Inspiration for rock and roll has long outgrown the seedlings of influence that gave teenagers such joy in the 1950s and ’60s. Then, the music was heavily influenced by chasing girls, driving hot rods and rebelling against authority. While those tropes can still be found in a large chunk of rock and roll’s best songs, the scope for influence has been dramatically widened. Artists are now more than happy to draw on the darker side of life to create their songs. One such track mired in tragedy and sadness is the beautifully written ‘Jeremy’ by Pearl Jam.
The song featured on the band’s triumphant 1991 LP Ten — a record that survives as one of the Seattle scene’s most significant efforts — is widely regarded as one of Pearl Jam’s best songs. It was hard to flick across the MTV network in 1992 and not witness the Pearl Jam video for ‘Jeremy’ finding its spot in the hearts and minds of an entire nation. However, though the song may have acted as a celebrated moment in the band’s growing iconography, it was inspired b tragic events.
The track was based on the true story of Jeremy Wade Delle, a 15-year-old sophomore who brought a heavy calibre gun to his school in 1991. Rather than turning the gun on his schoolmates, which has sadly become the norm for the modern age, he turned it on himself, committing suicide in front of his English class at Richardson High School. Eddie Vedder noted the tragic events after reading about them in the Dallas Morning News, which read: “Because he had missed class, the teacher in his second-period English class told Jeremy to get an admittance slip from the school office. Instead, he returned with the gun, police said. He walked directly to the front of the classroom. ‘Miss, I got what I really went for,’ he said, then placed the barrel in his mouth and fired.”
Within the original video for the song, an actor was seen putting a gun in his mouth in an attempt to capture the tragedy of Delle’s suicide. However, the version of the video that went to air in 1992 cut the scene and led the clarifying image to be stricken from the common understanding of the song. It left the image of ‘Jeremy’ as a school shooter emblazoned on the track forever and led to the song being one of the most misconstrued in rock history, with most casual fans believing the song is about a school shooting murder and not a suicide.
Speaking with Songfacts, director Mark Pellington reflected on the video’s creation and issues: “I got sent the track and actually passed on it in the beginning. It didn’t grab me immediately. Then, my producer was like, ‘Listen to it a little bit more.’ I did, and I talked to Eddie, and he explained to me the story of the kid in Dallas, which is a true story. I just dove in and put myself into it.”
Pellington continued: “MTV made us edit out the gun going in the mouth. That created the great confusion, which made it appear like he brought the gun and shot his classmates, which was a huge misinterpretation and years later connected ‘Jeremy’ to school shootings, which was not it at all. Yet, people like to make the connection. I’ve never seen a video that still gets written about so much. Maybe it was the underbelly of disenfranchised youth. The timelessness of that, if you think about it – from James Dean and Montgomery Clift and those kind of icons. It predated the whole shooter mentality of ‘angry young white kids.’ So in that time, a kid taking a gun into a classroom was way ahead of its time. Pre-Columbine. And when there is a school shooting, it often gets mentioned.”
The band wouldn’t release a music video for six years, claiming that videos were taking the impetus away from music. However, ‘Jeremy’ did win a host of awards in 1993 at the MTV Video Music Awards, picking up the gongs for Video of the Year, Best Group Video, Best Metal/Hard Rock Video, and Best Director. When collecting the award for Video of the Year, Eddie Vedder reflected on the song: “If it weren’t for music, I think I would have shot myself in the front of the classroom. It really is what kept me alive, so this is kind of full circle. So to the power of music, thanks.”
Sadly, the tragedy surrounding the song doesn’t end there. In 1996, Barry Loukaitis walked into his classroom and shot four of his classmates, killing three. He and his attorneys argued that the video for ‘Jeremy’ had been a huge influence on his decision-making leading up to the attack. The Seattle-based jury would even watch the music video within the court proceedings as they metered out a 189-year sentence for Loukaitis.
There can be no doubt that this calamity, and the prevalence of so many more that followed it, is a dark mark on our society. However, as Vedder says, we can find hope and lightness in music, even if it is derived from darkness.