Riot Act: Tragedies, War, and Pearl Jam in the 21st Century
“Riots are the language of the unheard.”
Pearl Jam had hit rock bottom commercially by the beginning of the 21st century. Binaural was a mixed bag — to fans and critics alike — and they also faced a changing musical world. Grunge bands like Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, and Nirvana had all broken up, and boy bands like *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys were on the rise.
The response to Binaural didn’t hurt a band like Pearl Jam, but some fans were definitely lost because of that album. But on a bigger scale, Pearl Jam was facing:
- A changing world, entering into the 21st century.
- A new drummer, Matt Cameron, who was on his first studio outing with the band.
- Eddie Vedder’s writers block.
- Mike McCready’s entrance into rehabilitation because of prescription drugs.
And yet, all of those problems were dwarfed by the Roskilde tragedy that occurred on June 30th, 2000. During the Pearl Jam performance at the festival, fans rushed the stage, trampling and killing nine fans. They ended up cancelling the remaining European tour dates.
In the face of such adversity, most any other band would have called it quits. And no one would have blamed them. But Pearl Jam stuck through.
After touring North America from August until November of 2000, the band took a break. Not only was a new century unfolding, but a new presidency was also taking shape. The tour in North America ended the night of the Presidential election in 2000 and it looked like Al Gore was going to win…until Florida decided to change its mind. After many recounts and lawsuits, the Supreme Court finally weighed in and decided that the votes had been counted and the presidency was won by George W. Bush, who would be the 43rd President of the United States.
In the beginning, George Bush had a normal presidency. The country wasn’t at war, the economy was in good shape. There was some tension, as the Republican Party believed that Bill Clinton should have been impeached because of the scandals that were in his second term. There were also a plethora of domestic issues that George Bush wanted to focus on. All of that changed on September 11th, 2001.
Three thousand Americans were dead. A world landmark, the World Trade Center, was destroyed and the Pentagon had been damaged. The country, almost immediately and overnight, was craving to go to war. We didn’t even know who did it, or how, but America was on the hunt.
Pearl Jam seemed to be on the hunt, as well.
The performance of “Long Road” on the Tribute to Heroes broadcast was, and still is, incredibly sad and moving. Eddie, Mike, and Neil all surrounded by candles, in a dimly lit room, pouring their heart and soul into this one performance. Later that month, America found its targets: Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden. Al-Qaeda. Instantly, all three became household names.
Recording for Riot Act took place in early 2002, mostly in the months of February, April, and May. Pearl Jam went back to what it does in the studio, but also brought the outside world into it. Themes, meanings, and intentions of songs were extremely poignant. “Love Boat Captain” makes a direct reference to the nine lives lost at Roskilde. “Cropduster” could be in reference to George Bush, “Ghost” reminds me of a soldier and their thoughts, with lines like “The TV, she talks to me…” and “I’ve seen it all before…bring it on, cause I’m no victim.” “I Am Mine“, as Eddie said before the start of the song in Madison Square Garden in 2003, is about “personal safety and the thought of being secure, or even free.” “Green Disease” discusses the greed of corporations, “Help, Help” is about manufacturing consent and being stuck in a position of always being lied to. Lines like “Tell me, what I want to hear…this shit’s too good to be true, my dear,” and “Tell me less, tell me less, tell me lies.” My personal favorites “100 thieves, cast a spell, this is hell,” and “The man they call my enemy, I see it in his eyes, he looks just like me, a mirror. The more you read, we’ve been deceived, every day, it becomes clearer.” “Bu$hleaguer” is painfully obvious, “½ Full” is about the responsibility the world has to each other, and “All or None” is a Stone-penned, bleak view at the world and a great closer for this album.
Pearl Jam wasn’t the only band to voice its opinion at the time either. Green Day’s American Idiot and Bad Religion’s The Empire Strikes First, both released in 2004, take blatant and powerful shots at the Bush presidency, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq. There were two volumes of Rock Against Bush, among other forms of protest, and Pearl Jam wouldn’t have felt out of place among the punk bands included.
The tour for Riot Act started in Oceania in early 2003. Around the same time was the biggest anti-war march to ever take place in history. Multiple countries protested against the beginning stages of the War in Iraq. The first US show of the tour set the stage for how the rest of the tour would unfold. April 1st, 2003, in Denver, Colorado saw Pearl Jam be incredibly vocal and outspoken about the Bush presidency during the show, with songs taking a very heavy political slant. Then, Eddie came out in a sparkling silver suit, and everything changed. At this show, they played “Bu$hleaguer” for the first time somewhere in the States other than Seattle, and got a very negative reaction. The most famous piece of criticism came from a newspaper that said Eddie “impaled” a Bush mask onto the microphone stand. The setlists started to include some very obvious political cover songs, including “Fortunate Son,” “I Am A Patriot,” “Know Your Rights,” and “Gimme Some Truth.”
This political discussion and anti-war stance all boiled over on April 30th, 2003. For the first song in the second encore, Pearl Jam played “Bu$hleaguer,” mask and all. During the song, multiple people throughout Nassau Coliseum started booing. Multiple members of the band remember that performance as the scariest moment they have ever had on stage. After the song, Eddie did Eddie’s thing, and went on a rant about the power every voice has and that we need to use it.
Pearl Jam would finish out the Riot Act tour after visiting basically every city in America. The band would have done one of its biggest tours since 1992, with an astonishing 77 shows throughout all of 2003. The end of the year also saw two compilation albums, Rearviewmirror, a greatest hits album, and Lost Dogs, a b-sides, outtakes and rarities album.
If Pearl Jam was voicing their opinions throughout 2003, they were about to be screaming in 2004. While no new album or huge tour was planned, the Presidential election was right around the bend. Pearl Jam partnered up with some big names: Bruce Springsteen, REM, Neil Young, and the Chicks, among others, to tour key swing states in the 2004 presidential election. By the end of the tour, the election was right around the corner. Their efforts were in vain, however. George W. Bush would go on to win a second term in office.
Pearl Jam would go on and continue their activism in 2006 with a self-titled album and a world tour. But what happened in 2003 was special. I know some people like politics and music to be separate, and that’s fine. However, music is an expressive art form. If someone is upset or they need to vent, music is one of the best ways to do it. Everyone’s 1st Amendment rights are important, and what you get when people feel unheard is a riot act.