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!