It feels like only yesterday I last talked about Pearl Jam on these cyber pages, and really, it sort of was. Pearl Jam is a band that finds its way into my discourse often. They were probably my first personal band, and this is a big part of why I love them so much even today (to the chagrin of many hipper people, or people who are averse to histrionic baritones). They’re the band I’m willing to buy singles and live CDs from, the one that finds its way on 95% of all mix tapes and CDs I’ve made in my life, and one of the lucky few to still be represented on a concert tee in my wardrobe. They are one musical constant in a musical world that gets weirder and weirder.
Perhaps surprising to most, however, I don’t care much about their first album, Ten, despite being the album most people like best. It’s a great album, but it’s an album I have very little invested in, because I can hear most of it at any time. If you hear PJ on the radio, it’s likely one of the big Ten tracks. That doesn’t mean I don’t love Black, or Porch, or even Jeremy. It just means I don’t take the time to seek them out. As such, the non-hits do suffer in my knowledge (Oceans, Deep, Garden… I’m so, so sorry). I don’t get a personal excitement out of these songs anymore, and so, I rarely listen to the album through.
The song that has always been the exception was Release. That refrain resonated early as a kid feeling trapped within himself, and the passion with which Eddie sings it made it unavoidable. How could I not have it connect? I felt like he was screaming what my whole being wanted to scream. It became an early anthem for me, something just hidden enough to still be personal. I needed to be released from my own mind, and here comes this man telling me implicitly that that was OK.
Then some time later I really went deeper into the lyrics, and I realized it was about his father dying. About feeling like he’d be proud of where he ended up. About yearning to speak to him again. About growing stronger and dropping the guards he seems to build up in the dialog in “Alive.” The pain in being without him, even for so long, even as strong as he has grown. Which, honestly, I should have realized a long time prior, but I was too caught up in that refrain.
I think I’ve told the story of the dream I had once, introducing my father to a close friend after he showed up, unannounced, at our house, as he would have any other day of his life. This was years after his death, and even in dreams, I knew it was wrong that he should be alive. Not “bad” wrong, just not how it was. His presence felt so tentative, and my dream-self could feel that fear… how long could this last? Would he disappear again? I recall many dreams of this nature, where the joy of his coming back never allowed a second of forgetting that every time that white car left the driveway again, it might be the last… that this itself might not be real (insofar as the dreamworld was “real”), and that every second held the fear of losing the man again. This particular one was different, and I think it was the last similar dream I had. The tenuousness of how long the reunion could last was still in my heart as I broke down in tears, embarrassed as hell and yet also proud as I presented my father to my friend and introduced him. It was a moment I don’t feel like I ever had: my friends were pre-packaged before he passed, and my family knew their families before I knew they were my friends. There was something important about being able to show off the man I’d loved as a child, even if the reality is that I often bury those feelings with frightening ease.
I think of this dream often when I hear “Release,” because there is that same sorrow and that same desire to make contact.
Today, March 1st, is my father’s birthday. He’d be 62 were he still here. It’s the 20th birthday he hasn’t celebrated, but it’s also a milestone in my life. I have chapters closing and new ones opening up. I have successes to focus on and new failures to fear. And I wonder if he’d be proud of me. Dear dad, can you see me now?
What does it matter? Realistically I don’t think I’d be apt to change my path if he wasn’t. Still, I think of the shy kid I was, and the ways I’ve drawn myself out of that shell in recent years, much as I do desire its comfort. I think about my educational rebounds, the connections I’ve made, and I wonder if it would register. I wonder who I would have been, if anyone different, without the influence of losing him. I think about the struggles I’ve had with my mother, and whether he would understand or refuse to (and to that end, if those struggles would even be as extant had I had a second parent). Inevitably I imagine he’s been watching, even though I know it’s unlikely; it is hard to shake the desire for an afterlife when people you love are already there. And I wonder what he would see in that scenario. I wonder if he sees my best parts through my flaws. I wonder if he sees my worst parts despite my progress.
The truth is, I can’t know. I’m asking questions that can’t be answered, that could only be answered if he had never left the mortal coil. Yet this year especially, with the vulnerability of past changes and the excitement of future ones, I feel that desire for answers all the stronger. It’s inevitable that we change after 20 years. What wouldn’t we give to make that introduction one more time, this time not introducing another, telling them “this is my father,” but instead uttering the words, through no shortage of tears, “Dad, this is me.” Maybe this is why Eddie has “opened up,” and yet still needs to beg for release with every fiber of his being. There may never be a release when the things we feel we need to do remain impossible.
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