Better Man

Scrawled on my pre-Vitalogy cassette of new songs I’d taped off of the radio, was “Can’t Find a Better Man”, the enormously catchy hook I assumed to be the song’s title. Along with “Corduroy”, whose name I only knew because the DJ had announced it, and “Immortality”, I sensed something radically different from the band’s previous two records. The wealth of Mamasan and Mookie Blaylock demos had pretty much been run through, and though “Better Man” was older than any of those tracks, the band’s sound now felt completely free to move forward in any number of untested directions.

 

“Better Man”, written when Vedder was in high school, and performed by his pre-Pearl Jam band Bad Radio, was Springsteen- and Petty- influenced pop, starting out with a whisper-sung intro that eventually built into a rousing, satisfying singalong chorus. Originally demoed for Vs., the band had thought it too catchy, and though its subject matter about an abusive relationship (“dedicated to the bastard that married my mama”, quoth Ed in 1994), it actually injects a little bit of melodic light into the swamp-dark Vitalogy. It’s telling that the song was never made into a single, still managing to be one of the most recognizable and most-played in the band’s career. But if I had to imagine the Epic 45-sleeve artwork for “Better Man”, I’ve got my color scheme picked out.

 

Vitalogy in my mind is all about color. It’s dominated by black of course, due in no small part to the grim, dusty artwork, but there are shots of other hues throughout the record. I’ve never thought music, at least good music, to be simply an aural experience. Good music triggers one’s imagination, not just to conjure the images described by lyrics, but so much outside of what’s provided. Music suggests even more than it gives. “Not For You” as depicted by its art, was deep red, “Spin the Black Circle” sharp, jagged yellow, and “Immortality” midnight blue on black. My radio-dubbed cassette was all earth tones, with “Better Man” its muddy clay centerpiece. She may have dreamt in color, dreamt in red, but the song to me was sepia, umber, all those salt-of-the-earth crayons.

 

Countless plays on the stereo or live performances over umpteen years can make it difficult to feel exactly what was felt the first time you heard a song. You can only read the first chapter of a book once to experience that same anticipation and unknowing of what’s to come (I’m currently in the midst of having my Into the Wild appetite whetted by “Long Nights”). But that doesn’t mean you don’t gain from re-reading, or listening again and again. Vedder’s had to find ways and reasons to keep singing his song, now over 20 years old, whether that being tacking on tags or letting the audience sing the intro. What begins as the private act of writing a song in one’s bedroom becomes a cherished part of a worldwide community.

~ by Michael on September 10, 2007.

12 Responses to “Better Man”

  1. C13, ARC and BETTER MAN. I almost have to talk about these two together. I really loved Pearl Jam, but I never stopped to think about what it was that I loved about them. Yeah, the songs, but what about the songs? BETTER MAN was the first time that I really sat up and paid attention to the voice of Pearl Jam. Prior to that Eddie was that dude who jumped off of things and was just really crazy. I can remember hearing those opening lines for the first time:

    “Waitin’, watchin’ the clock, it’s four o’clock, it’s got to stop
    Tell him, take no more….”

    That voice was so tired, tortured, but as the momentum of the song built, and the drums kicked in, that voice became stronger and stronger, more and more decisive. I’ll never forget first being aware of Pearl Jam, the voice. Since then I’ve heard many versions of this song by other artists, and in the hands of others it becomes just an insanely catchy pop song. It’s as if they aren’t really listening to the lyrics even as they’re singing the song. Maybe because Eddie wrote it about someone close to him, only he cares to try provide the song with vocals that carry the weight of the meaning behind the lyrics.

    I still love this song in all the many variations that we have heard. And the way that he sings it still moves me.

  2. Nice editorial.

    I always sensed a double meaning to the chorus. “She lies and says she’s in love with him, can’t find a better man…She dreams in color, she dreams in red, can’t find a better man”

    The word ‘lie’ could mean two things. Is the narrator saying that she can’t find a better man because she thinks her man is the greatest, (ie you can’t find a better man than Michael Jordan in regards to basketball.) Or is it that she can’t find anyone better than him, so she stays with him. I think the verses strongly lean toward the later.

  3. Great write up, C-13. And great point, Susan, in pointing out how Ed’s delivery changes as the song progresses. I feel that I don’t have much to add to the analysis. Yet, as Susan alluded to, I’ve heard this song so many times and in so many variations (Ed solo, full band electric, full acoustic, cover versions, pre-PJ demos, etc) but it still manages to completely move me every time. There is something about the way the song builds and builds and then just explodes. I love how Ed starting holding the “bettermaaaaaaaaaaan” towards the end for as he could.

    And I would be remissed if I didn’t mention what has become my favorite part of (most) versions of “Betterman” — the inclusion of the “Save It For Later” tag. I honestly cannot even express how much I hope and pray for this tag every single time I hear opening chords of “Betterman.” Ed hasn’t even gotten to the chorus before I start envisioning him four minutes in the future, slowing the tempo of the song to a chug…Stone bringing down the volume on the acoustic. And we might get the full version or the abridged version, but it never matters. It’s always the highlight of a show for me.

    End rant.

  4. Of all songs, this one seems one of the more bizarre ones to choose for a crowd singalong. Despite the fact that I find it to be incredibly cheesy when a performer requests of the crowd to do their job for them, there’s something badly unsettling about an entire arena of people waving lighters and singing a song about domestic abuse.

    When I first heard Vitalogy on cassette, I never knew if the little feedback riff that prefaces “Better Man” was its intro, or an outro to “Satan’s Bed.” When the CD version assigned it to the latter, it sort of changed the way I heard the song. I think that feedback is supposed to represent something, though damned if I know what.

    It’s still the first Pearl Jam song I loved, and no version moves me like the original. The best live versions are the ones from early 1994, with those rimshots clicking all the way through.

  5. Whoops, should have said “assigned it to the former.” Former mentioned in the paragraph, latter on the CD.

  6. catchy-22. damned if you do…

    I’m with Kevin Davis, the crowd singing the first verse is incredibly cheesy…cringey. I’m clearly uncomfortable with Pearl Jam’s catchy pop rock moments, but can’t deny that they’re well written…(“betterman” has that Cat Stevens/James Tayloresque vibe), and I wonder where I draw the line between cheesy pop-rock Pearl Jam and just regular rock Pearl Jam. It’s somewhere near “breakerfall”, I think…
    I like the Pearl Jam that’s hard to like, but freely admit that “Betterman”, “wishlist”, “u” et. al., are far betterthan any adamantly anti-establishment, anti-sell-out, grunge rock punk band has any right to make. I mean to say that, for me, the best part about “betterman” is that it comes after “Satan’s Bed”…i don’t know another band that can do that.

  7. and I’m with NoCoder, too….the “Save it for Later” tag is the best thing that could have ever happened to “Betterman”. Also, as a fan of threesomes, I like the “Leather-“, “Better-“, “Nothingman” manwich thing going on…man.

  8. What defines a pop song as opposed to a rock song? BETTER MAN is an extremely catchy song, but, in my opinion at least, it’s a great song. One of Pearl Jam’s best songs. Everyone always defines BETTER MAN as a “pop” song, yet it’s not arranged like any top 40 pop song that was popular at the time. The way the vocals are constructed, the way that the instrumentation is arranged. In most pop songs, there wasn’t the kind of build that BETTER MAN has, and the choruses would have been more prominent from the very first one, probably with harmonies layered to give the catchiness even more of a hook. In fact, I think that there is a dance remix version of BETTER MAN that does all of those things.

    Many Pearl Jam diehards seem to think that BETTER MAN is not a good song because it has an accessible melody. The style of the song may have been Springsteen and Petty influenced, but those melodies don’t bear any resemblance to anything by Springsteen or Petty. It seems to be a given among many fans that something like HELP HELP is superior because it isn’t very lovable. Perhaps BETTER MAN should have been given to another singer as Ed wanted to do. Would Pearl Jam fans have been happier?

    And why is the singalong cheesy? Because people are having fun? Is this really pandering? And would the fans prefer a concert in which, instead of this type of interaction, all of the members of the band play extended jams with their backs to the audience?

  9. The first verse sing-a-longs on “Betterman” are amazing! It’s been fun to watch the evolution of it as well. For the longest time, EV would sing the whole verse. As the years went by, he would sing the first line or two, give it up to the crowd, and then come back in for the “She dreams…” part. And now, he doesn’t have to do anything until the second verse. I love it. I don’t think it’s cheesy. I think it’s one of those concert moments that connect the band with the fans and it’s one of the reasons why PJ is always cited as one of the best live acts in the business.

  10. I like Betterman, but, to me, it seems that it is not on the right album. I understand the different colors of Vitalogy to some ends (nothingman is of course gray), but a rainbow doesn’t really fit. I would say that if a “dark” album would have a “enlightened” or “graceful” period it would have to be at the end of the album. Of course B- man is followed by Immortality, which, i think, throws everything through a loop. I think it would have had a comfortable place on Yield, along with the other “brighter” songs.

  11. When I think of Metallica’s ‘One’, I can see the video in my mind, clear as day. When I think about 9/11, I remember being on highway 288 in Houston, heading towards the medical center. I was listening a rock radio station, and the news came via the DJ’s and it didn’t seem real, especially knowing the DJ’s always joked about things. It was not until I got to work and looked online that it hit me as truth. Point is, there are events in life that will forever be recalled either by a thought, or a song, a person etc. I would be lying if I said I recall the first time I heard betterman, but I had a tape of the 94 Atlanta show. I was dating a girl at the time, and you know the drill – before I knew it, she had PJ posters on her wall, all the singles, sang it the car…and this was the song that was ‘ours’ (how ironic). Anyways, breakup followed shortly after blah blah blah… Completely ruined the song. That was 1995. Every time I heard that song, I thought of her – the song was tainted with anger, sorrow, loneliness (jeez, maybe that was the point, it actually mimicked the songs definition). This is really the first year (2007) that I began listening to it again. I look in itunes at how many times I skipped it, and now I find myself listening to it. Of course, I still remember the girl, but as you grow I guess you learn to put aside your emotions, acknowledge they exist but don’t let them dictate your life. Listening to it now, with the crowd singing the first verse alone, it is powerful (like the organ addition) and I am glad that I found a betterwoman.

  12. The man I am dating put BETTER MAN on his cell phone for my ring back! This is what I hear when I call him!

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