Pearl Jam is still alive.
Thirty-one years after the release of their first single, the anthem “Alive,” the Seattle grunge rock group continues to pack arenas and stadiums — including Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena earlier this month, a venue where they’ve performed nine times Years.
Despite his deep interest in Black Crowes and Radiohead, American author and critic Steven Hyden was always drawn to Pearl Jam. Her “totally unique” career arc intrigued him so much that it led to his fifth book, Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation. He hopes to appeal to hardcore fans of the legendary Seattle group while expanding others’ appreciation of them beyond the ’90s grunge stereotypes.
For Gen X, the Pearl Jam Family is the equivalent of the Baby Boomers’ (Grateful) Deadheads: they travel to multiple shows when the band goes on tour, collect memorabilia like city-specific stickers, and debate which live version of a particular song played was preferably.
Hyden’s debut 2016 book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, explored rivalries between artists and their loyal supporters like The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones, Biggie vs. Tupac Shakur, Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift, and more. He is well versed in the psychology of fandom.
“I think one problem is that sometimes someone who’s too hardcore a fan doesn’t have perspective on things in a career that might not be good, that might not have worked,” Hyden said. “And they sometimes find it more difficult to place the band in the context of their time and the music scene.”
He doesn’t think Pearl Jam can be compared one-to-one with others in rock or pop. “They were so big early on, in large part because they were on MTV all the time, and they were on the covers of magazines and they were on the radio, very much part of the mainstream media world.
“And then towards the end of the decade going into the 2000s, they had moved to this point where they had virtually no media profile at all and were still able to hold large audiences where they were arenas and even stadiums,” Hyden continued without skipping a bar. “And that still applies today.”
30+ years is a lot of subjects to cover and a larger context, but Hyden weaves Pearl Jam eras in and out of the chapters of his book the way Eddie Vedder would swing from the rafters in 1991 and 1992. He touches on both highs and lows, one of the lowest being when Vedder was heavily criticized and booed for wearing a George W. Bush mask to “Bu$hleaguer” during the 2003 “Riot Act” tour to sing.
“Long Road” is structured like a mixtape, with 18 songs ranging from Pearl Jam classics to rarities, with a few covers serving as a jumping-off point to tell a mix of personal and universal stories.
This isn’t the only time Hyden thought structuring a book like an album was a fun and creative way to tell a story. “I use that for my second book, Götterdämmerung. Each chapter is named after a song by an artist that is covered in the chapter,” he said. And these chapters are set up much like an album, with an A-side and a B-side.
“It’s about more than just that one song,” he said. “Usually this song is a way to talk about a certain aspect of their story.”
Reading “Long Road” feels like being in an endlessly riveting conversation about Pearl Jam with another admirer. “I want my writing to feel like listening to a record, or at least like talking to a friend while a record is playing,” Hyden said. It probably helps that in addition to being an author, he’s also a well-known podcast host. “I want it to rock, I want it to be fun. I want it to feel like a party too. So when you finish reading the book, it feels like you just got off a good show.”
Having passed the literary version of the “five album test,” which determines whether a band or artist has five great albums in a row, Hyden wants to get more involved in documentaries. A dream project would be to do something on one of the most interesting characters of all time, Warren Zevon. “He’s like something out of a film noir book.” Hyden is already looking forward to the long road to his next project.
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