The definitive version of “Pilate” will always be its live debut. On January 31st, 1998, Pearl Jam played the song as part of its Monkeywrench Radio broadcast. I sat hunched by the cassette deck of my stereo, ready to switch tapes/sides as quickly as possible in order to capture the entire show, and remember feeling excited about “Pilate” becoming a regular part of the live Pearl Jam experience. Since that show, however, the song has only been played 13 times. Thirteen truly is the unluckiest number.
A month or so prior, the band released the first single off of Yield on CD (remember those?), for “Given To Fly”. Two b-sides were included, the album cut “Pilate”, and the otherwise unreleased “Leatherman”. When other album cuts are used as b-sides to singles, it’s usually to demonstrate a sound or quality in direct contrast to the A-side. “Pilate” certainly fulfilled its role to that extent. Where “Given To Fly” was a soaring, classic-rock anthem designed to inspired faith in Pearl Jam fans who were freaked out by No Code, “Pilate” couldn’t wait to freak them out some more.
Alternating between delicate, spiraling verses and off-kilter, shouted choruses, the sound of “Pilate” is disorienting. One of the fundamental traits of Pearl Jam songs is their rootedness, the sense they assure in listeners that their foundations are solid, anchored deep in the earth. “Pilate” on the other hand, is a house of cards. One of two Yield songs whose music and lyrics were both written by Jeff Ament, “Pilate”‘s trajectory has been opposite to that of “Low Light” (notable also because according to Ament, “Pilate” is the question, and “Low Light”, the answer). The latter wasn’t give live treatment until three years after its studio counterpart, and although it was another two years until they played it a second time, it has been played with slowly increasing frequency. “Pilate” burned bright and then out, and sadly it doesn’t appear that too many people miss it.
The Monkeywrench version, if you can get hold of it somehow, is my favorite version because Vedder sings a harmony on the chorus that is more appealing than the melody on record. My own tape of that performance is buried in a box somewhere, but I can still hear the harmony in my head, and match it against Vedder’s everytime I sing along to that goofy, Bulgakov-inspired line, “Like Pilate, I have a dog.”