Eddie Vedder wrote this after seeing a corduroy jacket for a few hundred dollars that looked a lot like one he got years ago at a thrift store. He wore the jacket on the MTV Video Music Awards when he performed "Rockin' In The Free World" with Neil Young.
Vedder explained in a 2002 interview with The Onion A.V. Club: "That song was based on a remake of the brown corduroy jacket that I wore. I think I got mine for 12 bucks, and it was being sold for like $650. The ultimate one as far as being co-opted was that there was a guy on TV, predictably patterned, I guess, after the way I was looking those days, with long hair and an Army T-shirt. They put this new character on a soap opera, so there was a guy, more handsome than I, parading around on General Hospital. And the funny thing is, that guy was Ricky Martin."
Some lyric analysis:
"He waiting drove me mad, you're finally here and I'm a mess
I take your entrance back, can't let you roam Inside my head"
(Eddie wanted to be in a famous rock band his whole life, now that he has the fame he wants it to go away)
"I don't want to take what you can give
I would rather starve than eat your bread
I would rather run but I can't walk
guess I'll lie alone just like before
"(Like Kurt Cobain, Eddie would rather go back to the way things were before he was famous. He wants to be normal again.)
"I don't want to hear from those who know
they can buy, but can't put on my clothes"
(this is the line that gives the song its name. People try to be like Eddie by buying similar clothes, specifically a corduroy jacket he got cheap, but people spent a lot of money to buy similar jackets. No matter how much these fans dress like him, they will never actually be like Eddie or feel what he is feeling.)
"I don't want to limp for them to walk
never would have known of me before"
(Fans expect Pearl Jam to give autographs and do things that hinder their daily lives just so these fans can say they met Pearl Jam, even though they never would have looked at Pearl Jam if it wasn't for their songs)
"I'll end up alone like I began
I don't want to take what you can give
I would rather starve than eat your breast
All the things that others want for me
can't buy what I want because it's free"
(This section of the song is Eddie explaining that however wonderful it seems to be rich and famous, they are nonetheless frivolous things - he would much prefer a significant other to money. Also, money can get you just about anything except the one thing that matters: Love.)
Another interpretation: Vedder had a girlfriend before Pearl Jam became famous. He chose Pearl Jam over her, and he now regrets his decision and wishes he could change it.
The album was released on vinyl two weeks before it came out on CD.
The mumbling at the end is Vedder saying, "It's your move now. I thought you were a friend, but I guess, I guess I hate you."
During a September 2004 show in Boston, Vedder mentioned that this was Johnny Ramone's favorite Pearl Jam tune. (thanks, Glenn - Kingston, NH)
In a 1994 interview with the Los Angeles Time, Eddie Vedder said: "It is about a relationship but not between two people. It's more one person's relationship with a million people. In fact, that song's almost a little too obvious for me. That's why instead of a lyric sheet we put in an X-ray of my teeth from last January and they are all in very bad shape, which was analogous to my head at the time." (thanks, Martin - Rostock, Germany)