Setting: my 8th grade music class in rural New England. The assignment is to bring in a recording of a favorite song, play it for the class, read the lyrics aloud, and discuss what the song means. I wanted “Jeremy”–and were it not for the “fuck” clearly audible in the song’s second verse (harmless and little though it was), it would have been my selection. As it were, I chose “Alive”, but my music teacher did persuse the liner notes in the cassette, and remarked about “Jeremy”, “this is some disturbing stuff.” I couldn’t exactly argue.
In 1991, mainstream rock and roll was still largely concerned with hairspray and babes, love in elevators and unskinny bopping. Graphic examinations of teen suicide and school violence were not generally considered chart toppers. But “Jeremy” had that incessant hook bellowed by that expressive baritone, and backed by a distinctive 12-string bass driven arrangement–if it weren’t for the subject matter, it’d be no surprise that the song was known back-to-front by rock fans the world over in a matter of months. In 2007, “Jeremy” still haunts–an unfortunately prescient bit of songwriting in a world where school murders and suicide seem increasingly common.
Without delving too deep into a song that has already been written about exhaustively, I want to mention that of Vedder’s “troubled youth” songs, it ranks near the very best, if not the best. Lyrically it’s his the strongest effort on Ten from a technical standpoint, efficiently making great use of strong imagery without getting confusing or self-consciously poetic, as Vedder let his imagination fill in the blanks in the story of the late Jeremy Wade Delle. Without coming close to condoning Jeremy’s horrifying end, Vedder and the band present a character with a realistic background that digs deeper than newspaper and other media accounts of similarly depressed kids. The media, because it’s charged with reaching as many people as possible, tends to reduce human beings to overly simplistic terms–celebrities, politicians, mass murderers, school shooters–making everyone too easy to dismiss. “Jeremy” makes it more difficult to dismiss, detailing a whole community of people surrounding this child, reminding us that we all have a part to play in each others’ lives: we are not simply spectators.