Scrawled on my pre-Vitalogy cassette of new songs I’d taped off of the radio, was “Can’t Find a Better Man”, the enormously catchy hook I assumed to be the song’s title. Along with “Corduroy”, whose name I only knew because the DJ had announced it, and “Immortality”, I sensed something radically different from the band’s previous two records. The wealth of Mamasan and Mookie Blaylock demos had pretty much been run through, and though “Better Man” was older than any of those tracks, the band’s sound now felt completely free to move forward in any number of untested directions.
“Better Man”, written when Vedder was in high school, and performed by his pre-Pearl Jam band Bad Radio, was Springsteen- and Petty- influenced pop, starting out with a whisper-sung intro that eventually built into a rousing, satisfying singalong chorus. Originally demoed for Vs., the band had thought it too catchy, and though its subject matter about an abusive relationship (“dedicated to the bastard that married my mama”, quoth Ed in 1994), it actually injects a little bit of melodic light into the swamp-dark Vitalogy. It’s telling that the song was never made into a single, still managing to be one of the most recognizable and most-played in the band’s career. But if I had to imagine the Epic 45-sleeve artwork for “Better Man”, I’ve got my color scheme picked out.
Vitalogy in my mind is all about color. It’s dominated by black of course, due in no small part to the grim, dusty artwork, but there are shots of other hues throughout the record. I’ve never thought music, at least good music, to be simply an aural experience. Good music triggers one’s imagination, not just to conjure the images described by lyrics, but so much outside of what’s provided. Music suggests even more than it gives. “Not For You” as depicted by its art, was deep red, “Spin the Black Circle” sharp, jagged yellow, and “Immortality” midnight blue on black. My radio-dubbed cassette was all earth tones, with “Better Man” its muddy clay centerpiece. She may have dreamt in color, dreamt in red, but the song to me was sepia, umber, all those salt-of-the-earth crayons.
Countless plays on the stereo or live performances over umpteen years can make it difficult to feel exactly what was felt the first time you heard a song. You can only read the first chapter of a book once to experience that same anticipation and unknowing of what’s to come (I’m currently in the midst of having my Into the Wild appetite whetted by “Long Nights”). But that doesn’t mean you don’t gain from re-reading, or listening again and again. Vedder’s had to find ways and reasons to keep singing his song, now over 20 years old, whether that being tacking on tags or letting the audience sing the intro. What begins as the private act of writing a song in one’s bedroom becomes a cherished part of a worldwide community.