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(Credit: Danny Clinch)

Music

The classic Pearl Jam song that took 20 minutes to write

@TylerGolsen

Striking while the iron is hot is a tried and true method for creating great songs. Black Sabbath managed to capture ‘Paranoid’ in only about five minutes, while The Beatles famously employed lightning fast recording sessions in their early days. Spontaneity often produces the freshest results, and for a band like Pearl Jam, getting something down on tape as quickly as possible became their modus operandi for the recording of their second album, Vs.

Concerned that their debut record Ten had been overproduced, Vs. was fine-tuned for raw efficiency. Studio chatter was captured, as were temper tantrums. Random warm-ups and improvisations that were never meant to be used found their way onto the record, complimenting the more immediate and confrontational style that Pearl Jam was going for. After being accused of playing into classic rock and hair metal cliches, Vs. proved that Pearl Jam was more than just derivative followers.

Part of the appeal of Vs. was the variety that the band employed in their songs. While Ten had a cohesive sound, Vs. was all over the place, going from punk to grunge to acoustic rock at a breakneck pace. The only goal was to avoid anything too mainstream, which was part of the reason why ‘Better Man’ was ultimately left off the record. Instead, less obvious gentle songs like ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town’ were placed on the LP.

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“We were recording the second record, and we stayed in this house in San Francisco, and I was outside the house in my own world and the little outhouse had a small room. I’m talking the size of a bathroom,” Vedder recalled to Rolling Stone in 2006 about the process of writing ‘Elderly Woman’. “I was able to fit a Shure Vocal Master, which is a 1960s PA, and two big towers of PA and a little amp and a 4 track. I slept in there too. I remember waking up one morning and playing pretty normal chords that sounded good, and I put on the vocal master to hear myself and it came out right quick. I don’t even think I scribbled the lyrics down. It took 20 minutes. Stone was sitting outside reading the paper, and he was like ‘I really like that.’ So we recorded it that day.”

While the song’s title was a knowing reference to the band’s penchant for giving their tracks one-word titles, the actual content of the song’s lyrics represented a change from the doom and gloom of the Seattle scene. “It’s kind of about a lady, and she’s getting on in years, and she’s stuck in this small town. Small towns fascinate me: You either struggle like hell to get out, to some people want to stay ’cause then they’re the big fish in the small pond, and then others just kind of get stuck there,” Vedder explained in Mick Wall’s biography on the band. 

Adding: “So here she is working in this little place, and then an old flame comes in, and he’s probably driving a nice car and looking kind of sharp—not a fancy car, but he’s moved on. And then she sees him, and at first she doesn’t even remember who he is, and then she realizes who it is. She’s just too embarrassed to say ‘hello’.”

Since its inclusion on Vs., ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Time’ has become a staple of Pearl Jam’s live performances. Embraced by the legions of dedicated fans, the song has been performed 491 times live according to the fansite Pearl Jam Deep.

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