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.