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Last night, my wife and I enjoyed the rare treat of a song synching perfectly with our ride home from dinner. Right before Christmas, I burned a copy of what amounts to my personal “Pearl Jam Greatest Hits” CD for our East Texas holiday road trip. My wife had it in the car’s CD player when we went to eat last night, but had turned down the volume in order to make a phone call, so I barely even noticed the dulcet tones of Eddie Vedder’s booming baritone, but as we pulled out of our parking spot headed for home, I heard the unmistakable sound of Mike McCready’s Stratocaster and cranked the volume up.
For the next five minutes and three seconds, we both mumbled along with Eddie. With one hand gripped to the wheel, I desperately fought the urge to bust out one of my trademark air guitar solos, before finally succumbing to temptation and picking out the last few notes as we pulled up to our house.
Before I go any further, let me just say that I’m well aware of the criticism levied by some music snobs against this song. It’s unoriginal, a pastiche of the Hendrix catalog, one that’s been duplicated many times before and since. It’s the Seinfeld of songs, a song about nothing, filled with nonsensical lyrics. It embodies the overall musical decadence of the early 90’s, filled with self-indulgent guitar solos sure to drive any Pitchfork disciple crazy, but I fucking love it.
While I’ll stop short of calling it the greatest song of all time, “Yellow Ledbetter” served as the soundtrack to my very own coming of age tale. As such, it’s hard to overstate the tremendous impact the song had on my life.
I first discovered Pearl Jam shortly after Ten was released, instantly falling in love with them. I was a seventh grader, an age when many begin to awake to a new musical conciseness, which for me just happened to coincide with the most dynamic time period in music since the late 60’s. Up until that point in my life, my musical tastes had completely shaped by my parents, but as MTV consumed more and more of my life, I begin to seek out new artists on my own.
Many in my demographic will point to seeing the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video for the first time as a life-changing experience, but with all apologies to Nirvana (see what I did there), seeing the “Alive” video for the first time had a much greater impact on my life. It was the first time I ever felt, “I must own that album,” and I still remember the sensation I felt the first I listened to Ten from beginning to end, but before my musical conciseness could fully mature, the piety police paid a visit.
One day, in eighth grade, a good friend paid a visit fresh from a youth service at his church. He looked me in the eyes and asked me, “do you want to go to Heaven,” and I said “yes.” He then left my room and returned with a giant trash bag. He grabbed all of my CDs, piled them in the middle of my bed, and instructed me to get rid of any album that didn’t “glorify God.” Simply throwing the CDs away was not enough. According to him, God required me to break all of them and to refrain from listening to any secular music into perpetuity.
Naiveté prevailed that day, but thankfully, after about year, I begin to cheat on this particular vow of abstinence. At night, I would tune into the nightly countdown on Tux-99, the local rock station. One night during my Freshman year, I experienced “Yellow Ledbetter” for the first time. I immediately recognized Eddie’s voice, but did not recognize the song. I assumed it must be on either .Vs or Vitalogy, which had both been released during my “dark period,” but this was before the age of Google, iTunes, and Shazaam, so you sometimes had to work to find music.
When I learned that “Yellow Ledbetter” had not been released on any of the band’s studio albums, I began to keep a blank tape in my stereo/dual-tape recorder at all times, hoping to one day capture the elusive classic. Months went by without hearing it. Finally, I took matters into my own hands, called up the KTUX request line, and asked them to play the song. Once I had it recorded, I wore the tape out. The song ushered me through some of life’s most important milestones.
As a Junior, I discovered that the re-release of the “Jeremy” single contained the studio version of “Yellow Ledbetter” and rushed out and bought a copy. Honestly, more than anything, I wanted the CD for its liner notes, convinced they would contain the lyrics. Unfortunately, they did not and the song’s lyrics remained a mystery. I tried slowing the tape speed down, but that seemed to only garble them more.
Around the same time, my neighbor became the first house in the neighborhood to get AOL. Suddenly, everything in the world I could possibly want seemed to be a mouse click away. Instead of trolling chat rooms for girls or surfing the web for porn, the very first thing I did when I signed on the AOL was head to a music chat room to seek out “Yellow Ledbetter” lyrics. Within two minutes, I had five emails, all with different versions of the song.
As one fan explained in his email, Eddie liked to change the lyrics up when he sang it live. He provided me lyrics to the studio version, which I took to memory after reading them only once.
My friends possessed all sorts of geeky talents. One friend could recite the MVPs to every Super Bowl, another could recite all of the Presidents in order, and I even had a friend who claimed to be fluent in Klingon, but to this day I believe my ability to recite the lyrics to “Yellow Ledbetter” trumps them all.
Over the years, my infatuation with the song has waned. My iPod analytics shows that the song ranks #858 of 8,149 songs in terms of numbers of plays and that I have been known to even skip over the song on occasion; however, do not be fooled, “Yellow Ledbetter” remains a timeless classic in my world. More than any other song, it was responsible for me emerging from a cocoon of cultural darkness.
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