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.