On the fourteenth anniversary of the day, here’s a story worth revisiting:
In the Summer of 1998, I had driven cross country with my girlfriend on a four-day rally across the purple mountain majesties and endless future Walmart locations, from New Jersey to California for the specific purpose of seeing Pearl Jam play in Vedder’s hometown of San Diego. It set the stage for a coastal move that set off a chain reaction that would bring about the birth of Antiquiet a decade later, but that’s another story for another time.
The show itself was spectacular, with a Long Road opener and a heartstrong setlist that leaned heavily on material from their then-current Yield album. Improvs, unique tags (including a sample of the B-52s’ Roam at the end of Daughter) and covers peppered the set, as well as an unforgettable Even Flow solo by lead guitarist Mike McCready.
The penultimate song in the show, a live-staple cover of Neil Young’s Rockin In The Free World, seemed to have an extra incendiary power from the get-go. From my eighth-row seat I was as present as possible, absorbing as much of the moment as I could, knowing that Yellow Ledbetter would likely follow – the closing high-water mark on a cross-country adventure nine months in the making. When Mikey launched into his solo, I savored every note as if it were tailor-made for me. But then the band took the breakdown to nearly silence, only a percussive skeleton and a loose framing of subtle chords keeping things kinetic as Vedder returned to the mic.
There was an energy about Eddie, a sense of coiled intent that was evident in his posture to indicate what was to come. I remember as much a decade and a half on, watching him launch into a monologue that would quickly evolve into a passionate rant – one which would soon grow legs into a roaring blast of raging sarcasm at the boiling hypocrisy of fear-mongering distraction technicians sitting in our elected offices:
“You know, it’s so good to know when you read in the paper…it’s so good to know that there’s a lotta high-paid representatives that you and I and a bunch of other people voted into office. Gave ’em good jobs and nice offices, and nice leather chairs, and a limo to drive ’em around, and vacations for their wives and kids. That’s all fine and good. I’d like them to have a clear head when they make decisions regarding every one of us, each and every one of us. And I’m so glad to read that right now… once again… they’re talking about the problem of the burning of the flag. ‘Cause you know, if there’s one thing that pisses me off every day of my life, it’s walking down the street and seeing all these flags burning everywhere I turn. This is the biggest fucking problem I’ve ever seen, and I’m fucking sick of it! I can’t go out to get a cup of coffee and a paper without seeing a fucking flag burning. I can’t go to a stadium… There’s a flag burning everywhere – a flag burning here, a flag burning there! It doesn’t matter that the oceans are going to complete shit, and you get sick every time you go surfing. There’re flags burning! I don’t care about the environment. Let it go to shit. Let’s save the flag!! Let’s save the flag!!!”
Naturally, Vedder had no concern one way or another for the total non-epidemic of flag burning. It was but another red herring in a sea of distraction aimed at getting American minds away from genuinely pertinent issues of the day. He knew as much, we knew as much, and the inherent anger has yet to dissipate all these years on. But we had no idea how bad things were about to get.
In 2012 America, nobody except perhaps the most distracted Tea Partier has much to say about flag burning. We’ve moved on to far more dynamic distraction issues, such as the religious right’s attempts to return women’s rights to a pre-1960’s era of oppression and inequality, or how many communists are in the White House and halls of Congress. But the facts of the matter stay the same: in a world where we are faced with nearly insurmountable struggle in our quest to return America to a place that doesn’t resemble a living Idiocracy, what we watch on TV and read in the news and hear our candidates argue about is anything but a reflection of reality. As American protests numbering in the tens and hundreds of thousands are regularly blacked out in favor of breathless circular rhetoric about the day’s pet issue, we’re presented with options that aren’t options at all.
The voting lever is pulled for the lesser of two evils, while the same corporate control hangs heavy over our lives and futures no matter what the outcome. To protest, to legally take to the streets as very specifically outlined in our Constitution, is to be met with a militarized police force and a complicit media monolith to serve the propaganda as thick as necessary to keep you shopping at Walmart, to keep you hooked on poison and idiocy, to keep you from vocally questioning why our brothers and sisters are dying for a decade-old war that nobody can justify articulately. To keep concrete in our minds the idea that those who are out in the streets because they can’t take it anymore, won’t take it anymore, are the real problem.
So indeed, let’s save the fucking flag.