Not For You: Pearl Jam and the Present Tense by Ronen Givony – A Review and Personal Response

Black and white photo of Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder in t-shirt, shorts and boots, hanging from the beams at the top of a stage at a festival.
Detail from the cover of Not For You. Photo by Lance Mercer

It’s been two years (“and counting”) since I fell down a Pearl Jam hole. I was watching something on YouTube, happened to glance at the suggestions down the side, and there was Pearl Jam’s performance of Oceans from Unplugged. I casually thought, “Oh I haven’t listened to Pearl Jam for a while” and clicked. Volume up. Jaw hit the floor.

How could I forget how brilliant they are? How could I forget how stunning Vedder’s voice is?

I’d more or less abandoned them post-Vitalogy, so I had a lot of catching up to do. The past two years have been a blur of obsession.

Photo of a book. Title is along the top in bold capitals. The first part is in black text and reads: Not For You. The sub-heading is in red text and reads: Pearl Jam and the Present Tense.
A black and white photo takes up most of the cover: it's of Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder in t-shirt and shorts, hanging from the beams at the top of a stage. Bassist Jeff Ament is in the foreground, turned away, playing his guitar as if disinterested in Vedder's exploits. He wears a hat, and shorts, and is barechested.
In front of the stage is a massive festival crowd, all staring up at Vedder.
Below the photo is the author's name on the right: Ronen Givony in bold black capitals. To the left in smaller black capitals is the publisher: Bloomsbury
Ronen Givony’s Not For You: Pearl Jam And The Present Tense

This is how I came to be reading Ronen Givony’s Not For You: Pearl Jam and the Present Tense. I devoured it, simultaneously trying keep up (folly!) with the accompanying Playlist. I now know more about Pearl Jam than I ever thought I’d want to know; I’ve watched numerous concerts of varying quality; listened to/read transcripts of several Vedder rambles; heard Alive, Even Flow, and Jeremy more times than is probably healthy in a short period; watched bizarre animations, talk show snippets, and news reports on abortion clinics, only to emerge dishevelled, and as dazed as Vedder at the Grammy Awards mumbling “I don’t know what this means” before launching into a rendition of Black à la David Letterman (“Whyyyyy! Whyyyyy!”) while my husband rolls his eyes and regrets gifting me this book.

In one chapter, Givony mentioned his intense research process, saying he ended up “delirious, ranting about Ralph Nader.” I can believe it.

What’s refreshing about Not For You is it isn’t your regular biography:

  • The structure is built around some of the main events in the bands career, very much from a fan’s point of view. Some of those events are specific concerts, albums (sometimes paired with political events of the time – such as Binaural with the 1999 Seattle protest), their attempt to take on Ticketmaster, the firing of drummer Dave, and so on. So while it’s chronological it didn’t feel like your straightforward bio, as it chose to focus on specific moments and it often came at those events in a way that was refreshing, particularly in terms of how much it focussed on things outwith the immediate band, which leads me to:
  • Cultural and socio-political landscape. There aren’t many bands who would warrant this kind of approach, but given how much grunge and Pearl Jam dominated in the early-mid 90s, and given how political the band is, it made perfect sense, and it’s one of my favourite things about the book. Topics include: pro-choice vs anti-choice and the murder of doctor David Gunn; 90s BLM and the murder of Malice Green; mass shootings (this line was a real gut punch: “Like all Americans, I can measure out my life in mass shootings”); Trevor Wilson (who played Jeremy in the infamous award-winning video); Tomas Young, the Iraq War, the Body of War documentary, and how disabled veterans are failed by the government (it touched on the poor quality of Young’s wheelchair, which led him to have an accident, further exacerbating his health problems, highlighting that disabled people who need mobility aids are often unable to access them or are stuck with poor quality aids); Pearl Jam’s relationship with Nirvana; the impact of Kurt Cobain’s suicide (it had been decades since I’d listened to Courtney Love reading out parts of Kurt’s suicide note, but reading the transcript I could clearly hear her voice in my head, commenting, admonishing. Still heartbreaking all these years later); Pearl Jam vs Ticketmaster; The Who; Ralph Nader; the Seattle protests; multiple disparaging remarks about the Chilli Peppers (which never failed to amuse), amongst many other subjects ranging from music to politics. Not For You very firmly puts Pearl Jam in context, and I think even non-fans would find it a fascinating read.
  • No ass kissing. Givony doesn’t mince his words when it comes to the band’s failings. One minute I’d be disagreeing (I have some affection for Ed’s Grammy Awards speech and think it’s unfair to write it off as simply ungrateful petulance. I mean, what does it mean? I have similar feelings about the publishing industry), and the next I’d find myself nodding along with a wry smile, thinking, “Aye, pretty accurate,” with a side-helping of “Ooft! I hope they don’t read this.” But it’s evident the criticism comes from someone who cares; you’re not going to write a book like this if you don’t. There’s real warmth and passion in these pages, and personally the last thing I want from a bio is sycophantic ass-kissing.
  • What’s absent. I appreciated there was next to nothing on the band’s personal life (from what I recall there was one throwaway line mentioning Ed’s divorce amidst discussion of something else and I barely noticed it). Having said that, I would have liked something on Vedder’s upbringing, his step-father, and his father, and the impact this had on his life, his work, and the trajectory he took. It’s not as if this isn’t relevant (it partly informed one of their most famous songs) or an invasion of privacy, as Vedder has been open about this (including in this moving interview and more recently with Howard Stern). It can be approached without being exploitative.
    I felt there was a bit too much room dedicated to transcripts of Vedder’s concert rambles (along with an unnecessarily lengthy transcript from Pearl Jam Radio about the JC Dobbs concert from 91 that’s taken on mythic proportions), when that space could have been better utilised. For instance, while Sleater-Kinney crops up off and on, there was a noticeable lack of discussion of women-lead bands and their impact in the early-mid 90s. I felt that Hole, at the very least, warranted a mention. And while we get an insight into Ed with his gig rambles and polemic on Self-Pollution Radio, I’m still left wondering how cohesive the band is/was? For example, was pro-choice as important to them all as it was to Ed? (I now need to catch up on all their press. I’d be especially interested to hear a bit more from Stone).
Black and white photo of white man Eddie Vedder who has long brown wavy hair, is wearing a t-shirt and long shorts. He's clasping a microphone stand, mouth open wide as he sings, brow furrowed as if  in anger, eyes looking up. He has 'Pro-choice!!!' written on his left arm
Eddie Vedder singing Porch, having just written ‘Pro-choice!!!’ on his arm, MTV Unplugged 1992.
One of my all-time favourite Vedder moments

*

Before that fateful YouTube click two years ago, I was probably a casual Pearl Jam fan, even back in the 90s. I loved the mighty triptych of Ten, Vs, and Vitalogy (though I still remember my first reaction to Ten as I listened to it on a friend’s Walkman: “What the hell is this?”), but I wasn’t that interested in the band themselves. I didn’t even know all their names (Jeff was “the hat guy”). I was more of a Nirvana, Tori Amos, and Manic Street Preachers fan in the 90s. So to rediscover them in this century feels less nostalgia and more like discovering for the first time.

Pearl Jam's first three albums (anniversary editions) laid out in a row against a scratched light blue background. The first album has sepia oversized letters in the background and in the foreground, obscuring the bands name is the band in a huddle reaching up, touching hands. The second album has a black and white photo of a sheep pushing their nose through a wire fence, teeth bared. The third album is black, and looks like an old leather-bound book. It has 'Vitalogy' across it in the middle in a slightly elaborate gold script.
The Mighty Triptych: Ten, Vs, Vitalogy (anniversary editions)

I still unashamedly adore Ten, and even now I’m somehow not sick of the staples, always singing along with vigour (sorry, neighbours). For a while, I struggled (refused?) to choose my favourite album from the Mighty Triptych, but I was prevaricating; I knew all along. It’s clearly Vs (indifference to Indifference aside… and I’ve never been a fan of Small Town. I know. I’m sorry) with Blood my favourite track. Givony’s love letter to the album is such a joy to read I admit I teared up a bit:

“Where Ten was bombastic, Vs was indecently thrilling, inexorable, austere. The albums unflinching focus on calamity and terror made it one of the most violent albums ever to hit number one. (It’s the rare pop album to commence with discussion of torture, abuse, abduction, alarm, bondage, blood, pain and nemeses. And that’s just the first two tracks)… Where Ten was a work of arena rock, Vs offered punk, funk, folk, country, psychedelia, and Afrobeat.”

– Givony
Mesmerising performance of Blood (Mt Smart Stadium – Auckland, New Zealand 3/25/1995)

Then there’s Vitalogy. It was great to see Tremor Christ featured as one of Givony’s favourites; I always feel a bit of an alien when I say it’s my favourite Pearl Jam song. But then, I also love the more experimental, batshit, disturbing tracks (Bugs, Hey Foxymophandlemama That’s Me) and would take them over Betterman and Nothingman any day (I swear I’m not trying to be contrary here, but it’s probably these two tracks that stop Vitalogy from overtaking Vs as my favourite album). Weirdly, I didn’t think much of Corduroy (“What’s the fuss?”) until recently (“Oh, wait…”) The punky Spin the Black Circle (I love that they wrote what is essentially a furious song about playing vinyl) and the confrontational Not For You are of course firm faves. Then there’s Immortality – has anyone written a more beautiful, melancholy song?

My relationship with Pearl Jam originally ended with Vitalogy and I still don’t get on with No Code. I’ve tried, I really have. Three songs standout (Lukin, Present Tense, I’m Open), but even then my jaw remains firmly in place and I don’t get the love for Hail, Hail at all. I guess it’s just not for me.

I felt much the same about their other albums until…

“What we needed was honesty, and imagination, and a willingness to face uncomfortable facts. What we got, instead, was Backspacer.”

– Givony

I laughed out loud here.

I love Backspacer.

Pearl Jam's album Backspacer. The title is in two small tyepwriter keys at the top left and right with the name of the band inbetween, also in typewriter keys. The colourful illustrations by Tom Tomorrow are in 9 blocks. In order from top left: A flaming train coming towards a white boy in the foreground. Top half of an anatomy model with scythe in background. A white male magician with a skull - angels, eyes, doves and bats emerge from the skull's eye socket. A white woman in a swimming costume in the sea with an underground city and the translucent head of a large boy in the background. A brain in a jar with wires. An astronaut in space playing drums. A robot with a woman's face on a screen, a white man in the foreground. A black man in a sharp suit on a small bike sitting between the oversized legs of three women. A woman nestled in swirling purple waves, relaxed, wearing a pink dress.
Pearl Jam’s Backspacer
I love Tom Tomorrow’s artwork. And I was probably more excited than I should have been about the glow in the dark backspacer keys

“An endurance test, in eleven songs, the album extends, on the one hand from the merely unfortunate (Got Some) to the frankly inexcusable (Johnny Guitar); from innocuous (Just Breathe) to indifferent (Supersonic); well meaning (Force of Nature) to pure folly (Gonna See My Friend)… That the album debuted at the top of the charts with 189,000 sales says more about the state of the music industry, pre-Spotify, than the quality of the release itself.”

– Givony

Ouch!

Two years ago, when I went on a journey through what I’d missed, I tried No Code again and went from there. It all felt a bit of a slog apart from tracks here and there until I got to Backspacer, which honestly felt like such a breath of fresh air. I agree on Johnny Guitar, and we at least share a favourite track in the soaring Unthought Known, but I also bloody love the exuberant Amongst the Waves, the beautiful Just Breathe and The End (which are more in keeping with Ed’s solo work) even if some of the lyrics re-tread old ground. I was amused at Givony’s dislike, but I hadn’t really thought about it in a wider context – it was released around the time of the financial crash, which does make it feel incongruous for such a famously political band, but maybe throwing off the weight of politics was a good thing, allowing them (and us) to (just) breathe and even have a little fun. For a brief few months Backspacer was my favourite post-Vitalogy album. Then there was Gigaton.

Pearl Jam's album Gigaton. It's a beautiful blue and silvery photo of huge icebergs, a waterfall on the left hand side, a bird flying in front of it, the ocean glimpsed in the lower left corner. The band's name is across the top in a spikey red script that merges into an ECG graph
Pearl Jam’s Gigaton

Givony is pretty dismissive of their recent album, which I think is a shame. For me, despite the occasional ropey lyric, it’s a huge improvement on their post-Vitalogy work, and I feel Ed is finally using his voice well again. It feels mature and confident, with a splash of the experimental (don’t worry – nothing on the scale of Bugs or Foxymop). My favourite track, Dance of the Clairvoyants, is an utter joy (I had it on repeat when it was released and I badly want them to do more in this vein); Quick Escape and Take the Long Way are invigorating delights; Comes Then Goes has the feel of Vedder’s solo work and never fails to move me; and with echoes of Nico’s organ-heavy melancholy, River Cross is a fitting coda. Many of the accompanying videos are stunning too. I really do think Gigaton is their most accomplished album in years; it has me excited about them as a current band, and hopeful for future albums.

*

Givony decided to write Not For You in 2016, but admitted:

“I was out of my league. I had written a book the year before about a punk band no one had heard of. They had released only four albums, and been active for under a decade, but the task had pretty much broken me. By comparison, Pearl Jam had recorded more than ten studio albums, had at least a thousand bootlegs; and was coming up on its thirtieth anniversary.
At least, I thought, I know the story. After all: I had grown up with their music.”

– Givony

Still, he had some of their discography to catch up on (“I’m not sure I had even listened to Lightning Bolt, or Backspacer, or could name more than a few songs from the past decade”) and had copious amounts of research to do in a short time period, including socio-political topics and wider culture, not just the band itself (which would be intimidating enough): “There were books I’d have to read: about the music of the 90s; about Seattle; and about American history. There were documentaries, movies, and soundtracks… somewhere in the process I realised I knew almost nothing about The Who, or for that matter Joe Strummer… Being a neurotic, I tried to devour it all.”

I admire his dedication. Not For You is an impressive achievement, and it’s a book I found hard to put down. I’d planned to take some notes as I went along, and write a proper review (sorry, you get whatever this is instead), but it’s testament to Givony’s writing that didn’t happen – instead, I feverishly devoured it.

Like Givony, I’m also surprised that, other than Pearl Jam Twenty and the “dubious” Five Against One, there’s been few books on Pearl Jam. I’m glad he persevered through 30+ rejections and put that right. It’s what Pearl Jam fans have been waiting for, and I know this is a book I will return to. I salute you, sir.

Now I’m off to feverishly devour the rest of that playlist…

[Afterword touching on fandom, concerts, and disability below]

Beautiful video for Pearl Jam’s March of the Clairvoyants

*

Afterword: What Makes A ‘Real’ Fan?

I’ve never seen Pearl Jam live.

There’s several reasons for this. First: I didn’t get into them until later in the 90s, and as much as I loved The Mighty Triptych, No Code left me cold, and at that time I wasn’t that fussed about seeing them live.

Second: gigs stress me out. When I fell ill with M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) in my early twenties, I thought that was when I first had sensory issues, but when I look back, it’s clear it was an issue before that (M.E. just exacerbated it). When I was a very young kid, my parents took me to a Cliff Richard concert and I cried in distress (because it was too loud, apparently, but I can think of other reasons). There were various instances throughout my childhood when I couldn’t cope with loud, busy environments. In my teens, as a rabid music fan, as much as I would have loved to see my fave bands live, it was also my worst nightmare. I hate large crowds; I find them massively anxiety-inducing. I’ve never told anyone this other than some off-hand comments that people probably didn’t even notice. All these years I’ve swallowed down my phobias and anxieties and made it to a handful of gigs, but still very few given how music is so important to me. Alcohol might take the edge off, but I don’t like drinking at gigs.

It’s not always that bad – there’s times where I can keep on top of it and enjoy being out in crowds, tripping out to the music at whatever gig I’m at, but the anxiety is still there, underneath everything. Add chronic illness (M.E. and later fibromyalgia) to the mix and it’s a miracle I’ve made it to any gigs at all since my early twenties.

During my recent two years of Pearl Jam fever I considered Hyde Park; I tried to psych myself up for it, thinking through the things I could put in place to help manage the chronic illness issues (including the exhaustion of travel – Pearl Jam never play anywhere near me) as well as my crowd phobia, but just the thought of the planning and travel exhausted me (and jumping through the hoops to get a disabled spot was stressing me too). I looked at photos of Hyde Park and felt nauseous at the thought of the number of people and the effort it would take to get there and back, and what if I had a flare-up? (this happened at a Suede concert, partly my own fault for not planning properly and thinking I could manage more than I clearly could). Hyde Park is not for me.

I’d love to see Pearl Jam (and/or Eddie solo) live. But I also realise it might not happen.

So. Fandom.

Givony opens the book with this:

“First, a confession, and a caveat: I’ve only seen them fifty-seven times.

A confession, because to most well-adjusted people, this number will seem alternately obsessive, excruciating, or absurd…

And yet, a caveat. As far as Pearl Jam people go, I’m fairly middle of the road… There are people who would scoff at you for presuming to write a book after fifty-seven shows, and I don’t disagree; I’m embarrassed to be such a dilettante, myself.”

– Givony

I’m aware this is probably some kind of naïve blasphemy in the music world, but – for me – it was always the album that mattered (and now albums seem so old fashioned). The tour is an added bonus. I know touring is how musicians make money, and I’m most definitely not saying gigs don’t matter – as we all know (especially now), they really bloody do. I just can’t always get to them (and now no one can).

For years I’ve been happy listening to albums, watching concerts on YouTube and DVDs at home, and for many disabled people that might be their main or only engagement with music. I don’t see primarily listening to music at home as second-best, or a negative “atomised” relationship with music.

There is, of course, a whole other discussion to be had about how to better serve disabled people so that they can attend gigs (like anything else in society, access generally ranges from dire to patchy). Obviously, even with the best access in place, I still might not be able to attend a concert because I’m having a flare-up and can’t even get out of bed. But the access should be there. We don’t need charity or pity. We need good, easy, across-the-board access.

There’s been times where I’ve wished I could be in the scrum of it, but those days are over, and contemplation is actually probably my preferred way of experiencing a gig – sitting, slightly removed, soaking it all in. It keeps me from being overwhelmed and anxious, and now that I’m chronically ill, it will likely prevent a flare-up. My still contemplation is probably the opposite of what most bands want from their audience, but the rest of the crowd usually more than makes up for my stillness.

So, to get to the point: there’s all sort of reasons – ranging from disability to income – people might not be able to see their favourite band hundreds of times or even once. That doesn’t make them less of a fan. I listened to the isolated vocals of Alive 3,454 times and the line “Son she said” at least 12,392 times in a row (this may or may not be hyperbole. But it was a lot), not to mention obsessing over the way Ed sings the line “hold tight the ring” in the Unplugged version of Oceans, alongside the word ‘is’ in Who Ever Said (I know, I may need an intervention), and have almost exclusively listened to Pearl Jam for two years (my Suede fever aside). If this kind of slightly crazed behaviour doesn’t make me a 4Real* Fan, I don’t know what does.

Joking aside, I know why Givony opened the book that way, and I know what a huge role concerts play in fandom and how many people will do whatever it takes to get on that barrier. I also get that Givony was showing his credentials for writing the book, as a pre-emptive retort to any fans who may demand of him: “Why you?” Although, I really don’t think he needed to – the brilliance of the book itself is the answer to “Why you?” It is an interesting question, though: could a fan who has never seen them live write a book like this?

But my main point here is: let’s do away with gatekeeping and fan hierarchy. And ableds – help us push for better access.

(*I know – wrong band reference, but I had to get the Manics in somewhere)

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