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.