It took me a while to really get into Vs., but once I did, boy, did it sink its claws in me and refuse to let go. I can safely say that over the last few years I have listened to Vs. more times than any other album, and by a wide margin. In my junior year of college I moved into an apartment with some friends on the opposite side of campus from where most of my classes were, and I spent a lot of time either walking long distances or waiting a while for the shuttle to show up. I got in the habit of taking my iPod everywhere so I was never bored, and it was then that I began to turn multitasking into a science. Nowadays I pretty much always have music on whenever I have the opportunity to listen to it. I figure there’s a lot of great music out there that I haven’t heard, so why waste time?
Anyway, it was around this time that truly began to appreciate Pearl Jam. I’ve been into them since I bought their debut Ten as a freshman in high school, but once I started listening to them on my long walks in the sweltering Miami heat and on the freezing cold shuttle buses, their music took on a new resonance. It’s hard to put my finger on it exactly, but there’s definitely an energy, a vitality, or some kind an organic quality to Pearl Jam’s muscular sound that has helped them weather the various storms throughout their long career. Throughout the ’90s, Pearl Jam never seemed to be happy with their position in the music scene. They certainly never expected to be the biggest band in the world by the time they released Vs., their second album, in late 1993.
The grunge phenomenon had been underway for two years, and with Vs. it reached a critical mass, as the album shattered the record for selling the most copies (950,000) in its first week and stayed atop the Billboard 200 for five weeks. Pearl Jam had actually scaled back promotion on the album, refusing to do any music videos, but that hardly mattered. Grunge’s popularity had become monstrously huge and impossible to control, and it was too late for them to be a band that quietly paid its dues for a while before finding success. Furthermore, the storm may have begun with someone else’s record (Nirvana‘s Nevermind), but by mid-1993 Ten had overtaken Nevermind sales-wise, thrusting Pearl Jam into the eye of the hurricane.
The sales performances of Nirvana’s In Utero and Pearl Jam’s Vs. confirm this, as In Utero — released a month before Vs. — sold only 180,000 copies in its first week. As a result, Vs. is a fascinating glimpse of a band caught in the eye of a storm they don’t understand. It’s a pretty raw record, with lots of dark passages of swirling angst interspersed with bright respites of calm. It’s one of those albums that will stay in my car’s CD player for weeks at a time, playing on repeat. I mentioned in one of my early entries that I spend a lot of time helping Hispanic children in Los Angeles with English as a tutor for the No Child Left Behind program. I didn’t have the slightest idea what the experience would be like or whether I would actually be good at it when I started, but what I really didn’t anticipate was how much I would mean to the kids I help, and how hard it would be to have to walk away from helping them. (I only get so many hours to work with them, you see.)
Well, of the first batch of students I worked with, a sixth grader named Yesenia was my favorite. She was the youngest I had at the time and I could tell I meant a great deal to her. (As an interesting observation on human development, I have also discovered through doing this that generally the younger the kid is, the less poker-faced he or she is.) I was completely new to the adult/child dynamic where I was the adult — since the last time I had been around kids, I was a kid — and I never really understood just how much power the adult has in those relationships, even in seemingly innocuous settings like tutoring sessions. In the cases of all of the children I tutor, their education experience has been damaged by teachers, administrators and/or even their own parents who have abused that power, a reality that made me uneasy in the beginning, to say the least.
As for Yesenia, her parents are Mexican immigrants, her diabetic father’s health is quite poor, and her older brother was found in a ditch along with three other dead bodies in Mexico not all that long ago. In school, she takes something called ESL (English as a Second Language) instead of ordinary English, which she hates. I had forgotten how much energy eleven-year-olds have, and I soon made a habit of bringing a Monster energy drink with me every time so I could keep up with her rapid-fire speech and scattered attention. It was hard to get her to pay attention for a long period of time, a struggle I was all too aware of throughout our mere twenty hours together. (Yep. That’s how much time I get with each kid.) When our time ran out, I could tell she was crushed.
When I walked out of their apartment back to my car, that scene from the end of Schindler’s List played in my head when Schindler says he could have saved more lives. It was sort of intense. I kept thinking, “Man, if I just had more time.” I had apparently been listening to Vs. on the drive over, and when I started driving away, it was on the last song, “Indifference,” which is a really powerful song, if you haven’t heard it. Given the circumstance, it was particularly fitting to have Eddie Vedder sing, “How much difference does it make?” over and over. It was exactly what I was wondering that night as I drove away from that poor little girl that I’ll probably never get to see again.