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.