From The Who’s Tommy to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Rise and Fall of the Spiders from Mars, rock operas have been scattered throughout music history with often stunning results. However, when it comes to grunge, it almost seems like the term opera was blacklisted as little dirges became the mainstay of the flannel shirted era.
Thus, if there was ever going to be a grunge opera then it was bound to be short and anything but sweet. This is exactly what Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam delivered with three tracks that actually form a linear narrative when they are placed alongside each other. It is also an opera that completely twists the standard interpretation of the band’s classic track.
When Vedder was growing up, he had no knowledge of his own biological father. When you pour over the lyrics of ‘Alive’ this is the tale that it tells with a few notable twists. The song details a son whose father passed away, but he grows up to look exactly like his old man. Vedder’s dark turn to the tale is that this makes his mother lust after him in an incestuous way.
As Vedder told Rolling Stone: “Everyone writes about it like it’s a life-affirming thing—I’m really glad about that. But ‘Alive’ is… it’s torture. Which is why it’s fucked up for me.” It gets even more torturous when you stack it alongside the other tracks that complete the narrative of the so-called Mamasan trilogy.
Following on from the tale of psychological dismay at an unfortunate childhood comes the song ‘Once’. In this brooding second act, things get even darker. Following the confusion of ‘Alive’ things worsen for the protagonist, in fact, they get just about as bad as they can get—he becomes a serial killer. As the lyrics explain, “Backstreet lover on the side of the road, I got a bomb in the temple that is gonna explode.”
The final chapter never made it onto Ten which is perhaps why the Mamasan trilogy is missed by many fans, with the last song ‘Footsteps’. The whole thing takes one final dark twist, so dark, in fact, that it cuts abruptly black in the final act of a grisly grunge tale. Vedder explains that he took inspiration from the story of the Green River Killer with the bruising song that sees the protagonist face the death penalty.
“Voices in me head… ooh voices, I got scratches all over my arms, one for each day since I fell apart,” Vedder sings with his fitting vocal rattle. It’s far from a jolly musical and Vedder was quick to state the (hopefully) obvious and say that the autobiographical elements are limited purely to the fact that not knowing his father had a notable psychological impact on him growing up, as he humorously threw in as a denouement, “I’m just glad I became a songwriter.”