Friday, September 30, 2016

Songs in the Key of Life: You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory

A brief programming note: This series was formerly known as The Essentials, but I never quite loved that name, probably because most of what I write about here consists of things I consider essential, so almost every post could fall under "The Essentials." So, cribbing the name of a killer Stevie Wonder album, I'm rechristening this series Songs in the Key of Life, which seems like an appropriate title for the songs I'm writing about here. They're life bringers, these songs.

Johnny Thunders was one of the more important figures in punk's formative years. His buzzsaw-like guitar sound was heavy, dangerous, and fast, plus a huge influence on the wave of punk rock guitarists that followed. What we call the "punk rock sound"—distorted, slashing guitars and sneering, nasally vocals combined with a rhythm section on the verge of falling apart at any minute—can be traced back to proto-punk bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the MC5, the Velvet Underground, and the New York Dolls, to name just a few. As the guitarist for the Dolls, Thunders helped crystallize the sound we would later call punk, and his guitar truly shines on his most enduring, and best, solo outing: the melancholy lament of hard-luck losers everywhere, "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory." Not only does the song perfectly evoke the 1970s punk rock ethos, it also stands as a testament to how great Thunders really was when he was firing on all cylinders. Sadly, due to a protracted drug addiction, moments like these were few and far between during his post-Dolls years. The Thunders solo album that contains the song, So Alone, is a masterpiece though, and well worth seeking out.

"You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" unleashes a bracing blast of sound once the full band kicks in after opening with only guitar strumming. It's filled with Thunders' trademark slash and burn guitar work, with short explosive flourishes thrown in between verses. The drums explode out of the speakers (or earbuds) and Thunders shout-sings the chorus in his distinctive nasally tone. This sound, along with Thunders' hopeless lyrics about being alone, combine to create a signature punk rock song. And oh, those lyrics. They're heartbreaking in their matter of fact description of a life resigned to failure.
It doesn't pay to try,
All the smart boys know why,
It doesn't mean I didn't try,
I just never know why.
Feel so cold and all alone,
Cause baby, you're not at home.
And when I'm home
Big deal, I'm still alone.

Thunders' reinforces our perception of him—and 1970s punk rock—with this song. The music he and his peers were making back then was all about feeling outside of society, like losers, and usually about rebelling against that. With this song, Thunders seems to be shrugging his shoulders and giving up. The song was supposedly written for Thunders' friend Fabienne Shine, but it's hard not to see as at least part autobiographical. It certainly fits the public persona Thunders had cultivated during the 1970s, that of the disaffected screw-up who only truly blossomed with a guitar in his hands.

I'd heard the song a few times in the background before the first time I ever really heard it; in other words, the first time the song made me stop and notice. This happened in the theater watching Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead. The film is rarely mentioned among the legendary director's best work, but I've always had a soft spot for it. It's easily one of his most bizarre and unforgettable films. I've always thought it would make a great double feature with another of Scorsese's smaller and often forgotten New York films, After Hours. Both movies are about the nighttime dreamscape of the city that famously never sleeps, when all manner of strange things are transpiring on its streets. As he's done for several films, Scorsese used music effectively in Bringing Out the Dead. Scoring the last portion of the trailer and a scene in the film, Thunders' song provides a link to New York's punk rock past in a film with a decidedly chaotic punk rock spirit. In the film, Nicolas Cage's burned-out paramedic working the graveyard shift shares a lot in common with the song's burned-out narrator. They've been beaten down by life and barely even care anymore.

In the song, the narrator's fate is left undecided, but it seems unlikely that he's on the road to salvation any time soon.
Feel so restless, I am,
Beat my head against a pole
Try to knock some sense,
Down in my bones.
And even though they don't show,
The scars aren't so old
And when they go,
They let you know
Those scars, while hidden, are still very real to their wearer. In the chorus, Thunders sounds equally defeated: "You can't put your arms around a memory / Don't try, don't try." Sometimes our memories aren't nearly as tangible as our scars. If Thunders' life hadn't ended in a sordid drug-related death, then maybe the song would be remembered differently. Instead, it's become emblematic of a musician who burned brightly during the New York Dolls' brief time as downtown New York darlings, enough so that he helped birth a genre of music, only to spend the ensuing fifteen-odd years struggling to live up to that early success (and "success" is relative here: the New York Dolls were not financially successful or popular outside of a very small circle of fans, but over time they've only grown in stature and are considered musically important now in a way they never were during their time). But outside of the context of Thunders' sad fate, you can still find some hope in "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory." For me it's always been an oddly comforting song—it acknowledges plainly how sometimes you simply feel unlucky and also saddened by the fading of important memories. The song reminds me that others feel this way too, somehow validating our own feelings and experiences. Maybe the comfort in knowing that will help us get past it. It never really happened for Thunders, but it can for the rest of us.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Songs in the Key of Life: Willin'

A brief programming note: This series was formerly known as The Essentials, but I never quite loved that name, probably because most of what I write about here consists of things I consider essential. So, cribbing the name of a killer Stevie Wonder album, I'm rechristening this series Songs in the Key of Life, which seems like an appropriate title for the songs I'm writing about here.

This is the first of what I hope will be semi-regular explorations of songs that move me in some way, that make me think or smile or feel instantly better when they come on. They're songs I can't get enough of, ever. We all have 'em, they're our essential songs, our jams. They make life that much sweeter for the few minutes we're listening to them. These songs also tend to have a connection to certain memories, people, or places in our lives, which helps make them so essential. These essays won't be done in any order, instead I'll just write about the songs I love as I'm reminded of them.

Following that approach, the song I'll cover here is one I heard the other night for the first time in a while, so it's been playing in my head ever since. I'm fairly certain that most of my friends don't know that I love this song. It's Linda Ronstadt's cover of Lowell George's "Willin''. As much as I've grown to love Ronstadt I never used to listen to her much. But whenever I did, I would invariably say "Dammit I should listen to more Linda Ronstadt!" So I've been doing just that. I think I used to pigeonhole her as "just" country rock, but the more I've listened to her the more I see that she didn't fit in any one category and instead combined rock, country, pop, southwestern, bluegrass and more to form her own sound. And obviously it's her voice that everyone remembers. Its distinctive qualities are difficult to describe, maybe it's something in the timbre that sets her apart to me. She inhabits her songs fully while singing the hell out of them because she knows no other way to do it. In that regard she reminds me of other vocalists whose work I hold on a pedestal, including Dusty Springfield, Chan Marshall (Cat Power), and Neko Case to name a few. Ronstadt, like those three, has a powerhouse voice, but one that she modulates from verse to chorus to verse, often so subtlety it's not even noticeable that she's done it. She's so good at it that she makes it sound effortless.

So, she's truly gifted but also smart and in total control of her voice. That's rare. It makes me realize why she was so popular in the 1970s. As a young know-it-all discovering the music that spoke to me in the 1990s, I tended to ignore what I considered soft rock from the '70s. But as I grew up and explored some of it, I realized I was missing out on some amazing songs and bands. I started discovering people like Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac, Delaney and Bonnie, and Jackson Browne, artists I'd previously assumed didn't have anything to offer me. I was wrong. And Ronstadt, with her talent and command of a song, was a revelation to me.

I went on a YouTube binge of her music recently and I kept coming back to "Willin'", which was first performed by George and his band Little Feat. "Willin'" is so '70s it's almost cliched, from the copious references to weed to it being sung from the perspective of a trucker because truck drivers were cool in the '70s, man. But once you listen to the song enough it takes on a timeless quality because of the real poetry at work between music and lyrics. I went through several versions of the song on the YouTube binge—the original, solo versions by George, a duet between George and Ronstadt live on radio, and the recent Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet take (which is a version I already knew and loved). Ronstadt's cover remains my favorite, so it's the one I'll be talking about mostly. And her '70s live performances of it are the ones I keep coming back to. She spins the song in a direction I'm not sure anyone else has before or since. She's completely convincing as the road-weary narrator, driving through the night and occasionally up to no good, but she just as easily might be drifting from town to town simply because she can't imagine doing anything else. That sounds like the life of a touring musician, so I'm sure she drew some inspiration from her own experiences when she settled into the song. And settle in she does. She moves in and makes herself right at home. Ronstadt conveys a feeling of not just performing the song, but living in it, becoming one with it. Her strong connection to the songs is a huge part of what makes her music so captivating. At the start of the live clip of "Willin'" I embedded above—which is my favorite take on the song—she's singing about being "warped by the rain, driven by the snow", that she's "drunk and dirty, don't ya know" and you can hear the emotions welling up in her voice. Then she follows that with "but I'm still..." and pauses briefly, allowing the tension to build in that tiny moment. And when she speaks the last word of that line, "Willin'", she relays exhaustion, contentedness, resignation, and determination all at once with her delivery of that one word. It's stunningly good. George and others sing it similarly, but Ronstadt's the only one that sends a shudder down my spine when I hear it. Her subtlety here is as powerful as any singer belting out high notes. She pulls off the difficult task of underplaying the moment, which helps strengthen the song's impact. 

"Willin'" is a perfect Sunday morning song, especially during summer. The lyrics are filled with details about people and places (and drugs) and complex emotions, all wrapped up in gorgeous melodies. It's short and sweet, and it leaves you wanting to play it on repeat forever. There's something accessible to the song's story; even if we can't relate to the life of a truck driver (not many of us can), we can still relate to being on the open road with fraught and difficult experiences behind us and endless possibilities ahead of us. I didn't even get the trucker references at first, probably because it wasn't the '70s when I first heard it and also because it's always been easy for me to take good song lyrics and find at least a kernel of meaning that I can relate to in some way. And in this case, add Linda Ronstadt into the mix and we move from a compelling song to a spellbinding one. Her's is the definitive version, in my book.

There's something completely unique about most of Linda Ronstadt's covers, even when she stays relatively faithful to the original. Her voice is so transcendent that it elevates the songs to new heights. George wrote a terrific, hook-filled, melodically beautiful song in "Willin'". It's not his fault that I think Ronstadt performed it like no one else has before or since. She did that with most songs she covered. She was just that good


And as an addendum of sorts to this appreciation, I wanted to note that Linda Ronstadt has provided me with more than just the joy of her music in recent years, she’s also helped me with her honest interviews about living with Parkinson’s disease and how it’s impacted her life, including forcing her retirement from music. My father was diagnosed with the disease a few years before I heard that Ronstadt had been also. A friend sent me a lengthy interview with her soon after that, where she described the daily struggles of living with Parkinson’s. Everything she had to say was familiar to me, having witnessed my own father going through the same struggles whenever I’d visit him. My father passed away in October of last year. Parkinson’s had  taken so much from him in a relatively short period of time, which devastated my mother and I slowly, over  and over, every day for years. Now that’s he’s at peace, I’ve noticed that I’ve become more enamored with Linda Ronstadt’s music, possibly because of her connection to what my father experienced, and in some way listening to her music reminds me of him, and it’s good for me to do as many things as possible that remind me of him. When I see performances of Ronstadt’s from the 1970s, when she was young and full of vitality, her striking beauty enhanced tenfold whenever she flashed that sweet grin, I’m reminded of my father and how vital he always was, and how sweet his smile was also. Images of him from before the diagnosis have come creeping back into my mind more often lately. This is monumental, because for the years that Parkinson’s was slowly taking him away from us, it was incredibly difficult to call up what he was like before this. Even though the Parkinson’s was here for such a relatively short portion of his life, it became too all-consuming for us to see much beyond it. So I’ve found that watching some of Linda Ronstadt’s greatest performances online has afforded me with an opportunity to have something else that reminds me of my father as he was, both in his final years and especially for all of those years when he was my protector and number one fan. For that, I’m eternally grateful for the music of Linda Ronstadt.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The retro charm of Stranger Things

I wrote about Stranger Things this week for Sequart. Go there to read my more thoughtful and nuanced ideas on the series, but stay here first to read me geeking out about it. And let's address the elephant in the room: Stranger Things is so last month, man. I know! But I just watched it (having young children gets in the way of binge watching shows as often as you'd imagine it would) and I need to talk about it, man. First of all, there were times it was like watching myself on screen. I've been in those basements, playing those games, reading those comic books, riding those bikes round and round the neighborhood, seemingly forever. The younger kids in Stranger Things were clearly meant to connect with people my age, and even the teens—especially Nancy and Jonathan—remind us of our teenage selves. I'm duly impressed with not only how much Stranger Things got right about the time and place—1983 in small town America—but also with the ways in which it nails being an adolescent and a teenager.

Stranger Things hooked viewers immediately with the retro appeal of references like Uncanny X-Men comics and seeing The Thing posters hanging on basement walls. When I tuned in, I was keeping myself at a distance—the show's slow build contributed to that, as well as my concern that it would lack depth behind all of those nostalgic trappings. After a few episodes, it just clicked for me, and I was a fan. I especially remember feeling addicted to the show around the time Hopper broke into Hawkins Laboratory (badass!) and Joyce started receiving serious communication from Will (the lights!). The show kept viewers like me watching by being a bighearted and thoughtful series about the power of love—between a parent and a child or between friends or siblings. In other words, the series hit most of us right in the feels, but without being manipulative. That's because it delivers a smart and heartfelt science fiction/fantasy/coming of age/love story like few others out there today. It'll remind you of dozens of 1980s TV shows and movies, and comic books for that matter, but what it does with those influences creates that lasting impact on viewers.

And now thanks to Stranger Things I have a fantastic question to ask someone, sometime, in the appropriate situation: "Why are you keeping this curiosity door locked?" Long live Dustin!

Hail Hail the lucky ones

Twenty years ago this week, Pearl Jam performed for the first time on The Late Show with David Letterman. They played the new song, "Hail Hail" that night—the song that asks the question, "Are you woman enough to be my man?" and a personal favorite of mine. As Dave would say, they blew the roof off the dump. I sat gobsmacked at the awesomeness of this performance that night back in 1996, and I still feel the same amazement when viewing it today. Eddie, wearing a killer suit, in dynamic, yet controlled, command of the song; Stone bopping around while dressed like an Orange Creamsicle; Mike and Jeff looking like young pups while rocking; and Jack bashing away on the drums in the background. Definitely one of the best late night performances by a band ever, and truly a special moment during a very special period in the band's career. I swear I'll stop writing about No Code and the band during those years at some point, but this momentous anniversary deserves to be celebrated.

So, ladies and gentlemen please welcome—and appearing now sponsor-free—Pearl Jam.

Songs in the Key of Life: Stolen Car

"Stolen Car" by Bruce Springsteen and from his album The River is a song that haunts you, in my case for years now. I'm pasting in the lyrics in their entirety because they're so strong they can be read independently of the song and still be moving. But within the context of the song, they're extremely powerful because of the despair in Springsteen's vocals. He imbues the song with what feels like years of baggage that's accumulated inside the narrator's head to the point of making him sag and practically collapse under its weight.

I met a little girl and I settled down
In a little house out on the edge of town
We got married, and swore we'd never part
Then little by little we drifted from each other's hearts

At first I thought it was just restlessness
That would fade as time went by and our love grew deep
In the end it was something more I guess
That tore us apart and made us weep

And I'm driving a stolen car
Down on Eldridge Avenue
Each night I wait to get caught
But I never do

She asked if I remembered the letters I wrote
When our love was young and bold
She said last night she read those letters
And they made her feel one hundred years old

And I'm driving a stolen car
On a pitch black night
And I'm telling myself I'm gonna be alright
But I ride by night and I travel in fear
That in this darkness I will disappear

Depressing, isn't it? Lou Reed's notoriously bleak album Berlin was once described as an effort to make the most depressing album of all time, and that Reed and producer Bob Ezrin succeeded at it. As a fan of that record, this sounds right on the money to me. "Stolen Car" is definitely in that vein; it's a downer of a song. So why would anyone be attracted to it? Because we're all attracted to songs that bring us down, at times—some more often than others—because they make us feel something, and just like with watching horror films, human beings like to feel, to experience a variety of emotions when they engage with art. We like to deny this need, or question it, but it's as old as time and there's no use fighting it. "Stolen Car" is one of Springsteen's saddest story songs, and he has a list of those a mile long. But in a number of them there's a catharsis to be had at some juncture in the songs. This isn't one of those songs. It presents an unvarnished look at things like anxiety and depression and how they compound the narrator's miserableness over how his life has turned out. There is no sign of redemption or righting the sinking ship in this song. In the last stanza, he sings "I'm telling myself I'm gonna be alright" but follows this with "But I ride by night and I travel in fear / That in this darkness I will disappear." That's bleak. And that's the end of the song! No happy ending in sight. 

In portraying the decay of a relationship in the span of such a short song, Springsteen manages to pack in an incredible amount of detail. Every line of the song is heavy.

She asked if I remembered the letters I wrote
When our love was young and bold
She said last night she read those letters
And they made her feel one hundred years old

Heavy, right? Sometimes when looking back on our younger selves we can feel exponentially older now than we really are. Springsteen captures that here. Thankfully we might not relate to the dissolution of a marriage or the need to steal a car just to feel something, but each one of us can relate to feeling like we've let someone we love down, or to ignoring pain and conflict only to see it grow and spread, or to being devastated by not recognizing our former selves. The song taps into universal fears for all of us. 

I haven't even talked about the music yet, which is as haunting as the lyrics. It's sparsely arranged, simple and beautiful in equal measure. Soft piano, some subtle keyboards, and very minimal drumming provide a quiet backing sound, allowing Springsteen's story to stand front and center. I found this quote on Wikipedia, from Springsteen's biographer Dave Marsh talking about how the song fades out at the end "without a nuance of reluctance. There is nothing more here—just a waste of life and a man brave or stupid enough to watch it trickle away." I can't say it any better than that.

Whenever people who don't know much of Springsteen's music's beyond his big songs talk to me about him, I recommend certain deep cuts as good introductions to his work. "Stolen Car" is usually one of those, and on at least one occasion a friend listened to it intently after we talked and he reported feeling as moved and awestruck by the song as I've been for years. There's a lot more to his music than what the masses know from Born in the USA or Born to Run or even the big hits from The River. "Stolen Car", like "Atlantic City" and "Wreck on the Highway" are memorable for being stark and powerful story songs that leave you thinking about their shared themes of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. He has plenty of rocking songs that I suggest to people, too—like the celebratory and raucous "Crush on You" and the rollicking epic non-album cut "Thundercrack". There are several of Springsteen's songs I can claim as personal favorites. Choosing one to write about wasn't easy, which means I'll probably be compelled to write about the others someday too. "Stolen Car" stands shoulder to shoulder with any of his best work. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Writing Roundup: Ms. 45, Halloween III, and Candyman

My series of cult film reviews continues over at The After Movie Diner, a site that truly celebrates film in all its forms. First I looked at Ms. 45, Abel Ferrera's 1981 exploitation classic that I argue is also an overlooked feminist classic. The film has haunted me for years, as have most of Ferrara's work. Like Ferrara's other early career films, Ms. 45 is an unsettling look at life in New York City at a time before the Disneyification of midtown. The film features the late Zoe Tamerlis's star-making performance in the title role. She's unforgettable in it, which only makes me sadder that she died so young and never fully realized the promise of this movie. She did write Bad Lieutenant, though, and that's another Ferrara masterpiece. Still, she left far too soon.

I also took a lighter look at another cult classic, Halloween III: Season of the Witch. I don't want to spoil my take on it, but suffice it to say this film has seen an about-face in its critical reception over the last thirty-plus years. Rightly so, too. It's ridiculously watchable because it's so insane. I'm already counting down the days until it starts running nightly during October Halloween movie marathons on cable.

Finally, I reviewed Candyman, a movie that so terrified me as a teenager that it still holds a special place in my heart. It's a very strong horror film and I highly recommend you watch it on a cold, dark October night this year, with the lights down low. Just stay away from mirrors.

Songs in the Key of Life: We Just Disagree

Am I going soft? My love for this song might indicate that I am indeed losing my edge. But I can still rant about inane music and presidential candidates alike with equal vim and vigor. So I don't think it's about going soft, but rather about life changing and me changing along with it. Since having kids, my wife and I have occasionally listened to a 1970s soft rock channel on Pandora during dinner. It helps keep things mellow when the kids are refusing food or playing with food or throwing food. One song that keeps cropping up is "We Just Disagree," written by Jim Krueger and a late 1970s hit for Traffic's original guitarist Dave Mason. Although I heard the song countless times on the radio as a kid, I didn't know who Dave Mason was until I discovered Traffic as a teenager. Traffic became one of the few psych-rock groups I still love today (Pink Floyd being another), while "We Just Disagree" sort of faded out of memory. But back in the 1980s the song was a radio staple. Bob Dylan performed it during his 1980-81 tour. It may have even been played at a junior high dance or two, although I suppose dancing with your sweetheart to it would be a downer. It's about two people who once shared a love but have since drifted apart. Hearing it again recently, I'm struck by how heartbreaking it is, which is something I must have recognized in some vague way as a child. Even then, before I ever understood what it felt like to experience a relationship (either romantic or platonic) falling apart, I felt the very real sense of sadness in the song. It was clearly a song for adults, but it works so well that even a child can grasp its bittersweet message.

These days "We Just Disagree" is most often heard on the dreaded soft rock radio or streaming stations. You likely sneer at these stations. It would be safe to say that I do my share of sneering at soft rock too. The thing is, the older you get, the more soft rock just makes sense sometimes. I used to dismiss Fleetwood Mac and Jackson Browne, only to fall completely in love with their music in the last decade. I'll now argue their merits with anyone who doubts them. Now don't panic: the gentle sounds of soft rock will never dethrone the urgency and irony of punk rock and new wave for me. But I'm discovering that in my dotage, soft rock sometimes speaks to the part of me that just wants to kick back after a long hard day and let the softsational sounds roll over me like a wave. Surely there's no crime in that, right? And I still can't stand the Eagles or Carol King, among other bastions of soft rock. But go back and listen to some of Lindsey Buckingham's songs with Fleetwood Mac, like "I Know I'm Not Wrong" and "Not That Funny" and tell me they don't share a defiantly challenging spirit with supposedly edgier music of that era.

In moving from young adulthood into middle age (very early middle age, in my case, ahem), songs like "We Just Disagree" take on a bit more significance. It may sound dated now to modern ears, but it's solidly in the country rock vein that was huge back then. And the lyrics still hold up, no question. Hearing Mason sing about how he and his former partner no longer see eye to eye is a reminder of just how complicated relationships can be: "there ain't no good guy/there ain't no bad guy/there's only you and me/ and we just disagree." The song's couple have come to the sad realization that what they had has been lost and they can't get it back. They have different, and incompatible, needs now. At one point Mason asks "have you got a place to stay?" and then immediately questions why he should care. That's the thing about building a life with someone: you can't simply stop caring when the relationship ends. I only had to experience this fleetingly as a young man and I'm fully aware of how fortunate that makes me. "We Just Disagree" reminds us that things can go wrong even if neither person is to blame. The "end of our love song" is a fear that anyone can relate to. We've all seen people like the couple in the song, ones who seemed perfect together but simply couldn't make it last. The song might now be considered soft rock, but its message has always been pretty heavy, at least.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Words seem out of place, or, where this blog got its name

1995 was a creatively fruitful year for Pearl Jam.
This blog has existed for over a year now and it occurred to me that I've never mentioned what inspired the name. Words Seem Out of Place comes from the lyrics to an improvised Pearl Jam song played exactly once, on March 17, 1995 in Melbourne, Australia.  After writing about Pearl Jam's No Code turning twenty last month, it seems only appropriate to follow up with the story of the blog's title now, which is really the story of the improv that inspired it.

"Better Man" has long been a concert highlight, when the band segues into a portion of the English Beat's "Save It For Later" or an improv at the end of the song. At this particular show in Melbourne, the band improvised a delicately beautiful three-plus minute song at the end of "Better Man" that's been dubbed "Words Seem Out of Place." Eddie Vedder's vocals are full of wistful longing, with the song building slowly towards a cathartic, yet still controlled, denouement. No official lyrics exist for it, and Vedder was likely making up some of them on the spot, so it can be hard to decipher all of it on bootlegs or YouTube. But it seems to be about struggling with something and finding it hard to put those feelings into words. He sings, "Falling out of my face / words just seem out of place." Those lyrics, tied to that absolutely sublime guitar interplay from the band, haunted me for years after I first heard the song on a bootleg album in the late 1990s. The fact that the song is a one-off, and not even a fully formed song, only enhances my affection for it. I never forgot that song or its lyrics about feeling inarticulate or shy or unsure. Over the years whenever I felt like words failed me, or that my words failed someone else, this is the song I'd hear in my head. When I started this blog, it was immediately apparent to me what I had to name it.

Melbourne '95 is one of several legendary Pearl Jam shows from that tour, including their epic sets at Chicago's Soldier Field and Milwaukee's Summerfest. That year was a turning point for the band, as well as their first full year with Jack Irons on drums. Vitalogy had just released in late '94 and the band really bloomed creatively with that album and the Self Pollution Radio broadcasts and tours of America, Japan, and Australia in '95. That era with Irons on drums ('94–'98) stands out as an utterly unique time in their history, thanks in large part to Irons himself. Not only his drumming, but his calming influence over the other band members, at a time when the walls seemed to be closing in on them. During the early years of this era, Pearl Jam had transitioned into being the single biggest band on the planet. Overwhelmed by all that came with that, Vedder and the band retreated a bit but stayed fierce—taking on Ticketmaster showed they had the same spirit they'd always had. On the music side of things, Irons' drumming style was far different from any drummer the band's had before or since. He brought a tribal and polyrhythmic style with him, allowing the band to stretch out more, to be looser and explore new sounds and emotions. "Words Seem Out of Place" is a good example of Pearl Jam's sound in the mid-'90s: experimental, unconventional, and beautiful. Most of their best songs from those years—"Who You Are," "Sometimes," "Off He Goes," "Present Tense," "Low Light," "Given to Fly," "All Those Yesterdays," and "Wishlist"—are achingly beautiful, full of intricate detail and subtle touches. Vedder was writing incredibly thoughtful and introspective lyrics during this stretch that were about seeking answers to how and where we fit in the world.

"Words Seem Out of Place" has always seemed like a another potentially great song that would have slotted in right next to those others on the list, had it been developed further. As it stands though, it's still powerfully moving and one of several intriguing improvs from their career ("Out of My Mind" being one that took on a life of its own among fans), each of which prove how spontaneous and unique each Pearl Jam concert can be.

Here are the lyrics, found in various places across the Interwebs. They seem pretty accurate to my ears. A fan-shot video of the performance, synced with what sounds like a soundboard recording, follows at the bottom of this post.

I seem so overcome, yeah...

Words seem so out of place
words they fall off my altar
How did I get to this place?

Seems so, sounds so familiar
Lost in my dying, cold cry...

All their dreams, there's a million, yeah...
So does it feel time to say a prayer?

Hey, yeah... (2x)

Words they seemed out of place
Words they seem out of place
Falling out on my face, yeah...

Words just seem out of place...