360°Sound spoke with Ronen Givony, author of the new book Not For You: Pearl Jam and the Present Tense (out Oct. 15 on Bloomsbury). Givony is the founder of New York City’s Wordless Music series and orchestra, whose mission is to bring together the worlds of classical and contemporary instrumental music and introduce listeners to composers for a completely new concert experience. Not For You is Givony’s second book. In 2018, he wrote a 33 1/3 book on the Jawbreaker album 24 Hour Revenge Therapy.
As the first book to cover Pearl Jam from 1990 to the present, Givony mixes autobiography, social history, and critical analysis in telling the story of the beloved American rock band. To date, Pearl Jam has sold over 85 million records, and at one point in the ‘90s laid claim to the title of “the world’s biggest rock band.” Gigaton, their eleventh studio album and first in seven years, was released in March to positive reviews.
“I really tried hard to write a book that was comprehensive in its reach but also was respectful of fans and was reader-friendly and accessible,” Givony told 360°. “I just felt like Pearl Jam were worthy of one honest serious treatment, and I hope that people are happy with it.”
360°: You are a longtime Pearl Jam fan. However, most of your professional work has been in the classical realm. Please start by telling us what led you to write this book.
Ronen Givony: I think my detour into classical music is probably a little weird and unusual. I was a teenager when [Pearl Jam] started playing. I was 12, 13, 14 years old for the first few records, basically the perfect age to fall in love with anything. I graduated high school in ’97 and college in ’01 and I kind of fell in and out with them. I think right around No Code, like a lot of people, I started listening to other stuff and developed other interests.
A little bit after Yield and the bootlegs, I started getting really back into it. I went through quite a while of seeing them every chance I could. I started working in classical music really because I needed a job. I enjoyed the music, and any job in music is a blessing. But it was just a writing gig honestly. I still don’t know how to play an instrument. I can’t read music. I just started doing this really, first, for a paycheck and then as a career.
It’s like the Beatles and the Stones are like Pearl Jam and Nirvana. It always seemed weird to me that they were so connected, like when I was growing up, it was like peanut butter and jelly, and at a certain point, maybe in the 2000s, Kurt Cobain became this sort of different thing. So now, if you go to Amazon, there’s literally a dozen books about Nirvana, all of which are justified and worthwhile. But it just seemed like a bit of a mismatch to me, like 12-to-1 or something.
So, a couple years ago, I was at a [Pearl Jam] show at Wrigley Field in Chicago. I was looking around at all these people. Some of them whom were similar to me and some of them were not. I think like 10 minutes before they went on stage, this lightbulb went off and I thought, ‘Man, this is a subject that I don’t know if the whole world would get, but definitely everyone in this park right now would understand.’ From that moment on, it was just a question of defining the audience. Is it a book for diehard people? Is it a book for people who were into them for a little while? In writing it, I realized there are so many things in this era in music that really have not been written about.
I think to the more casual Pearl Jam fans, the number of bootlegs and live albums out there is a bit overwhelming. What’s an essential concert that you’d recommend?
To keep it pretty recent, I was in Kraków, Poland when the band played there in 2018. Pearl Jam’s sound is always impeccable, but sometimes there’s just a weird venue or a weird PA, there’s things beyond your control. That venue was especially bad that time, it was muffled and distorted. But there was something about the setlist, and I think it was the first show they played in Kraków ever.
That was a night where, despite all the obstacles and shortcomings, when they’re on, there’s just sort of a light switch that goes on that everybody in the building feels. It doesn’t always happen with them. When it does happen, it’s just this ideal Utopian thing for two or three hours where people get along and it’s soundtracked by this music. I enjoyed [that Kraków show] a lot, and I think the recording is a lot better, they cleaned it up a bit.
What are some of your favorite songs that you hope they play when you see them?
I’m really partial to No Code, that whole middle period. To me, from like Merkin Ball, Vitalogy, No Code, Yield, that’s my favorite, when they just get kind of weird. Anything from No Code I’m always hoping for. Any of those kind of darker, weirder, left-field things like “Tremor Christ,” “All Those Yesterdays” and “Hail Hail.” I don’t think those are the favorites of the people in the band, but I think they know that the fans go crazy for them. They’re kind of conservative with how they dole them out.
Do you think Pearl Jam is one of a kind with the career trajectory and lasting relevance they’ve had?
I think so. I’ve really spent a lot of time over the last three or four years thinking of who is an analogous story. If you’re trying to write a book about Steven Spielberg, you look at a book about Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola. With Pearl Jam, there’s people like the Grateful Dead. There’s Bad Religion, who had a two-year hiatus but never really broke up over three or four decades.
I do think they are pretty unique, and as I try to mention in the book, I think it’s a couple of things. It’s obvious for a while they were just on fire musically. That’s first and foremost. Nobody would care about Ticketmaster or Ralph Nader if the songs weren’t there. [Editor’s note: Pearl Jam waged a legal battle with Ticketmaster in the mid-’90s; singer Eddie Vedder supported Ralph Nader for president in 2000].
I think it was also this moment in history that was just pretty unlikely, and it’s just hard to see how the series of events from 1991 to 1994, between world events and the music industry and a Democratic president being elected. There was just this weird alignment where you could disseminate this message to a lot of people, and it was about music, but it was about more than music. I think Pearl Jam themselves would say that they were the lucky beneficiaries of this moment. If you just look back at the optimism and the radicalism of a lot of that moment, I think it was a perfect storm.
Do you think Pearl Jam has become a scapegoat for paving the way for much-derided post-grunge bands like Nickleback and Puddle of Mudd?
I think you’re totally right. That’s one of those things about Eddie Vedder. That’s why he was so popular, and also why he was so criticized. Because his voice is in this range, he’s a singular artist, but a dude in a shower can approximate singing some of his songs. Very much within people’s range, and people like that. People like songs they can sing along to. But the flip side to that is that there are a lot of shitty bands that sounded like that.
What do you think is the legacy of Pearl Jam?
It’s still being written and figured out. I really think Pearl Jam still has at least one or two great records left in them. I don’t think it’s Gigaton. I would like to know where is the Chris Cornell Temple of the Dog record? Where is their statement about their friend? In that same way that that was [Vedder’s] welcome to town and that album was in honor of [deceased Mother Love Bone singer] Andrew Wood, I feel like there’s some weird unfinished business there.
David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, A Tribe Called Quest went out on great records. I would like Pearl Jam to do that. The same way in which Vs. was a total surprise, I think they do have a Vs.-level surprise left in them.
To order a copy of Not For You: Pearl Jam and the Present Tense, click here.