The music for this song was written by guitarist Stone Gossard before the band had a lead singer. It was part of a three-song instrumental demo they made at London Bridge Studio in Seattle while looking for a vocalist and drummer.
Jack Irons, a friend of Gossard's who played drums in The Red Hot Chili Peppers, was approached about joining the band, but he had another commitment. He thought Eddie Vedder might be a good fit as the singer, so he gave Eddie the demo tape. At home in San Diego, Vedder wrote lyrics and added his vocals to the song using his four-track recorder. The band liked what they heard and made him lead singer.
The instrumental demo of this song was titled "Dollar Short." Vedder's lyrics went in a direction the band didn't expect, but they loved what they heard and quickly agreed that he should be their lead singer - only one other guy had been auditioned. Reflecting on how everything came together so quickly, the band credited timing and fate for Vedder's arrival. Eddie said that it took him 12 hours to write and record the songs for the demo, and he could have easily blown it off.
Vedder's lyrics are about a boy who finds out his father is actually his stepfather, and that his real father is dead. He later revealed that the song was "a work of fiction based on reality," and the chorus of "I'm still alive" was what he considered his curse, as he struggled to deal with the strained relationship with his stepfather and the fact that his real father was dead.
In an episode of VH1's Storytellers, Vedder explained that the interpretation of the song had changed, as fans would react to the chorus by jumping around and celebrating - they heard "I'm still alive" as a positive thing, an affirmation of life. Said Vedder: "When they changed the meaning of those words, they lifted the curse."
Eddie's mother divorced his father when he was one year old, and he was raised by his stepfather without knowing it; he even met his true father without even realizing they were related. Vedder's real father, Edward Severson III, died of multiple sclerosis in 1981, before Eddie could see him again. This is the autobiographical part of the song that shows up in the opening lyrics.
Eddie didn't get along with his stepfather, and took out his lyrical wrath on him in the song "Better Man
." Until he dropped out of high school, Eddie was known as Eddie Mueller, but he took his mother's maiden name after finding out the truth about his real father. When Vedder became a father, he said that he would do everything he could to break the cycle of family dysfunction.
The other two songs on the demo Vedder worked on follow the story in this song. After Vedder put lyrics to them, the songs became "Once
," where the boy goes nuts and starts killing people, and "Footsteps
," where the boy is sentenced to death and blames his mother. Vedder called this the "Momma-Son" trilogy.
The black-and-white video for this song was made on the cheap - less than $20,000. It was filmed at a Pearl Jam concert at the club RKCNDY in Seattle on August 3, 1991. The band was still broke, and they thought blowing a lot of money on a video would be stupid, since burning through cash early on could get you dropped by a record label if you didn't sell.
Even then, Pearl Jam had a disdain for traditional, lip-synced videos, so for this one they went against convention and used the live audio from the concert in the clip, capturing the energy of the show, which included crowd surfing, stage diving, and Vedder hanging from a lighting rig.
When the band tried to record this song, they couldn't capture the feel of the demo, which they laid down a few months earlier, so they used that demo in the final mix, adding Vedder's vocal and an additional guitar solo by Mike McCready at the end of the song.
In the US, this was the first song Pearl Jam released as a single.
The drummer in the video is Matt Chamberlain. He took over after Pearl Jam's first album, but left soon after to join the Saturday Night Live band.
Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready based his guitar solo on the one Ace Frehley
played on the Kiss song "She." In an issue of Guitar Player
magazine, Frehley said that his solo in "She" came from Robby Krieger's guitar work on The Doors' "Five To One."
Ken - LaSalle, Canada
In 2000, the band was playing the Roskilde Festival in Denmark when nine fans were crushed to death in the mosh pit. They were about to play this, but stopped the show when they saw people being pulled out of the crowd in real bad shape. Some of the 40,000 people in the crowd began singing "I'm still alive," unaware that the event had turned tragic. Pearl Jam left the stage and the next band, The Cure, refused to go on out of respect for the dead.
The song spent a record-breaking 61 weeks on Billboard's Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles chart in 1998-99 without ever entering the Hot 100.
There is a lot of stage diving in the video, which caused a problem when the MTV crowd decided it looked like fun and started doing it at concerts. "It was like training videos for how to jump in the crowd," Eddie Vedder said in Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music
. "It got to be a distorted MTV version, and now it was like every frat boy buying a pair of spikes from the corner novelty shop, putting spikes on their big white gym shoes, and doing it. And guys that were way too big to have any business landing on people. It got out of control real quick."