Pearl Jam's 1992 MTV Unplugged still rocks with righteous, relevant anger
MTV's Unplugged series often seemed designed to reveal every member of a band at their most restrained, stripped down to a bongo-tapping, acoustic-plucking, whisper-crooning essence. There's a feint toward that toward the start of Pearl Jam’s 1992 appearance, released on YouTube this week for the first time in its entirety by the band: a baby-faced, chipmunk-cheeked Eddie Vedder looks bashful and speaks softly, very much the laconic surfer boy who wandered north to a burgeoning grunge scene.
Vedder begins the program perched calmly on a ubiquitous stool. But he quickly shifts into a man possessed as he sings his way through seven songs, drawn from Pearl Jam's debut album, Ten, and their appearance in and on the soundtrack of the Cameron Crowe movie Singles. (A limited pressing of the Unplugged show was put out on vinyl for 2019’s Record Store Day, and is also available now to stream.)
It gets louder as they go along, and Vedder's edginess grows, twitching out in little bursts. He was by then already locally notorious for treating the tangled pipework across the ceilings of Seattle venues as his own personal jungle gym, but this was the first broader glimpse for most viewers at those manic acrobatics. When he pulls his ballcap off before "Alive," he shakes his long hair out with a sharp snap. He begins to rock back and forth as he sings, kicking his legs up and out, spinning around and tangling his feet in the rungs. He's still seated, but also headbanging.
And then the wheels really come off. He first unbuttons, then strips off his corduroy jacket, and bolts right into the rapid-fire first verse of "Porch," biting off the lyrics like they looked at him the wrong way. "There ain't gonna be any middle anymore," he sings, angry and pointed. As the band eases into the briefly mellow bridge, Vedder flips himself and his stool over onto the floor. He laughs at himself, turtled on his back, then rights it, first balancing on his stomach like he's paddling out to catch a wave, then clambering up to stand on the padded seat. He pulls out a Sharpie as the band kicks into overdrive, writing in bold letters on his bare left arm the words PRO•CHOICE!!! (yes, with three exclamation points). He ends the song with added new lyrics about the “choice in our time.”
It's almost as bizarre now, on the eve of the 2020 election, to watch this unfold as it was to first watch as a teenager in a not-quite-suburb in the early ’90s. Like a lot of kids whose first exposure to grunge came via MTV, I was only vaguely aware of riot grrrl bands, and I certainly had never seen a dude so determined to make a point about abortion rights in the middle of what might otherwise merely have been a proto-coffeehouse acoustic rock performance. To put this now almost ancient history in context: In 2020, Vedder joined Instagram to encourage mail-in voting. In 1992, the year before Ruth Bader Ginsburg was named to the Supreme Court, he was standing on a stool in a Queens soundstage, ruining the curve for white male feminist rockstars.
This was the beginning of Pearl Jam's career, and like their Seattle comrades Nirvana, they were less concerned with risking a big commercial radio success than challenging the first Bush presidency's conservative politics — or being branded sell-outs. Both bands played Rock for Choice benefit concerts, started by L7, that raised money for abortion-rights organizations. (Just for kicks, you can read the late critic Jonathan Gold's review of one Los Angeles show here). Vedder even wrote an essay for Spin magazine a few months after the Unplugged performance that detailed the larger political landscape of international abortion access and the threat groups such as Operation Rescue posed to Roe v. Wade —and in which he poignantly imagined the life of a then-10-year-old child he hadn't been ready to father.
The performance of “Porch” was shown out of order on MTV, and the mix-up remains in this YouTube version as well — you can clearly see one of those emphatic exclamation points peeking out of his sleeve earlier in the show. But the dramatic performance has its rightful place as the all-out conclusion to an iconic appearance. Making as much noise as five guys can figure out how to in a tiny space with no electric instruments, Vedder bounces from bug-eyed and red-faced and punk rock mad to shoving his hands deep into his pockets, hunching over and mumbling into the mic, then back again to finish off the set with a flurry of cymbal smashes.
"It didn't feel like a TV show at all," Vedder says almost like an afterthought as they clear the stage. But in his own unexpected, unfiltered way, Vedder provided what was perhaps that largely tame series’ best-ever example of the power of a TV performance, plugged in or not.