Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
There are many reasons why a 42-year-old fella such as myself shouldn’t be partaking in marijuana. For one thing, trying to find weed at my age is about as easy as finding enriched uranium. The guy I used to buy from, back when I was still smoking, is either retired or dead, it’s hard to be sure. (Former dealers never send Christmas cards.) I made some calls, a friend of a friend of a friend referred me to the right person, and one sketchy neighborhood later, I was the proud owner of an eighth of unnecessarily potent chronic. Which brings us to problem #2: What the fuck are they putting in weed these days? I remember when I could smoke an entire quarter ounce in a weekend and just feel mellow and maybe a little too enthusiastic about the bass guitar. Now, one joint and I’m like a character in a Poe poem, freaked out by birds and hearing heartbeats everywhere.
The only reason I bothered to get high again after so many years is because of Pearl Jam. This summer — August 27th, to be exact — is the twentieth anniversary of their debut, Ten. I was 22 and fresh out of college when the album came out, so the anniversary is kind of a big deal for me. Not because I especially liked Ten, but because being reminded that it was released half my life ago serves as a grim reminder that I’m going to die someday, probably sooner than I’d prefer. It’s like a pop culture abacus. Every time a beloved album or TV show or movie hits a milestone anniversary, we slide another bead across the wire, marking the passage of time between when we were young and how much closer we are to the end. As Bob Dylan once sang, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” (That lyric, by the way, comes from Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out of Mind, which celebrates it’s fifteenth anniversary next year. Remember that record? You’re so old!)
Like a good consumer, I was ready to fork over my cash for the inevitable Ten re-release. And then I learned that the inevitable Ten re-release has already happened, two years ago. And there wasn’t just one re-release but four different versions: a Legacy, Deluxe, Vinyl and, at $100-plus a pop, a Super Deluxe edition, which includes two CDs, a DVD, four records (including two separate vinyl mixes of the album) and a cassette of Eddie Vedder’s original demo. I came very close to buying it all, partly because MTV was footing the bill, but mostly because I’m just a sucker for nostalgia. I want to feel sentimental about Ten and join my peer group in cultural navel-gazing. One of the only up-sides of growing old in this country is being able to buy back your memories in a limited-edition package at the appropriate anniversary. Wait twenty years and Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver will be reissued in an elaborate gold box set with strands of Justin Vernon’s hair providing outershell protection, along with remastered tracks and thousands of outtakes and costing just slightly more than a used car. But the big flaw (or maybe the unintentional genius) with the Ten anniversary re-release(s) — aside from being perplexingly premature — is that in its bloated greed, Pearl Jam made me reconsider not why but how I’m maudlin about music.
The only reason to listen to an album like Ten in 2011 is to recapture what it felt like to be alive in 1991. And you’re sure as fuck not going to do that by listening to a remastered and remixed version. I’m curious to hear early mixes of “Even Flow” and outtakes like “2,000 Mile Blues.” But just barely. I’m not writing a college thesis on the making of Ten, I just want to remember what it was like to be 22 and have little personal responsibility other than earning enough money to buy weed and pay rent and find something cool to listen to while smoking weed.
Accurately recreating the experience of listening to Ten in 1991 is a lot cheaper than buying a $100-plus super deluxe edition, but it requires a little more legwork. First and foremost, you have to listen to the album the way god intended, on a compact disc. And I apparently don’t own any device capable of playing a CD anymore other than my laptop, which doesn’t really have the appropriate early ‘90s aesthetic. After a hard target search of every second-hand electronics store in a 20-mile radius, I was able to track down a Panasonic CD Boombox for a surprisingly affordable price. ($20? That can’t be right. Have boomboxes become the inner-city hookers of music, ready to give a handjob to anybody with a double sawbuck?) Finding a copy of Ten on CD was, it turns out, just a matter of deciding whether I wanted the $9.99 used version or the $1.99 “ultra-used” version, whose previous owner had evidently used the disc as either a cocktail coaster or doorstop (and possibly both). I opted for the latter, for reasons that probably wouldn’t make sense to those of you who don’t remember life before iPods. There was a time, long before MP3s, when you could judge how much a piece of music was loved by how badly the jewel case was chipped.
And then there’s the small matter of emotional resonance. You can’t just close your eyes and transport yourself back to 1991. Music needs context, and the context that makes every album, every song, every note feel so uniquely personal isn’t always easy to reproduce. Around the time I was regularly listening to Ten, a girl named Susan broke my heart. I remember leaving her apartment in Chicago after she told me it was over — she lived on Webster Street in the Lincoln Park neighborhood — and walking to the el station in the rain, listening to Ten on my Walkman. A song like “Alive” takes on a special significance when the girl you’ve been dating for three months and kinda-sorta thought you were in love with decides she doesn’t want to have sex with you anymore. There’s nothing quite like fantasies of being an orphan with rage issues to give your self-pity some dramatic gravitas.
I tried calling Susan again, just to see if hearing her voice again would be enough to bring me back to that place, to make my stomach clench and my throat dry up and my hands grow restless for a cigarette to take the edge off. I wanted her to say something unintentionally cruel, something that could destroy a 22-year-old guy with an addiction to cheap and relatively weak weed, that only Eddie Vedder’s wounded baritone could heal. No such luck. We ended up talking about how we’d both become parents in the last year, and how much we enjoyed seeing photos of each other’s kids on Facebook. “Your son is adorable” is not exactly throwing gasoline on the “Even Flow” fire.
Not that it mattered. During my first front-to-back listen of Ten in at least ten years, I was far too stoned to bother dwelling on romantic regret. In fact, I was far too stoned to feel my own extremities. I was so stoned that it took me a full twenty minutes before I realized that the CD was so badly scratched that I’d been listening to the same three-second loop of “Once” on endless repeat. The next few tracks were even worse. Every song sounded like Eddie Vedder with a severe speech impediment singing through a CB radio. It was still early enough in the day, so I decided to drive back to my local used record store and pick up another copy of Ten, maybe splurge on the $10 version without the boot heel tracks and cat scratches. Not the best idea, given how much pot I’d smoked. I immediately forgot why I was there and ended up buying the Allman Brothers‘ Eat a Peach, because my weed-addled brain was determined to hear “Mountain Jam” immediately.
And that, ironically enough, is exactly what happened the first time I listened to Ten back in 1991. So I guess my experiment was a success. I can’t tell you if any of the four re-releases of Ten are worth the money. But I can tell you that if you smoke enough weed and listen to “Mountain Jam,” somewhere around the 27 minute mark (27:21, if you want to get specific about it), the early ‘90s will all come rushing back.