36. “Alive,” Pearl Jam

pearl jam alive my shuffled life

The latter half of 1993 was weirdly social for me. If you know me, you know that social interaction can be a bit awkward for me, which is true of most introverts. But something strange happened that summer, while working at Canada’s Wonderland. I met a bunch of new people, co-workers, and I enjoyed their company and they seemed to enjoy mine. By the time my second year of university started up in September, suddenly I had what for me was a packed social life. Most other people would probably call it a normal social life. But for me it was crazy. It was stressful, but exciting at the same time. People were calling me on the phone. I was being invited out to pub nights and to see bands and go to movies with these new friends. It was like I had stepped into some alternate universe where I was… popular.

One thing was missing, though: I still hadn’t met anyone who would help me fulfill my desire to play lead guitar in a band. But that came, too – ironically as a result of indulging my introvert nature. It was way too early in the morning. I think my Philosophy of Language class started at 8:30. I was groggy and for some reason I was there maybe 10-15 minutes early, so rather than chat with people as most students were doing, I had my head down reading a magazine that I was studying over and over again at the time. It was a special issue released by Guitar World, I think, on the life of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, my musical idol and absolute guitar hero. I did this all the time before classes. Little did I know, this time there was a guy sitting behind me (it was stadium-style seating, so he was above me) looking over my shoulder at the magazine.

“Stevie Ray Vaughan fan?” he said? Jolted out of my antisocialness, I turned around and said, “Yeah.” “Do you play?” he asked. “Yeah.” “Lead?” “Yeah.” “Cool. I play bass in this band. We play mostly covers, but some originals. We’ve been wanting a good lead player. You want to come along to a practice sometime?” “Yeah, sure.” (Of course, I don’t’ remember the exact dialogue from this conversation, but it’s entirely possible that I only ever said the words “yeah” and “sure.”)

So a couple of days later I went to this guy’s house – his name was Mike – and met with him and the drummer in his basement. This was my first time ever playing with other people (aside from a guitar teacher). I think we may have jammed on a blues riff at first, but then he asked, “Do you know how to play ‘Alive’?” I said no, I’d never tried, and he quickly showed me the chords and I figured out that anthemic opening riff.

When we started playing this song together, I felt something like magic. That might sound a little trite. But it’s true: When you make music with other people, and it’s working, everything is gelling, it’s truly magical. It’s like you’re not even in a room together, not even on your feet, not even on the planet Earth. You’re somewhere else. You’re in the music. Like a heartbeat, you’ve created this rhythm together, and melody to go with it, and it’s its own life force.

When we finished “Alive,” I was ecstatic. Which for me means I was smiling. And maybe a little breathless. I wanted to play more. And we did. I think we played a Tragically Hip song as well, can’t remember which. Maybe something else. But “Alive” was the first, and you never forget your first.

We played together again another time, oddly still without the singer and rhythm guitar player, who, I was told, was probably going to be insulted by their bringing in another guitar player. But I remember Mike saying not having me in the band going forward would be like the Hip not having lead guitar player Rob Baker. Okay, then. And he said they had a gig lined up somewhere opening for Moxy Früvus, which of course featured the now infamous Jian Ghomeshi. It was all very exciting.

But things went kind of Twilight Zone after that. Mike no longer showed up for Philosophy of Language. I’ve  always had a phobia about calling people on the phone (yes, weird, but true – and thank god for email and texting, but those weren’t options then), but playing in this band was important to me, so I worked up the courage to dial his number. But I got an operator recording saying the number was no longer in service. I never saw or heard from him again. He had vanished, along with my first band. But thanks to Mike and “Alive,” I had my first experience of floating off into that exhilarating dimension that is playing in a band.

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