Porch

By far the most stressful Pearl Jam songs to write about are from Ten.  Apart from having the most history by virtue of being the oldest, fans—-especially those who’ve been around since ’91—-have forged such deep connections with them that their stories are now practically intertwined. Just as the meaning of “Alive” has grown by virtue of its relationship with audiences, “Porch” represents many important things to many people. Where to begin? I could talk about how my high school band covered the unplugged version of “Porch”, and how I tried to mimic the performance right down to the last detail. Or I could expound on countless other legendary live renditions, from the re-worked version to 11+ minute jams to the recent re-compacted “Porch”.  But of course, I’d rather talk about…

The Writing.  Slinking around the web looking for information on “Porch”, I came across this quote for the first time since Vedder uttered it on 8/23/1991: “This song is about if you love someone, tell him.” I honestly have never even thought about this as an interpretation of “Porch”, but then again, I’ve never in 16 years sat down to really pick the lyrics apart. It makes sense to a point, as an extreme distillation, but it’s also a bit like saying “Every Breath You Take” is about “I like you… a lot.”

In a way, young Vedder’s coyness highlights some of the limitations of his early lyrics.  It’s not that I need or want footnotes or biographical information accompanying the song to unlock its every secret. That might be the last thing I want.  Still, there are details, whether real or fictional, that could help.  In “Porch”, there’s actually a lot of great, subtle writing.  “At least I could have learned your voice one last time” for example, demonstrates a thoughtful substitution of “learned” for “heard”.  And I’m only now realizing that “Would you hit me?” refers back to the “daily minefield”, meaning, the character in the song goes through every day hoping that at some point he can’t predict, he’ll hear from this girl.  Comparing someone you’re (heavily) enamored with to a landmine might be extreme, but it’s creative.

I’m also intrigued by the second verse, which seems to veer sharply away from the storyline in the first.  All this political language about middles not existing anymore, etc. I wonder how it connects, figuring maybe it expresses frustration with the bureaucratic b.s. of everyday life, the bills and initiatives from which this elusive love interest is a much-desired escape. It’s a nice tack on Vedder’s part to step so far away from what he’d initially set-up, at least on the surface, but still have the two verses dovetail before going back to “Hold my hand / Walk beside me / I just need to say…”  But here’s what’s missing: what precipitated all of this passion?

For some people, most in fact, not being given the answer to this question is more than okay.  The song is about the passion itself, experiencing it in Eddie’s voice and imagining all kinds of dramatic scenarios.  And to an extent, that’s what the song has always been about for me.  As I mentioned above, I’ve only just sat down and really looked at the words because of this assignment. Until now, I’ve been content to let the song affect me in every way except what it could literally mean (if I do go forth with follow-up posts to certain songs, I promise to cover the musical half of “Porch”; promise!).  But when I look at the lyrics, I realize that imagining for myself what surrounds the song is not very satisfying at all.

For one, whatever story I come up with will probably be contradicted by some element in the song.  Even more important, if I have to come up with an elaborate backstory to make the song more meaningful, why not just write that song myself? It’s coming from me after all.  When I listen to a song that comes from another human being’s mind, I want to experience what is different and unique to them–and that’s always the circumstances, stories, details, perspective.  Emotions are not all that unique: everyone has them.  A song about emotions therefore, is not very interesting to me.  I have my own.  What I don’t have is how “Porch” got to those emotions, unless I invent.  If I take what is given to me, only what I read off of the page (err… screen), then I can’t really make sense of why “Porch” gets so (wonderfully) intense.  Why does he love her so much?  What is it about her?  Why did she leave?  It wouldn’t take much, a line or two, and the song would have a much more solid foundation.  Otherwise, it’s guesswork.

Aesthetics w/r/t popular music lyrics is a particular fascination of mind, as you no doubt can tell, as I’ve used “Porch” to explain a little bit of my perspective on writing.  Hopefully my rambling doesn’t obscure that I think it’s a great rock song, or even that it’s got some great lines–because I certainly think the song is deserving of its classic status and devoted following.  But I do think that it’s a great way to view the evolution of Ed as a writer (when I get to “Unemployable”, which I’m saving ’til near the end since it’s one of my very favorites, maybe this will all make more sense), even though he started out already very strong as a rock lyricist.

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~ by Michael on July 11, 2007.

20 Responses to “Porch”

  1. Just to obscure things up a little more…i’ve always associated the porch in “Porch” with the porch in “Yellow Ledbetter”. I picture the person, let’s say its Ed Vedder, coming home to find she didn’t leave a message, and he was clearly needing one, and now, a little pissed off, doesn’t know what to do with himself, wanders back out onto the front porch, maybe hoping she’s on the way, maybe thinking about going over to her place…sees the mail…bills, letters, memories of other emotional porch related events as clearly detailed in “Yellow Ledbetter” (winkwink)…and , bam, there’s your song.

    I think not knowing “what precipitated all of this passion”, imagining for ourselves what the songs are about, having our own videos in our mind, is exactly what the songs are for…and Ed has always been very adamant about that very point. So, i think, if I understand correctly, that I disagree very much with the second to last paragraph of your comment…I’ve had to reread it a few times…but in my opinion, lyrics don’t need to spell out or explain the emotion of a song to give it its emotional foundation…Vedder is the all time master of this, so many songs, you have no idea what he’s saying, but you know it’s heavy…although some songs do spell it out…like Gladys Knight “Midnight Train to Georgia”, even “Last Kiss”, which tell you exactly what you want to know and have the emotion to match…or do they? It’s hard to match the emotion of “Porch”. Sorry for the long posts…I’ll give it a rest for awhile…”I’d rather live in his world, than live without him in mine.” is the line missing from “Porch”.

  2. I think what I’m trying to get at, is that it’s not enough for me to just hear “This situation really upsets me”. The situation itself, well-described, should make ME feel upset. Otherwise, I’m just witnessing someone else’s emotions rather than participating in them.

  3. I agree with you that lyrics shouldn’t explain the emotions, at least not directly, but I do think they should justify them. I’ll just skip to an example of what I find to be better, more effective lyrics in “Unemployable”. In “Unemployable”, the language is more specific, better imagined: “He’s got a big gold ring that says Jesus Saves / And it’s dented from the punch thrown at work that day”. That imagery allows my imagination to work, as well as whatever emotions that scenario inspires. The specificity, rather than the vagueness, is ironically what allows me to participate more fully in the song. Otherwise, any song could be about anything at all: “Alive” is about my grandmother’s spoon collection, “Do the Evolution” is about the Sam Brownback campaign, or the time I skinned my knee on the playground, etc.

    Don’t apologize for the long posts! Keep ’em coming! It’s wonderful to have you disagree w/ me and explain your perspective.

  4. ‘Porch’ is like ‘State of Love and Trust’ or ‘Garden’, the lyrics don’t really mean too much. Just some dark word play set to heavy music. I doubt Ed even remember what these songs meant to him at the time. ‘Porch’ is centered around some sort of relationship breakdown, but it’s more about the energy of the music/singing than the effectiveness of the words in this case. I prefer songs with less cryptic lyrics personally.

  5. Can someone please tell me what w/r/t means? I’ve read it in a some C13’s and I’m left baffled every time. Thanks.

  6. No problem BYM: w/r/t is shorthand for with regard to.

  7. I disagree that the lyrics don’t mean much in Porch, or any Ed songs. One thing I can say for him is that he rarely — if ever — writes a song about nothing. He is the anti-Seinfeld.

    SOLAT is a story about a guy who kills his lover.
    Garden is a song about fighting death, refusing to go quietly into the dark night.
    Porch is a song about unrequited love.

    One thing I love about this band — what I’ve loved about them from the start — is that the lyrics ALWAYS mean SOMETHING.

  8. I’m not saying that the lyrics don’t mean anything SoJ. What I’m trying to say is that there’s a disconnect between how much the lyrics are saying literally and emotionally. If this song is just about unrequited love, then it’s almost kind of creepy toward the end, isn’t it? A bit overwrought? I mean, I’m no stranger to unrequited love, and it’s tough, and everyone feels things differently, but really? Does unrequited love warrant that wonderfully breathless torrent of feeling at the end? I just feel like there’s some missing piece to the story that would help me to justify it.

  9. I’ve always thought that the missing piece of the story is in the MTV Unplugged performance. Since I saw that, I’ve interpreted the song as being about a guy who is distraught because his pregnant girlfriend has gone off to deal with the pregancy without him, whatever the consequences might be. And he longs to be there to be either the object of her rage (“Would you hit me?”) or to be her support (“Take my hand”). That is all my own synthesis from the rather obscure lyrics of course, but it works for me.

    Really this song is the one that raised my interest from casual listener to full-on fan. The first many dozens of times I listened to PORCH, I really didn’t pay attention to the lyrics. It appealed to some primitive, primal, pre-verbal part of my brain, perhaps as far back as the brainstem.

    C13, I really hope that you do a follow-up post in which you talk about the music because I really don’t understand why I love this song so much. Your comparison with UNEMPLOYABLE is such a great one. UNEMPLOYABLE is such a well-written song that I could see a lot of people from Country singers to Jazz musicians covering it, but could anyone else really do PORCH?

  10. I probably will, since I like the idea of hitting a lot of these songs from multiple angles, and also because I love “Porch” too, which I’m worried doesn’t come across in my deconstruction.

  11. If you listen and look at the lyrics from the last four songs from ten, (Porch, Garden, Deep, Release), there is a huge amount of cross references and similar word use. If you go from Porch to Garden a similar theme pops up, bad or a non existent relationship. The line from Garden: “She don’t wander in here” is very similar to the “didn’t leave a message” line in Porch. The trouble with payments and needs rises in both songs: From Porch “and the bills go by” and the lines from Garden ” I don’t question our existence, I just question our modern needs”. So to say, Porch was the break up and Garden was the sort of stalking faze. Now if you go on to “Deep” who’s meaning is probably the most straightforward on the whole album (drug use) you see the narrator turn to something bad. the first part of Deep is possibly the most important, “On the edge, windowsill/ ponders his maker/ ponders his will” Shows that the man is thinking (sorry to put in a Creed reference) “What’s this Life For”. Hes “nothing” without her. The “line and he’s got a great view” probably means that he can see her or see how good or how happy he was when he was with her (or the whole relationship as a whole). Also you can finally see a bit of the womens role in the story with “to the man above her, she just ain’t nothing” (shes nothing with this excuse of a man.) The “virgin from heaven, visiting hell” line describes the relationship again as the girl was good and the man was bad or the girl was the true part and th man the lier and sinner. And finally contradicting to the man “she does not like the view.”
    And we get into the epic closer (or beloved opener) of Ten. Ed Vedder’s message to his father he never knew. The wonderful song uses only one similar word “windowsill” in comparison to the other three but uses it well. The man is still caught and is down low but has enough sense to recover and find him self, searching in the beginning of the song. “which way to go…”. Also the man touches on the theme of Porch/ Garden, the whole “the modern world is a bitch” thing with “i see the world, feel the chill”. We can see the man work through this channeling pain maybe remembering his father and there “absentness” of a relationship. And quite possibly the line “ill wait up in dark for you to speak to me” is not the man waiting for his father, just waiting for a message, a phone call from his ex; and I think that it is not to meet or get back together because its impossible, but just to end it on the best term, and with “moving forward”. The guy, really, could be Ed, or some guy he knows, or a complete character he made up, either intentionally or by complete chance, who knows but to me these four songs link in many more ways than one.

  12. oleyever and pt point out something that I think that we’ve all noticed, and that is the repeated use of certain words or phrases in the early songs. Eddie has a thing for porches, windowsills. They do make the songs appear to be thematically related, but I wonder how much of this is due to the fact that the songs were written in such a short span of time, often with Eddie staying up all night to write these songs and demo-ing them during the day. Based on descriptions of these early days, he must have been hypnogogic most of the time.

  13. C13 -“I’m not saying that the lyrics don’t mean anything SoJ.”

    I think SoJ was responding to my comment rather than your write-up. Good point SoJ.

  14. w/r/t the repeated use of certain words or phrases, i’d just like to say, for the first time in my life…hypnogogic. And w/r/t w/r/t, also very useful. I agree that the lyrics/writing of Ten probably had a lot to do with the short amount of time it was put together and maybe the fact that Ed was coming up with lyrics to fit into music that was mostly already written by the others(?)…but, it’s more fun, interesting, to think about other, less practical, more emotional reasons for the things Ed said. But even considering the practical realities of why the lyrics came out the way they did…when you consider the results…it’s even more impressive…and its a testament to, let’s call it art, how a spontaneous and intense moment of inspiration, emotion, passion can reach out and say so much, be so much, mean so much…more than so many carefully crafted pieces trying so hard with so much intention to achieve what was done, what Ten did, almost accidently, as if it was meant to happen. Such a special album that obviously touched so many people so many different ways…PT’s interpretation of the last four songs, for example. I think Deep is about something WAY different, but I’ll wait for that one to come around. Great thread.

  15. Well said, oleyever.

    I like pt’s interpretation a lot. Do people feel that most of Pearl Jam’s albums are thematically unified?

    C13, would you be interested in telling us which albums, if any, you feel have a thematic arc and which are more random? I’m really interested in your thoughts on this.

  16. I’m really really interested in this theme, too…actually, i think I’m addicted to it. My first listen to “Pearl Jam” the first thing I picked up on was the word “fall” or “falling” in tracks 3 to 6, and then again in 11 and 12. I’m not sure if this is a “theme”, to be honest, or what the “falling” theme might be about, I haven’t really thought about it enough…and it can probably be argued either way…what I’m trying to say is that I’m obviously obsessed with it. When I mentioned the -man trilogy in the “Leatherman” thread I was accused of taking too many drugs…as if that were possible. But I definitely believe there’s lots of these theme sets in the PJ catalog and I think it’s a Pete Townshed/Who influence.

  17. There’s definitely not anything in the Pearl Jam catalog that qualifies as an outright concept album, though Vitalogy comes closest. There’s always a song or two to break up the party. But as a lyricist, Vedder definitely gets hooked on certain ideas and words from time to time. We might see something different with this soundtrack coming out. Oleyever’s right about the Who influence (which strangely enough, will kind of work into the Breakerfall entry I’ve been mulling over) being behind this impulse, though I don’t think it’s manifested itself completely yet.

    A new poster pointed out under the You Are entry that Riot Act doesn’t get put into perspective with the events at Roskilde often enough (except of course, w/ Arc and Love Boat Captain). That might be interesting to consider. But generally, I think Ed has a variety of themes he generally works with that pop up on all albums that he keeps pursuing and playing variations on. Just like the band “limits” itself to a pretty basic instrumental palette, trying to find new and inventive ways on that formula, I think Ed, consciously or not, is always trying to work out certain obsessions. And I think that’s exactly what most good artists do over the course of their careers and lives.

  18. I’d like to talk about the live versions of this song from the early days, and Ed’s count ins that often included a little joke, something i always enjoyed. My personal favourites:

    1) Fuck school, teach your kids the real way to count, 1,2,3,4…
    2) We’re having a party after the show at the hotel and your all invited, the address is… (crowd goes crazy) 1,2,3,4…

  19. “Comparing someone you’re (heavily) enamored with to a landmine might be extreme, but it’s creative.”

    When Duran Duran compared such a person to a nuclear war they got ridiculed for it ;P

  20. i love that the lyrics are really vague, that makes them so much more personal while still maintaining a lot of mystery. whatever hes singing about you know its got something to do with someone he loves, and you can apply any situation youve ever been in to the feeling of the song. i just dont get all the comments describing it as sad, i think its based on a sad unfortunate event in eddies life but theres so many positive vibes in his voice at the end when hes screaming, kind of like on “last exit”. its possible to be really sad but at the same time optimistic and happy, and i think thats what the songs about.

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