August 13, 2012. 20 years ago today exactly, I should have been basking in the glow of seeing Pearl Jam the day prior on August 12, 1992 (Stanhope, NJ) and knowing I was about to drive the next day to experience them all over again on August 14, 1992 (Lake Fairfax, VA). There’s a saying that best describes how I now look back on that day, 20 years the wiser: “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry“.
While TwoFeetThick co-founder Jessica Letkemann talked about her PJ20 in My PJ20: Seeing Pearl Jam For The 1st Time 8/12/92, and the “serendipity” of her 20th anniversary, I’ll retell my story of the “stupidity” of my first live Pearl Jam experience.
As a Pearl Jam fan in August 1992, seeing them live was a long time coming. I had first heard “Alive” in August 1991 courtesy of WSOU (South Orange, NJ) college radio. I missed them for their November 1991 4-show run at Roseland in New York City because Ticketmaster (Ticketmaster the phone service, not the dot-com, kids) didn’t have them listed on the bill. I then missed Limelight 1992 because I was at college in PA and didn’t have a car to get there. I could have found a ride on Craig’s list, only problem was that Craig hadn’t come up with his idea for that list yet.
Fast-forward to Summer 1992. If you were a fan of alternative or grunge or whatever you wanted to call it, this was the peak of peaks. As a Led Zeppelin and classic rock fan, I yearned for a time in music history that I could feel was mine and the music pouring out of college radio and MTV in 1992 was an answer to that prayer. Everything sounded good, everything sounded right.
After Lollapalooza 1991 opened my mind to the excitement of festivals, I was stoked to hit the Lolla stop at Waterloo Village, Stanhope, NJ. There are two parts of New Jersey that you can call “the backwoods” of New Jersey – the very south and the very north. Stanhope is in this “very north”; it’s not near any major cities and is plagued by being only accessible via a two-lane country road.
Gearing up for this show, I had taken the day off (like the ticket said!), but decided to take my time getting there because I assumed the now popular Pearl Jam would be later on the bill. You had few ways of knowing back then, but I thought there as no way they’d be early on the bill – second on that main stage out of all the bands – right? Traffic couldn’t be that bad on Wednesday in Mid-August, right? I’d be able to see Pearl Jam later on this sunny August day, right?
So there I was on that day, August 12, 1992, around 2PM, stuck in car traffic on County Road 604, and as we rolled down our windows, we could hear song after song from Ten because, after all, Pearl Jam were second on the main stage bill. Cue sigh.
After parking, light frisking, and a mad dash to salvage some of the set, I was able to see a grand total of 10 seconds of “Rockin’ in the Free World”. Basically the “Thank you, good night” part of their set. With the stage engulfed in sunlight, Pearl Jam (and the crowd) looked hot, sweaty, and spent from maybe the best 1/2-hour of the day. I’ve heard a noisy tape of this set and yes, it did sound like a scorching set, and no, that doesn’t make me feel better. I later saw that Ed flew through the air after climbing the rigging. Nope, that didn’t make me feel better either.
Was I disappointed? Yes. The rest of the bill – Soundgarden, Ministry, Red Hot Chili Peppers was certainly great. But the only bright spot was that I would be travelling to Virginia to get my second chance at Pearl Jam.
At least that was the plan.
2nd Verse, Same as the First
This second trip 250 miles south to Lollapalooza in Lake Fairfax, Virginia, fell into place nicely. I was invited to stay with a college friend who had just moved down there and another friend (my now wife) asked to go as well because her cousin was a guitar tech for Ministry and saw this as a chance to see him during the tour. Great! Let’s get in a car and go.
Up early and at the venue, the tailgating scene was alive and kicking on this overcast day. Amongst friends, the cheap beer flowed and frisbees flew. “What time should we head in?” 1:30 PM was our goal, since we knew Pearl Jam went on shortly after that two days prior in Stanhope.
Around 1:20, someone asked, “Where is everybody?“. We were having so much fun, we didn’t realize that the parking area had cleared out except for a few tailgaters. Someone looked at their ticket and saw it said “12 noon” as the start time. 12 Noon? Huh? Apparently the show started two hours earlier than other shows because there was a night-time performance curfew at Lake Fairfax. Argh!!!!
On the fast-paced long walk to the venue, we started to hear – you guessed it – what sounded like Pearl Jam. A few more steps .. “Even Flow, thoughts arrive like butterflies ….“. Oh man, here we go again. A jog turned into a run, a run turned into a sprint. “I am not going to miss this again!” was my thought.
This venue was more of a grassy (now muddy) slope, and as I saw a mid-set Pearl Jam in the middle of “Even Flow”, I and my friends realized that we were all heading into the pit, would all get separated, and with each passing second would miss more Pearl Jam, so split up we did.
The first riffs of “Alive” started, and I prepared for takeoff. Not unlike the character in Pink Floyd’s “Learning to Fly” video, I found myself running as fast as I could towards the crowd, and when a huge wall of people were between me and the stage, the only direction to go was up, so that’s where I went.
Suddenly and predictably flailing and flailing over heads and hands towards the front of the crowd, the sheer volume of Pearl Jam’s song anthem came over me. For that crowd, for that age in 1992, “Alive” was our song, for our time. We didn’t fully know the dark background of the song just yet, and the energy and exuberance of the performance told us otherwise. I was riding high amongst the waves, years before the lyric was penned.
“Porch” was next up, and ended up being the single greatest one-song concert experience of my life to date. I knew it would be their last song. I knew I had just blown the opportunity to see two full sets in the past few days and would be left with only seeing two full songs.
Without bootlegs, the only live “Porch” versions I had seen/heard were Saturday Night Live in April and MTV Unplugged which aired in May. They seemed to jam it out a little, but I didn’t know what to expect live. When this “Porch” jam started, it rocketed from the stage with a power I had never felt. Stone and Mike were locked in (see video below at 2:08), and Dave and Jeff were driving the frantic pace.
The jam slowed and Ed started to move towards us on the right, and then it picked up again with Ed in full scream (4:00) leading up towards the outro of the jam. I knew this was gonna be it, and thrashed around with everyone else. “Hear my name, take a good look …”. Jeff is flying around bonkers (see 5:21).
Stone, then, does one of the most inexplicable things I’ve ever seen by smashing the lights out of a Les Paul (see 5:45). I was so close I remember flinching with every huge windmill stroke thinking I’d be stabbed by a piece of flying mahogany. From looking at the video again, it appears that Stone’s effort was ultimately futile because the mighty Les Paul may have been heavily damaged but appeared intact when the roadie took it off the stage. With mud flying towards the stage, they waved and hurried off. That was it.
The shock of only seeing two songs didn’t sink in, because each song to me felt like an entire set. Now alone, I was left to search around the venue for my lost friends. Remember, this was before cell phones (like, OMG, how did we ever survive?).
Back in these ancient times, a common place to meet up was the soundboard tower. As I mentioned, my (future) wife’s cousin was with Ministry’s crew, so I asked some long-haired guy on the tower “Do you know Paul ____?” Luckily he said “I’m Paul!”. He pulled me up onto the soundboard platform during Jesus and Mary Chain and I told him our story up until then. He asked where his cousin was, and I told him that we got split up and I didn’t know where she was. Almost at that moment, I see her on the side of the stage with Jesus and Mary Chain, squinting out at the audience. I start doing crazy jumping jacks to get her attention and with all the stage volume and amidst 20,000 people, she somehow sees me and realizes I’m with her cousin. A few minutes later, she joins us and we’re finally together to watch Soundgarden from the soundboard perch about 15 feet above the crowd.
“How’d you get backstage?” I ask. She said she just persuaded a guard to let her back and “Oh by the way, I met Eddie!“. W-w-what? “Yeah, he was a sweetheart“. Paul then had to go to work, but he gave us backstage passes courtesy of Ministry, and we headed back to watch their set.
With some time to space, we milled about. Backstage at a festival feels more like a construction site with all the trailers and equipment, so we felt a little out of place. We saw Jeff, Mike and Dave eating at a nearby table, but neither of us felt the urge to badger them.
Ed then came out of nowhere and towards us because we were near the main stage. He waved at my (future) wife who waved back, as if they had been life-long friends, and I turned to her with a look of disbelief. She then pushed me forward as he approached, saying “Say ‘hi’, go for it“. Like a total blob of mush, I nervously introduced myself and told him how much I liked their band and he was really appreciative. I also mentioned how I had heard “Footsteps” a few weeks earlier on Rockline and told him that my friend and I had practiced and recorded it. “Can you send me a tape?” he said. Huh? Me? Send you a tape? This was pretty much the last thing I remembered from our brief conversation because it floored me. Here was one of the biggest figures in music at the time, and me – the dorkiest fan in the world – and he’s the one who wants to hear my amateur tape.
20 years later this is a story that no Pearl Jam fan would doubt, yet at the time it left me in shock and it was difficult for others to believe. Time after time, we’ve heard similar stories that show the band’s long-term appreciation of its fans. We’ve heard how Ed would read every fan letter that came in. We know that they were as accessible to fans as they could be until the public pressure got too much. Back in 1992, all of this surprised me, yet now, none of this surprises me, and it’s one of the reasons why they’re still around.
Since then, I’ve seen Pearl Jam many times in the NY/NJ/PA area, and most recently a jaunt to PJ20 at Alpine Valley in 2011. With twenty years in the Ten Club, I’ve been fortunate to see them up close in fan club seats, about as close as that first live experience during “Porch” twenty years ago today.
The one thing I realize after 20 years, is that you can choose to remember what you missed or what you saw. I’ll remember what I saw, and I won’t soon forget it. Without the aid of quickshot cameras and smartphones, I have unforgettable visual memories of seeing Pearl Jam perform, albeit for a total of less than 15 minutes. As for what I don’t remember, there’s YouTube
I don’t have any regrets after only seeing them play two songs in the span of two shows. Nowadays, I just make sure to get into the venue nice and early.