Certain Songs #1502: Pearl Jam – “Black”

Album: Ten
Year: 1991

Which isn’t to say that I loved Ten when I finally got it. Sure, there were songs like “Even Flow,” “Alive” and “Porch,” but to me, a lot of the album got buried deep in the murk that producer Rick Parashar ladled on top of them. (And, in fact, I much prefer the 2008 Brendan O’Brien remixes which blew the dust right off.)

That said, there wasn’t anything that was going to keep me from eventually loving what I now think is the album’s best track, the devastating break-up ballad, “Black.”

One of Stone Gossard’s songs on the original demo tape that eventually made it to Eddie Vedder, the story goes that the lyrics were written as Eddie made his way to Seattle, and like a lot of the songs on Ten, it was clearly a response to a real-life event, in this case, a break up.

Sheets of empty canvas, untouched sheets of clay
Were laid spread out before me as her body once did
All five horizons revolved around her soul
As the earth to the sun
Now the air I tasted and breathed has taken a turn
Oooooooh, hooooooo
And all I taught her was everything
Ooh, I know she gave me all that she wore

Pitching his singing to his breaking point, with his voice struggling to stay in control, you could literally feel every single emotion that Eddie Vedder was feeling in real time: no distance, no irony, just pain. Which was his great gift from the start: not the pain specifically, but the fact that he didn’t care that you knew that he cared.

And so as “Black” continued, lead guitarist Mike McCready started piling on the wah-wah leads, which soared all around the song as they got to the lyrical climax.

I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life
I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky, but why
Why, why can’t it be, why can’t it be mine?
Ooh why, oooooooooooooooh

After that there was nothing else to say, but there were still so many feelings yet to process, and so everybody — Eddie, McCready, Parashar on the piano, Gossard & Jeff Ament on the backing vocals — found the same thing to sing and play. And it went like this:

Doodoo-doo-doo-doodoodoo
Doodoo-doo-doo-doodoodoo
Doodoo-doo-doo-doodoodoo
Doodoo-doo-doo-doodoodoo
Doodoo-doo-doo-doodoodoo
Doodoo-doo-doo-doodoodoo
Doodoo-doo-doo-doodoodoo
Doodoo-doo-doo-doodoodoo

Over and over and over, reaching, straining, hoping for some kind of resolution. Some kind of closure. Some kind of catharsis, “Doodoo-doo-doo-doodoodoo” soaring higher and higher trying to escape the pain and doubt and fear, and maybe even taking the edge off, ever so slightly, as the song fades into the night.

“Black” has always felt like one of the singles from Ten, because it became a pretty big radio song, but apparently, they felt it was too personal to be officially released as a single, and were actually surprised and suspicious that it was as popular as it was. Now, all these years later, it just feels like an eternal monster, still as sad and gorgeous as ever.

“Black”

“Black” live at Pinkpop, Netherlands, 1992

“Black” on MTV Unplugged, 1992

Eddie Vedder sings part of “Black” on Late Show w/ David Letterman, 1996

“Black” live at Pinkpop, 2000

“Black” Live in Brazil, 2011

“Black” live in Miami, 2016

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