Pearl Jam: Merkin Ball
In early 1995, Pacific Northwest recording artists Pearl Jam were invited by Neil Young to be the backing band for his 22nd album Mirror Ball. The album featured eleven tracks, but more importantly it formed a lasting friendship between Neil Young and Pearl Jam. They have gone on to play several of Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit concerts, frequently cover Neil Young in concert, and he has appeared with them on stage several times in the intervening twenty years.
Not present for most of the recordings was Eddie Vedder, who was in the middle of having a serious problem with a stalker. Said stalker was of the opinion that Vedder had raped her and as a result was the father of her child. The events surrounding this part of his life would later be memorialized in the 1996 track “Lukin”. Anyway, Vedder came in around near the end of the recording session for Mirror Ball and layed down the vocals for what would become the accompanying Merkin Ball single.
The first of these tracks is “I Got Id”, was known in bootleg recording circles at the time by the alternate title “I Got Shit”. Allegedly, Pearl Jam’s label made them change the title when they were approached about releasing the song as part of the Merkin Ball single. The alternate title actually is used in the song, but the Freudian use of Id does seem appropriate given the subject matter. Neil Young plays lead guitar on the track. The main character is remembering a time in his life when they were in a better place, but this memory is happening while they are alone and trying hard not to revert to their addiction, perhaps heroin (the aforementioned “shit”). The character is reminiscing about a time when they were with somebody, perhaps even a time when they were not using because they were instead high on the effects of the relationship, however brief or long it lasted. While the character is thinking, they begin to imagine that they can only be happy and clean of using drugs is when they are with that person. This conflation is where the Id comes in. There is also the blatant reference to Johnny Cash’s immortal classic about staying out of trouble because they are with somebody, ‘I Walk the Line”. By the way, the song does not give any inclination as to how the other person in the relationship felt, nor does it state how long the relationship lasted. “I Got Id” is one of Pearl Jam’s more deeply reflective songs. That’s not to say their other songs are shallow, only to say that this song has a lot to say.
The other track on the single, or the b-side on the vinyl, is titled “Long Road”, Young played the pump organ. The track contains another set of introspecive lyrics, this time about wondering how long any given life will last. The song also states several times that, no matter how long one’s life lasts, nobody can stay. In the middle portion of the song, friends and family are sharing memories, presumably of somebody who has just died, as exemplified with the lyrics “All the memories going round, round, round, round”. I take this line to mean that, at the end of any lifespan, the events of said life will be rememberd by those upon whom ther person has had a lasting impact. The bridge of the song, “The sun has set/the sun will rise another day” can be interpreted as a statement that, even when one life passes, another life will be just beginning. Near the end of the song, “Will I walk the long road” is paired several times with “We all walk the long road,” which I take to mean that everybody’s life lasts as long as it’s meant to last. Neil Young joined two members of Pearl Jam for “America: A Tribute to Heroes” following the events of 2001.
Eddie Vedder is frequently criticized for writing depressing lyrics, but both “I Got Id” and “Long Road” have rays of hopefulness. “I Got Id” has somebody wrestling with their inner turmoils and “Long Road” celebrates the entirety of the life cycle. That these two songs came at the end of recording sessions with Neil Young, that they were laid down during an intense period of Vedder’s life, speaks volumes of the degree to which he was envigorated by recording with one of his heroes as much as it does from where he gets his inspiration.
The friendship between Neil Young and Members of Pearl Jam continues to this day. After the Mirror Ball/Merkin Ball recording sessions, Vedder inducted Neil Young into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist, afterward performing a duet on Young’s track “Fuckin’ Up”. During a 2005 tour stop, members of Sleater-Kinney performed “Harvest Moon” on stage with Pearl Jam. On September 11, 2011, Pearl Jam played a concert in Toronto, birth place of Mr. Young. Given the feelings surrounding the anniversary taking place that day, it was with great significance that they performed the 1989 Neil Young song “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” with him on stage. During a 2014 tour stop, Vedder performed “The Needle and the Damage Done”.
Neil Young is frequently called “the godfather of grunge” because of his feedback laden “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”. The song was quoted in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. The day Cobain’s body was found, Pearl jam put the song as a tag at the end of “Daughter”, one of their concert staples at the time, followed by Don McLean’s “American Pie” (the day the music died).
By the way, a merkin is a toupe for pubic hair…now you know.