It was a long time before I was able to track down a copy of the “Off He Goes” single, with its cat’s eye artwork, crooked typeface, and dark-as-death-itself b-side. And it was long after that before I had a reliable turntable with which to hear “Dead Man”. But I got there eventually and was duly rewarded for the effort, along with the help of a live version gleaned from an unofficial bootleg. At some point I found an import CD copy, but god knows when that was. With the advent of Lost Dogs, “Dead Man” (also known as “Dead Man Walking”) finally got the widespread recognition it deserved, with Stone Gossard going so far as to write in the liner notes that it should have been included on No Code. I know that there are many who would agree, but I don’t. The song is certainly good enough, but part of its charm for me was its isolation on that 45. “Dead Man” took effort to find, and to listen to.
Having lost the sweepstakes for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack to Bruce Springsteen (and an awful tune by Mary Chapin Carpenter), the song got lost in the maddening world of No Code b-side-dom, a fate which also befell “Black, Red, Yellow”. The same efforts that brought fans cheap, affordable domestic versions of previously pricey import singles were not enacted, leaving the gloomy, atmospheric “Dead Man” relatively difficult to find. The song itself sounds like something uncovered in a basement or attic, featuring chilling lines like “the hammer that I once brought down / now hovers over me”, which serve (like much of the soundtrack) to humanize the main character of the song without excusing or condoning his crimes. For a relatively small set of lyrics, “Dead Man” does justice to the complexity of issues surrounding the death penalty. For anyone who has ever watched MSNBC’s Lock-Up series (I’m kind of a fan), or marveled at Sufjan Stevens’s “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”, “Dead Man” is right there among recent, thoughtfully considered examinations of crime and punishment.
Musically, Vedder’s work on “Dead Man” is fascinating: subtle, textured, nuanced. It somewhat expectedly pairs a dark subject matter with a minor key setting, but the effect is less heavy-handed than it would seem on paper. The tone of the song is forlorn, regretful, with occasional jarring notes that flash like nerve endings, or memories of the pain and sorrow inflicted. There are myriad ways to cheapen a song about murder/death row, but Vedder never does. “Dead Man” offers no concrete answers, other than the ultimate fate of its main character; Vedder’s voice is more hushed, straight-forward, restrained than even Pearl Jam’s quietest tracks, contrasting with the clanking percussion, humming guitar, and unsettling arrangement. All of these things rewarded listeners who tracked it down initially, and continues to surprise and affect those who’ve discovered it through Lost Dogs, a song on par with what became No Code, but no worse off for its non-inclusion.