Pearl Jam – Jeremy

Jeremy Spoke, But Is Anyone Listening?
Irony and Understatement in Pearl Jam’s Jeremy

If I were to make a list of popular songs that would qualify as decent flash fiction set to music, I might select Margaritaville for character development, or Escape (The Pina Colada Song) for its clever, if implausible, plot twist.

But for gripping imagery, subtlety of expression, psychological complexity, and sheer emotional impact, few lyrical short stories measure up to Pearl Jam’s Jeremy, about a kid who commits suicide by shooting himself in front of a classroom full of students.

Originally not even considered for release as a single by Epic Records, it is now recognized as one of the band’s most powerful songs, in fact one of the best songs in the entire alternative rock genre. Jeremy is a fantastic example of fiction with strengths initially unrecognized by publishing professionals, and a message beyond even the understanding of its author, Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder.

Introducing Jeremy

As flash fiction, Jeremy consists of 147 words if you include repeated lines, 130 stripped down to bare bones. That’s an economy of writing right there.

Writers of all kinds could take a lesson from the song’s opening verse, a masterpiece of imagery, understatement, and false foreshadowing. For effect, I’ll reproduce it here as prose:

At home, drawing pictures of mountain tops — with him on top. Lemon yellow sun. Arms raised in a “V.”

The dead lay in pools of maroon below.

In his book Hooked : Write Fiction That Grabs Readers At Page One And Never Lets Them Go, author Les Edgerton lays out four primary components of a great opening scene … for a full-length novel. Nevertheless, this first verse of flash fiction Jeremy fulfills three of the four:

  1. Inciting incident
  2. Story-worthy problem
  3. Initial surface problem
  4. Set-up

There is no “inciting incident” in these introductory lines (the first real action takes place in the second verse) but they do hint at the “story-worthy problem” of Jeremy’s feeling of powerlessness, introduce the “initial surface problem” of his thoughts of violence against others, and provide a “set-up” so the listener understands that the coming story is about a very unhappy kid.

I won’t go into all of Edgerton’s six secondary components, but the first verse of Jeremy does a decent job with them as well. It uses memorable “language,” provides a “character introduction,” implies the “setting,” and delivers “foreshadowing.” Seven out of ten components for starting a novel is no meager accomplishment in 27 words.

And, what language! The contrast of bright, cheery childhood innocence plunging into violence and gore. The transitional sentence between these two extremes, clarifying that the emotional highs symbolized before are tied to the moral horrors afterward through a full-body declaration of Victory.

Talk about writing that “grabs the reader.”

And, if you’re a visual thinker like me, you immediately draw Jeremy’s picture in your head. When I see the “V” of the arms above the inverted “V” implied by a child-drawn mountain, it forms an ironic and prescient “X” right through Jeremy’s body, subtly transforming the false foreshadowing of Jeremy’s triumph into genuine foreshadowing of the story’s actual climax.

Further strengthening this subtlety is that simple, cold, anonymous noun in the last sentence: it’s not his parents, nor his classmates, nor his teachers who “lay in pools of maroon,” but simply “the dead.”

The imprecision here leaves open the target of the violence it foreshadows, eventually allowing the narrator to recoil from describing the real-life horrors at the climax in the same intimate detail and emotional detachment with which he describes the crayon atrocities of the introduction.

But, I’ll get to that soon. Before we look at the rest, let me show how I would present Jeremy as flash fiction, reducing lyrical repetition as much as possible, and including the introduction from above.

Jeremy

At home, drawing pictures of mountain tops — with him on top. Lemon yellow sun. Arms raised in a “V.”

The dead lay in pools of maroon below.

___Daddy didn’t give attention to the fact that Mommy didn’t care; King Jeremy the Wicked ruled his world.

Clearly, I remember picking on the boy. Seemed a harmless little fuck. But, we unleashed a lion: gnashed his teeth and bit the recess lady’s breast.

How could I forget?

He hit me with a surprise left. My jaw left hurting — dropped wide open, just like the day I heard …

___Daddy didn’t give affection, and the boy was something that Mommy wouldn’t wear; King Jeremy the Wicked ruled his world.

Jeremy spoke in class today: “Try to forget this. Try to erase this from the blackboard.”

Starting where we left off after the introduction, the song’s refrain sounds like amateur Freudian analysis of Jeremy’s home life, as if the narrator is repeating gossip heard circulating after the story’s climax. Daddy didn’t give affection. Mommy didn’t care.

In contrast to this isolating and numbingly typecast diagnosis, the bold and colorful fantasy of “King Jeremy the Wicked” asserts itself, an escape so absurd in its unreality that the fear we invested in the kid’s bloody drawing becomes hedged with pity.

Yet, this blame-the-parents cliché is more subtly and effectively confronted in the second verse by the narrator’s first-hand recollection of “picking on the boy,” a fictionalized incident from Vedder’s own memories of playing the role of bully. While the refrain’s psychoanalysis is presented as a dry stereotype, this incident is set up very differently:

“Clearly, I remember…”

The narrator is telling us that this is the real deal. At this point, what could have been taken for Third-Person Omniscient becomes a First-Person account. With those three words, he takes responsibility for the story. It becomes semi-confessional.

The shocking specificity of the attack that follows might distract us from the implications of this. After all, the “recess lady” is presumably innocent, and the body part suffering Jeremy’s bite is both quite sensitive physically (who doesn’t wince at the thought?) and, ironically, an organ symbolizing the domestic nurturing Jeremy is lacking.

There’s a lot of meaning packed in right there on the surface.

But, underneath this violence and irony, the pychological dynamic of the refrain gets tweaked. Who is really the source of the boy’s troubles? Daddy and Mommy? The narrator? A larger class of unidentified antagonists implied by the single word “we,” who “unleashed the lion” in Jeremy?

Everyone?

In very few words, Vedder has provided us more moral complexity than most two-hour screen narratives, pumped up as they are with millions of dollars of Hollywood creativity and teams of writers.

After biting the recess lady, Jeremy punches the narrator. The surprise and pain are presented in a very simple and straightforward way; the story makes vividly explicit that this kid can bring physical violence to others.

This is why the understatement “Jeremy spoke in class today” is so powerful and attention-grabbing in contrast.

He spoke? Did he never speak before? What did he say? Try to erase this from the blackboard? Erase what?

Some viewers misinterpreted the blood-splattered climax of the Jeremy video to mean that he had opened fire on his classmates. However, distilled into flash fiction and free of visual distractions, Jeremy excludes this possibility when he challenges them to “try to forget” what they are about to see.

Those who “try to forget” must live on, but the murderous violence we’ve been primed to expect still demands a victim. Who really ends up dead and laying in pools of maroon? It must be Jeremy himself.

Art Is Greater
Than The Artist

In retrospect, it is inexplicable that the professionals at Epic could not see (could not feel!) the potential in Jeremy. They even refused to pay for production of the video.

But such oblivious initial reception among professionals is often the hallmark of emotionally and morally complex art. Moby Dick, anyone?

Even Vedder himself has been dismissive of the full power of Jeremy, perhaps as a defense mechanism against its grip. Most bizarre, he once claimed in a Rockline interview that the impact of the story is that a story like Jeremy’s has no impact!

It [the story] came from a small paragraph in a paper, which means you kill yourself and you make a big old sacrifice and try to get your revenge. That all you’re gonna end up with is a paragraph in a newspaper … it does nothing … nothing changes. The world goes on and you’re gone.

And yet, that “small paragraph in a paper” — the real-life story of teenager Jeremy Wade Delle, who shot himself in front of his classmates in 1991 — moved Vedder so much that he was driven to write a song that has in turn moved millions of listeners, and is likely played on the radio and mp3 players hundreds of times every single day around the world.

Even now, 20 years later.

Nothing changes? The last words Vedder put into Jeremy’s mouth were “try to forget this, try to erase this.” Vedder could not forget, and neither can many of us who have heard the song and absorbed its story.

As awful as it might be for us to accept, even more awful perhaps than the spectacle of Jeremy’s suicide itself, is the realization that his terrible act of self-destruction has grabbed us and won’t let go.

2 Comments

  1. You’re writing absolutely amazes me. I have read so many articles and literary pieces, and I can’t recall a time that I have been more impressed with a writing style than when I read your work.

  2. That was one of my favorites growing up. The whole album, in fact. And yes, Vedder sounds like he was just trying to ‘deal’ with his understanding of the incident–like he was just presenting a world view on that kind of suicide. Kind of disappointed in Vedder for that, really, but we all have our moments.

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