My Take On Pearl Jam’s Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town


If I have only heard a band in a random, unplanned fashion, I feel I do not know their music.  For me, getting to know music requires careful listening, analysis and transcription.  In the fall of 1993, when Pearl Jam were on the covers of TIME MagazineMUSICIAN Magazine, and SPIN Magazine, I decided it was time to spend study Pearl Jam and the music, lyrics and structure of their new album, Vs.  This took about 12 hours but was time very well spent.  (Had I not found the music interesting, my initial Pearl Jam phase would have ended as soon as the CD ended.)

Pearl Jam – Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town

Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town  is a beautiful but poignant portrait of a woman who has lived her entire life in the same small town.   While working at the diner, she meets someone she once knew.  This encounter triggers recollections and daydreams –

“lifetimes are catching up with me…all these changes taking places…wish I’d seen the place…no one’s ever taken me…”

and is the first hint of the woman’s dissatisfaction with her lot in life.  She never had an objective perspective on the small town where she was raised –

“wish I’d seen the place”

and is saddened that

“no one’s ever taken me”

a possible reference to the fact that she is probably not married and/or was not rescued from her destiny.

She at first doesn’t recognize the customer;  when she does, she hopes that he doesn’t recognize her as she is embarrassed by her fate in life.   She wants to be able to tell him something positive about herself, for example, that she is now accomplished, successful or happy.  As soon as she gets to this, she freezes, saying,

“I’m not my former…

it’s hard when you’re stuck up on the shelf”

realizing that she may be her former self or, in any event, did not change enough to merit talking about it.  She may have once been young and beautiful with a promising future, one who was placed on a pedestal, although more correctly, she was

“stuck up on the shelf”

one who could not or did not develop.

“I changed by not changing at all…small town predicts my fate, perhaps that’s what no one wants to see…”

Her frustration and yet resolve with the immediate situation continue:

“I just want to scream…hello.  My God, it’s been so long…never dreamed you’d return, but now here you are and here I am…” 

When she sings the chorus for the final time

“hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away”

it is initially in the same tone of voice and the same musical register as the verse.  But then, as she realizes that she has accepted her fate and must be realistic, the song returns to its original somber feel and lower musical register.  The song continues to repeat the chorus, getting softer and quieter each time until the end of the song.  The song and the woman have said all that they could.

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