Back to the Garden

James McAllen
7 min readSep 12, 2022

March 2020
Things are looking up for our intrepid hero. He has rekindled his passion for music, and he’s joined a ragged, Rock-and-Roll outfit called “Malbone Street”. Coming off a very good, (but not great) gig at Arlene’s on the LES, the boys are eagerly awaiting their debut at the world famous Bitter End on Bleeker Street on March 21st. In addition, he’s managed to score two ducats for the Pearl Jam show at MSG at the end of March as a birthday present for his beloved. Their love and friendship bonded over their mutual admiration of Batman and Pearl Jam, and their first concert together was a PJ show at Barclays in Oct of 2013.

That all changed on March 12th, 2020 when the world shutdown.

The tickets sat unused in a digital wallet on my phone for over two years, but early in 2022, it was announced that the show was being rescheduled for September. Sunday, September 11th to be exact. The months dragged on; we hadn’t been to a show since before Covid, and we were eagerly looking forward to getting out, mixing with the masses, and just forgetting about life for a while.

Yesterday was a busy day for us. We’ve been going thru a home renovation, which while almost complete, has been one of the most stressful periods of our marriage. In addition, we had to send our cats off to my Aunts house to live for three weeks during the demolition. Yesterday, we got them back.
On top of that, some inconsiderate buffoon scheduled the 1st NY Giants game for 4:25, which meant that more than likely, I was going to miss a chunk of the 4th quarter. Ah, no big deal, I anticipated that they would be losing by 20 points by the time I was ready to leave for the show.

After re-acclimating the cats, and woofing down a sausage pie, we showered and were getting ready to embark for the show, I decided to check in with my hometown team, and watched in amazement as they came back from a 13–0 deficit and were on the verge of tying the game when new coach Brian Dabol decided to go-for-two with a minute left in the game.
Ok. Maybe I will be watching the rest of this.
It’s 7 oclock now. I told Val that we would be leaving promptly at 7pm to make sure we got a parking spot near the Garden. There’s only 1:06 left in the game. How long can that take?
20 minutes later, I get into the car, happy that the Giants managed to eek out a win, but also trying to dodge the daggers that my wife is shooting at me with her eyes.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
Five minutes later, I’m in a pure panic as the traffic on a rainy Sunday night is heavier than I wanted it to be — “Damm Giants. Why couldn’t they just lose like I expected!”

We get to the Garden by 8pm, and I manage to find a spot on 29th street, and after some jostling with the crowd, we make it to our seats by 8:20. The anxiety is relieved, we’re good to go.

One of the amazing things about being a Pearl Jam aficionado, is that no two shows are alike. The setlist is different every single night. Every show opener is different. I know of only one other band does that. When the crowd starts to fill up, I begin to engage the people in my section:
“Ok, what’s the opener going to be?”
I’m hit with a plethora of different choices:
Ledbetter
Quick Escape
Last Exit
I pick — Corduroy.
A dude two rows behind me picks “Release.”
I respond, “If they open with Release, I’ll be in tears.”
The people around me laugh. They think I’m joking.
I’m not.

For those that don’t know, Eddie Vedder didn’t know his father; the old man was estranged from the family, and Ed only met the man a few times, not knowing that he, and not the man married to his mother was his birth father. He found out after the old man had left this earth. He’s addressed it in multiple songs, but most eloquently in Release:
Oh dear dad
Can you see me now
I am myself
Like you somehow
I’ll wait up in the dark
For you to speak to me
I’ll open up
Release me
The song has a different meaning for me, but it resonates nonetheless.

The show is supposed to start at 8:45 — It’s now 9pm. The crowd is getting restless with anticipation; the energy level rising with each passing minute. Stools are placed on the stage which means that the opening song isn’t going to be a rocker. I’m not going to win the pool.
At 9:05, the house lights dim, and the Garden explodes. As the band makes their way to their places, she grabs my hand and squeezes. It’s time. We’ve been waiting two years for this.

For those who know, the opening notes of Release are unmistakeable. As the crowd roars, a lump forms in my throat instantly, I turn and high-five the guy behind me who got it right. The show has begun, and it’s a transcendent moment. As the song moves along, I’m eight years old again, sitting in my childhood bedroom; crying, praying, hoping against hope that my own father will hear me and return to my side.
I’ll wait up in the dark
For you to speak to me
I’ll open up
Release me

I scream the last line at the top of my lungs, sending all that I have to the famous Garden roof. 18,000 other people do the same. My eyes are glistening with tears. I’m not in the least bit ashamed, this is what I paid for.

After that, we’re off and running:
Garden, Present Tense, Porch, Dissident.
It’s a pathway through my youth; the angry, disillusioned years of my 20’s. This is literally the soundtrack of my life, being played out before me.
I go from being 56, to 8 and back to 25 in the matter of 20 minutes.

Pearl Jam isn’t the greatest band ever. Far from it. Their not even the best American band. But they were “my band”. Not only were they the same age as me, singing about things that resonated with me, but I managed to be there for the entire ride, almost from the very beginning. I can recall sitting on my couch, late in 1991, watching 120 Minutes on MTV and being mesmerized by the grainy black and white images of a giant wave in the opening of the video to “Alive”. I was hooked from the opening notes of a song which continues to move me to this day. The very next day I went out and purchased the CD, “TEN”.
That record has saved my life on more than a few occasions.
I still have it.

Ed stopped for a moment to acknowledge the date and its significance, and also to thank the first responders in the crowd. It wasn’t one of his usual political rants; it was a tasteful and (almost) articulate speech about the need for unity in a time of great unrest in this country. I loved it, and did most of the crowd. He also took a moment to acknowledge Venus and Serena at the side of the stage, and then it was back to the music.

For those who don’t know, some of the members of PJ were in band called Mother Love Bone, who’s singer, Andrew Wood, died of an overdose as they were about to release their first record. In a moment of Rock and Roll serendipity, Wood’s death opened the door, and Eddie Vedder marched right in, an event that he often acknowledges, and occasionally pays tribute.
Pearl Jam has played the Chloe/Crown of Thorns combo only 30 times. Last night was 31. This is manna from heaven for the dedicated PJ fan. Somehow, I’ve been lucky enough to experience it three times.

The rest of the evening is a joy. They close the first set with “Rearviewmirrior” and after a short break, they are right back at it, first serenading the back of the house with a version of “Elderly Woman” before returning to the main stage, which by the way has more square footage than my entire house. They take us through a terrific version of Prince’s Purple Rain, and then it’s onto “Alive”.
Alive is one of those songs who’s meaning has been hijacked by the audience. Much like “Born in the USA” was never meant to be a patriotic rallying cry, Alive was never meant to be a life-affirming song, but for me, it is. And evidently, for 18,000 thousand other frustrated rock stars, it is for them as well. I can’t do the story justice. Ed tells it so much better:

Look it up on youtube as, “Pearl Jam, Alive, The Curse”
(Medium won’t let me link the video. I tried)

As I look around the arena, the same place where I’ve seen so many other concerts, and so many hockey games, I’m in complete awe of how music moves people. The fabled building is filled to the rafters with angry, disaffected 20-somethings, only now, they inhabit the bodies of people who are applying for AARP, with their extended bellies (not me, of course) and their receding hairlines, (not me, of course) and masses of gray hair and gray beards (ok, that’s me), a generation of kids, now middle-aged, who have been through the wringer of life: beaten, broken, robbed of the promise of youth, all screaming in full voice:
I’m Still Alive.

It’s a great moment, well worth the wait.

They finish the show with a rollicking version of Neil Young’s Rocking in the Free World, before closing the night with a respectful version of the Star-Spangled Banner.

We exit the room, satisfied and satiated. It takes a while to file out. The rain is a welcome respite from the heat and sweat of the Garden. The ride home is mostly silent. There will be no after-show celebration. We’re past that now. We head home exhausted. I try to start this essay, but I’m too tired, so I crawl into bed, in my newly renovated home, next to the love of my life.
I know that I’ll wake up in the morning, with a sore throat and a new urge to sing again. It’s been a long road, for all of us.
But it’s gonna be ok.
I’m still Alive.
We’re all still Alive.

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