Song of the Day #220: ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town’ – Pearl Jam

pearl_jamOver the next eight days, I’m going to present songs in a sort of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ format. While I was looking up clips on YouTube, I made some jumps from one to another based on random criteria and figured I might as well hold on to that process as I posted them.

The string begins with an elderly woman behind the counter in a small town…

I feel like I should like Pearl Jam more than I do. Or rather, that I should pay more attention to their music. Because when I go back and listen to the highlights of their first few albums, I’m always impressed. Somewhere along the line I stopped listening to them and sold back some of the CDs, but perhaps that was a mistake.

This song is a wonderful example of Pearl Jam at their best. You’ve got Eddie Vedder’s unique, effective vocals over the simple strumming of an acoustic guitar spinning a yarn (a micro-narrative, if you will) about a bittersweet encounter. There’s nothing pretentious here and nothing obnoxious (a problem with some of their louder material) … it’s simple and moving. I love songs that don’t show the strain of too much ambition but still manage to carry a lot of emotional and thematic weight.

I found a quote from Vedder explaining the song. I know some people don’t like to hear from the writer when it comes to songs, books or movies but I lap this stuff up. I want to know exactly what thinking went into every line. I reserve the right to disagree, but it’s nice to have the information.

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. 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.’

I seem to recognize your face
Haunting, familiar, yet I can’t seem to place it
Cannot find the candle of thought to light your name
Lifetimes are catching up with me
All these changes taking place,
I wish I’d seen the place
But no one’s ever taken me
Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away…

I swear I recognize your breath
Memories like fingerprints are slowly raising
Me you wouldn’t recall, for
I’m not my former…
Its hard when you’re stuck upon the shelf
I changed by not changing at all, small town predicts my fate
Perhaps that’s what no one wants to see

I just want to scream Hello
My God its been so long, never dreamed you’d return
But now here you are, and here I am
Hearts and thoughts they fade…away…

4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #220: ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town’ – Pearl Jam

  1. Amy says:

    Well, this is a fascinating post for me, as I would never have associated the song today with Pearl Jam, a group i admit I know nothing about but had preconceived notions about just the same. And those notions had something to do with the “llouder material” I assumed they performed, though with which I have no more familiarity than I do with today’s song. How is that we form such ill-formed opinions about musicians? Fascinating. Anyway, I like this song, his description of the idea behind it, and the fact that I now have a bit more to go on when someone mentions Pearl Jam. Thanks.

  2. Dana says:

    I admit I haven’t heard much of Pearl Jam, but i associate them generally with the Seattle grunge sound and a derivation of Nirvana. I can’t say I am a big fan of that grunge sound, although I do enjoy hearing some of it in small doses. The dose you feature today is fine, but I’m not sure I would want to hear a whole album of this sound, let alone their harder edged stuff.

  3. Alex says:

    I have always loved this song. As a fan of the grunge sound, I must have listened to this and Nirvana hundreds of times during high school. But I never knew exactly what it was about. Now that I listen to it, it’s obvious. Thanks for educating me a little today, dear. I prefer “Daughter” but I don’t know if it’s on this album. How about a 90s grunge week? Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana!

  4. Amy says:

    Now this intrigues me. All (or at least most) of my formative music listening experiences happened during college, not high school. Yet the grunge movement – which coincides with my college years – missed me. I guess because I was too intent on the whole Athens experience? As for high school, with the exception of R.E.O. Speedwagon and Simple Minds, I can’t think of many specific high school music memories.

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