Spin the Black Circle

A couple of months ago (maybe more, who can remember), I bought Pearl Jam's "rearviewmirror (Greatest Hits 1991-2003)." Sure, I'm a little late to the game if my first Pearl Jam purchase came in 2008. They were obviously a formative band, from the Seattle grunge scene, while I was in middle and high school. But I had no real interest in their music. I can't really say why. I guess I was more enamored at the time with groups like Steely Dan, the Beatles, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the hip-hop scene.

(An aside: The first hip-hop album I ever bought was Notorious B.I.G's "Life After Death," a historic double album at the time. Then I moved on to Puff Daddy's "No Way Out." My tastes in rap were not so well cultivated then. Still, as I moved through all the Biggie, Puffy, Busta albums, I started to gravitate toward Nas, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, the Roots, a Tribe Called Quest, Lupe Fiasco, Eric B. and Rakim and De La Soul. I yearned for the socially conscious hip-hop, the kind of stuff that required a sharp tongue and a deep intellect. They were rapping about SOMETHING, which was important to me. Too much radio/club hip-hop is diluted garbage that combines a pulsating beat with repetitive, catchy lyrics. It's a sure formula to make some quick cash, but it's so shallow that its lasting impact is minimal or, usually, non-existent. So I found the soulful tones and understated, yet still good, beats of guys like Common and Mos Def, the musical acumen of the Roots and the lyrical prowess of people like Nas and Talib Kweli. Those are real rappers. The guys you hear on the radio? Well, they're just parodies of themselves and stereotypes of the hip-hop scene. They add nothing substantive to rap music.)

I was always behind the curve musically. I never paid any mind to the indie rock scene. I was never at the vanguard of any musical movement. I knew what I liked, and that's what I listened to. I usually relied on others to hip me to new bands and acts. Now, I had always known about Pearl Jam. Who didn't back then? In fact, my high school journalism teacher had a love for Pearl Jam that he probably will never have for any other living person. (He has a wife and kid now, so he may resent that statement. But I'll stand by it.) He would often force us to listen to the fivesome during class while we worked. I think because it was pushed on me so aggressively, I began to despise the band. I had the you-can't-tell-me-who-to-like attitude, so I avoided Pearl Jam's music. My shortsightedness led to my loss.

But I bring all this up now because I haven't been able to stop listening to "rearviewmirror" for the past two months, at least. It has stayed in my car's CD player almost exclusively, and I tear through the same 30+ tracks over and over and over again. Making up for lost time, I guess. At first, it was hard for me to pinpoint what I loved about this band so much. I guess on the first couple of listens, it was just the nostalgia of some of the songs. It was listening to Dissident, Even Flow, Jeremy and Alive one more time and 10 years out. Then after a few listens, I just enjoyed the rock 'n' roll, which was catchy and good. But when you listen to the same band for months at a time, you start to realize some of the deeper connections you make with the music. You learn why they were (and are) successful. And so you develop a greater appreciation for everything they did. And that brings me to the song Spin the Black Circle. Of all the songs on "rearviewmirror," it's one of my least favorite. But it was also the one song that really made me acknowledge the genius of Pearl Jam's entire catalog.

Spin the Black Circle is a hard rock song, certainly harder than anything else they produced, from the album "Vitalogy." In fact, Pearl Jam won its one and only Grammy Award in 1996 in the Best Hard Rock category for Spin. (It was a meaningless awards, according to lead singer Eddie Vedder.) And because it's such a hard rock song, I never enjoyed it. I like rock 'n' roll, but when it reaches a point of crossing over into metal (or metal lite) territory, I turn away. Because at that point, the music devolves into noise. And I thought Spin dove head first into metal lite. Maybe it had more of a punk feel, but I don't think so. So the first time I heard it, I moved past it. But a couple of weeks ago, it came around again, and instead of skipping, I stayed put to listen to it finally after weeks of skipping. And I came away impressed by how Pearl Jam constructed the song.

Everything Pearl Jam does is intentional. It's not just about intertwining the guitar, bass, drums, etc. That's obviously important. But a simple combination of every element that goes into making a song is only a start. What instrument should be featured prominently? How should the leader singer sing the song? When should the bass enter? When should the drums fade to back? Would a keyboard add an extra element to the piece? All these questions and more go into the total decision making process for a song. And some artists just toss things together, use that magic radio formula and produce a hit single that will make them a ton of money. More power to them, but again, does that music have any worth? No. Everything a band does has to have meaning. What's the raison d'etre, as it were? And what impresses me about Pearl Jam is that they seem to think thoughtfully through all their decisions.

Spin the Black Circle starts fast and ends faster. It's frenzied, frantic and frenetic. Nothing about that song should make your comfortable. The lyrics are about addiction, not to drugs, but to vinyl records. (Hence the title, Spin the Black Circle.) The first lyric is, "See this needle ... a see my hand ..." So you might think, as a listener, that it's about shooting heroin. Not the case. But still, the song does center on addiction to music and vinyl records, and so the music pulsates and tries to pull you into a helpless world. It's all power chords, so there's nothing too intricate there. But isn't that part of the point? Addiction is powerful, nothing subtle about it. So the song should be powerful, too.

Vedder sings aggressively throughout the entire piece, but he seems to get madder and madder as the song continues. And at the end, there's a beautiful devolution into anarchy. Vedder enters as he pleases and screams "spin." The other band members seem to play their instruments with no regard for pace or tone or timing. No one is in synch at all. It's a completely frenzied situation. It makes you feel like there's no release, nothing you can do. And, of course, that symbolizes addiction, particularly when addicts hit the bottom.

Al Weisel of Rolling Stone called the song a "revvedup thrash tribute to vinyl." David Browne of Entertainment Weekly said that it sounds "a little flabby, like dinosaur rockers trying to prove they're into Green Day." But I get the sense that Weisel and Browne didn't really listen to the song, the same mistake I made early on. To understand the true beauty of the piece is to listen to the music and lyrics together and to comprehend how everything fits together nicely. It may sound anarchistic, but unlike true anarchy, there's reason and structure behind it.

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