Severed Hand

“Under your tongue / I’m like a tab / I will give you what you’re not s’posed to have.” — “Last Exit”


“Ed is a psychonaut.” — jtr (More Than Ten reader, see entry for “In Hiding”)


“Severed Hand” presents an enormous number of entry points for the obsessive fan, from its musical similarities to other Pearl Jam songs, its gory heavy-metal-like title that had folks wondering about its album’s direction prior to the release, the Beverly Hillbillies-like pronunciation of “cement”, drug allusions, and the fact that it was written by Ed on the same night he penned “I Am Mine”. How to draw all of these ideas together to gain a clearer perspective on the hazy, dragon-filled heat mirage that is “Severed Hand”?


For a purportedly psychedelic song however, “Severed Hand” is musically pretty cut-and-dry, a mashup of Ten‘s churning funk metal hop, and Binaural‘s dark brawn. It has been pointed out many a time that “Porch” + “Insignificance”, and that assessment is neither derogatory nor untrue. “Severed Hand” was written the night before the band’s first show on the US leg of the 2000 tour, a show that feature both of those songs in close proximity to one another. Perhaps to balance the gentler instincts that led to “I Am Mine”, Vedder made a point to come up with a song that had the potential to bludgeon. Interesting also that “Severed Hand” was either unfinished by the time of the sessions for Riot Act, or left in the can because it didn’t fit with that vibe (and it wouldn’t have, would it?). On Pearl Jam of course it fits perfectly, sounding almost exaggeratedly huge, part of that album’s much-praised opening five-song assault.


Lyrically, there’s quite a bit going on, a paean to consciousness-expanding potential of psychedelic drugs, the song’s protagonist receiving some mind-altering substance from the “big man” who tells him to “leave your lady on the cement floor”. In that line, and throughout the song, there’s a hint of underlying sadness, perhaps the event which causes the need for an escape. “Tried to walk / Found a severed hand / Recognized it from the wedding band”—these are the moments that elevated the song from being a drug ode to something much more turbulent and complex, echoes of “Parting Ways” and “Hail, Hail” bouncing off of the growing rooms, dimensional tears, and metaphysical quandries. Though it bears more sonic resemblence to the aforementioned classics, filed “Severed Hand” as another Vedder spin on escapism, the desire to leave one’s surroundings, in this case mental, to gain knowledge, perspective, freedom to grow, a “preternatural other plane with the power to maintain”. And to that, I say “yeah!”


~ by Michael on September 13, 2007.

8 Responses to “Severed Hand”

  1. Great write-up, C-13. I liked the way you came at this one. I really enjoy “Severed Hand” musically and lyrically. Sure, it’s a throw-back to “Ten”-era sound (musically) but EV gives the song enough vocal flourishes to really make things work for me.

    My problem with it, however, lies in Ed’s presentation of the song’s meaning. In certain shows and interviews, he seems almost too happy to point out that the song is about experimental drug use. I wish I had the quotes in front of me, because I’m certainly not trying to blow his comments out of proportion, but I always thought it unfortunate that the song was promoted that way. And I don’t mean promoted as in he tried to sell it as a drug song, but that he portrayed it as such. My concern, and problem with that, has always been that he is in a band where some of the members has had some pretty intense drug issues in the past. I’ve wondered what it must be like to play the guitar on this song which seems to revel in drug use when you once struggled with it yourself.

    I’m not going to say that there is anything egregiously wrong with what EV’s done with “Severed Hand.” It’s also very possible that I’m being too sensitive about this. But it’s just always rubbed me the wrong way and I thought I would throw it out there. If you don’t like, just throw it right back 🙂

  2. I once heard a Wilco song being used as part of an anti-smoking campaign ad in Chicago, and thought: how is that possible? I’ve been to tons of Wilco shows where band members were smoking cigarettes while they were soloing. I asked the band’s manager if they were aware of the use, and had given clearance given what I knew of their habits. And of course they’d given permission to use it, because as their manager put it, in as many words, just because they smoke doesn’t mean they don’t wish they could quit, or that they want other people to start. I wondered about the same things you have with “Severed Hand”, NoCoder. But I might just chalk it up to the fact that, Ed’s comments about the song aside, the song doesn’t give a thumbs up or down, but portrays a point of view that I’m sure his bandmates are happy to agree or disagree with, and still play along. Always throw it out there! Never throw back!

  3. Let me start by saying that this is just one of those songs that I loved with some non-thinking part of my brain. I never really listened to the lyrics until a long time after it came out. When I did listen, maybe because the lyrics had gestated with me for so long, I understood them on many different levels.

    Superficially, this may seem to be about a drug trip, but what I heard in it was Eddie burrowing inside himself, trying to make sense of his life after his divorce. The “severed hand” with the “wedding band” being the part of himself that he has lost when he lost his marriage. The references to “getting home” have to do with his need to find normalcy after the trauma of this tear in his life.

    Maybe, I’m just insane. Feel free to comment Oleyever.

  4. Susan, I’ve never agreed with you more.

    As a divorce and drug trip survivor, (actually on the same trip…I had to take a train from Spain to Amsterdam of all places to meet the lawyers who came over from the U.S. with the divorce papers. Man, was I fucked up. All better now, thanks.) So, I definitely think Ed is touching on those themes here, but I’ve never looked too hard at the lyrics to figure out exactly what the story is…BUT, whatever the story, there’s no denying the fact that last Friday, a week ago, after a particularly stupid day of work, and in a rush to get home late in crazy Friday afternoon Valencian traffic, I had this song rocking away, and that guitar…not sure how to describe that guitar…that kicks in somewhere in the middle and rises high above the rest, like a bird chirping over the groove, then goes away when the next verse comes…that guitar part made me laugh out loud in delight, turn the radio up another notch, slide into the passing lane and step on the gas, speeding off into the weekend. Or at least to the next red light….on my way home.

  5. Ole, My hat’s off to you for surviving. I did the same thing yesterday. Horrible, horrible traffic. Then the second part of the the intro kicked in. It caused me to sever my brain from all of the frustration.

  6. I still think this is about a soldier. I always pictured it being a conversation between soldier and government. Once I find out the true meaning of “you’ll see dragons after 3 or 4” I’ll be more certain. “I’ll answer this when I get home” The narrator doesn’t have to time to answer these poignant questions of right/wrong, rather they have to fight or die. Then the outro just kicks into WW3 more effectively than the bombs dropping at the end of insignificance.

  7. I don’t really care what Eddie thinks it’s about. It resonates with me on an entirely different level – I’m not sure what it is yet, but it doesn’t have anything to do with drugs.

    One of the things I don’t like about Ed as a performer, he’s always more than happy to oblige a crowd of chemically altered fans with cheap drug and booze references, like that lame “made it to the ocean, smoked a joint in a tree” alteration of “Given to Fly.” It serves no purpose other than cheap, easy applause.

    I think “Severed Hand” has one of the best bridges in all of Pearl Jam’s catalog. I love the way it kicks back into the riff.

  8. On that topic, one of the lyric changes I liked was in Severed Hand from the first Gorge show in 06. “What is human? Nature’s more.” It kind of messes up the whole sense of those lines, but it seemed right for the time.

    But I don’t like all of Ed’s changes, and as Kevin says, they can cheapen the song. For example, in Hail Hail, when Ed sings “I refer to those who f*ck”, it kind of lessens the impact of the song, in my opinion.

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