In November of 1994, I was busy with 4 things: going to junior college in the morning, loading boxes into trailers at UPS in the evening, and dating a pseudo-Catholic girl who had anger issues in the later evening. At that age, you could basically sum up my relationship skills as “just happy to (still) be there.” I spent a fair amount of time wondering when and how I was going to get dumped. It’s funny now, to think I woke up every morning and used a few cognitive cycles wondering if that day would bring relationship carnage. But of course back then, life itself was dependent on the outcome of every phone call and pager message.
Oh wait, I said 4 things, didn’t I? Yeah. My buddy Jason and I spent most of the fall of 1994 waiting impatiently for the release of Pearl Jam’s third album, Vitalogy.
I’m 99% sure I would have sold drugs, my body, or my little brother for a pre-release copy of Vitalogy. After all, the band had played “Not for You” on Saturday Night Live seven months earlier, fired their drummer over the summer, and started a fight with Ticketmaster over concert ticket service fees.
This album was going to be epic.
Luckily for those of us with a crack-like addiction to PJ, Vitalogy was released on vinyl a few weeks ahead of the CD version and Jason got his hands on it.
Vinyl is awesome, if totally non-portable. I didn’t have a record player in my 1992 VW Jetta, so I had to make a bootleg cassette tape version of Vitalogy for the car. I remember hacking together an unholy vinyl-to-tape-recorder-thing-a-ma-jiggy and, an hour later, I had my pirated cassette copy of Vitalogy (except Stupidmop, because everyone skips that track anyway :-).
The song I couldn’t wait for was track 11, “Betterman.” It’s a somewhat sad song (hello, 90’s anti-ballad. Would you like a tissue?) about a woman who is stuck in an unhappy place; with only her dreams to comfort her.
She lies and says she still loves him.
Can’t find a better man.
She dreams in color, she dreams in red.
Can’t find a better man.
In the first week I owned my pirated cassette tape, I listened to Betterman at least 50 times. If you are under age 25, you have no idea how difficult that was. You had to rewind the tape. And it didn’t just stop where it was supposed to. You had to guess where to press the play button and hope you stopped it at the right moment. Knowing precisely where to stop the tape is truly a lost art. But I digress.
After a few listens to Betterman, I remember wondering if my angry girlfriend was like the woman in the song. Lying about being in love (whatever “love” is at 19 years old) because she could not muster the strength to leave and find a better man. Was my girlfriend dreaming in color? In red? I could only think about one side of that song; that girl who was dreaming in color. In red.
Fortunately for me, a few months later, I came to terms with the fact that she was just angry and there was nothing I could do about it. She had a bad relationship with her dad and being angry with me was her therapy. So I moved on. And that was closest I ever got to being Catholic.
Last fall, Pearl Jam played a retooled and slower version of Betterman at Neil Young’s Bridge School benefit concert at Shoreline Amphitheater. Listen while you read on.
After hearing this version of Betterman, I found the song was once again stuck in my head for a spell.
My interpretation of Betterman has become less naive as I’ve gotten older. No one you love should be resigned to only dream in color. I think if you’re living well, you’re in search of that color all the time. I think life is about finding the color you dream about in real life; about finding yourself a spot from which you can see all the color the world has to offer. And finding a way to add your own color to it as well. Creating your own palette and throwing brush strokes at the sky. If your dreams are more colorful than your waking hours, that might be a sign that it’s time to rattle your bones, take a deep breath, and jump.
Most importantly, though, is that you allow those you love to find color in the way that best suits them. Sometimes that means letting them go seek a better place, a better life, or a better…something. Maybe that’s just for awhile. Or maybe it’s forever. The only way to be a Betterman, is to know/understand/respect when it’s time to let go. Let them go. Just let it all go and see what finds its way back to you.