"Better Man" is, as most of you know, a very old song, dating from Ed's days with one of his first bands, Bad Radio. (There are demo versions of this song from the Bad Radio days that do exist in trading circles.) The PJ version of the song was premiered on 5/13/93 at a secret show at Slim's Cafe in San Francisco. It was the first show of the Vs. tour and was a secret show to benefit a member of the Surfrider Foundation. Most of the new album was played that night, as well as the debuts of both "Better Man" and "Whipping." (This is the legendary "will write songs for acid" show. Go read the Concert Chronology, for more info, that's what it's there for! =))
"Better Man" is one of those songs that many fans have developed a love-hate relationship with, mostly due to its semi-consistent presence in the live show. For example, in 1998, it was played 56 times out of a total of 68 shows. That, combined with the fact that it would seem that a great many people in the audience aren't listening to the lyrics of the song (probably not since R.E.M.'s "The One I Love") has a song's title been so literally translated ... couples (somehow) thinking that the song is about, well, a "better man," and using the occasion to slow dance, suck face, or, as in the case of the 6/20/98 show, first show of the North American tour, ask for it to be played, after proposing to your girlfriend in front of an audience of 30,000 (several hundred of which are wincing inside and going, "No! Oh, noooooo...." =)).
However, all that aside, there is something about this song that makes it truly irresistible. It starts out quiet, soft, plaintive, Ed on guitar, those first naked chords bringing the arena to attention:Waitin', watchin' the clock, it's four o'clock, it's got to stop... And then the rest of the band kicks in, sometimes dominated by the drums (thank you, Mr. Cameron!), other times, more cohesive, as a unit. Another chorus, and we're in full swing, moving, building, and finally a crescendo:
Tell him, take no more, she practices her speeches
As he opens the door, she rolls over ...
Pretends to sleep as he looks her over
She lies and says she's in love with him, can't find a better man ...
She dreams in color, she dreams in red, can't find a better man ...
Can't find a better man, Can't find a better man, Ohh ...
Talkin' to herself, there's no one else who needs to know ...
She tells herself, oh ...
She loved him, yeah ... she don't want to leave this wayThen, audience/band call and response, Ed and Stone trading off with each other and with us, Ed's voice soaring on "she loved him," and letting the final note of the final "betterman" sustain. By the end of it, you're smiling.
She feeds him, yeah ... that's why she'll be back again
"sex and drugs and the apocalypse"In 1996, Pearl Jam put an interesting twist on this tune, when on 9/26/96, in Augusta, Maine, they segued into a jam with the song "Save It For Later." From that point on, the appearance of SIFL, in varying lengths and degrees, started to become not only a constant, but almost the highlight of the song live, and a highlight of the live shows in general. Sometimes you got a few lines; other times, the instrumental jam is lengthy and Ed sings a verse or two; and yet other instances, we're treated to almost a full performance of SIFL. It can be plaintive, it can be frenzied, but most people agree that when it happens, it transforms the song into something very special.
"Save It For Later" was originally written and performed by a ska band called The English Beat (except in the UK, where they were just The Beatthere was already a band in the US called The Beat, hence the clarification) in 1982, on the now out-of-print album called Special Beat Service. [It was also covered this year, ironically enough, by the Seattle pop band Harvey Danger for the soundtrack to the movie "200 Cigarettes." It's kind of quirky. =)].
The first time I witnessed the "Better Man"/"Save it For Later" pairing was at the 9/28/96 Randall's Island show. At the time, the connection perplexed me, until an acquaintance on a mailing list pointed out that Pete Townshend was known for covering SIFL during his solo shows.
Now, no, we don't know this for sure; Ed's never said (and I don't think he's ever been asked, say in an interview) that that's the reason he was attracted to this song. However, given Ed's fandom, it has generally been assumed that this is the reason for his attraction to the song.
Last year, during one of his solo performances, Pete Townshend introduced the song with an explanation that, ironically enough, explained the meaning of the song, which in our opinions gave us more insight into why it's so attractive to Ed:"Anybody who's seen me do solo shows knows that I often playwell, I always playa song by the English Beat ... that song ... is a bit of a lecture, isn't it, really, but ... written by Dave Wakeling, I think it's supposed to be about sex and drugs and the apocalypse ... but it kind of started to mean all kind of things to me, differently ... I was just driving in my car, going from somewhere to somewhere, I was on vacation in Cornwall, [and] I suddenly thought, 'It's okay for me to use gas'. No, seriously! Cuz it's like, when you got kids, I got a little 6-year-old 8-year-old boy, they've gotta have a future, and I was kind of wondering, what it's got to do with me, how much gas I use ..."Sex and drugs and the apocalypse?" Can you say "Do The Evolution," anyone? But, it is a truly great song, and so is "Better Man." At the end of the day, it combines all the best elements that make PJ Pearl Jam, and kicks in, rocks out. It's just irresistible.
"But the other thing that's bigger in that song, I think that's so interesting, what I realized the other day, is that what it's also about is the decision to have children, remember that song, by Bob Dylanthe fear of bringing children into the world, 'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall'? When you have kids, you gotta try to take that whole responsibilityfollow your biological urges, by all meansas if there's any hope of not doing that, you know ... but try to make sure that there's a place for them to be in the future.
It's actually a truly great song, is what I suppose I'm saying ..."
While it was difficult to select a version from the last tour, after much deliberation we chose the performance from the 9/11/98 MSG II show as the best representative of all the qualities this song embodies. Enjoy!
- Better Man, live from 9/11/98 [mp3 - 6,400K]
© 1999 Caryn Rose