Eddie Vedder: Ukulele Songs and Dead Man Walking
It’s 1996. I walk into Bebop Records in Jackson, Misssissippi looking for an Eddie Vedder album. An early 20’s female employee with a severe haircut and some piercings asks if she can help. I tell her that I’ve been listening to a couple of Eddie Vedder songs on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack and would like to get one of his albums. She looks at me like I’m an alien and says that Eddie Vedder doesn’t have any albums. I say, really? I would have thought he did since he’s on this soundtrack. She says, no, Eddie Vedder doesn’t have any albums. Then, refusing to make any further eye contact with me, she gestures and says, “Pearl Jam is right over there.”
A couple of girls about her age are standing within earshot, and while they don’t laugh out loud, they seem pretty tickled that this old guy in a coat and tie (I would have been 34 at that point) didn’t know Eddie Vedder was the lead singer of Pearl Jam. With a wife, 3 kids under 7 and a job, I thought I was doing pretty well to know Pearl Jam existed. Even though I mainly listened to older rock and country, I actually knew a few of their songs, including Daughter. I wanted to tell the clerk and her friends all that, but I didn’t. Like one of Jack Black’s customers in High Fidelity, I didn’t stand a chance. So I bought a Pearl Jam CD and left.
Anyway, while we’re on the subject, here’s a pretty good video from a 1994 SNL rehearsal of Pearl Jam playing Daughter (I suppose that’s Vedder with his hands in his pockets? Not sure, old guys don’t see all that well.):
The last couple of days I’ve been listening to Eddie Vedder’s new CD, Ukulele Songs (it’s streamable at NPR.org), which made me think about the Bebop incident. Coincidentally, I just learned that Bebop is a Dead Man Walking. Today is its last day, after 37 years. Another independent bites the dust. An advance R.I.P. to you, Bebop. We will miss you.
Even though it led me to my record store humiliation, I should point out that Dead Man Walking is one of the better “soundtracks” ever. There’s a lot of talent involved – you can see the list of artists who contributed songs on the cover. The record is not really a soundtrack. As it says, the music is “from and inspired by” the movie, and it includes music written by the artists after they had seen a cut of the film supplied by Tim Robbins. In addition to turning me on to Mr. Vedder as a solo artist, I give this record credit for getting me back on a Steve Earle kick (Ellis Unit One is a great story song, by the way) and starting me on Michelle Shocked.
Which brings me back to Mr. Vedder, who combined with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for two songs on Dead Man Walking. Here’s a video of them performing The Long Road:
As you can see, we have an awesome collaboration here. When I first heard the song, I was a bit put off with Mr. Ali Kahn’s sound, but the more I listened and opened up to it, I found myself drawn in (unfortunately, he died the year after the soundtrack was released). And I really liked Eddie Vedder’s voice outside the context of Pearl Jam. As the record girl said, there weren’t any Eddie Vedder records back then, but there are now. We have his music from the Into The Wild project, and we will soon have Ukulele Songs, his new solo CD.
Ukulele Songs is a very good CD. It’s a true solo record, mainly his voice and, of course, the ukulele that he picked up on a trip to Hawaii years ago and that he sometimes pulls out on stage with Pearl Jam. He does, however, have a couple of duets (one with Glen Hansard and the other with Chan Marshall) on the record. Americana fans that aren’t crazy about Pearl Jam (like me) may still find themselves liking Ukulele Song as they hear Mr. Vedder’s voice undburdened by the heavier sound of his band. The ukulele is both vehicle and symbol of Mr. Vedder’s attempt to simplify the offering, which he accomplishes.
I was taken by the quality songwriting on Ukulele Songs. Mr. Vedder collected these songs over a long period of time, and they are very good. I also was a bit surprised with the variety of sounds that can be produced with such a simple instrument. Here’s a video someone put together of Longing To Belong, one of the songs on Ukulele Songs. Not my favorite song on the new CD, but it’s good, and it gives you some idea of what the CD sounds like.
Here’s a link to an interview/review piece by Ann Powers on the album, also from NPR. I really can’t add much to what she has to say about the record. Certainly worth checking out.
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