I still can’t believe that “4/20/02” saw the light of day on an official Pearl Jam release.  But before you raise your fists, let me explain why.  It’s nothing to do with any perceived qualitative evaluation of the song’s merits or lack thereof; simply, this song is so excruciatingly vulnerable and raw that it is almost not to be believed.  From the frantic yet fragile chords, to Vedder’s delivery alternating between somber regret and sad fury, it’s a tough listen, and not one I’ve ventured to endure more than a few times. “4/20/02” is private, painful, and against all odds (at least, according to my own version of songwriting theory) a beautiful and effective song.

In my experience as a songwriter and someone who listens to music obsessively, writing an emotional song while in the throes of those very emotions is a risky undertaking if one doesn’t plan on a little editing somewhere down the line.  Too often, extreme joy or sorrow makes it difficult to conjure interesting words or music, and in the rush to get something down, things get tied up too neatly or worse, trite.  “4/20/02” written on the day Vedder heard of Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley’s death, does not wrap up its sentiments neatly, nor does it bow to any convention, skipping from pointed accusation at Staley’s musical copycats, “So sing just like him, fuckers” to mournful acknowledgement, “You can’t grow old using”, to straight-forward sweetness, “Lonesome friend, we all knew,” to ultimately, jaw-dropping bluntness, “It won’t offend him, just me, because he’s dead.”

Back in the day, I traded some forgotten album for a cassette copy of Dirt. But beyond “Would?” and a handful of other tracks, I couldn’t access a lot of the ideas or sounds on that album, so I moved on.  But I understand that a LOT of people felt otherwise, and revered Alice In Chains enough that they are still one of the most revered hard rock bands of their era.  I’ll leave it to those in the know to discuss their music more than I can.  On that level, I don’t connect to the song.  But on the level of witnessing someone else’s grief, and in such a raw, unvarnished fashion, again it’s tough to listen to.  I’ve been as turned off by modern rock radio for the better part of a decade largely because of the fuckers Vedder refers to in 4/20/02, the dopes who took the superficial aspects of what Staley, Vedder, and Cobain were doing (which were all incredibly different), and exploited it to give their shitty songs the illusion of “sincerity” and “passion” and all that other crap you just can’t fake.  To hear Vedder address this in the sad context of his friend’s passing drives home just how much those bands missed the point.


~ by Michael on August 24, 2007.

13 Responses to “4/20/02”

  1. Good review, C13.
    Reading it made me think about why I’m still a Pearl Jam fan. Years ago what was so appealing about the band was their exuberance, especially in young Eddie. Do you all remember what being a fan was like back then, before Ticketmaster, stalkers, Golden Gate Park, Roskilde? The exhilaration of it all.

    Could any of us have imagined listening to something like 4/20/02 back when we were pumping our fists to ALIVE for the first time? C13 is right, it is shocking that something so personal ended up on Lost Dogs. In a way it’s an honor. Lost Dogs is for the fans, and Eddie entrusted us with a moment of complete intimacy. In a weird way Pearl Jam feel almost like family to me tven though I know them only through their music.

    I’m still shaking my head and marvelling that we’re all still here enjoying listening to and thinking about this music with our fearless leader, C13.

  2. As a “hit single,” this song fails miserably. Of course, as a hidden track on an album of Lost Dogs, it was never supposed to be that.

    As a snapshot of one man’s rage/sorrow/pain/exasperation … it’s beautiful. Or beautifully raw.

    It’s not a song I can listen to on any sort of regular basis. But, as a historical document of a really bad day in Ed’s life, it works well.

  3. All my friends and family and other people and things that I love are still alive. Which is cool. Stone and Jeff lost mr. wood…mike, i think, may have been closer to mr staley than the others…ed, i think, was changed forever by mr cobain’s suicide…but, of course, i don’t know shit really, i’m just speculating about this most wicked personnal thing…trying to imagine the shock and loss and sadness…I just don’t know what I would do if a friend like that died like that…but I think making music, like Temple of the Dog, Vitology, 4/20/02…is what they do, and as personal as it is, i’m sure there’s lots more going on that the music can’t show…and probably, to avoid the difficulties in making this kind of music that C13 points out (avoiding sounding like “the wind beneath my wings”), in the end, no matter how emotional and personal the song might be, it is the crafting of the song, making it sound the way they want it to sound, even if that sound is “raw and emotional” that makes them feel better. It’s not just the song that’s the tribute, it’s the act of making the song, being in the studio and focusing on your “job”, craft, art, whatever…I doubt that makes any sense…what I mean to say is, if i’m a painter, and my painter friend dies, why do i decide to make a painting for/about my friend? Is it a tribute to my friend? is it a way to deal with the grief? probably both…and so it’s not the finished painting itself that matters, it’s the actual act and art of painting that is the tribute and/or therapy. And this song, a date, a day…is like a view into that process, the act in progress…it’s really really really powerful.

  4. c13, i just reread your excellent comments. my drowsy monday morning ramblings seem like the words of a child beneath your sharp insights. well done and thanks.

  5. Oleyever, your comments make perfect sense. The process and craft of art are absolutely what help people to try and make sense of life.

  6. Good points Ole … what makes this song cool is the fact that we get a “window” into the grieving process. It’s fascinating.

  7. Bad things happen on 4/20… Staley, Columbine, Hitler was born, weed smoking.

  8. People are always taking shots at Scott Stapp and them but if I was in Scott Stapp’s shoes are any of the other imitators I would of done the same exact thing they did. I doubt you are gonna give up the chance of millions of dollars/fans/women just because your art ‘isn’t pure’, or because you sound like Eddie Vedder. I wouldn’t listen to or appreciate that music but I understand why it’s out there. Besides, Eddie Vedder is the modern day Jim Morrison.

  9. BYM, I’ve listening to a lot of heavy metal music lately (don’t ask), but this is a genre where you still consistently hear the Eddie Vedder Ten-era voice. It just “works” for a lot of this stuff. One of the funniest things I’ve found is that in reviews for bands of that sort, at some point in the review you’ll get comments made about why this guy’s or that guy’s voice is soooo much better than that lame-o Eddie Vedder’s. Really interesting. Too bad most of them don’t write songs that are anywhere near as good as Eddie’s.

  10. Hmmm, interesting and provocative BYM. I don’t agree. I can honestly say that I would not put myself in Scott Stapp’s shoes for any amount of money. Honestly. Wouldn’t do it.

    I’m also inclined to think (and this may be just because of my own personal opinion of the Doors) that more of what Ed has done (and hopefully will continue to do) will outlast most of Morrison & the Doors.

  11. You have a lot of integrity my friend. And I hope that becomes true about PJ leaving a greater legacy.., as of now they still have some ways to go.

  12. I was in the same boat – liked what I heard of AIC on the radio, but never owned any albums in the 90’s, i was just so stuck on Pearl Jam . It wasnt till after he died, and I watched Singles one day, and heard ‘it aint like that anymore’. I went online and found a live version, and boy, their sound was aggressive, just fantastic. Hearing 4/20, and Ed’s rawness, its just a somber moment. So many great artists have perished at their peak. To go way off point, I was thinking about Chris Farley the other day, a guy who was just so funny, but all we see is the public side of them and never really know what goes on behind the curtains.

  13. I actually heard this on the radio a couple weeks ago. It was the most bizarre thing because I haven’t listened to the radio on purpose in over a year. I turned it on for a minute and this was playing on WRRV; I got so excited when I realized that it was the Pearl Jam song about Layne Staley. The band’s gone through a lot of loss–Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain, then Layne, and as sad as it is I think it’s cool that with all three deaths they were inspired to write great music. Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains will both always be separated from the post-grunge ripoff bands because you can tell they really mean it in all their songs.

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