone else’s sky/Why, why WHYYYYYYYYYY can’t it be/miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine”…holy crap. That made the hair on my arm stand up it was so heartfelt. Plus, it was high school. I was already angsty like a motherfucker (although I’m almost 42 and I’m still angsty like a motherfucker so what the hell am I talking about?)

I don’t remember if I became a full-on Pearl Jam fan at that point, but I was certainly a “Black” fan. Then Vs. came out and fucked my whole head up and OK, James. You won this one. Even if your theory that the song is about Eddie Vedder killing his girlfriend is silly.

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