Pearl Jam’s Many Fast Cars: On The Road with ‘MFC’ & Other Car Songs

by Rich Wilson on February 20, 2014

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“MFC” is now officially old enough to drive: it was 16 years ago today that Pearl Jam first took the “Yield” song out for its road test, premiering it live on Feb. 20, 1998 in Hawaii. TFT now celebrates the song’s 16th live birthday with a guest post from PJ fan Rich Wilson (@RTW702) delving into “MFC” and its PJ ‘car song’ brethren.

Pearl Jam MFC sticker 1998 Pearl Jam used a mini fast car with an “MFC” license plate on one of its 1998 tour stickers.

Artists of all disciplines fixate on themes occasionally. Whether it’s a painter who continually paints the same face or a writer who talks endlessly about bullfights and safaris, dwelling on themes and motifs is a time-honored practice.  By that metric, Pearl Jam fits right in with the likes of Dali, Rubens or Hemingway as they, too, find themes to revisit. There’s no question that one such reoccurring theme in the Pearl Jam catalog are the ‘car songs’; “Rearviewmirror”, “MFC” and “Gone.”

While these songs come from different periods in the band’s creative lifetime and they illuminate Eddie Vedder’s ever-changing lyrical outlook/approach, they also share commonalities beyond simply being tunes focused on driving.  So please, come ride shotgun and hang your arm out the window as we take a look at the model years 1993, 1998 (having revisited December of 1996) and 2005.

Keeping history in mind, 1993 came on the heels of the busies touring year in Pearl Jam history. 1992 was the only time PJ played more than 100 shows in a year. When they did play their first show in 1993, it was an instant classic. Playing under the pseudonym, “The David J. Gunn Band” (David Gunn was a doctor murdered by an anti-abortion ‘activist’), at Slim’s Café in San Francisco. The show, post-facto, would be notable for a number of different reasons:  eight songs from Vs. making their debut along with “Whipping” and “Better Man.”

The other big take-away from Slims’, historically, was Ed picking up a guitar. Starting with this show, the trend of EV manning a guitar would only be more and more prevalent at Pearl Jam shows. While we all know that “Better Man” dates back even before Ed’s days playing with Bad Radio, neither “Whipping” nor “Rearviewmirror” were born in the ’80s. Songs like those would provide a glimpse into the power the band would now be able to harness regularly. The presence of the third guitar not only helped to thicken the sound it also created more freedom for Stone Gossard.

The first “Rearviewmirror” performance predated the album it would appear on by five months and six days.  In fact, each of the car songs debuted live prior to the album release. Live, “Rearviewmirror” sounded very much like what would appear on Vs. months later.  The main riff and the interplay of all three guitars would be nearly identical and the lyrics were nearly all the same as well.  The only parts that differed were the choruses, which sound like they are being worked out as Ed sang them that first time.

The lyrical content of the song coupled with the velocity and urgency of the repeated guitar riff worked together to created a landscape.  As Ed shared the story of somebody using a car as a ‘Deus ex Machina’ to escape the clutches of abuse, even those of us from relatively happy homes felt empathy when considering lines like: “Fist on my plate, swallowed it down…” and “wounds in the mirror waved, it wasn’t my surface, most defiled…”

“Rearviewmirror” would closely match the forthcoming studio version as far as the length of the song too.  Initial offerings, studio and live, were all around 4:41. Later, the song would transform into transcendent 7-8 minute versions as it continued to evolve on stage.

The band would also play quite a bit with the song’s placement in the setlist.  “RVM,” in 93 and 94, would often find itself towards the beginning of the set, sometimes even as the opener.  While it would also serve as an opener much later – for example on Oct. 28, 2000 in California — the tendency became for it to be more of a main-set closer.

In 2000, “RVM” was almost always coupled with “Insignificance” (another EV-on-guitar song) and this powerful combo was used to close MANY a main set on the Binaural tour, a trend begun at the June 4, 2000 show in London.  “RVM” and “Insig” were lassoed together before that, but not as the closers of the main set.  By my count, closing a main set with this pairing happened 13 times in 76 shows (17% of the time).  Several more times they were played next to each other and followed by “Porch” but still in the closing spots.  Oct. 24, 2000 featured those two but subbed “Parting Ways” for “Porch.”  Adding those instances with the 13 times “RVM/Insig” were literally the final three songs, those song swere among the last 3 songs in the main set nearly 20 times, or a quarter of the Binaural tour.

The 2000 versions were also among the longest versions of the song.  Can the trippy noise jams in the middle that year be attributed to their time on the road with Sonic Youth? You be the judge.  What is clear is that “Rearviewmirror” would be the only of the threesome to be extended to such lengths.

“MFC” held to the tradition of its predecessor by debuting prior to the “Yield” album release.  While Pearl Jam’s live premiere of this song officially took place on Feb. 20, 1998 in Hawaii, but the first known time the song was ever played was *years* ahead of the album release. Eddie Vedder actually premiered the song on Dec. 4, 1996 separately from Pearl Jam. Ed played an unannounced show on that date at the Goa Club in Rome, backed by some Italian friends.

Ed’s Goa set consisted of awesome cover songs and Pearl Jam songs that Ed played guitar on. Smack dab in the middle of this setlist came the “MFC” debut amidst several other EV-on-guitar PJ songs. Ed introduced the song by saying: “This is new song. New song. New song.  My favorite song right now.  It was written in Rome. It’s about a car.”

With that, Ed and his two impromptu Italian bandmates Fausto and Francesco launched into the blistering first version of “MFC” to ever be performed for an audience.  The music itself was quite close to the version that would be presented to nearly two years later.  The only big differences being that the drums actually start the song rather than Ed’s guitar and, of course, there was only one guitar in this version – not three.

The lyrics Eddie sang at Goa, however, differed greatly from the final studio version:

“Driving under a special blue sky…
These wheels moving dark into light
The ______________
The only patches of road
Still are gliding
I wanna say they like wine
We rode and my happiness sighed
There’s no need to fear
No traffic here
I feel so clear
Only smile cuz I’m with my girl – friend
We’re driving these roads once again
When everything works out
I feel LUCKY…
There’s no need to fear
No seatbelts here
I feel so clear
There’s no assholes here
No need to swear
Just you my dear
Friend in your new car…”

The thematic differences, lyrically, are a far cry from what was uttered in “Rearviewmirror.” While “RVM” really only makes mention of the abused and the abuser, once the abuser flees – there is nobody else in the car.  “MFC” as it was originally performed is a clear deviation, a completely different story. Appearing to be a celebration of a couple getting to spend time together, in a fun/small car, in a place they both cherish.

The lyrics would come to change in the time leading up to the release of Yield.  The use of “she” in the final lyrics could be seen as the car itself or perhaps the other half of the couple, an ambiguity in the newer version that still offerrs up a similar feeling.

“MFC” is a much shorter song than “Rearviewmirror,” even before “Rearviewmirror” was stretched out in live jams.  The big difference between is the presence of somebody else to take part in the escapist narrative within.  “MFC” seeks a companion.  These pleas for companionship were further fleshed out in the Improv or Untitled =>MFC phenomena that would soon unfold.

In 1998, there were four versions of “MFC” that featured a preamble. It first happened in Missoula (June 20, 1998), this version features no lyrics and is really just an instrumental lead-in to the song.  The music in this version would not really share much with the versions thereafter.  The final three versions happened at Alpine Valley (6/27/98 ), Virginia Beach (9/7/98) and then the “Live on Two Legs” version from Columbia, Maryland (9/18/98).

The biggest similarity between the three is the notion of wanting somebody to come along.  “I wanna go, but I don’t want to go alone,” is repeated in the 6/27/98 version as well as the 9/18/98 version.  9/7/98’s offering featured a line saying: “You made up for all of my bad days…”

All versions after 1998 closely resemble the 9/18/98 version with the exception of Ed playing games with the number of minutes in the “I can be there in 23 minutes or so,” line.  Below is the version from the 10th anniversary show (10/22/00) featured on “Touring Band 2000″ (“29 minutes or so…”)

“MFC” does have the vehicular/escapist themes in it, but again, it is more hopeful, and not nearly as dark as what is unearthed while listening to “Rearviewmirror.”  Both do a wonderful job of conveying the feeling of velocity with the main riffs they are derived from.  In his “Single Video Theory” interview from the “Yield” era, Ed proclaimed that the song was about getting in a car and getting the fuck out of a bad situation.  But to me, it just doesn’t come across as nearly as desperate an escape as the one “Rearviewmirror” detailed.

Pearl Jam Setlist July 11, 1998 Pearl Jam’s Setlist on July 11, 1998 included both “Rearviewmirror” and “MFC

Both of these songs were tried in many different places in the setlists of Pearl Jam shows.  While the bulk of “MFC” performances come in the middle of a main set in a group of Ed on guitar songs, but it has also made appearances as an opener. One such example was the vastly underrated 7/11/98 show in Las Vegas.

While “MFC” was a staple in the live shows during the Yield and Binaural tours, it has become increasingly more rare with each passing year.  It is by no means as scarce as “Fatal” or “Other Side”, however, you can’t really count on hearing it night in/night out anymore.

The third ‘car song’ also debuted at a small show. Somewhat unexpectedly, in 2005, Pearl Jam announced that they were playing two shows in Atlantic City at the Borgata casino. In was within those walls that “Gone” was not only debuted, but where it was written as well.

As Ed related to those in attendance that night, and was reinforced with information on the holiday single… “Gone” was written on September 30, 2005 in room #1152 at the Borgata hotel. The song was actually performed the second night, October 1, 2005.

From the very beginning, “Gone” differed from “Rearviewmirror” and “MFC” in that it is much more of a ballad that builds to a crescendo than a straight forward rocker, like the other two. It does keep with the car song tradition of debuting long before the album it would appear on, the album it appears on — “Pearl Jam” (aka “Avocado”) — didn’t come out until May 2006.

The lyrics of “Gone” are very straightforward. Ed tells the story of somebody disenchanted with the “American Dream” who wants to run away to no specific destination in order to find a sense of belonging.  “If nothing is everything, I’ll have it all.”  This song is not about flight from abuse or a romantic escape in a fun little car in Rome.  “Gone” is the story of somebody who has been worn down to a nub and now sees fleeing in a car as their only chance to become what they were meant to be.

“Gone” only found itself as a staple on setlists on the Avacado tour in ’06. Every following year of its existence, it would be played fewer than five times a tour, if at all.  In this way, “Gone” is the least played of the three songs and, according to the numbers, not as heavily in the band’s rotation.

Can meaning be derived from looking at all three of these songs together?  Surely we can conclude that great things happen when Pearl Jam plays in tiny clubs or smaller than average venues.  There are few things in music fandom that create more awe than witnessing the maiden voyage of a new song.  It is quite the experience for newbie and hardcore fans alike with no one able to sing along this time, because Ed’s got that new flava for your ears.

Thus far in PJ history, the band has only played all three of these car songs together at one show.  That was the Sept. 2, 2006 festival show in Vitoria, Spain.  The songs were not played in succession and the fledgling bootleg-ologists of the world haven’t chosen to focus on this show as meaningful.

Personally, this combination Pearl Jam/car enthusiast is waiting for the songs to not only be played at the same show, but be played in succession in the setlist – like the ‘man’ trilogy or Mamasan, for that matter.  That’s a show I hope to attend, of course, I hope to make them all. What better place for car songs than on the road? See you guys out there.

Rich Wilson

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