Three-Dimensional Chess

Bob Gendron

4 Min Read

In the award-winning Netflix drama “The Queen’s Gambit,” Beth Harmon lies awake in bed and imagines a chess board on the ceiling. In the games she projects in the theater of her mind, rooks, pawns and the like skate across the checkered squares with blinding speed. The orphan prodigy considers every move. Her brain races; we see blurred paths of the advancements and reversals, the contrails of where Harmon’s thoughts start and end. She deliberates until she lands on an unassailable strategy and achieves the seemingly impossible: perfection.

Watching Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder on stage conjures a similar scenario. His furrowed-brow rumination strives toward a related goal — attaining the right feeling and phrasing for a specific song, an exact moment, a certain audience. In Cameron Crowe’s “The Kids Are Twenty,” the performance-based complement to the director’s “Pearl Jam Twenty” documentary, Vedder basically admits as much. 

“I was thinking about [it] three-dimensionally or like every lyric has to be like three-D chess and have this meaning and that meaning and that meaning,” he explains. “By this last record, I realized you don’ don’t have to do that. Just go with that initial deal.”

To the singer and his colleagues, particularly in concert environs, music is more than physical notes, literal words or a vehicle to fame.

For Vedder, pursuing a carefree technique is easier said than done. Listening to a Pearl Jam LP or seeing the group live from a normal seat hint at the intensity the band brings to its craft. Yet the close-up perspectives offered in this diverse footage — spanning 1990-2010 — hit on a larger theme: To the singer and his colleagues, particularly in concert environs, music is more than physical notes, literal words or a vehicle to fame. It is the means to make deep, lasting connections. For Pearl Jam, those opportunities come in the spaces between forethought and spontaneity.  

As the band member most often freed from the constraints of an instrument, Vedder exemplifies such straddling of contemplation and improvisation. Documentation of the singer scaling lighting rigs and crawling on rafters several stories above the crowd at a ‘91 San Diego show bears witness to this process happening even when it seemed Vedder prized impulsiveness above all else. 

In the film, he narrates the navigation of the daredevil feat. Preventing adrenaline from clouding his judgment, he runs through potential moves and anticipates challenges. Getting from Point A to Point C demands a specific route; one small miscue will spell disaster. High above the audience, clutching an I-beam with his fingertips, he’s playing three-D chess.

That mental gamesmanship, and the expressive embodiment of Vedder’s earnestness, takes on multiple forms (as does his hair) throughout the group’s career and “The Kids Are Twenty.” We hear it in the tremor of his voice on a rendition of “Indifference” played in a bright arena. Sense it in the stillness during a cover of Mother Love Bone’s “Crown of Thorns” that bridges Pearl Jam’s past and present. Detect it in the discovery that unfolds as Vedder sketches the rough outlines to “Daughter” with guitarist Stone Gossard on a tour bus sans any observer but the camera operator.

In an equally intimate segment, while performing the B-side “Let Me Sleep (Christmas Time)” with guitarist Mike McCready on the steps of the Arena di Verona in Italy without fans, Vedder taps into the serene memories of youth mentioned in the lyrics. The informal duet opens the gates to an inner world — a sanctum he frequents. Even when shadow-boxing with McCready or Gossard, scanning a venue like a surveillance camera or shredding his voice on ragged tunes such as “Not for You,” Vedder inhabits a private head space that exists in service of the songs, time and place. The singer possesses a knack for knowing the mood of a setting, and understands that the relationship between it and songs fluctuates.  

He rarely errs. Instructively, it happens when Pearl Jam relies on the obvious. During a performance of the politically slanted “Bushleaguer” in Uniondale, New York, Vedder strolls on stage donning a mask depicting then-President George W. Bush. He places it on a stand, pours alcohol down its mouth, sticks a lit cigarette between its lips. Jeers and curses rain down. Lacking the pensive focus and spiritual bent Pearl Jam typically embrace, the sequence comes off as the type of on-the-nose ploy that a band dependent on antics uses to oversell a point or curry favor. 

By contrast, much of “The Kids Are Twenty” has a shaky and grainy quality at odds with calculation. All the better to frame the work of a band whose touchstone maps out his route and considers the possibilities in his mind, all the while behaving as if everything is happening in the moment. It’s a deft trick, the mark of a grandmaster.

Bob Gendron has been obsessing over music, albums and audio ever since he landed a job at an indie record store at age 13. A longtime contributor to the Chicago Tribune and the first Associate Editorial Director at The Coda Collection, he was also the longtime Music Editor at The Absolute Sound and performed the same role at TONEAudio. Gendron is the author of “Gentlemen” (Bloomsbury) and a coauthor of “Nirvana: The Complete Illustrated History” (Voyageur). His writing has also appeared in DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Revolver and other outlets.

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