Off He Goes
In the early to mid-’90s, you couldn’t read a word about Neil Young without his being called the “godfather of grunge”. There are so many things wrong with that assessment that it’s difficult to know where to begin. I will concede however, that Young Neil is the godfather of No Code, with particular affection for Vedder’s “Off He Goes”, which owes almost its entire existence to one of my all-time favorite songs, “Campaigner”. But while Neil’s song rested on the provocative political/cultural line “Even Richard Nixon has got soul”, Vedder’s tune is a thinly veiled self-portrait written in the third person, a pointed, albeit humorous confession of sorts. It’s wry and self-deprecating (“his perfectly unkept clothes”), but ultimately hopeful, the light at the end of the long dark tunnel Vedder went through while adjusting as best he could to fame.
To be able to look honestly and sometimes harshly at one’s self, especially in the context of a rock song, is no small feat. Mainstream rock, like hip-hop, is often full of bluster and machismo, or else the self-deprecation is so overwrought and grandiose that it’s worn as a badge of honor, not a real admittance of mistakes. Or else it’s absolutely stupid (ask me some time about how Matchbox 20’s “3 am” contains some of the dumbest lyrics ever put to music). But “Off He Goes” maintains an earthy, genuine feel, and the song was given one of the warmest, most natural acoustic arrangements in the band’s catalog. To call it rustic might be just a tad bit of a stretch, but not by much. McCready’s solo is perfectly executed, one of my favorite; the band’s whole performance is neither over- or under-cooked. An odd choice for a second single (always with the odd single choices), radio of course couldn’t make heads or tails of it (though it charted in the 30’s (?)), just taking it a as further proof that Pearl Jam was drifting further out to sea. But great rock bands don’t tailor their writing or restrain their muses for ever-tightening radio formats, no matter how many units stand to remain unmoved. They take cues from Uncle Neil instead. Some campaign all their lives toward that goal.