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Can't Find a Better Band?

Monday, 7 October 2013

Is Pearl Jam a Cult Band?

First, when I write “cult band” what I really mean is “a band whose zealot-like fanbase far outsizes their commercial success and, often, their artistic merit.” Or, in other words, “The Grateful Dead.”

Chill out DeadHeads, I’m only pissin’ on you from ignorance.

But seriously, for all of The Dead’s cult following, I’ve never once in my whole life, surrounded by dozens upon dozens of opinionated music-lovin’ peeps (“Is there another kind?” sez Col. Jessup), have I heard someone even half-heartedly include The Grateful Dead in a list of 10 Greatest Rock Bands. Never. And that’s because they’re not even reasonably in the Top 20.

No seriously, just hop to Google and type “Top 10 Rock Bands.” There’s, like, 20 bands listed, and The Dead ain't close. While it's often foolish to rely on the bumbled and botched masses to judge greatness, that list seems more right than wrong, and The Dead ain't on it. And that’s because, beyond their cult following, no one thinks they’re much more than a good reason to smoke pot.

What no one, even I, can argue, is that The Grateful Dead is King of Cult Bands, and there’s not a close second.

While the king of cult bands is indisputably Dead, plenty of others claim to be heirs to their throne. Phish is the band most people think of, but really all Phish did was imitate pretty much everything about The Grateful Dead. (I know Phish Heads don’t want to agree with me, but most of you are so stoned you’ll just laugh about it anyway.)

Other contenders include KISS, Insane Clown Posse (a.k.a. “KISS raps!”), Rush, Frank Zappa, Primus… yawwwwnnnn, this list is boring me. So let’s discuss Pearl Jam’s place on the hill.

Pearl Jam has made one helluva career for itself, fueled by a couple of key traits, most essentially a wicked intensity and a finely-crafted outsider mentality. They also flirt frequently with something like a pop hook, which makes them rare birds in the Cult Band class. But trust me, most any music fan who brings up Pearl Jam in conversation is a huge fan, the kind of fan who seeks out all the live concerts and can identify the difference between “State of Love and Trust” as performed in Topeka in 1998 and the version performed in Alberta in 2001.

(I have no idea whether they performed that song in either place in either year, but rest assured a Pearl Jam cultist would know as confidently as Trekkies can recap plots by episode number.)

Was Pearl Jam too successful to be a Cult Band? If my definition of “Cult Band” is inaccurate, what indeed defines this murky, foggy category of faux-religious zealotry?

The reason I find the fan obsession with Pearl Jam so intriguing is because I’m on the cusp of serious admiration. I’m not a Big Fan, but I wore the grooves out of their first three CDs, and the Temple of the Dog album, and the Singles soundtrack, and back in the day I would have happily engaged in a knife fight with anyone insisting that Nirvana was better than Pearl Jam. Which was a lot of people. So I’m glad it never came to that, or I’d be dead.

But then PJ got all principled against Ticketmaster, which seemed like a righteous fight done in a poor way, and then they released No Code, which sorta sucked, and then Yield wasn’t all that impressive, either, and then I sorta gave up while the zealots persevered.

Their 2006 eponymous release and Backspacer in 2009 are mighty impressive, and I’ve only discovered them in the last couple of years, but I’m still left wondering what in Pearl Jam inspires such a borderline-religious following. If anyone can explain it to me, in pseudo-scientific terms, I’m all ears.

In the meantime, I’m gonna go listen to some more of The Dead and try to figure out what, beyond hallucinogens and good branding, made them such a BFD...

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