Happy Mother’s Day! In honor of the occasion, what better song to reflect on than “Alive”? Actually, apart from that little joke, I haven’t been looking forward to writing about this song–not because I don’t enjoy it, or because it doesn’t have meaning for me, but because what can be written about “Alive” that hasn’t been written a thousand times before? By now, even non-fans could probably tell you the complicated backstory about how Vedder learned that his stepfather was not actually his biological father, and that his real dad was a musician he’d met once or twice but was since deceased. And that the other half of the song, the whole Oedipal business about the “the look, the look” being between the mother’s legs was thankfully fictional, setting up the killing spree of “Once” and the death row reflections of “Footsteps”. Looking for new information on “Alive”? Good luck!
But thinking of “Alive” does give me the best chance to reflect on Ten, as a whole. Even though “Even Flow” was the first song I heard, the reason I bought the album, “Alive” was and is the heart and spirit of early Pearl Jam. Without it (and it was curiously missing from an early industry demo tape), it might be assumed that the band’s career would not have launched quite the same way. While not the biggest hit of the band’s career, it is perhaps the most iconic for longtime fans, and even some newer ones. It might be because the chorus of “I’m still alive” is taken as an affirmative sing-along, without the rest of the song’s complications, but I think it’s mostly because the song clearly made the band, and Vedder in particular, the voice for disaffected youth, for better or worse.
For better of course, because the song made Pearl Jam’s long career possible by giving them a song (and a solo) that automatically ranked in rock’s pantheon of epics. For worse because of the long shadow it cast on the band’s music, where everything they did since was expected to match in terms of angst and imagined “Gen-X”ness. The band couldn’t and wouldn’t thankfully replicate the massiveness of that anthem, preferring to evolve and grow and leave it to hordes of scavenger bands to try. But neither have they abandoned “Alive”. Apart from most of the 2000 U.S. tour (the exception being part of an incredible final show in Seattle), when it understandably didn’t seem right to sing “I’m still alive” after the tragedy of Roskilde, Pearl Jam has kept the song with them, still trusting in its power, still appreciating their devoted fanbase, still alive after all these years.