Not for You: Pearl Jam and the Present Tense isn’t your typical book about rock stars. For one, Ronen Givony opens his second book with this line: “First, a confession, and a caveat: I’ve only seen them fifty-seven times.” From the get-go, it’s clear that this narrator possesses the kind of voice that we can relate to. Chasing our favorite band across the world is the dream, is it not? Secondly, Not for You is an unsanctioned biography, if you can call it that. No members of Pearl Jam are involved in this book. Givony isn’t a journalist, nor a close accomplice of the band, he is simply a fan: “someone with no more credentials than you.”
This is a strange book, especially as Givony doesn’t follow the usual biography set-up we’re familiar with. His writing style is easy to read, his wit and earnestness had me hooked from page one. The book’s flow is unusual – twenty out of thirty chapters are led by Pearl Jam shows, some in Europe (Chapter 10: Pinkpop Festival, Holland; Chapter 25: Roskilde Festival, Denmark; to name a few), and many exhilarating shows in Seattle (Chapters 4, 20, and 24), and across the United States. Not for You aims to track Pearl Jam’s influence on rock music and popular culture, from “Jeremy” to Gigaton. However, by the time I finished the book, I was left wishing that Givony would have left more chapter space for their albums post-2000. Instead, he implies that from Binaural onwards, the band got lazy and that their place was only on the stage. While that may or may not be true, that’s a reductive take from someone who just spent 250 out of 400 pages treating their 90s albums with gravitas, no matter the clunkiness of the records he holds dear.
At times, Eddie Vedder looks like a right tool – there’s the cowardly firing of original drummer, Dave Abbruzzese via guitarist Stone Gossard; his rants atop massive European stages show Vedder at his most petulant – and Givony doesn’t once offer platitudes implying, “that’s just how he is.” Instead, he brings up incidents like these to demonstrate pivotal moments in Pearl Jam history. Conversely, we also see Vedder at his best: from writing “PRO-CHOICE!!!” on his arm before the band plays “Porch” during their 1992 MTV Unplugged concert; to his pro-abortion rights and anti-war activism; to his endorsement of the presidential candidate, Ralph Nader in 2000. The best of Pearl Jam has nothing to do with their music.
Before I further examine how effectively Not for You solidifies Pearl Jam within the grunge zeitgeist and outside its confines, I need to bring up the numerous special appearances in this book. We get to hang out with Jack Irons, famously attached to both Pearl Jam and Red Hot Chili Peppers; Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney; The Chicks, Nancy Wilson and her ex-husband, director Cameron Crowe; and the remaining members of Seattle’s big-four: Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden (there’s a beautiful story about Chris Cornell in here, luckily for you I posted it on my Twitter account).
Sadly, we’re also subjected to cringeworthy post-grunge groups, Pearl Jam’s ill-informed fight against Ticketmaster; Bill Clinton, school shootings and murdered Planned Parenthood workers; illegal wars and Vedder planting a rubber mask of President Bush on his mic stand during “Bushleaguer” (real subtle, Ed) going down without controversy in Australia. Days later, however, Natalie Maines of The Chicks told a small audience in London, “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” This comment prompted “fans” to subsequently burn their Chicks’ CDs. Meanwhile, the band and their sponsor, Lipton, and the company’s owner, Unilever, were subjected to threats of boycotts and violence. I can’t think of what was behind such an extreme response. Must begin with “s” and end in “ism.”
Throughout the book, we find out more about Givony and his fandom. We hear about the album he would love for Pearl Jam to play front-to-back (No Code); where he was and what he was doing on September 11, 2001, when the world changed; the song he’s sick of (“Jeremy”) and which songs he hated that later grew on him (“Given to Fly” and “Love Boat Captain”). He attempts to answer some burning questions that plagued him so much he had to write this book, such as, “Why does Pearl Jam feel like a guilty pleasure? Why am I happy to tell everyone I know about seeing Radiohead two nights in a row, but not Pearl Jam?” By the time we get to chapter 30, he reveals that this book was declined by at least forty publishers. It is here, on June 14, 2019, that the editor of his book about Jawbreaker, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy requested he sends over the Not for You manuscript. Two days later, he boarded a plane to Lisbon to see an Eddie Vedder solo concert. It is here when he finally knew who he had been writing for.
Not for You: Pearl Jam and the Present Tense is a book for anyone. It’s a book for obsessives (Givony), the casual listener (me), and haters alike. There’s something here for everybody who loves music – who can’t relate to ranking albums by your favorite band? While he never answers why listening to Pearl Jam feels like a guilty pleasure, or why seeing Radiohead two nights in a row is “cooler” than seeing Pearl Jam, he does understand why male-led (“W.M.A”, anyone?) rock bands of the 90s – Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, Fugazi, R.E.M. – matter today. The bands of the era that dominated the airwaves were not only cool, they were also intellectual, compassionate, feminist role models.
“Pearl Jam and their contemporaries made idealism-caring-cool,” Givony writes in the afterword. “It was music that believed, naively, in shared public language; in conscience, and community; in aspiring to change people’s lives… Its virtues were empathy; empowerment; and inclusion.” That’s what music means to me. Not for You captures the climate of the era – a time for a change, a time for progressive icons, and a time when songs could change the world once more.