Pearl Jam Vitalogy: Origins from the Road
The Earliest Days of Vitalogy Tracks
“These are the words…these are the words to a new song.” It is late in the evening, November 16, 1993, at the UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans. Pearl Jam is supporting the album Vs., released a few weeks earlier. Naturally, you might be thinking, big deal, all the songs were relatively new. But when Eddie Vedder rattles those words out with a Gene Wilder-as-Willy Wonka-channeled sarcasm, he is setting the stage for the premiere of “Last Exit,” the lead track on the bands 3rd record, that would be released over a year later on November 22, 1994.
When the band waltzes into this live performance of “Last Exit,” every track on the record Vs. had been played live at least 1 time. Seven of the Vs. songs were debuted at a small club in San Francisco called Slim’s (which unfortunately closed on March 18, 2020) in May 1993. Three other tracks were first played in Missoula, Montana in June. “Daughter” made its debut at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit on November 1, 1992. “Leash” was, of course, even earlier, having debuted on November 9, 1991.
Meanwhile, “Last Exit” was not the first Vitalogy track performed live by the band. “Better Man” and “Whipping” also made their first appearances at the infamous Slim’s performance. This was just the way in the early days of Pearl Jam. One suspects this approach was at least partly driven by a sense of carpe diem, don’t let pass a moment with the muse you may never have again. Still, in some small measure, one must imagine it was a way to drive their manager, producer, and more so their label, a little bit bonkers. No rules. Or at least, spare us the rules. It is not an album tour, it is a live concert.
Some of that spark of being in the moment is born of the bands that Pearl Jam themselves admired as young fans. Getting a bootleg of something raw and unearthed was like a badge, a prime piece of your musical shelf. Pearl Jam has built a lot of their good will with the fanbase by not forgetting that.
Album Release & a Highly Anticipated Journey to “Spin the Black Circle”
Vitalogy’s initial release was vinyl-only, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 1994. The CD came a couple of weeks after, in early December. I was in my senior year of college. Myself and my very good friend Vin drove from Long Island, where we lived at the time, to our campus townhouse at Le Moyne College in East Syracuse on Saturday the 26th of November. The sole purpose of this journey was meeting up with our friend Joe to listen to the vinyl copy of Vitalogy he purchased earlier that week.
By the time we sat down and the needle was dropped on side A, each of us had heard five of the album’s fourteen tracks, often via bootlegs, as early as the spring of 1994. Another track was in heavy rotation for the previous month from a highly coveted Bridge School bootleg. Still two more, in studio form, were released as the lead single on November 8th, “Spin the Black Circle” backed with “Tremor Christ.” That is all to say, all things being equal, one could infer there was not a ton of mystery here. But with Pearl Jam, you would have to be a total cynic or not care about the process, the idea of an album and the album art was an important part of the experience. And without much question, Vitalogy was their first foray into an album as a bigger thing than just the music.
A Metaphor for Surviving Success?
Vitalogy, the album, takes its packaging aesthetic and general vibe from a home health encyclopedia of the same name, first published in 1899 and then updated in 1930. It is an odd collection of tips, remedies and things that perhaps seemed sane in 1899. But it was a great metaphor for the searing and tumultuous spotlight the band, and most notably Vedder, found themselves in. How this book became the thesis around which they packaged their thoughts during this era is still anyone’s guess. The band infamously was not doing much press at the time, at least not willingly or intentionally. But if you go back to a rather historic show in Indio, California, there is that not-insignificant moment when Vedder addresses being given a book by a fan and asked “if I wanted to know the secret to living forever.” The book is tossed into the crowd and he quips “why the fuck would I want to live forever?” It has always seemed too perfect a coincidence to me that this occurred right as Vitalogy was in its earliest stages. Perhaps it was mere happenstance, but it is a question I would ask if I ever had the chance.
In any case, a band trying to cope with the trappings of success and the pitfalls of achieving their wildest dreams certainly could not have found a better metaphor for “we are not gurus, we are just a band” than a bizarre quasi-health almanac from the turn of the century.
An Authentic, Unpolished Creative Process
Vitalogy is raw, bare-bones Pearl Jam. There is little in the way of studio processing or gloss, it was meant to sound live and real, an extension of how Vs. was recorded, but even more straightforward. Recorded in what I would describe as a direct contrast to the comfort and trappings that seemed to trouble Vedder during the Vs. sessions, just open the gatefold if you own the vinyl. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this single image could write a book.
Vitalogy is also colored by the time of year it was recorded: fall, winter, and early spring. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area that still experiences seasons, I think you can understand the general metaphor. The landscape can be simultaneously stunning yet sparse, dark but with interesting breaks of light. There are also elements of where it was recorded and where the songs saw their first light. It is a record to me in which the final product mirrors not only the sessions that went into it, but the road feel, and moreover, the road testing of the material.
The Best of Early Vitalogy From the Road
There are no shortage of great examples of the songs on this record throughout the band’s live concert history. I would like to submit that the earliest takes of the songs proper are a complement worth seeking and communing with to fully appreciate the record and how it came to be. For this exercise, it should come as no surprise we look at “Pry To,” “Bugs,” “Aye Davanita” and “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me” as part of the glue that binds the other tracks together. Not filler, mind you… I will never go there, I listen to those tracks when I listen to the record. But there is a reason all but “Bugs” have not been played live: they aren’t meant to be. So without further procrastination, I present the live companion to Vitalogy: the earliest, best takes, track-by-track.
1. Last Exit
It should come as no surprise that the go-to for “Last Exit” is the aforementioned debut from November 16, 1993. At the time you would have found this track on several bootlegs making the rounds in the spring and summer of 1994. Most notably, it was on the compilation No Fuckin’ Messiah, but it was also tacked onto the end of the November 17, 1993 show on the bootleg Surfer Eddie’s Sunshine State. “Last Exit” was played a total of 8 times before the album release. Do also check out the performance on March 13, 1994 at the Regal Theatre in Chicago.
2. Spin the Black Circle
Everyone knows the story of how “Spin the Black Circle” was given a speed boost by Eddie Vedder from Stone’s original demo. Like “Last Exit,” it was played 8 times before the record came out. However, it was far less likely, unless you attended one of the shows, that you would have heard it until the single release. As such, the version that stands out was one I did not hear until the spring of 1995, when a bootleg of the April 6, 1994 show in Springfield, Massachusetts surfaced. Fairly well polished at this point, it also serves as the closer to the encore, a rarity in itself. I will also again plug the version from March 13, 1994, which closes the main set.
3. Not For You
When you think of “Not for You,” I imagine that one of the first things that would come to mind is the SNL performance on April 16, 1994, and how could it not? Played 21 times prior to album release, the SNL version stands out for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it sounds great, but equally important not many artists get a chance to play three songs on a stint at SNL. Pearl Jam not only played three songs that night, but they played a song most fans never heard unless they had been at shows in person in March. Also found on the No Fuckin’ Messiah bootleg, the song was in heavy rotation from the spring of 1994 all the way up through the record release. Honorable mentions to the equally ferocious March 29, 1994 version and the killer acoustic version from October 2, 1994, at the Bridge School Benefit.
4. Tremor Christ
“Tremor Christ,” like “Spin the Black Circle,” at least in its complete and coherent form, was almost certainly not heard by fans before its appearance on the B-side to the single. Early versions were choppy at best. Played 5 times before the album dropped, the Orpheum Theater performance on April 12, 1994 is the reference track for the live song. It finds the band on much surer ground than it’s late 1993 runs. A modest but acceptable audience recording could be found on the bootleg New Songs, which was like a B-minus version of the aforementioned No Fuckin’ Messiah. Obviously, we were given the treat of this being released on the Vs./Vitalogy box set, but track down the audience recording first.
Played just one time before we had the record in hand, “Nothingman” was definitely an unknown quantity, even among the deepest of diehards. While the somewhat obvious choice here would be March 20, 1994, from the Crisler Arena, it was not readily available among tape traders and bootleg collectors widely until around 1996. As such, I am going to call an audible here and pitch the October 19th & 20th 1996 Bridge School performances. For starters, they express the structure and ornate delicacy of the song best. So while this is a bit askew of the task at hand, it serves the song best.
“Whipping” is the first of three songs from the album that appeared first at the Slim’s show on May 13, 1993. Played 27 times prior to release, there were a few easily accessible bootlegs that included the track from a couple of different shows. But hands down, the most widely available and listened to version was the tape you made of the April 3, 1994 Fox Theater show. It is definitely worth listening to the May 13, 1993 Slim’s cut as well.
7. Pry, To
Take a quick break and listen to “Pry, To” backwards for a bit.
“Corduroy,” played 4 times in the spring of 1994, found its true form on October 1, 1994. The tapes of both nights of the band’s appearance at the 1994 Bridge School Benefit quickly appeared on a bootleg entitled In Rock We Trust. While this acoustic performance stands in contrast to the mostly charged 570-plus, full-on-electric, “welcome to the show” versions, it stands as one of, if not the most important, take. It is the seed of the song’s growth live and has a couple of key, if subtle, differences from the album lyrically and live going forward.
9. Satan’s Bed
“Satan’s Bed” was played just twice in the spring of 1994, but it was yet another one many of us snared off the radio broadcast April 3, 1994. If not, it was also another track on, no surprise, the No Fuckin’ Messiah bootleg. It came off remarkably polished and complete in its performance. I would be shocked if this is not the single most referenced and played live version of the track in any fan’s boot collection. When considering its strength and structure in this first version, it is striking that it faded away as a deep cut.
10. Better Man
“Better Man” is perhaps the most interesting song development story, for, let’s face it, a hit song that somewhat ironically was not a single. Until the Vs./Vitalogy box set was released, you had two choices to hear this song live in its infancy, though it was played 4 times total in 1993 and 1994 combined. Again we will name drop Slim’s, May 13, 1993. Yet the time marker version here is also from April 3, 1994, so break out your tapes. It is yet another track that appears on the aforementioned compilation… something-something-Messiah. “Better Man” from Atlanta 1994, even after 530-plus times out of the barn, is still a top 5 rendition of the song in their vast array of bootlegs. It is arguably the version that made all the others in its wake possible, having been used partly in the studio version of the song by Brendan O’Brien.
Finally, we have “Immortality.” The recording of this track is another mystery I would ask of the band. It is often attributed to the Atlanta sessions, which happened around the Fox Theater shows in April. But hearing the two versions played on back-to-back nights in Boston (April 11 & 12), the final track is vastly different, lyrically and structurally. “Immortality” is one of my favorite songs and one of my favorite studio cuts by the band. It should stand as no shock that the version played on October 2, 1994 is my early road companion to the studio version. The original tape I had is long since gone, but it was nearly ruined anyhow from repeated listening in the first days of November 1994 when I received it. Hearing it in an acoustic setting measures well with the vibe that resonates from the studio take. It is where Mike McCready’s solos become a focal balance to the now fine-tuned lyrical tragedy of fame that is bigger than a human can possibly maintain a real balance with. The Orpheum Theater performance from the Vs./Vitalogy box set surely needs listening to as well, to understand the trajectory of this song’s development, particularly from a storytelling standpoint in the words.
So there you have it. The early road version of Vitalogy. It has some turns we can only take in hindsight. But try taking the track list for a ride. For old timers, you might reminisce about your old tapes and bootlegs, or perhaps find something new you had never really sought after. For those who came to Pearl Jam in the 2000’s or later, I hope this gives a glimpse of how an album unfolded in real time over the course of a tour.