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May 12, 2006

Masters Rock

Hey, did you hear? Pearl Jam has a new album out!

It’s always interesting when a formerly enormous band disappears for a while, then releases a strong “comeback” album to a lot of fanfare and excitement. The marketing idea is to have people recall the band in its glory days, and make us believe that the current band is the same as it ever was.

And we’re generally a forgiving culture, so we can selectively forget the reasons why a popular band actually becomes unpopular in the first place. We’re the society that gladly gives second chances to people like Marion Berry, Martha Stewart, or Ron Artest - so we can certainly overlook the terrible albums like Binaural orYield that Pearl Jam offered us in the late 1990s.

Like just about everybody else between the ages of 20 and 30 in the early nineties, I was a huge PJ fan. They even influenced my running career: during the 1993 Los Angeles Marathon, I was feeling miserable on a hot day, and one of the only things that kept me going was repeating the chorus of “Alive” over and over in my head until I reached the finish line. (To this day, whenever I hear that song, I remember myself staggering through the last 10K in the heat at L.A. Despite the way it sounds, it’s a good memory.)

So I’ve been listening to the new album a bit, and it’s actually not too bad. A few songs are old school grunge-rockers, and there are also some brooding, melodic pieces that were PJ’s hallmark back in the day.

But this morning I heard “Even Flow” on the radio, and noted that Pearl Jam hasn’t made any songs on the new album nearly as good as that old one. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the old band was way better than the current version.

We need to have some special category for rock bands that get older, just like there is a separate category for masters runners at road races. I mean, nobody expects a 45-year-old guy to come out and win a local 10K – so why should we expect a rock band of 40-year-olds to compete against younger groups at the height of their talents?

Sure, that 45-year-old dude may be an excellent runner – let’s say he ran a 33 minute 10K ten years ago. He probably runs something like 37 minutes now, which will still beat everybody but a handful of racers. But he just doesn’t have the goods to seriously challenge the best 25-year-olds who can crank out 35 minute 10Ks on any given weekend.

And it’s fair to compare the master runner’s best times to the younger runners’ best times, and conclude that the master would have kicked their butts if he were in his prime. But his best days are behind him, so he usually comes up a bit short when trying to hang with the big dogs. It’s a cold dose of reality that is sometimes hard to swallow.

That 45-year-old has changed in too many ways to pretend that he’s still 35. He’s most likely got a family and a career, and matured such that running is not an overriding priority in his life anymore. If he tried to mimic the lives of younger runners who eat, sleep, and breathe their training, he would look strangely out of place.

The 2006 edition of Pearl Jam is that 45-year-old dude. They’re never going to match the energy and intensity of songs like “Porch” or “Rear View Mirror”, but they are still good enough to crank out “Life Wasted” and “Big Wave”, which are better songs than a lot of rock music on the radio.

But – here’s the cold reality - the new album isn’t strong enough to make me take the Foo Fighters or Avenged Sevenfold out of my car CD player.

Pearl Jam is the mature band now, singing about poverty and politics and a larger worldview. How can you compare their work to a song like “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” by a band called the Arctic Monkeys? Despite their enormous talent, it seems a bit odd to hear PJ songs in a modern alt-rock lineup on the radio.

It’s fair to argue that when they were at their best, Pearl Jam was way more talented and influential than groups like Fall Out Boy will ever be. Ten was an absolute classic, to the point where it was like a soundtrack of my college years. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy listening to it more than FOB’s From Under the Cork Tree today.

So can we recognize older rock bands in some manner besides putting them up against what is currently popular? Because you can apply this exact same thesis to U2, Jon Bon Jovi, Metallica, and even (gasp!) the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Why couldn’t there be a separate Grammy category for “Best Masters Rock” or something similar? You could even go across genres and include “Best Masters Rap” now that guys like LL Cool J and Reverend Run are putting out CDs again. And when the Beyonces and Shakiras and Mariahs of today keep making records into their 40s, there could be a category for “Best Formerly Smoking Hottie Who's Still Workin' It” – come to think of it, Madonna could win that award now. The possibilities are just fascinating.

There would be more awards to give out, older musicians wouldn’t compete against younger ones, and fans of the older bands can see them recognized for their talents. Does anyone think this wouldn’t be a success?

For a group of older dudes who released their best album almost 15 years ago, Pearl Jam has done a darn good job on the new disc. And from a personal standpoint, it’s great to see them back in the spotlight again. Whatever additional fame and money they gain from this CD is well-deserved.

They’ve definitely earned the age group award for their effort. And I’ll give any age group winner a great deal of respect.


angie's pink fuzzy 5/12/06, 12:34 PM  

masters rock - what an interesting concept!

I happen to think yield is their best album...

backofpack 5/12/06, 1:45 PM  

Your mind is an amazing place! The things you think of crack me up. Yep, I think it's a good idea, even though I've never heard, or heard of, many of the bands and songs you mentioned. What about our beloved 70s groups? What would they be - super masters?

Deene 5/12/06, 2:35 PM  

thoughtful and funny post. i think you just described the granny awards.

matt 5/12/06, 3:36 PM  

i still remember receiving an unsolicited copy of their first album sent to me by Columbia House with a note reading, "you might like these guys." clever marketing to a young grungie college student at UC Santa Cruz.

it was a good first listen. and you are right, bands like these tend to stick with you over the years for various reasons.

you are a brilliant idea man, donald. just keep running and working the plinko board in your mind so that we get the pleasure of reading your thoughts.

olga 5/14/06, 6:18 PM  

I don't know about Masters Rock, but when I got a phone call in Russia that Chris had left the Idol - I was absolutely stunned! Sadly, just shows how average thinking American population is (the one that calls in votes).

Mike 5/14/06, 8:31 PM  

Interesting post...made me reach deep into the vault and dust off "TEN" and give it a listen..that is still a great album!

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