Reviewed by Calev Ben Zion
On old typewriters, the backspace key was used to back up a space and overstrike a letter, usually with a cross-out line or an accent. So, pull out a classic Underwood typewriter, roll in plain cotton weaved sheets of paper; tap the keys into the rhythm of a tale. Backspace, overstrike, accent. It’s a pulp tome of distinct chapters unified in the passion of a cathartic vision. Its author: Pearl Jam.
No doubt, this record rocks. The first four songs are a full frontal attack of punk clamor, Vedder’s voice as powerful an instrument as another guitar. Plaintive earnestness—one part tension, another part deep emotive coo—has been a Vedder trademark since “Ten.” In these songs, his voice is in constant “Spin the Black Circle” mode: shred. But this isn’t the angst or the anger of “Save You” or “World Wide Suicide” in the last couple of solid if contemplative releases. This is an urgent album on a positive vibe trip all the way to touching “The End.”
In “Gonna See My Friend” there’s a dire need for solace in camaraderie awash in cranked guitars and a tighter than ever Amment/Cameron rhythm attack. “The Fixer” is the first single and has a positive vibe that’s Paul Westerberg contagious. Its lyrics, strong and direct in every one of these songs, describe a narrator who “when something’s broke/ I wanna put a little fixing on it/ If something’s bored/ I wanna put a little exciting on it/ When something’s low/ I wanna put a little high on it/ When something’s lost/ I wanna fight to get it back again.” And on “Johnny Guitar,” the band taps into boyhood wet dreams inspired by foxy album covers. Funny how the dream is disappointing and still remains uplifting; such is the stuff of these lyrics in their exposition of universal experiences.
Backspace, overstrike, accent. It’s May, 1992. The soundtrack of South Beach is cacophony: car alarms, bouncing bass, sirens, and roughshod guitar slinging mingled with the incongruent smells of exhaust, body odor, patchouli oil, cigarettes, alcohol, pizza, and Cuban food. Walking up or down Washington Avenue was like walking along a fairway, carnies calling from storefronts selling their wares.
Weaving a wayward path arm-in-arm up Washington sometime way after midnight Saturday in the early 90s was always an adventure. My date and I, who’d seen Pearl Jam for the first time just weeks before, sang loud and off-key, “Even flow, thoughts arrive like butterflies/ Oh, he don’t know, so he chases them away/ Someday yet, he’ll begin his life again/ Whispering hands, gently lead him away.” Passersby stared, avoided, and then someone walking south joined in for a lyric and was gone.
For us it was a time of angst and fantasy, indie vs. corporate, suit & tie vs. saving the planet or someone else’s rights or our own souls. We were an out of place vision of grunge, wearing the costume we’d studied in detail off Charles Peterson’s album cover photos for Mudhoney, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Tad, the Melvins, Skin Yard, the Screaming Trees and others on the Sub Pop and SST labels: Doc Martins, tattered Levi’s, and raggedy flannel shirts—even in South Beach. In a cloud of smoke and buzz, we walked up the streets from the Cactus Cantina—where we’d just downed tequila shots and a few Corona’s with their famous chips ‘n salsa—toward Uncle Sam’s, still open, serving wings, beer, good tunes and good company. Crowded with djs, ragamuffins, and punks, the joint was burning and everyone was high.
Weeks earlier, on April 23, 1992, the Cameo Theater packed bodies wall to wall, floor to balcony. The band walked out already sweaty, as if having just come from a game of hoops at Flamingo Park. They open with “Wash.” Considering Miami Beach at the time, the lyrics were utterly prescient: “Oh please let it rain today. This city’s so filthy. Like my mind in ways. Oh it was the time. Like a clean new taste. . . Sin for sale. Buying just a need. O who planted all the devils seeds?”
Backspace, overstrike, cross-out. Pearl Jam has had their indulgent moments, and perhaps they will again. The composition of “Backspacer” echoes moments of previous releases, and it has a consistency Pearl Jam has honed over their 10 releases and gazillion live shows. There are moments of meditative musings, like on the softer “Just Breathe” and “Speed of Sound,” and songs of inspiring lyricism, like in “Amongst the Waves,” “Unthought Unknown,” and “The End.”
I once saw Eddie Vedder on MTV write Fugazi with a Sharpie on his forearm. That was a poignant moment in their career in that they were just blowing up and had to contend with the fame against the desire to “think global and act local” in an indie band kind of way. One way or another, supply and demand seemed to take over. Back on their own indie label, “Backspacer” allows Pearl Jam to go back to these roots, taking old fans, loyal or lost and found again, back with them to the present. Besides another tour, who knows what the future holds? If the past is any indication, if the present is any sign, it’s all remains mystery, a story writing itself as we go along. In effect, “Backspacer” is like taking a little trip to the literal time machine that is Uncle Sam’s Musicafe in South Beach and seeing for yourself where past, present, and future-shock collide to form the amalgam of pristine pop adventure.
Get your copy of Pearl Jam’s “Backspacer” today, on vinyl or special edition CD, at Uncle Sam’s of South Beach.