Little did Pearl Jam know in November of 1993, when “Last Exit” made its first bow at the UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, how sadly prescient the opening lines would be: “Lives opened and trashed / Look Ma watch me crash / … We’re dyin’ fast.” We learn, then forget, then repeat the cycle, how the hot glare of fame and hype can not only ravage cities, communities, scenes, but individual lives. It seemed then and now ridiculous to many people how the seemingly more fortunate among us, those with record deals, worldwide tours, publishing royalties, record sales, etc., could find room to quibble with the less savory aspects of sudden stardom. But every so often we learn a harsh, unfortunate lesson, that the ways some people try to cope with their personalities and identities getting misconstrued, manipulated, and writ impossibly large, can have tragic consequences.
So there “Last Exit” sits at the top of Vitalogy, the last exit first, after a bit of warming up noodling and feedback squeals that typify the album’s approach: to wedge in the odd bit of levity or weirdness into the mostly deep, dark proceedings. The sound is immediately rawer, drier than the first two records, the colors bleached out of the production. Abbruzzese’s martial drumwork lead the way for a jagged chord progression, and Vedder’s inventive phrasing (prefiguring “Hail, Hail” among others). The song isn’t typically melodic, but melodic nonetheless, one of the band’s catchier heavy tunes. For a brief 2.5 minutes, “Last Exit” fulfills the promise of the band as stated by Vedder in ’06: “… We’re still plugging away with the ingredients we have and trying to be as progressive with our thinking within those boundaries.”
Biblical and other mythological themes abound on “Last Exit”, from serpents to phoenixes to the Easter story, all reflecting a profound need on the writer’s part to wrest control of his life away from outside forces, though in this case that means drowning or otherwise passing beyond. In a way, it’s a condensed, more incendiary, angrier version of Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man, where Johnny Depp’s character, newly arrived in a hostile town, is mistakenly thought to be a murderer, and only by slowly becoming one (out of necessity, and then on his own terms) is he able to become himself and truly be alive (errr… though he dies). “Last Exit” is a song that has grown on me immensely over the years, though I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s a prime example of the band seamlessly integrating its influences into an original, explosive bit of hard rock that is entirely its own.