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(Credit: Pearl Jam)

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The Story Behind The Song: 'Daughter', Pearl Jam's analysis of family trauma

@TylerGolsen

Maybe it was the setting that made it so appropriate, but as Pearl Jam took the stage at Neil Young’s 1992 iteration of his legendary Bridge School Benefit concert series, they decided to premiere a new song. A song that dealt with trauma and mental disorders, something that surely would have hit home at the Bridge School. The band had explored the darker crossroads of youth and damage in songs like ‘Alive’ and ‘Jeremy’, and they had just written another composition that fits directly within that lineage.

The only problem was that the song wasn’t quite finished yet. It had the music worked out, but Eddie Vedder still had some placeholder lyrics, including a fraternal title that would eventually be replaced with a more filial one. The band took the stage and performed ‘Brother’, the second song in the band’s repertoire with that title. They would play it once more in this style before Vedder finalised what he wanted out of the track. Exactly one year and one day later, the rest of the world got to hear the final result, ‘Daughter’.

There’s a fantastic scene in Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam 20 documentary that shows Vedder and Stone Gossard working on the initial writing of ‘Daughter’. The footage is dated as taking place on May 2nd, 1992, presumably the night after their concert that same day at the University of Kansas (the band ends that concert by playing ‘Rockin in the Free World’, proving Neil Young was never far from the band’s collective mind). Gossard has the Open-tuned guitar riff down, and Vedder has the first few lines solidified, but the song is centred on a wider family drama rather than the specific story of the young child that becomes the focus of the final set of lyrics.

When the track was brought into the studio during the band’s sessions for their second LP Vs., the arrangement illustrated an evolution in the band’s sonic style. Although they had experimented with acoustic instrumentation and balladry before on Ten number ‘Black’, ‘Daughter’ showed off Gossard’s favouring of acoustic guitar and Jeff Ament’s adoption of the upright bass that can also be heard on the album’s tracks like ‘Indifference’ and ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town’. According to drummer Dave Abbruzzese, he also had to find a way to strip back his sound.

“When we were originally working on ‘Daughter’, I did a lot more stuff on the toms,” Abbruzzese told writer Matt Peiken in 1993. “But when we went in to record it, Brendan [O’Brien, producer] suggested trying something different, to just use the kick and snare. That was a trip, because we’d already been playing that song for half a year, and I was kind of used to what I was doing. At first I was like, ‘Well…okay…’ so I set up a 26″ kick, a snare, and an 18″ floor tom, and we just used the room mic’s and went for it. It actually brought out a whole new dimension of the song for me, and it felt really fresh to me to play it like that. Live, I kind of mix the two approaches together.”

Watch Pearl Jam perform ‘Alive’ at the BBC in 1992

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For his part, Vedder found the song’s emotional core when he focused his attention on the central character’s disability. “The child in that song obviously has a learning difficulty, and it’s only in the last few years that they’ve actually been able to diagnose these learning disabilities, that before were looked at as misbehavior; as just outright rebelliousness, but no one knew what it was,” Vedder explained to Allan Jones in 1995. 

“These kids, because they seemed unable or reluctant to learn, they’d end up getting the shit beaten outta them,” he added. “The song ends, you know, with this idea of the shades going down—so that the neighbours can’t see what happens next. What hurts about shit like that is that it ends up defining people’s lives. They have to live with that abuse for the rest of their lives. Good, creative people are just fucking destroyed.”

Despite the bleak nature of the ending, the song also carries a certain amount of hope and optimism towards the future. In the song’s bridge, although the protagonist still “holds the hand that holds her down”, Vedder makes it clear that “she will rise above”. The intent behind the chorus of “Don’t call me Daughter, not fit to / the picture kept will remind me” makes it seem as though the events are in the past, with a family picture being the only reminder of her connection to the darker days of being around her family.

On November 2nd, 1993, less than a month after the release of Vs., Pearl Jam put out ‘Daughter’ as the album’s second single — but not in America. Weary of their status within the mainstream explosion of grunge and noting the obvious pop potential of ‘Daughter’, the single was only released internationally, which made it ineligible to land on the Billboard Hot 100. That didn’t matter, as the song reached number one on the magazine’s Alternative and Mainstream Rock charts, also landing at number 28 on the Top 40 Radio chart. Pearl Jam were riding a wave, and true fans shelled out to get an import copy of the single.

The official Pearl Jam website states that ‘Daughter’ has been played live an astounding 507 times, but Live Footsteps, a site dedicated to compiling official statistics for Pearl Jam’s live shows, has the number even higher at 529. That would make ‘Daughter’ the eighth most played Pearl Jam song, making an appearance at roughly half of the band’s concerts. The number one song? ‘Even Flow’, which has been played 851 times according to Live Footsteps. 

It’s not hard to see why: any live video of the song is accompanied by loud cheers whenever Gossard breaks into those opening strums. ‘Daughter’ was one of the last great Pearl Jam songs from Pearl Jam’s initial run as forefathers of the grunge movement, and afterwards, the band would try to subvert their massive stardom in any possible way they could.

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