Everyday I Read The Book-- Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation by Steven Hyden
My favorite music writer takes on one of the great rock bands of the 90s and beyond
I brought him up when considering what kickstarted my Grateful Dead phase (which is, I might add, still going strong),
but Steven Hyden is one of my favorite music writers working today. His stuff on UPROXX is always great and the two books I’ve read by him thus far (Your Favorite Band is Killing Me and Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock) are also worthy of praise. Needless to say, I was intrigued when I heard about his latest book, Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation.
When I “came of age,” it was in the aftermath of the grunge movement but that stuff was still very much in the air and our ears. I’m pretty solidly, both in terms of my age and my temperament, a millennial but I feel like I’ve taken on a lot of the affect and influence of Generation X. I think the appreciation for alternative/grunge, when it might have been something that was considered a little passé for others growing up along with me, was a part of that.
Hyden’s book was thus a no-brainer for me to check out and one that I made my way through in about a day. Long Road was certainly informative and gave me quite a few different avenues to head down regarding my Pearl Jam listening. I’m definitely not in the upper echelons when it comes to Pearl Jam connoisseurs. I know the hits, as well as just about everything on Ten. I’ve seen them once in concert (June 1st 2003 in Mountain View, CA) but I’m certainly no expert. Thus, learning more about their arc as a band was incredibly helpful as well as pointing me towards songs that, in my cursory knowledge, I really hadn’t spent much time with was something I was looking for.
But, interestingly enough, that wasn’t really the major concern or aims of the book. On the one hand, that was a little frustrating because I probably wanted more of that than anything else and that specific itch or need wasn’t addressed. On the other hand, it made Long Road a much more interesting read (why I could power through it in about a day). The book wasn’t so much about Pearl Jam as it was about Pearl Jam relative to the other era-defining and sound-creating groups in the history of popular music. Though I might have liked more of a proper “biography” of Pearl Jam, this was probably more stimulating. Instead of just learning something new about Pearl Jam, I better understood how Pearl Jam fit into the larger narrative of rock/music, not just seeing them as a grunge band or a 90s/alternative band, but rather as one of the great groups in the great firmament of musical history.
I particularly enjoyed Hyden’s gestures to bands like The Who and the Grateful Dead (appropriately enough) for groups that either influenced Pearl Jam and their approach or help us better think about the guys from Seattle. I knew about the Who’s influence on Pearl Jam (I knew they’d covered some Who songs in concert and it’s pretty easy to see how Pearl Jam was influenced by the Who in terms of how and what they play). The Dead are a little more interesting and their influence is not so much sonic (though Stone Gossard and Mike McCready can certainly shred and jam with the best of them) but in their approach to being this long-lasting and hard-working band.
In the way that any book about a band ends up being primarily about the most charismatic or important figure, inevitably this book ends up become as much about Eddie Vedder as about Pearl Jam. This is to be expected. You see the same thing in books about the Grateful Dead, you’re just going to end up talking a lot about Jerry Garcia (and rightfully so). I do think Hyden resists the temptation to make it JUST about Vedder and gives you more about the other members of the band (including their lineage of drummers) but there’s only so much one can do.
But I think it’s the ability to contextualize and analyze that makes Hyden such a great writer and that’s what he does best in Long Road. You get that understanding of what makes Pearl Jam who they are and why they’ve been so successful for so long and you understand the context in which they emerged and through which they remain. It’s a book that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in rock history, in music of the 1990s, or just in good writing about music. Long Road is another example of why Steven Hyden is one of the best music writers out there as he adds another stellar entry to his growing bookshelf.
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Thanks for putting this on my radar; it sounds like a great book! I would've gone in looking for something more biographical too (I'm specifically curious about the "middle" era of the band when records like Riot Act & No Code were released).
It's interesting to me that they've had such an outsized influence on music, but also seem just under the radar no matter how many millions of records they've sold. I mean, outside of Seattle, I'm willing to bet Mike McCready or Stone Gossard could walk into a store unrecognized.
I hadn't given much thought to The Who's influence on them, but now that you mention it, I think(??) they've played a track by the band each time I've seen them. One was a killer version of Baba O'Riley with Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen at a show in Milwaukee. I'm off to Setlist to see if I can confirm that.