Pearl Jam were born out of the embers of disastrous circumstances, an existence that remains in spite of tragedy. ‘Alive’ is a powerful, uplifting anthemic track about overcoming trauma, a topic that Pearl Jam are sadly all too familiar with.
Before Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder was working as a security guard for a petrol station and fronting the San Diego based band Bad Radio. It’s a twisted miracle how Vedder ended up joining Pearl Jam, upping sticks to move from California to Seattle.
‘Alive’ was initially a Mother Love Bone song, the band Mike McGready, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament previously played in before Pearl Jam. They released their debut album, Apple, in 1990, but tragically, just four months after its release, singer Andrew Wood died following a heroin overdose.
The trio, understandably, found themselves in tatters after losing their close friend. They couldn’t bring themselves to carry on with Mother Love Bone without Wood, but they still wanted to make music together. The only issue was that they didn’t have a lead singer.
They eyed up former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons to join the project, and although he didn’t feel the opportunity was right for him, he passed the demo on to his friend, Eddie Vedder. The demo included tracks that they’d been working on, including ‘Alive’, formerly a Mother Love Bone track called ‘Dollar Short’, which Wood sang on before his death.
The band had no idea that Vedder even existed, yet, it was clear they had found their singer when his demo arrived. They flew him up to Seattle immediately, and within a week, he’d joined the band.
Vedder himself was living with grief that had suffocated him for years, and on ‘Alive’, he finally dealt with it. “The original story being told in the song is of a young man being made aware of some shocking truths,” Vedder emotionally explained on VH1’s Storytellers. “And one was that the guy he believed to be his father while growing up was not, and number two was that his real father had passed away a few years before. As if adolescence wasn’t tough enough.”
Adding: “The guy was me, but I barely knew me then. To be honest I was barely there to be known. So he took this to be a curse, like fine you told me this secret, but I’ve gotta figure a way to deal with this. Fine the dad’s dead but I’m still alive and I’ve gotta deal with this. So it was a curse. So cut to a few years later and we’re playing to larger and larger audiences and they’re responding to this chorus in a way that you never thought.”
Vedder continued: “Folks are jumping up in the aisles, using their bodies to express themselves and singing along ‘I’m still alive’ en masse. So every night when I look out at this sea of people reacting on their own positive interpretation, it was really incredible.
“The audience changed the meaning of these words and when they sing ‘I’m still alive’, it’s like they’re celebrating. And here’s the thing. When they changed the meaning of those words, they lifted the curse.”
Vedder had let these issues brew up inside of him. When he met Pearl Jam, they were both trying to pick themselves up after losing someone dear, and the connection between them was instantaneous.
Although the song started from a place of heartache, ‘Alive’ is now about conquering adversity and celebrating coming out of the other side still breathing. ‘Alive’ is a shot of hope in dark times and a reminder about life’s beauty.