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yellow ledbetter
rediscovering yellow ledbetter
live from 7/22/98

Remember the first time you heard "Yellow Ledbetter?" Maybe you tracked down an import copy of the "Jeremy" single, maybe you heard it live, maybe you got your hands on a tape. If you live in a major city with an alternative radio station, chances are your first exposure was on the radio.

By the first time I heard YL live, I was already sick of it, a victim of radio overkill (much like what is happening now with "Last Kiss," the 1998 Fan Club Christmas Single). Radio was dying for new Pearl Jam, and someone at some radio station got their hands on a copy of the single and started playing it. Before you knew it, it was on the radio ALL THE TIME, everywhere... the dj would say, "...and up next, some new Pearl Jam!" and you'd get excited, and then it would be - Yellow Ledbetter.

What *is* it about this song that makes people go completely nuts over it??

different [not better] perspectives

There are people out there who consider themselves (and are!) big Pearl Jam fans, who really enjoy their music, but who just own the studio albums and love listening to them, will go see them if they play in their town. They're not out there trading, they're not out there trying to get their hands on every single bit of recorded PJ music that exists; in fact, they probably don't even really know, or think about, the fact that there is stuff out there besides what's on the albums. It's just a different way of looking at things; it's hard to remember that, sometimes, for those of us who are so obsessed. :)

So when they turn on the radio and hear something they've never ever heard before, even though they consider themselves a fan, they are going to get excited and interested.

Now, it isn't in the radio station's interest to say to them, "Hey, you can get this single on the b-side of the 'Jeremy' single, which you can get in a record store or on," because they want you to listen to their station all the time. (Which is, of course, the exact same reason radio stations are so happy about "Last Kiss." If you don't already have it, you can't get it [not yet, anyway!], and the only way you can hear it is on their station.)

So lots of fans would call the station and ask for "that new Pearl Jam song." So the station would play it more. Lather, rinse, repeat, playing what was a perfectly fine song into the ground. *grumble*

Now, take a stadium or an arena filled with Pearl Jam fans of all shapes and sizes. At least 80% of the people in the venue, if not more, are only going to see ONE show on a tour. Maybe they haven't seen Pearl Jam before. Maybe they couldn't get tickets to the last show. Point being, they have come to the show with expectations, and goddammit, they want to hear that song, "Yellow Ledbetter". Many of these folks still haven't figured out that they can get the damn thing on cd really easily. To them, it's special, it's rare. So if Ed asks (like he did at the 9/16/96 Seattle tour opener), "What do you want to hear, 'Around the Bend' or 'Yellow Ledbetter'," which do you think is going to win?

*ding ding ding*

live ledbetter

YL was debuted on 11/6/93 (although riffs appeared during various 92 shows), the day after the infamous Indio show (the 'shoes for my friends show'), in Mesa, Arizona, the first of two benefit shows for Mt. Graham. Mt. Graham is a sacred mountain to the Apache indians, and the University of Arizona was going to build an observatory at the top of it. This is an oddly intense show; it was a political protest, and we know how Ed gets when he's fired up politically, especially back then.

We've got no documentation how or why the band decided to play this song live for the first time, but this was the beginning of a trend that was to continue up until this very day.

boxes, bags and porches

The #1 question in Pearl Jam fandom (after the 'sun' or 'star' question) is probably, "What are the words to Yellow Ledbetter?" Let us take this moment to point out (or remind you), for the record, that THERE ARE NO OFFICIAL WORDS TO YELLOW LEDBETTER, nor is there even really a storyline. As documented by Kim Neely in 5 Against 1, when they recorded the song, Eddie improvised the lyrics:
"There would be countless interpretations of "Yellow Ledbetter" batted around over the years, and Pearl Jam's fan organization, the Ten Club, would regularly receive pleading letters from fans who wanted the "real" lyrics. In fact, there never were any real lyrics. Eddie had simply improvised them during the one-take session, singing whatever phrases happened to pop into his head. The song's odd title was a joke, in honor of a Chicago friend of Eddie's named Tim Ledbetter. In concert, Eddie has outfitted "Yellow Ledbetter" with countless different sets of lyrics over the years, further thwarting fans' attempts to sniff out the elusive "real" meaning of the song."
And he hasn't sang them the same, not once, since that time. I'd bet he probably couldn't if you asked him to! :-)

So, there ARE words, but they're still an improvisation. It's almost at the point where it doesn't matter, really; everyone has their own words by now, and Ed's unintelligible vocals on this song doesn't stop entire stadiums from singing along at the top of their lungs -- in fact, it encourages it. They're all wrong, and they're all right. It's a tremendous moment of audience-band communion, and as much as I would choose to hear something else if I had that choice, I always love that moment when it happens.

i got the blues

Still, I wanted to understand what it was about this song that drew so many people to it. And I think it's a combination of things:
  1. YL is, at its heart, a blues song. The blues are by its very nature an extremely emotional, pure, direct form of music.
  2. There aren't really any words; Ed's vocals are just another instrument. And the fact that there aren't any words means that you can sing along at the top of your voice and be totally right.
  3. One of the few words that you can understand and is consistent is "wave." That, with the traditional placement at the very end of the show makes it into a plaintive song of farewell. The show is over, it's time to go home, wave goodbye to the band and your friends. For the diehards, the opening chords of YL signal the point of no return -- the show is over. =(

i [heart] YL

Since 5h's inception, we have taken untold amounts of CRAP for daring to say that, perhaps, YL is 1) over-rated and 2) over-played. It's a FINE song, but does it REALLY need to be played at the end of every single Pearl Jam show????????????

And, really, we still do feel this way. We could easily come up with a list of 20 songs within five seconds that we'd rather hear as a closing number.

But, ya know, there's something about this band and their music. Songs that you might not like, or particularly enjoy, or program the cd player to skip, can, one day, sound different. Strike you differently. Maybe it's you, but more times than not, it's them. Those PJ guys. Taking their music, letting it evolve, transforming it.

And then, there's that McCready character. Playing like a MF throughout the 1998 tour. Blistering, fluid, emotive solos, and the man simply REDEEMED the song. Like it, don't like it, doesn't matter, listen to McCready.

7/22/98 SDBD

As many of you know, the PJ taping community recently unearthed a true band soundboard recording of the 7/22/98 Seattle show, the last show of the West Leg of the tour. (Don't buy this, trade for it, the show has been treed and is widely and easily available. If you need to know where to go, the traders' pages are linked at the bottom of the page. DON'T PAY MONEY FOR THIS. The entire show is also available online, just look around.)

So I'm driving home one day, listening to the show. It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day, and I'm coming around the bottom of Queen Anne hill, around (coincidentally) Seattle Center, where that show took place, the sunset blazing in the west. It was breathtaking.

The show moves into YL, and instead of skipping forward, I just let it play - I was in one of those moods. And by the time I got home, I was transformed. I remembered the show that night; I'd made my way back to the bleachers and was standing there, shaken up, because I'd gotten killed in the mosh pit and spent a quarter of the show in the first aid tent. The show was amazing and I was pissed I was missing it, I was angry I was hurt, you name it. And I really didn't want to be hearing YL as the last song of the show.

But they went into it, and the house lights come up, and there goes McCready, wailing away for all he's worth, and I'm transfixed. He goes into the Hendrix version of "The Star Spangled Banner" and next thing I know I'm climbing on top of the bench, my fist in the air in salute to him. The power was undeniable, and the recording of this show just brought that home. I know I'm never going to listen to this song the same way again.

And then, I remembered this quote of (figures) McCready's about the blues:

"That music is so peaceful and beautiful and soulful, you could just walk out into a field and say 'OK, I can die now.'"

...Which is about how most of us feel when we leave a Pearl Jam show, right?

[P.S. I'm purposely not listening to the Seattle radio station playing "Last Kiss" 7 times a day.]

(sound file was removed)

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© 1999 Caryn Rose