Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town

Ed Vedder once joked while introducing this song that it was called, “Longest Title in the Pearl Jam Catalog”, but though it might seem a trivial detail, the length of the song’s name is not insignificant. With a few exceptions (“Even Flow”, “Why Go”, “State of Love and Trust”), Pearl Jam songs were given blunt, monolithic titles that hammered home their theses. Blood. Alive. Animal. Release. Nuance? Character? Well… “Elderly Woman” marked a giant step forward on the band’s second record toward what was possible and what could be accomplished in Pearl Jam’s songwriting. The band was no stranger to ballads or otherwise quiet songs, but “Elderly Woman” was different, humbler both in scope and in musical terms.

The origin story of “Elderly Woman” is that Vedder was having quiet time in a little shack while the band was hard at work on Vs., and Stone overheard him working on this little folksy tune. Sensing the beauty and potential in the song, Stone urged Ed to contribute it to the record. A quick demo was recorded for posterity (the acoustic version found on the “Go” single), and the full band version became a late addition to the new album. The song has since become one of Pearl Jam’s most beloved, even used as a set-opener on recent tours, getting the campfire sing-along (and lighter-waving) started early. The reason why the song has settled itself in so many hearts and thoughts over the years is fairly clear.

Besides the simple, catchy, lovely melody that carries the song’s wistful realization that “hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away,” which immediately qualified the song as a radio hit for the masses, there’s a specificity in the song’s narrative that gives it more weight and substance than just the series of sweet, pat generalizations most pop songs are. We tend to think that the more open and vague a song’s lyrics, the better most people will be able to relate their lives to it. If the song is too detailed, too specific, it is assumed that more people will be excluded from understanding what’s going on. This is why most, but not all, Top 40 hits are trash, megahits that sell millions but are forgotten often less than a year after cresting on the charts. I can’t think of a worse mandate for art than to make it broad and applicable to as many people as possible. “Elderly Woman” is definitely a case against over-generalized lyrics.

Although I would argue that Vedder has improved in this area of his writing since 1993, “Elderly Woman” remains a fine and affecting piece of craftsmanship. The title itself isn’t just an afterthought, but contains crucial, explicit information not otherwise offered in the lyrics–so even that seemingly small consideration bears a lot of the song’s weight. The exact setting and age of the song’s narrator give the listener a clearer picture of the story that’s about to unfold. The town’s name is never stated, but that level of detail isn’t so important to the song. In fact, if it were “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in Bangor”, that might be a little too much information. But the central points are in place, and although most Pearl Jam fans are not elderly women, they still have feelings akin to those of the song’s character, and more importantly, can use their imaginations to help them understand. The biggest leap in Vedder’s writing is the imaginative leap he takes to assume the voice of a much older woman, and the artistic confidence to know that it’s okay for cool rock and roll frontmen to take such risks rather than stick completely to the realm of personal confession.

Art in all media and form, even lowly old pop music, does culture a great service when it helps individuals understand themselves. But it does an even greater service when it stretches people’s minds and forces them to contemplate other people’s lives and feelings (including the artist’s) that are necessarily different from their own. Songs by any artist that I can insert my own life into completely with no seams, aren’t all that interesting to me. I know my own feelings, I live with them every day. To hear someone else’s experiences of life is what really interests and fascinates me, because it doesn’t reinforce my own biases and perspectives, or give me easy answers. “Elderly Woman” represents a critical facet of the Pearl Jam canon as an imaginative, character-based song. Even if Vedder has gone on to write this type of song better (and I’d argue he has), “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” is still the grandmommy of them all.

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~ by Michael on May 10, 2007.

12 Responses to “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”

  1. Reviews like this are what keep me coming back to your blog.

    You’ve got to ask yourself, “How did such a gentle, wistful tale end up on a record as ferocious as Vs?” What must the frat boys rockin’ out to BLOOD have thought when this song came on? And how did Eddie Vedder, a dude known for climbing up lighting rigs and jumping into crowds, come to write a song that feels so true to life from such an intimate perspective?

    Pearl Jam really are one of a kind.

  2. I just happened to listen to Vs for the first time in a LONG time last night, but I couldn’t get past ole track 10! I listened to Small Town on repeat for half an hour. This song just breaks my heart. Not necessarily in a bad way…but in some indesribable way. Anyway, this is another great write up for a great song.

  3. MF: Thanks! Heartbreak is definitely not always a bad thing. Melancholy feels good!
    Susan: Thank you again. This has been a great way for me to reassess my relationship with the music, and decide if I’ve been loyal and obsessed with the band out of stubbornness, or because there’s really something legitimately keeping me connected with this music that’s been with me since I was 12 or 13. It’s been invaluable to me to have your and other’s input, knowledge, and perspective on these tunes.

  4. My first experience with pearl jam was around 2004 at Christmas time, my moms boyfriend got me rearviewmirror, and this was one of the songs that just kept being replayed and replayed and played again. “all these changes taking place” represented what was happening to me. and “hearts and thoughts they fade away” was that my mom pretty much let me go and paid no attention to me. And PJ sort of is helping me get through. I hate to rant but this song is huge for me and touches so many emotions. I think this is the best interview you have done so far C13, and sorry about the bash from “I’m Still here”.

  5. Thanks for your openness and kind words PT. And I don’t mind the bashing, ever, as long as it’s the counterargument is well-reasoned.

  6. Sentimental song this one. The “Hello” part is a live classic

  7. That’s true Giannis, that’s always very fun to see in concert.

  8. I prefer the title “Small Town” as Eddie commenly refers to it. I refered to it as that for so long now, that I forgot this was about an elderly woman until I read this review. But then again, this song could be about anyone, young or old, man or female. It has a universal message.

  9. This song is so great. Though simple in its chord progression, the melody is developing all the way through, and challenges the voice of Ed in such a sweet way. And ahh the lyrics too.. (:

  10. I’ve always loved this song. When I was a sophomore in high school I reviewed “Vs.” for the school paper and trashed it, probably in an effort to distance myself from (and simultaneously impress) the cool kids. But, always a sucker for this one. Thanks… brought back some good memories. I think we even covered this in my high school band?

  11. Thanks Abraham. When’s Baby Teeth playing out my way (Massachusetts)? Met you once or twice in Chi-town through Peter. Give him my best and take care!

  12. hey hey…. sorry, I just read this. we’re looking to be playing NYC and DC next month (november), and we played boston in july, a few weeks before we connected through this here blog… anyway, it would be good to see you in NYC perhaps? and also good to have a red sox / cubs world series, but maybe that’s too much to ask.

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