Corduroy

I’m wearing corduroy pants right now (chocolate brown, thin wales, straight legged); I named my beloved cat Corduroy when I was 15 (orange and white, fat, loves to drink water from the tub faucet); I just discovered a great website for the Corduroy Appreciation Club (stylish, funny, reminiscent of McSweeney’s) because I was looking up word origins and the history of the fabric on Wikipedia. I learned from Wikipedia that a common but unverified belief is that the word comes from the French for “cloth(es) of the king”. Well, that’s supposedly not true, but it dovetails quite nicely into the story of “Corduroy”, the Pearl Jam song (classic, magnificent, liable to be played at least twice per show).

Okay, done with parentheses; here’s a story: at every Pearl Jam show I’ve been to, there’s always been, in addition to similarly obsessed fans who know every word to every song, a strong contingent of rock radio-lovin’ dudes that show up in stone-washed jeans and faded black concert tees, get loaded, cry openly during “Black”, and push through the crowd en route to a pee break during every post-Vs. song. Annoying yes, but those dudes are always going to be there. And I’ve come to realize that’s okay. Love your favorite songs and hate the ones you hate. There will also always be those who claim nothing after 1993 was worth their time. Fine. Wherever Pearl Jam decided to go after the last seconds of “Indifference” ticked away, lots of folks decided to hang back and let them be. Great. I would never claim to have ever been close to veering off from the band at any point during their career, but I can say with surety that though Ten and Vs. hooked me in, “Corduroy” itself was largely responsible for keeping me there, for winning my trust in the band’s future, and verifying everything I felt about what I already knew and loved.

As infamous as Eddie’s “complaint about fame” songs are, fans and non-fans alike often miss the bigger issue at stake. “Corduroy” is about seeing one’s personal clothing style co-opted and exploited for big bucks just because of lightning-struck celebrity, but behind that, behind “They can buy but can’t put on my clothes”, “Corduroy” is about wanting to live a true and honest life, and how that existence is threatened. It’s about, in essence, freedom. Not the nebulous, flag-waving idea of freedom, often invoked but never considered, but the idea that commercial culture and consumerism, regardless of good or bad intention, separate us from ourselves. You can’t buy a jacket that looks like Vedder’s and become him, or automatically become part of a “grunge” or “alternative” culture, the same way putting a flower in your hair or patches on your jeans doesn’t make you a hippie.

“Corduroy”, though it is specifically about Ed based on his feeling and experiences, has implications and meaning for everyone. Every social and artistic movement eventually gets folded into the larger culture that seeks to define it based on how that culture wishes to perceive it. “Grunge” was oversimplified down to being depressed music made by unhappy people. All the easier to dismiss when those sourpusses start having challenging political ideas. Ed’s corduroy jacket getting turned into a fashion statement is symbolic of that transformation, and his song is his refusal to accept that, his attempt to reclaim his own life from marketers and hitchhikers. In high school, I probably didn’t think about it in these terms, but I wanted control over who I was and how I was perceived too. I resented being judged by people who didn’t know me, or overhearing someone who always picked on me for my tastes suddenly raving about them once they became “cool”. “Corduroy” hit me hard. I too felt destined to take the varmint’s path.

It didn’t hurt that “Corduroy” was the most musically satisfying Pearl Jam song I’d heard since I was initially drawn to “Even Flow”. Built on Ed’s familiar arpeggiated riff, the song goes through several distinct yet cohesive parts, some minor, some major, which together create a song that is sad yet noble, defiant yet heartbroken. There is no context on stage or coming out of a set of speakers that “Corduroy” doesn’t sound perfect; it works as the centerpiece to Vitalogy, and it stands alone as a great song apart from the album setting. Turned inside-out and upside-down at the Bridge Benefit? Again, it loses none of its import or resonance. With a lot of Vedder’s material past and present, it’s fairly easy to hear his influences, even when they’re well-incorporated, from the Who to Neil to Dylan to the Clash. But “Corduroy” feels most archetypically and organically his own, maybe a synthesis of everything he’d digested and learned to that point, but with his own spark and stamp. I find that although I latch onto other songs for periods of time, and have several which I’d call perennial favorites, they all remain planets around “Corduroy” the sun.

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~ by Michael on October 22, 2007.

6 Responses to “Corduroy”

  1. C13, have I thanked you enough for putting together this blog? I was thinking just a couple of days ago that you still hadn’t done CORDUROY, and that when you did it would mean that we were very near the end. I need to thank you for allowing me and others to relive some very precious experiences. RVM will probably always be may favorite PJ song because it changed the way that I listen to music forever, but CORDUROY is the greatest song on one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded. This album made me realize that I would follow this band in whatever musical path it chose, for better or for worse. Recently, more and more of my listening is taken up with other music, to the point that C13 has given me a reason to listen to Pearl Jam when I otherwise wouldn’t, but I feel sometimes that I know the songs so well that I don’t need to listen to them all the time, and that they remain very close to me despite that.

    The fact of the matter is that no one sounds like Pearl Jam. Although many have tried, and now their musical influence is starting to be heard in good younger bands, but it’s really with Vitalogy and, in particular, CORDUROY, that it’s clear that there is a brilliant musical vision guiding this music. This is a song that exists brilliantly on two levels. The lyrical statement. But also a unique musical statement. And in all the years since then, from Vitalogy to GUARANTEED, there has never been a point at which I’ve felt they’ve become complacent and stopped growing. Even when what they produced was not overwhelming as a whole, there have always been great moments. And they’ve never failed to suprise me. Hearing GRIEVANCE for the first time after the mellowness of Yield was one of those moments. I’ve always found it strange that creativity in the rock world is often defined as the incorporation of strange electronic effects into music that is not necessarily structurally interesting at all. Pearl Jam, mostly using it’s very standard complement of instruments has evolved very far beyond the classic rock band of Ten while still being able to evoke their version of that sound.

    C13, thank-you again for all of the time that you have put into this. I’ve enjoyed it so much. And I’ve enjoyed the discussions that have followed your initial comments.

  2. Thank you Susan. If you’d like to take up an aspect of continuing this blog (live shows? bootlegs? something else) once I’m finished here, let me know. The same goes for everyone. I’d like to come up with some standard formatting stuff, but then just play editor if people have ideas for how More Than Ten could continue.

  3. Oh boy. You pretty nailed this one, C-13. I don’t want to rehash too much.

    But as far as I’m concerned, all that is wonderful and perfect and pure in rock ‘n roll eminates from the bridge of “Corduroy.” And I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean this song’s bridge is, to my ears, the defining moment in Pearl Jam’s catalogue. Everything they recorded before this seems to have built up to it. And everything after has always been, even if only fractionally, just slightly less perfect. It is my favorite part of any PJ song. Period.

    This is not just “an Ed song” but, as C-13 alluded to in the original post, perhaps “THE Ed song.” There is a distinct feeling that even when performed for 30,000 screaming fans who sing every last word, this song still belongs to its author. And maybe that’s why it’s played at every show…

    • When you said everything they recorded before built up to it…that’s how I feel about that song, that it itself BUILDS. It is one of my favorite openers to a show, or at least early in the first set – because it builds, it’s like the whole song is a crescendo. It raises the crowd so much, I get goosebumps.

  4. C13, what ideas do you have for formatting? I would love for you to look at the Touring Band instrumentals. After that, is there some way to collaboratively look at some of the solo stuff? I was thinking more in terms of Bayleaf and Into the Wild. Brad and Three Fish may be too much of a tangent. Do you want to look at covers? Most of those are only available in live versions. We could also offer reminiscences about our favorite live shows or our favorite bootlegs. That might be interesting. Also, some of the songs have evolved over time as played live. It might be interesting to look at that evolution. There was also talk of revisiting certain songs and discussing them in more detail musically. I think that PORCH was mentioned. I enjoy thinking about the music and figuring out why I like or don’t like certain songs. And the ensuing discussions are always very interesting.

    Basically, I’m up for whatever anyone else has might have in mind. It’s been a lot of fun, and I’m not ready for it all to end. What do you already have in mind?

  5. my wife is wearing a corduroy jacket today…i asked her where she got it…she said it was her sisters. what if eddie had written a song about flannel instead? it’s fun to imagine. this riff is the only thing i ever learned to play on guitar. i don’t think we’ve heard the “defining” Pearl Jam song, yet..thankfully, i don’t think there’ll be one…but Corduroy captures so much of what it’s all about…and really does stand as a peak along the Pearl Jam trail…a place from which you can look back and forward…up and down. all around. even into eddie’s mouth.

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