Love Boat Captain take the reins — Pearl Jam’s ‘Riot Act’ turns 15 years strong

Art by: Carlos Vargas

November 11, 2002. Burlington, MA. 11:55PM:

Tower Records. Twelve of us from twelve different corners of New England congregated outside the windows of what I considered to be a legendary music haven. We lined up at the door, shuffled ourselves around in jittery excitement and even waved at the cardboard cutouts of these skeletons wearing crowns in a dark brownish/orange-lit cave.

Riot Act.

Pearl Jam’s seventh studio album was five minutes away from being officially released. Five minutes from being in our hands. Modern day music access certainly has its perks. Instead of in my hands, I have a new release in my apple music the minute it’s available. Still, nothing compares to the rush that was — going to Tower Records, seeing the CD or record display of music you had been waiting eternities for. Better yet, just like this particular fall evening, you met like-minded people. You celebrated. You discussed the songs you’ve already heard, how long you’ve been a fan, what upcoming shows you are going to, and how many you have already been to. Sometimes you forgot to even introduce yourself. You just jumped right in to the music. It was all about the music.

On this night, it felt like New Year’s Eve. Riot Act was the ball dropping (without Seacrest, sorry dude) in 10, 9, 8, 7,…..

Finally, as the clock struck midnight, two employees came to open the doors, sporting their signature Tower yellow. One of them looked jubilant, the other terrified. “Pearl Jam?” Mr. cheerful asked? “You know it,” I replied.

We each grabbed our copy. Unwrapped the CD booklet in the store before paying, took pictures on CVS disposable cameras, paid, and then went on our respective ways — off to start our personal Riot Act journeys.

For me, Riot Act came at a very sensitive time. It was a perfect companion for crossroad ahead where I did not know what other companions I would have. I was a senior in college. 12 miles away from this Tower Records. I had just met my girlfriend (now wife) and was five months from being released into the wild. For what it’s worth, “wild” is the perfect word to end that phrase.

What was going to happen in just a few short months? I had no idea. Who was going to be there, who wasn’t, where was I going to live? Again, I had no idea. What I did know was on that one night, which had now turned to early morning — November 12, 2002, I had my most loyal companion, music. I knew Riot Act was going to be there.

We had heard “I Am Mine”, the first single by now. Both on radio and via Eddie Vedder acoustic performances. It was deep, personal, and sensational. Other than that, the only thing I really knew about this record was that it appeared to be full of beautifully heavy words. The truth is, Riot Act intimidated me. Riot Act? “That’s an intense title,” I thought. “It sounds angry.”

I start my engine, pop in the CD, and to my surprise, I’m greeted by a gentle opener. “Can’t Keep” — lyrically rich, but sonically smooth, almost like an entrance song into the Riot Act cave.

For the next three hours, I just drove. Pre — legit navigation, I used my senses to find dark streets to accompany my submersion into Riot Act bliss. Oddly, the setting I created both matched and was the complete opposite of what’s displayed on the album cover.

My poor speakers never stood a chance.

Each song was different and evoked a different emotional reaction. But there was one that struck a chord I had never heard strummed before. “Love Boat Captain”. I still have a hard time articulating what this song means to me. So, I’ll leave it at this…Oh my God. What a breath-taking work of art. There’s not a listen that goes by that doesn’t chill me all the way through at the line, “constant recoil, sometimes life don’t leave you alone.”

I knew back at campus and on my upcoming trip home for Thanksgiving, an array of questions were waiting for me. “What are you going to do after graduation?” Every one of my friends knew what they were doing. I was at a business school. The focus and the end-game were one of two things — you went into their grad school program or you went into finance or accounting. The “Big 5” handpicked students from my school. Not me. I was a management major. By some standards — a delinquent. Don’t get me wrong, I worked extremely hard. I just refused to to look to something I knew wasn’t mine.

“You are not going to pursue ‘the path’?” Nope. “Isn’t that why you went to this school? To guide you to this type of job? Nope. “Well, do you have any interviews lined up with what you want to do?” Nope, not yet. But I will. After I figure the right things out.

With all due respect, I learned more outside the classroom then I did inside. Still, I was clueless on what I wanted. All I knew was what I didn’t want. I knew I wanted Riot Act. I spun that thing so much that I needed to buy a new copy two weeks later due to the amount of wear on it.

Pearl Jam performed on Letterman shortly after the record release. I needed an escape. Back into the Riot Act cave I went — in the form of a road trip to New York City. Alone. If nothing more, I got to just drive with my little CD buddy for a while. I parked, ate a ton of pizza, then walked over the Ed Sullivan theater.

“Are you Jeff?” I hear over my shoulder. “Um, yes, maybe. It depends who you are,” I said. It was a former classmate from the college I just bolted from. She was so kind and happened to work as an usher at the Letterman show. 10 minutes before show number two started (Pearl Jam did two tapings, both were the same day), she came and found me outside and got me the last seat in the house. The condition was I needed to be calm and collected. “Don’t show that you are a big Pearl Jam fan. They want to make sure it’s a balanced audience and not a concert vibe,” she said. “No problem,” I assured her.

Whoops! The band blasted into “Save You” and so did I. I’m so sorry! (not sorry).

A month later, my best friend and I made an impromptu trip to Seattle for our birthdays. He was one of the only other humans on the planet that could relate to me. We bailed on every other commitment we had and at the last minute pooled our money (we both worked two jobs at our respective schools) and went out to the Mecca. For $60 a night we could stay at a Travelodge around the corner from the Space Needle. Perfect! History right out our window. We scoured every street, went into every rock club we could find, saw Pearl Jam play at Key Arena, and then jumped directly on a red eye home. We had the time of our lives.

To me, “Riot Act” embodies Seattle. It feels like Pacific Northwest nature. I close my eyes and imagine creatives, entering a writer’s room on a rainy day. Focused and raw. Just like the album cover.

In preparation for writing this, I submersed myself into Riot Act. It’s a record I listen to often. I love heavy lyrics. But here, I tried to take myself back to those weeks in 2002. I wanted to relive the experience of unwrapping a world that was in the form of small booklet with a disc inside and everything that came after.

Today, on the 15th anniversary of the release, Riot Act is perhaps more relevant than ever. There was a lot of uncertainty in 2002 — both in the world and individually. Personally, I wrestled with what was I wanted to do with myself. There was not one path that I followed that was university “mainstream”. I’d go back and forth on if that limited my possibilities or made them endless. I took the long road, even with my girlfriend. Upon throwing our caps, we were going to live long distance — four states away. When you throw your cap, you feel high as a kite as it soars towards the clouds. But then it falls back down and sometimes you don’t know where it lands or even go to retrieve it. As elated as we were, when my girlfriend and I (again, my now wife) launched into the air, we were going to be dropped into two different oceans. Our task was to (sink or) swim and see if we could meet at an island in the middle.

And that’s what Riot Act taught me. Sometimes, the unknown is a path worth navigating, and sometimes it’s your only choice. What matters is the foundation under foot. There is love in so many different forms sprinkled throughout those 15 tracks. It’s at times — mangled, confused, as dark as a rusty cage, and sometimes it’s as bright as the sun. But it’s there, and it will prevail.

I’ve thought about what each song on Riot Act means to me in addition to the overall Tower-unknown-Seattle “experience” it represents in totality. I decided to extract what theme resonated the most as I went through each song in sequence. Note — it’s from a first-person perspective and at times, from the writer’s perspective:

“Can’t Keep” — I’ve had enough, I’m going to shake this
“Save You” — I need you to be OK too. Help me, help you.
“Love Boat Captain” — The world is a crazy and sometimes confusing place. We need love to guide is. Love is the answer.
“Cropduster” — Expect the unexpected. Let’s have an open mind.
“Ghost” — I am searching for new ways, but I must do it privately. Let me hide away.
“I Am Mine” — I am mine.
“Thumbing My Way” — The truth is I am heartbroken, but I’ve decided to move on.
“You Are” — You are the lighthouse in my storm
“Get Right” — I want to feel better. I want to be our best selves.
“Green Disease” — I don’t trust the person steering the ship. I sense “selfish”. I need to steer. 
“Help Help” — I am my own worst enemy.
“BuShleaguer” — Not everyone is with us. I have to speak my mind. This is how I feel. 
“1/2 Full” — Let’s get out of here, away from the corruption and into the rural quiet. 
“Arc” — This is our mountain cry. I’m calling out. Hear the echo?
“All of None” — I’ am vulnerable, but I’m going for it. Completely.

Here’s the thing… when you string these song interpretations together, it reads as a beautiful poem or short story. It is not a steady incline or gradual rise to the mountain top. It’s peaks and valleys. It’s Tower Records, then graduation. It’s “Thumbing My Way”, then “You Are”. It’s, “constant recoil, sometimes life don’t leave you alone,” and it’s, “you can’t keep me here.” It’s circular with the gorgeous bellows of “Arc” (btw… have you ever seen EV perform that live? It’s not even fair.) And finally, it’s linear with “I only own my mind. I am mine.”

photo by: Sara Harris

And with that….

I’ve had enough, I am going to shake this.
I need you to be OK too. Help me, help you.
The world is a crazy and sometimes confusing place. We need love to guide us. Love is the answer.
Expect the unexpected. Let’s have an open mind.
I am searching for new ways, but I must do it privately. Let me hide away.
I am mine.
The truth is I am heartbroken, but I’ve decided to move on.
You are the lighthouse in my storm.
I want to feel better. I want to be our best selves.
I don’t trust the person steering the ship. I sense “selfish”. I need to steer.
I am my own worst enemy.
Not everyone is with us. I have to speak my mind. This is how I feel.
Let’s get out of here, away from the corruption and into the rural quiet.
This is our mountain cry. I’m calling out. Hear the echo?
I am vulnerable, but I’m going for it. Completely.

Featured art by: Carlos Vargas
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