“The waiting drove me mad/You’re finally here and I’m a mess”
Behind a pounding beat and thrashing guitars Pearl Jam recently opened the final night of their spring U.S. Tour at Madison Square Garden with “Corduroy” from their third album. From my seat in the middle of the floor I could barely hear Eddie Vedder sing the opening verse because Pearl Jam’s devoted fans were belting out the lyrics at the top of their lungs. This concert, coupled with my recent viewing of the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, left me wondering if any other great rock bands will survive.
Their 31-song MSG set, part of a tour that marks but does not dwell on the 25th anniversary of Ten’s release, featured seven songs from that album, along with their usual mix of well-known rockers and ballads from the band’s career. Pearl Jam dropped in a couple of deep dive album tracks for the faithful, covers by the Beatles (“Hide Your Love Away”) and the Who (“Baba O’Riley”), and special versions of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” (featuring two members of Cheap Trick) and the Police’s “Driven to Tears” (with a guest appearance by Sting).
“Corduroy” itself was never released as a commercial single, yet it still reached No. 13 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. The album it appeared on, Vitalogy, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, selling almost 900,000 copies in its first week, and at the time had the second-best opening week behind Pearl Jam’s previous album, Vs. (which sold more than 950,000 copies its opening week). Of course, Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten, remains one of the best-selling rock albums in history, having sold more than ten million copies in the U.S. While the band does not sell anywhere near as many albums these days (its well-received 2013 release¬†Lightning Bolt debuted at No. 1 but has not sold a million copies to date).
Pearl Jam has toured every year since it formed in 1990 and draws rabid crowds in most of the country (its two May shows in New York sold out in less than two minutes). Next year Pearl Jam will be eligible to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — 25 years after the release of Ten, and they will surely be the headliner of next April’s ceremony in Brooklyn.
Pearl Jam and Soundgarden are the only real survivors of the grunge era: Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains all lost key members to death or distraction. While Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan has said that he has never understood Pearl Jam’s success because “they just don’t have the songs”, his once-great band long ago became a solo project, not a real band.
We now pivot to my second point: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony seems to be scraping bottom. The headliners of this year’s show were Deep Purple, Steve Miller, Chicago (yes, that Chicago), and the aforementioned Cheap Trick. While these acts were mainstays of rock radio in the 70’s and early 80’s, does their body of work add up to a Hall of Fame resume. In Steve Miller’s case, I’d say “yes”, as the Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-78 was a mandatory part of any boy’s record collection around 1980. But, looking at the inductees over the past few years, it looks like we are getting close to the bottom of the barrel as far as bands go. 2015 (Green Day, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Stevie Ray Vaughn AND Double Trouble), 2014 (KISS, Nirvana, and Hall AND Oates, and the E Street Band in a miscellaneous category), and 2013 (Rush and Heart) show the trend toward solo acts and non-rock acts making the Hall of Fame.
While there are some bands left that will probably be inducted some day — Doobie Brothers, Jethro Tull and Yes come to mind, with the Cars also driving around somewhere — what bands are still active and vibrant and may earn a place in the Hall of Fame one day? Wilco and Foo Fighters will get in one day (and I just realized that even including Foo Fighters may undermine the whole premise of this article). Gaslight Anthem released several well-regarded albums but is now on “hiatus.” Arcade Fire has recorded four outstanding records, never disappoints in concert and shows no signs of stopping.
Soundgarden will probably get in one day and it would be interesting if they were elected this year, just so Matt Cameron could play as part of two groups in one ceremony. Dave Matthews Band will be eligible in two years, but does anyone think they are a great band worthy of the Hall of Fame, or just a fabulous touring act? As we get further into this list, the bands become more and more niche, and less and less relevant, but then rock today is much less relevant and much more niche than it was when Pearl Jam released Ten.
So, no Pearl Jam may not be the last great rock band, but if they turn around they won’t have to look far behind them to see the last one. It’s probably already out there, halfway through its career.
“Everything has changed/Absolutely nothing’s changed” —Corduroy