Humans of Grunge
The most interesting people at Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit, featuring Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
Do you collect flannels and prefer music in drop-D tuning? Do you own a van but think the Grateful Dead were too slow? If the answers to all those questions are "Yes," odds are you were at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit in Mountain View, Calif., this past weekend. The acoustic benefit, which aids a Bay Area school that serves children with disabilities, has become a beloved October tradition for Neil fanatics and grungeheads. Young always curates an eclectic lineup, and this year’s was no exception. The bill featured Norah Jones, Brian Wilson, Band of Horses, Tom Jones, Florence + the Machine, even Young’s ex-wife, Pegi. But the main draws were Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Young himself—possibly the grungiest trifecta of all-time.
I traversed the audience at Shoreline Amphitheatre, and was stunned by the evolution of Pearl Jam’s fan base. Pearl Jam’s devotees—the Jamily—have developed into a roving tribe with an almost Juggalo-like intensity. Most Jamily members wear Pearl Jam T-shirts to the gigs, shunning the advice Jeremy Piven gave Jon Favreau in P.C.U. to not “be that guy.” More than half of the Bridge School audience was made up of the Jamily, a stat that was confirmed when about 50 percent of the audience left after Pearl Jam’s set, right before Young took the stage.
These are some of the people I encountered at Saturday’s Bridge School Benefit, and their stories. So put Superunknown in your Discman, pump up the volume, and meet the humans of grunge…
“I flew here today from Seattle to see Pearl Jam. I bought this T-shirt at Sea-Tac Airport this morning, in the new Sub Pop store.”
“I’ve been to 30 out of 35 Bridge School Benefits. [Editor’s Note: 2014 was the 28th annual Bridge School Benefit.] I come to see Neil, and only Neil. I never get tired of hearing him play ‘Sugar Mountain.’ I mean, I wish he’d stop playing it, but I never get tired of it.”
“My first time seeing Singles was in 2000. I wasn’t watching the movie to watch the movie. I saw it to watch Pearl Jam.”
“I grew up in Mumbai. Pearl Jam’s never been to India, and they’re not popular there. But I heard ‘Jeremy’ on the internet when I was 17, in 2003. I was hooked. Now I love Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mad Season—I love all grunge.”
Are you doing homework at a rock concert?
“I have a quiz in my Math 232 class on Monday. I’m trying to cram. We go to a community college in San Luis Obispo. We drove up for the show.”
Whose performance are you looking forward to tonight?
“I am from Italy. Do you believe in God? Because Neil Young is God. Believe in him.”
“I saw Pearl Jam play at Drop in the Park in Seattle in ’92. I was 12. Legendary. Dude, I partied with Eddie and [former NHL player] Chris Chelios at a bar the other night.”
Jeff and Flora
“Yeah, we’re dating. Flora’s seen Pearl Jam 23 times. I’ve seen ‘em 19 times. I’ll catch her.”
“All I want to see tonight is a Temple of the Dog reunion. That is ALL. I. WANT.” [Ed. note: Chris Cornell joined Pearl Jam to play “Hunger Strike” on both Saturday and Sunday.]
“I came from Pittsburgh. This is my first time at Bridge School. My mom turned me on to Pearl Jam. This is my 13th time seeing them, and my first without my mom.”
“I’m from Calgary, Alberta. I came down to see Soundgarden. I’m staying in downtown San Jose, and I went to a dive bar last night. Sludgebucket was playing. They were progressive, stoner metal. So I bought this shirt to, you know, support the locals.”
Bruce and Beth
Beth: “They call Neil the Godfather of Grunge, but that’s a bunch of nonsense. Neil’s a rocker. I met Neil at his house in the ’70s, in his recording studio, via one of his girlfriends. It was during a phase when he was really punky and funky.”
Julia and David
Julia: “I’ve seen Neil Young three times, always with my dad. The first time I saw Neil Young, my dad put me on his shoulders during ‘Rockin’ in the Free World.’”
What’s your happiest Pearl Jam-related memory?
“Listening to Pearl Jam in a car in the snow when I was 13.”
Where were you driving?
“It was parked.”
Where was the car?
“In the driveway.”
What city were you in?
Do you remember the song?
What’s the longest you’ve traveled to see Pearl Jam?
Where were the start and end points of that trip?
“Here and there.”
“I like grunge. I’ve been to 14 Bridge Schools, so I’ve seen Pearl Jam a bunch. I’m looking forward to seeing Soundgarden. But I’m here to see Neil. Since I was in high school, I’ve let Neil’s tastes direct what music I listen to. I got into grunge because Neil supports those bands.”
In the past 14 years, have you had Neil-related moment at Bridge School that was particularly memorable?
“In 2004, my son was in a car accident. His face was crushed, and he lost an eye. A few months after the accident, while he was still going through a difficult recovery, my son came to Bridge School with me. That night, Neil did ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ with Paul McCartney. While Neil was singing with Sir Paul, a downpour started out of nowhere. We were getting pelted with rain. Through the rain, with that song in the air, I looked at my son, and I was so grateful that he was alive. My son is here with me today.”
“I’ve seen Pearl Jam close to 50 times. The best show was at Gibson Amphitheatre in L.A. My buddy Dom held up a Santa Cruz sweatshirt at that show. Eddie smiled and nodded at us, because he likes Santa Cruz. So Dom throws the sweatshirt onstage, but a roadie picked it up before Eddie could see it.”
“I could care less about grunge. I grew up in New York City. I was a hardcore kid. I always thought grunge was sad-sack stuff.”
If you don’t like grunge, why did you come to this show?
“To see Tom Jones.”
You were a hardcore kid, and you came here to see Tom Jones?
“My cousin plays in his band.”