Pearl Jam and 9/11: A Reflection

By: Nick Smith | September 11, 2021
Pearl Jam & 9/11 New York City

Finding hope in the darkness of tragedies has always been an integral component of Pearl Jam, and why, at least in part, many of us have connected with them on a deeper emotional level compared to other artists. From the inception of the band following the death of Andrew Wood, to the Mamasan trilogy born out of a lifetime of pain, the band has been able to find universal appeal through their ability to not only express those feelings but help us all find a way through our own points when we’re at our lowest.

How many times has a song like “Release” or “Present Tense” been seen as a healing moment for their fans, showing that no one goes through any hardship alone? It’s always a group effort. Which is why when America was going through one of its roughest periods in recent memory, many of us looked to the band to be a supportive presence and a light when things looked their darkest.

Any discussion of 9/11 and Pearl Jam has to begin roughly a year earlier. This refers to that fateful concert on June 30, 2000 and the nine lives lost at the Roskilde festival. Looking back, the continuation of the American tour in 2000 under such a cloud shows the resiliency of the band to come together and try to find some light in those dark times. On the first night of the tour in a Virginia Beach hotel room, Ed expressed his sorrow by penning the lyrics to what would later become “I Am Mine.”

And the meaning it gets left behind.
All the innocents lost at one time
Significant, behind the eyes
There’s no need to hide
We’re safe tonight

It is easy to see how he was feeling in the aftermath of the band’s experience following Roskilde, however, those lines would prove universal in just over a year’s time when we all needed to be reminded of the importance of safety and fragility of life.

It’s over a year after Roskilde when the tragedies of 9/11 take place. The country is in turmoil and looking for more answers than asking questions. One of the most fascinating aspects when thinking of how the band responded is their contribution to America: A Tribute to Heroes with the incredibly poignant “Long Road”.

Ed originally wanted to play John Lennon’s politically charged “Gimme Some Truth.” A mere 10 days following such a brutal and tragic day, he saw the writing on the wall of how this was going to spin into a nationwide frenzy, and that the “truth” was going to be repressed. In the end, the right decision was made. It’s a beautifully haunting performance enhanced by Neil Young’s accompaniment on organ and backing vocals, capturing exactly how many of us felt in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. It may have taken some time for each of us to realize that the truth was going to be harder to come by as the days and months went by.

The first full band appearance after the attack would take place at Neil and Pegi Young’s Bridge School Benefit on October 20th and 21st of 2001. The history of the acoustic Bridge School shows have such an interesting presence in Pearl Jam’s lineage, seemingly happening either at the end of a tour run or during a year without a tour at all. During 2001, the band took a break from the road in order to refresh after everything that happened the prior year.

Night one began with the aforementioned “Long Road,” which repeats the theme of the gravity of loss. However, the band is now given a chance to play “Gimme Some Truth” which was performed at both shows, leaving no doubt of what was on their minds. Each night also featured a brand new song titled “Last Soldier,” a beautiful Mike McCready song with amazingly predictive lyrics of what the next few years would bring.

The oath I took not so seriously
The world’s gathered steam and caught up with me
And my decision has been made, from some other place
By someone I don’t know and they don’t know me

The song would be played on one other occasion, at the IMPACT awards in 2004. It would never see an official studio release, but the Bridge School performance would be made available via the Ten Club Christmas Singles. It was a key indication that this would be the next direction for the future of the band’s lyrical and socio-political content.

Unbeknownst to the fans at the time, the band was hard at work early in 2002 on their new album. The preceding two years certainly formed much of what would become Riot Act. Along with the first single, the previously mentioned “I Am Mine,” songs like “Love Boat Captain” and the prayer-like “Arc” set the tone for a band that was dealing with not only its own traumatic experience, but a nation that felt like it was on the brink. Leaving no doubt in their views regarding the nation’s leadership, “Bu$hleaguer” would become a flashpoint for those whose patriotism blinded the future outlook of our world.

The album, released on November 12, 2002, was followed by four shows in Seattle before a massive world tour in 2003 beginning in Australia and Japan. This coincided with the US invasion of Iraq in March of that year. In addition to “Gimme Some Truth,” Ed borrowed a more recognized song from John Lennon early in the tour, debuting “Give Peace a Chance” in Adelaide that February. As dissenting opinions on the imminent war were not exactly welcome or shared universally, the band continued to speak their minds. Other protest songs were implemented on this tour such as the animus and irate “Know Your Rights,” originated by The Clash, and the more popularized Creedence Clearwater Revival anti-war song “Fortunate Son.”

Those who didn’t share their anti-war stance, nor their feelings about the leadership directing the war, would certainly not go quiet. Along with the lyrical content of “Bu$hleaguer,” Ed brought a theatrical element to the song when playing it live. He arrived on stage in a mask depicting then-President George W. Bush, performing stunts such as drinking out of a wine bottle and, at times, making out with it. A newspaper reported that there was a walk-out at the first US show in Denver during the performance, which has always been a bit overstated, but the author’s disgust of Ed’s “impaling” of the mask on a mic stand has stood to define the outrage. The stance across most of the country was wrapped in patriotism and did not look kindly on those with dissenting opinions.

It would hit a peak, or nadir if you will, at their show at Nassau Coliseum in New York on April 30. It’s interesting to note that the show opens up with “Long Road” as a way to pay tribute to the lives that were lost a mere 30 miles away in Manhattan, but that sentiment was quickly lost, or perhaps undiscovered, by the Long Islanders in attendance. Opening the second encore, Ed performed the “Bu$hleaguer” routine in full force with mask and sequined jacket in tow. The crowd infamously responded by showering them with boos, chants of “play rock ‘n roll” and worst of all, hurled quarters towards their direction on stage. Ed was visibly frustrated, but addressed the situation the only way he knew how.

“I don’t understand. Maybe you like him because he’s gonna give you a tax cut. Maybe you like him because he is a real guy, that relates to you, because he is so down home. I just think that all of us in this room should have a voice in how the USA is represented. And he didn’t allow us our voice. That’s all I’m saying. We love America. I am standing on a stage in front of a big crowd. I worked in a good damn drug store. I love America, right? This is good, this is open, honest debate, and that’s what it should be. If you keep this back and forth, good things will happen. If you don’t say anything, you don’t know what will happen. Because we are on the brink of forever. And if we don’t participate in where this thing is going, when we are the number one super power in the world, you want to have a part in it and make sure it is a good thing, yeah? Plus or minus, be active. This is a good thing.”

Music and art are often the vehicle for challenging the status quo and offering opinions that vast audiences may not be ready to experience. This was true that night on Long Island. From public comments, the band internally were not on the same page regarding their thoughts about stirring up such a hornet’s nest. Jeff Ament was quoted in the Pearl Jam Twenty book saying “we got booed standing up for something we wholeheartedly believed in.” He continues, “but I was totally fine with it. I was ready to go out and open up with that fucking song every night. I was proud of it. I wasn’t going to be a part of something and then take it back.”

But Mike’s experience may sum up what exactly was going on in the country at that time. In the PJ20 documentary, he stated that there was an FDNY firefighter in front holding up their badge that he witnessed during the turmoil. “It was such a bad time in American history in my mind, and we were just trying to say what we thought” Mike shares.

The nation was still grieving the loss experienced on that fateful day two years earlier in such a way that they couldn’t identify that their grief and anger were being used to sell a war, where in turn, more Americans would die. Their lack of perception blinded the fact that the band was firmly grieving alongside them, only outraged that a platform meant for entertainment purposes was used as a form of protest.

The band would find redemption with New Yorkers later that summer at Madison Square Garden. It was their first trip to New York City since September 11th, and right from the top of the show, they showed a sign of solidarity within their performance of “Love Boat Captain”:

“I know it’s already been sung, but it can’t be said enough all you need is love.”

How you deal with tragedy and grief is not through acting out in anger, but through love and compassion. The band realized this in their own lives following the horrible night in Denmark, and were trying to impart that wisdom on a country that was going through our own collective horror and tragedy. It’s unclear how many of us were listening at the time or hear the message 20 years later. That’s why art and music are often beacons in the darkness, shining a light to show us the way. A band from a city far away from the epicenter of 9/11 became such a light that fans desperately needed, and has since translated that healing power to other American and worldwide tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina, the Paris terrorist attacks, countless American school shootings and many more.

As a postscript to come full circle while we remember this day, the ten year anniversary of 9/11, Pearl Jam played one of their best shows of the decade, which once again paid tribute with a performance of “Long Road,” and were later joined by Neil Young during “Rockin’ In The Free World.”

Nick Smith

Writer & Contirbutor

I still remember the night as a 14 year old when a friend gave me a CD to listen to and the first notes of “Once” were so powerful it took hours to move on to “Even Flow.” Needless to say I was hooked for life. Since the age of 18, when I skipped school twice to get tickets, my never ending quest to see the band that changed my life as much as I could was on. Pearl Jam has been the constant companion on this crazy trip called life. Still hoping for a swig off the wine bottle, Bugs, and to be at a Buenos Aires show. I’d totally give the tambourine away to a kid, maybe mine someday.

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