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To Pearl Jam, with (Old) Love

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I didn't marry any of my high school girlfriends, and I don't listen to Pearl Jam much anymore, but damn if I don't owe a debt of awkward gratitude to both. I was like any teenager, falling hard for my first loves. Pearl Jam was my first and most severe band crush. I had it bad, too. Not only did I own every album and all the singles, but I had them memorized. I picked up the guitar so I could play along. Again, bad.

It was the mid nineties, and I was a frustrated junior high school kid in the boondocks of Eastern North Carolina, one of a handful of flannel-clad longhairs in Pamlico County. I found an escape through music, particularly Pearl Jam. I was drawn to the mix of softened hardcore, crunchy seventies rock, and mournful country- or blues-derived laments—a mélange established as early as Vs. and expanded on and after No Code. When Yield came out in 1998, it spoke to me as the optimistic capstone to grunge's long slog. I remember staying up half the night to hear the promised debut of "Given to Fly" on the local rock station. I actually jumped with joy.

With Vedder's lyrics as vague as horoscopes, I could copy and paste whatever my situation was onto the words and pretend he was singing to me. It helped me zero in on what I wanted from life—in this case, from music.

Two weeks before seeing them for the first time in a dozen years, though, there's a question I can't seem to answer: Will seeing them play be any different from me friend-requesting an ex-girlfriend I haven't seen in seventeen years? And when I see other thirty- and forty-somethings singing along to "Corduroy" or "Brain of J," are they desperately seeking to rekindle the fires of puppy love? Or is it just rock 'n' roll?

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