Certain Songs #1508: Pearl Jam – “Corduroy”

Album: Vitalogy
Year: 1994

My favorite Pearl Jam song, bar none.

And as much as I love songs like “Leash” and “Black” and the upcoming “MFC,” it ain’t even close: “Corduroy” speaks to me deeply on both a musical and personal level, and I think it’s not just the best song that Pearl Jam has ever done, but one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever recorded about the effects of fame on musicians.

This all seems quaint in an era where people will pretty much do anything to become famous, but a quarter-century ago there was a whole coterie of big rock stars who really hated being big rock stars. And so quite naturally, Time Magazine did a big story about this group of reluctant rock stars — pegged around the near simultaneous releases of In Utero and Vs. and the massive success of Siamese Dream — and stuck Eddie fucking Vedder on the cover.

And he hated it.

Which, of course, was a supposition that was in the article itself — which really reads like a dispatch from another century, which I guess it was — and while a close reading reveals no direct quotes from either Kurt Cobain or or Vedder, that didn’t stop Time from making the choice to put Vedder on the cover, and essentially calling him the “voice of a generation.”

“Corduroy” fades up with Eddie Vedder’s lonely arpeggiated guitar, slowly augmented by Dave Abbruzzese’s random hits on his drum which turn into a full build and big power chords as Eddie rips into the opening.

The waiting drove me mad
You’re finally here and I’m a mess
I take your entrance back
Can’t let you roam inside my head

Apparently “Corduroy” was specifically inspired by Eddie seeing a knockoff of a cheap corduroy jacket he wore being sold for hundreds of dollars, which just pissed him off, an anger that was palpable on the first chorus, a full on rejection of fame.

I don’t want to take what you can give
I would rather starve than eat your bread
I would rather run but I can’t walk
Guess I’ll lay alone just like before

One of the things about “Corduroy” is that Eddie wants to say what he wants to say so much that the lyrics don’t really scan as lyrics, more like a tweetstorm, really, so luckily, the music of “Corduroy” is open enough so that each phrase he sings doesn’t have to be the same length as any of the others.

I’ll take the poor man’s path
Oh, and I must refuse your test
A-push me and I will resist
This behavior’s not unique

This behavior’s not unique.” In other words, any sane person would feel the same way about fame as Eddie does. And indeed, it was gospel among the alt-rock scene that birthed Pearl Jam — and really, birthed me and most of my friends — that monster amounts of fame was to be feared as a corrupting influence. Sure, some artists escaped it — I’m was going to say U2, but they always wanted to be as massive as they were — most notably R.E.M. or Neil Young, but others weren’t so lucky.

And in fact, between the time “Corduroy” was recorded and Vitalogy was released, Kurt Cobain had killed himself, Billy Corgan had gone mad at Lollapalooza and the entire grunge moment had slipped away in the same way that every other pop moment before or since slipped away.

I don’t want to hear from those who know
They can buy but can’t put on my clothes
I don’t want to wait for them to walk
Never would have known of me before
I don’t want to be held in your debt
I’ll pay it off in blood let I be wed
I’m already cut up and half dead
I’ll end up alone like I began

And then, and then, the most amazing thing happens. The bridge in “Corduroy” remains one of the most perfect things on god’s green earth, an out-of-nowhere invocation of R.E.M. — who had dealt with their sudden fame with serene equanimity (at least on the outside) — where Stone Gossard and Mike McCready’s guitars dial in the exact right balance of jangle and roar.

Everything has chains
Absolutely nothing’s changed
Take my hand, not my picture
Spilled my tincture

I remember running around Lake Merritt in Oakland in early 1995, as “Corduroy” would show up on my Walkman or on Live 105, and that bridge would literally stop time for me. Even now I get totally chuffed every single time it comes on, the beauteous tangle of the guitars, the random drum rolls, the way that Eddie rhymes “chains” and “changed,” his long holding of “tinnnnnnncturrrrrrrreee” and even the way it almost abruptly goes into yet another chorus.

I don’t want to take what you can give
I would rather starve than eat your bread
All the things that others want for me
Can’t buy what I want because it’s free
Can’t buy what I want because it’s free
Can’t be what you want because I…

And then, after one last verse, “Corduroy” comes to a dead stop for a second, only the hi-hat keeping a beat as the guitars slowly kick back in, but at least in this version, nobody is really playing a solo, instead they’re playing as a band, each instrument fully complementing the others, everybody running away full-tilt from the fame monster intent on devouring them.

“Corduroy”

“Corduroy” performed live in Maryland, 2000

“Corduroy” performed live at Pinkpop, 2000

“Corduroy” performed live in New York, 2010

“Corduroy” performed live in Chicago, 2016

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