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Hard to Imagine
Live from 8/20/98
In the annals of PJ fandom, there are a handful of unreleased songs that have obtained "legendary" status. To us, "Hard to Imagine" was at the top of that list, mostly because it never seemed to entirely disappear. It would surface now and then during live shows, as an improv, or just as Stone noodling on the guitar (go listen to any 92 Lolla show and see what we mean), it would get mentioned in interviews, it almost surfaced on albums. As Stone mentions in the interview excerpt below, HtI was originally recorded during the Vs. sessions (but, obviously, wasn't included on that album), and can also be found on Vitalogy session tapes (with slightly different lyrics, again, as discussed below). Complete versions were played live in shows during 1993 and 1994 (see the Concert Chronology for further details.) No other unreleased song in PJ's repertoire has really had this kind of mysterious staying power.

This song came to the forefront of everyone's minds again two years ago, when a tape surfaced of a lengthy soundcheck before the 1996 Barcelona show. This soundcheck featured a haunting, ethereal 16 minute version of HtI. This led to much discussion and speculation that the song would surface on PJ's next album.

When the announcement came that HtI was going to be appearing on the Chicago Cab soundtrack, there was a loud, collective cheer. This is a track that is beloved not just because it is rare, but because it is a beautiful, poignant, moving song.

But why "Hard to Imagine"? And why now? Here's an excerpt from a recent interview with Stone that explains (almost) all:

TMN: What made you, but not just you -- the rest of Pearl Jam too - decide to dig up "Hard To Imagine?" That song is so cool to fans. I'm a big fan and I've had that on bootlegs for years and always hoped that you guys would release it.
Stone: Right, well, I think that was one aspect of it: that we knew that people liked the song. I think it fits well with the movie. I don't know if you've seen the movie or not.
TMN: Oh yeah, I saw it last week.
Stone: I think the mood of that song is very melancholy and I think it fits with the movie. I think the band was excited about helping the label raise awareness about the movie. First and foremost, I know Ed's a big fan of the movie and was excited about letting them use "Who You Are," as I was. I think when I approached the band and Sony about saying, "Hey, is there a possibility that we can release an unreleased track on it, too, to kind of give a little bit more weight and kind of maybe draw a little more attention to it?" Everyone was really understanding and cooperative, which was great. It meant a lot to the label in trying to have a little success at the record company thing.
TMN: How come you guys never released the song before?
Stone: There's no specific answer to that. I know the first time we recorded it, during the Vs. sessions, it just didn't seem like it fit. It seemed like we had covered our bases as far as the mellower stuff. Nobody felt like we needed to do it, and it has kind of a b-side feel to it in my mind. It's one of those songs that's pretty raw and it's not really overly produced or anything like that. Not that anything else is that we've done, it just didn't seem to fit with that record. And then, after that, when we were moving on to making other records, we were so kind of involved in that period of time of what songs we were writing, it just didn't seem like that song fit in.
TMN: I know there were a bunch of different takes, ones that had different lyrics and stuff like that. And I think that I heard that you were the one that picked that particular take.
Stone: Well, I picked that one because that was the one that was the most complete. That particular take was the one. I think the ones that have different lyrics are probably versions of the same take but just with different vocals on them, maybe a scratch vocal. Or maybe there was another version that we recorded later. Well, actually, I guess we did try to record it during the No Code era. We just took a wild stab at playing it once or twice. It didn't really move anyone at that particular time. We went back and listened to the old one. The old one was actually a lot better than everyone imagined.
With the song's impending release this summer, we all imagined that we would get to hear it live. It was another popular "sign request," with at least one sign at every show, requesting the song. However, while the song occasionally surfaced in soundchecks, HtI did not have its live debut until the Montreal show on August 20; from the way the song is introduced, it sounds like this performance was as the result of a sign - of course, they did soundcheck it that day as well! But it doesn't matter how or why the band played it, this live version has all the beautiful qualities of the studio version.

For those who got to hear the song this summer, here's a wonderful reminder. For all of us who didn't, well, this is what it was like.

Interview with Stone Gossard by Jessica Letkemann
Available in the fanzine Tickle My Nausea
Used with permission

Copyright © 2004 Five Horizons