The Story Behind The Song “Black” by Pearl Jam
The Story Behind One Of The Saddest Songs Ever Written: Black by Pearl Jam
SOUNDS OF SILENCE // “I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life, I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky. But why can’t it be mine?” How can one not be touched by these words? They are the final lines of one of Pearl Jam’s best-known songs, “a sad tale of lost love”, as Rolling Stone Magazine once called it.
Black is the sentimental center piece on the Pearl Jam’s debut albumTen (1991). Since first performing it live on October 22, 1990 (the band was still called Mookie Blaylock) at Seattle’s Off Ramp Café, Peal Jam is said to have played the song about 500 times.
Initially, guitarist Stone Gossard who wrote the demo in 1990 named the ballad in the key of E simply E Ballad. Its arrangement, however, is quite similar to the final song: the clean-channel intro, both guitars, the bass, and the simple drum track, as well as the acoustic guitar alternates between E-major and E-minor chord progressions.
“And now my bitter hands chafe beneath the clouds of what was everything.”– from “Black” by Pearl Jam
E Ballad was one of five tracks compiled on a tape called Stone Gossard Demos ’91 that was circulated in order to find a singer as well as a drummer. Eddie Vedder, who was working at a gas station in San Diego at the time, got his hands on it and recorded vocals for three of the songs that would later become Alive, Once and Footsteps. The rest of the band was impressed by his work and invited him to Seattle. On his way to join the band, he wrote lyrics for E Ballad, which he then called Black.
“All the pictures have all been washed in black, tattooed everything.”– from “Black” by Pearl Jam
Vedder never talked about the personal story behind the lyrics, but he showed strong emotions while performing it live in early years. It is assumed to be referencing his relationship with musician Beth Liebling, whom Vedder had been dating since 1983, married in 1994 and divorced in 2000.
In the 2011 documentary Pearl Jam 20 Vedder explains: “The song is about letting go. “It’s very rare for a relationship to withstand the Earth’s gravitational pull and where it’s going to take people and how they’re going to grow. I’ve heard it said that you can’t really have a true love unless it was a love unrequited. It’s a harsh one, because then your truest one is the one you can’t have forever.”
In later years, Vedder notably rendered the added lyric “We belong together” as “I’ve been healed” or “We didn’t belong together” indicating his moving on from the relationship and being content with how it ended.
“All the love gone bad turned– from “Black” by Pearl Jam
my world to black”
Due to its personal nature the band refused to release the song as a single – although Pearl Jam’s label Epic, a sub-division of Sony Records, urged them to after Ten became a huge commercial success in 1992. Legend has it, that Vedder neither wanted to make a video nor promote it further. In the end, the label agreed to issue Oceans (after Alive, Even Flow and Jeremy) as the fourth and final single from the album. Although the song got little attention, winning the battle against Sony’s powerful CEO Tommy Mottola, was a huge moment for the band and their manager Kelly Curtis.
Still, the song reached no.3 on the “Billboard Mainstream Rock Charts” and remix versions of the song were included on Rearviewmirror, Pearl Jam’s 2004 “Best of” album, as well as on the 2009 reissue ofTen. In May 2011 Black was voted No.9 of The Best Ballad of All Time by readers of Rolling Stone magazine, in October 2013 No.7 of The 10 Saddest Songs of All Time.