Yellow Ledbetter

Here we are. It’s the end of the show. Lights up.

There are many tangential bits of information about “Yellow Ledbetter”, both statistical and personal, so I’ll begin with a list:

1. In the early days of “Yellow Ledbetter”, though it was occasionally performed as a set/show closer, it wasn’t uncommon for the song to pop up in the middle of sets as well. 1995/1996 saw the emergence of YL as a standard grand finale. Prior to that, Pearl Jam shows were as likely to close with “Leash”, “Porch” or “I’ve Got a Feeling”. Granted, the early shows were rarely the 25+ song marathons of the last ten years, but it goes to show that the iconic status of “Yellow Ledbetter” was not always exactly what it is today.

2. When I was in junior high, I had my first chance to sing for a rock band at a summer program I was enrolled in. The program was for students around the country and the globe, and I somehow met up with a few kids from Venezuela who knew how to play guitar, bass, and drums. The repertoire they knew well were a handful of Green Day songs, and “Yellow Ledbetter”. So I suffered through the Green Day material, affecting my best snotty faux-British pop-punk snarl and dying my hair orange, all so I could try and approximate the notoriously untranscribable “Yellow Ledbetter”.

3. To this day, I know several people who claim “Yellow Ledbetter” as one of their all-time favorite songs, though they do not consider themselves overall fans of the band. I also know someone with a “Yellow Ledbetter” ringtone on their phone. I bet many of you do too.

“Yellow Ledbetter” is without a doubt, one of the most popular and well-known b-sides in all of rock music history. Seriously, try and think of another. Heavy early radio-play and its status as an import-only b-side cemented the song’s legacy from the start. If “Even Flow” was semi-unintelligible, “Yellow Ledbetter” was full-on, which created an enormous amount of buzz, i.e. “What’s he talking about”, but also an undistracted appreciation for the charms of Ed Vedder’s voice, and a friendly, accessible midtempo guitar tune. Whether the lyrics were about a soldier coming back from the war “in a box or a bag”, or someone feeling so beat up by life that they didn’t know whether they were “the boxer or the bag”, there was and is something communal and celebratory about “Yellow Ledbetter” that makes it an idea closer, the song that caps the night with an easygoing finality, but finality nonetheless.

An audience may occasionally groan when they hear McCready’s first few unmistakable bars, but only because they know with reasonable assuredness that the show is about to go into the books. For 5–7 minutes, everyone gets a chance to reflect on the night, the songs, the band, the crowd, whatever they want, and mumble along. Some people view Pearl Jam’s enduring success and its attendant cult fandom as a mystery, but mystery isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, it’s healthy: a band that provides its listeners with uncountable entry points into the songs, albums, artwork, shows, and keeps them, if not always entertained, always engaged. “Yellow Ledbetter” then is the perfect embodiment of Pearl Jam’s mystery: fluid, familiar, enigmatic, comforting, confident, puzzling. It marks the end of the show, but also the return back to your everyday life, in a way that makes that prospect somehow less dreadful and daunting. It says good night, and now with the final song reviewed (until the next album), so do I!

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~ by Michael on October 23, 2007.

10 Responses to “Yellow Ledbetter”

  1. I’ve enjoyed your blog. You’ve done a fantastic job. Look forward to coming back when the next album comes out.

  2. Thanks so much c13. I’ve enjoyed reading this blog so much, and enjoyed contributing to it in its last month or so. I agree with everything you’ve said about “Yellow Ledbetter”; there’s something about the song that sounds all-encompassing, ethereal, like one of those pieces of music that always existed that the band just managed to snag and claim as their own.

    The most famous b-side of all-time = “The Hokey Pokey.” I don’t know what the a-side was, but some DJ got a kick out of the b-side, and well, now little kids sing it in gym class.

    Can’t wait to see where this blog goes next. Congrats on making it all the way through without losing your mind.

  3. I don’t know how you did it, friend. The thought of writing about every Pearl Jam song must have seemed daunting beyond imagine back in April (or whenever this started). I’ve never seen a project like this actually get completed. And no offense to you, but along the way, I expected long gaps between post, sloppier writing, and an eventual fade out of this site halfway through the catalogue.

    Forgive me for my underestimation of your stamina and dedication. I am happy to say that my doubts were proven completely wrong.

    It’s fitting (obviously) that we would go out with “Ledbetter.” It’s not my favorite closer (sorry, I’m a “Baba” guy), but nothing says, “Good night, than you for coming” like this song.

    And you nailed, C-13, that I had always thought, and said to fellow PJ concert-goers: there is a sharp pain that rips through my body when I’m in the audience and I hear Mike start in “Ledbetter.” It’s a pain that says,

    “You’ve waited to see Pearl Jam for months. You counted down the days. They just totally rocked your fucking face off. And now, in about four minutes, it’s going to be over. And the wait begins again…”

    And yet, the band has managed to turn this into a triumphant closing tune that assures you that all is still well. That tomorrow you’ll be a little sad, but mostly, you’ll be overwhelmed with the insatiable urge that you’ve just seen the single greatest band in the world give it their all right in front of your eyes.

    That’s what this song, and by extention, this entire blog project, means to me. Thanks for all you’ve done. It’s a really beautiful thing you’ve put together here and I think we’ve all enjoyed it immensely. Until next album, friend…

  4. Thanks NoCoder, Kevin, Eric, Susan, and everyone. It’s been great to read everyone’s thoughts and stories and opinions, and hopefully it will continue in some fashion. I’ll be posting an editor’s note soon, with my contact info for anyone who wants to take on solo material, side projects, live shows, videos, etc. Be well, friends.

  5. C13, it’s been a wonderful journey that you’ve taken us on. I’m a YL gal. I love this song. I love those opening chords. But as NoCoder said, when you hear them, you know that it’s nearly over. And yet, we all sing along. There’s such a feeling of community in that moment. Your blog has done much the same thing for us. You’ve provided us with a place to meet and talk about this music that we’ve loved. We’ve been a community, and it’s been wonderfully satisfying. Thank-you again.

  6. This is my favorite song. It’s strange to think back to 1993 when I bought the Jeremy single and couldn’t stop listening to this song, and really feeling like I had discovered something special…but more than thet…feeling like I was the only one…like it was mine, this great song, this great band, MY favorite, at last, a favorite…a real favorite, not just saying something is my favorite because it’s an acceptable favorite to have, but really enjoying listening to this song so much that there is no doubt that it’s my favorite…and always will be. One long wine and weed filled night a few years ago I listened to all the versions of Yellow Ledbetter i could find in my CD collection, which ended up being about a dozen, and tried to transcribe the lyrics as I heard them…trying to pick up the hidden and always changing story…i have video that i recorded in Barcelona last year of Ed “ohh”-ing away at the end…i don’t know how or when Yellow Ledbetter became the concert closer, but i don’t think there’s ever been a more perfect song to end a concert…Mike’s solo’s alone are worth the price of admission.

    So, I guess i just could have said, “This is my favorite song.” and left it at that…but that’s what’s so great about this blog…I can rant and riff all I want about this music I love so much, and no one can stop me…well, that’s not true…I think a couple of my comments were deleted, but it seems there’s nothing wrong with a little censorship these days. So, C13, sorry for calling you a loser…I was only kidding…or jealous…or drunk…you did a great thing here and it’s been great fun. Thanks. And respect to all the others for reading and sharing with respect…long live Pearl Jam.

  7. Thanks Oleyever. Of course, I can brook all dissent on the topic of Pearl Jam, but no dissent on my status of being cool.

  8. i get exactly what you are saying Oleyever. i thought i had discovered something too back then that no one else knew about this b side. and for sometime we were probably right.

    c13 you are the $%&@. i love this band like no other, but i dont know if i could pull off what you have done.

    good work!

  9. I have to say even though I love Yellow Ledbetter. The most famous B-side single ever is “We Will Rock You” by Queen. “We are the champions” was the A-side

  10. From the EV solo concert in Newark, when asked “what are the lyrics to Yellow Ledbetter”:

    “wait, this is a little, kinda an intense moment here right now… let me gather my… after all this time, are you telling me there are words to that song? this is new information, I am trying to accept it…

    you know, I guess it’s… uh, I can’t remember how it goes… it’s… where’s Mike McCready when you need him? you know, uh, “they don’t wave,” something about “they don’t wave,” “I see them on the front porch, but they don’t wave”…

    so, what it was about.. this was written during the Gulf war… this is papa Bush, and uh, it was about a guy who’s brother went to fight in the first Gulf war, and he was kinda an alternative looking guy, like we were with our shorts and tights and long hair, whatever we had going on… but you know, activists and artists and good young people of Seattle, and smart people, weren’t all drug addicts, you know… and so it is a story about his brother being killed over there and then he gets a yellow letter in the mail, saying “your brother was killed”… and so he tries to take a walk, he’s walking this off, in this little suburban neighborhood, and his mind is racing and he doesn’t know what to do, and he feels like he can’t take a step without falling into a deep abyss… so he’s walking and walking and walking, and he sees a couple on a porch with an American flag, and he waves to them, like “you know, my brother”… and then the people look at him like “you f*cking scumbag” you know what I mean… “who are you” like they don’t know, they don’t know the inside, they’re judging him by his cover… and um, so, um, that’s what the thought was”

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