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‘Jeremy’ Is About a Tragedy That Never Ends

Pearl Jam’s powerful anthem deals with suicide, bullying, mental health and gun violence. But it’s also a reminder of the challenges of trying to turn real-life pain into music

Who has the right to tell someone else’s story? It’s a question artists ask themselves all the time. When a tragedy makes national news, there can be a rush to want to find reasons for why the terrible event occurred, but if you’re singing about another person’s pain, what responsibility do you have to the survivors? Is it fair to use their worst day for your inspiration?

It’s been 30 years since “Jeremy” came out, a gripping song sung from the perspective of a classmate of Jeremy, a kid who gets picked on at school and ignored by his parents at home, and what that behavior drives him to do. “Jeremy” is one of the landmark moments of grunge and was vital in catapulting Pearl Jam from just another new band to a major one. But I confess I’ve spent almost no time thinking about the events that inspired the song, or how those who knew those real people might feel. 

I’m not here to condemn Pearl Jam, who have generally conducted themselves honorably over a long career. I consider them among the good guys. But what resonates about “Jeremy” is also what makes it so troubling. The band’s frontman Eddie Vedder wanted to write about suicide and childhood trauma. The song remains one of their most popular, frequently featured in their concerts. But “Jeremy” is also a reminder that we’ll never fully grasp someone else’s sorrow. 

Pearl Jam was itself born out of tragedy. Two of its members, bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard, had been part of another band, Green River, before forming Mother Love Bone, fronted by singer Andrew Wood in the late 1980s in Seattle, But shortly before their 1990 full-length debut Apple was supposed to come out, Wood died of a heroin overdose. (He was only 24.) Stunned, Ament and Gossard moved on, teaming up with drummer Dave Krusen and guitarist Mike McCready for a new group, hearing a demo from a San Diego surfer named Eddie Vedder, whom they invited to fly up and jam with them. 

“The minute we started rehearsing and Ed started singing — which was within an hour of him landing in Seattle — was the first time I was like, ‘Wow, this is a band that I’d play at home on my stereo,’” Ament recalled. “What he was writing about was the space Stone and I were in. We’d just lost one of our friends to a dark and evil addiction, and he was putting that feeling to words. I saw him as a brother.”

Originally named Mookie Blaylock, after the NBA point guard, they changed their moniker to Pearl Jam, putting together songs for their debut, Ten. The band’s tour manager, Eric Johnson, later noted, “The very first couple of shows, Eddie was really shy. He looked a little different than Seattle guys, too. He was wearing shorts, so he looked like a surfer. His voice was so incredible from the beginning, though.” 

Ten’s music was written principally by Gossard and Ament, with Vedder penning the lyrics. In a 1991 interview, Vedder talked about how his bandmates’ tunes “moved me to kind of open up with a few things, and there were some things on my mind.” Family dysfunction, heartbreak and spiritual isolation were the album’s principle themes, Vedder often pulling from his own troubled childhood. (The album’s first single, “Alive,” was famously about his discovery that the man he thought was his father was not.) But the frontman also drew inspiration from elsewhere. “I think a lot of things are written from experience,” he said, “but then you become a writer and talk about other people’s experience and you tell stories. I mean, you can’t just tell your own story all the time.” 

One such instance in which he looked outside himself occurred in early January 1991. The Dallas Morning News ran a story headlined “Richardson Teen-ager Kills Himself in Front of Classmates”: 

“A Richardson High School sophomore, described as a loner who had been in counseling, fatally shot himself Tuesday in front of a classroom of about 30 students. Jeremy Wade Delle, 16, who had transferred from a Dallas school, died instantly after firing a .357-caliber Magnum into his mouth about 9:45 a.m. police said.

“Because he had missed class, the teacher in his second-period English class told Jeremy to get an admittance slip from the school office. Instead, he returned with the gun, police said. He walked directly to the front of the classroom. “Miss, I got what I really went for,” he said, then placed the barrel in his mouth and fired, according to Sgt. Ray Pennington, a police spokesman.”

These were the days before the internet — such a shocking story would surely have gone viral in today’s climate — but Vedder learned of what Delle had done and was deeply affected. “When I went to write about it,” he said in the same 1991 interview, “I thought of actually getting a hold of what the actual person it was written about, but then I thought that would be intruding. And I totally related because I had a very similar experience with a kid who I grew [up] with.” In junior high, Vedder had a run-in with a classmate who, about a year later, “kind of freaked out and brought a gun into class one day … and shot up a 1,000-gallon fish tank or something.”

But the two stories, to Vedder’s mind, didn’t seem like isolated incidents. “This happens all the time,” he said. “A kid, just a week ago, I heard about another one, held his classmates hostage. Ordered the teacher out and held his classmates hostage. Finally, one of the kids, while he was lighting a cigarette or something, grabbed the gun away from him and the kid … said, ‘Just kill me. Just kill me because I don’t want to deal with what the repercussions of this are.’ He was unhappy. He wanted to die anyway. But that kid’s still alive. He’s probably more tormented than ever.”

When Americans think about school shootings, their minds invariably go back to Columbine, which would take place in 1999. But such incidents happened long before then, although they weren’t as monumental as those later killings. Vedder saw in these stories a connective tissue — a “lack of parental attention.” And so he crafted a narrative entitled “Jeremy.”

At home drawin’ pictures of mountain tops 
With him on top
Lemon yellow sun 
Arms raised in a “V” 
And the dead lay 
In pools of maroon below  

Daddy didn’t give attention 
Oh, to the fact that mommy didn’t care 
King Jeremy the Wicked 
Oh, ruled his world  

Jeremy spoke in class today 
Jeremy spoke in class today

Vedder showed the lyrics and the news story to Ament. “I already had two pieces of music that I wrote on acoustic guitar with the idea that I would play them on a Hamer 12-string bass I had just ordered,” Ament recalled in 2002. “When the bass arrived, one of [the pieces] became ‘Jeremy.’”

The song opens with a moody, bass-driven figure, setting the stage for Vedder’s brooding growl and some roaring guitars during the chorus. Not exactly a rocker, hardly a ballad, “Jeremy” was somewhere in between. “[W]e struggled so hard with it,” Ament said. “We knew it was a good song, but it was tough getting it to feel right — for the chorus to sit back and the outro to push over the top. The tune went from practically not making it on the record to being one of the best takes. I’m not sure if it’s the best song on the album, but I think it’s the best take.”

After laying out the scenario in the first verse, Vedder voices the narrator’s role in Jeremy’s deterioration: 

Clearly, I remember picking on the boy 
Seemed a harmless little fuck 
Oh, but we unleashed a lion 
Gnashed his teeth and bit the recess lady’s breast 
How could I forget? 
And he hit me with a surprise left 
My jaw left hurting
Oh, dropped wide open
Just like the day
Oh, like the day I heard

The song doesn’t make it clear exactly what happened. Did Jeremy shoot up the school? Did he target those who bullied him? Did he kill himself? All the song’s narrator will say is “Try to forget this / Try to erase this / From the blackboard.” Whatever’s occurred, it’s serious, the consequences permanently scarring to all involved. The tension of not knowing the details gives “Jeremy” its queasy resonance, like a painful memory nobody wants to talk about.

Released through Epic Records, Ten hit record stores in August 1991, about a month before Nirvana’s Nevermind, with “Alive” and “Even Flow” being the first two singles. “Jeremy” wasn’t released to radio until September of the following year. Initially, the band made a video for the song, working with rock photographer Chris Cuffaro, who was friends with the group and part of the Seattle scene. “One night in Seattle while hanging out with Eddie Vedder and his girlfriend Beth [Liebling] we had a few drinks,” Cuffaro said in 2019. “I talked about how I wanted to direct music videos and they both were cheering me on. Encouraging me and telling me I could do it. We went to RKCNDY and saw Soundgarden do a surprise show for the release of Badmotorfinger and it was awesome. The next day I sobered up and just knew I had to direct. I asked Eddie if he would ask the band if they would let me direct a video. They said yes.”

Cuffaro put together a performance-based piece for “Jeremy,” inspired by the newspaper article about Delle that Vedder gave him. The production, which took place in the fall of 1991, wasn’t burdened by huge expectations. “The label tells me they have no plans to release the song ‘Jeremy’ as a single,” Cuffaro wrote on his website. “To raise money I sold half my guitar collection and borrow the rest from friends. My budget… 20k!” 

But even though Pearl Jam were happy with what he came up with, Cuffaro’s “Jeremy” would not be the one fans saw. “The label decided to shelve it and not use it,” he wrote. “I was told by the label that the band was getting big and they wanted something more polished. I thought the video I made was a perfect representation of the band at the time. They had only released live videos and I know Eddie wasn’t thrilled with ‘polished’ videos. I feel my version captures the passion of Pearl Jam in a simple creative way.”

Indeed, because the clips for “Alive” and “Even Flow” featured the group performing, Epic wanted a different aesthetic for “Jeremy.” Enter Mark Pellington, a veteran video director responsible for P.M. Dawn’s “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” and U2’s “One.” He was not the biggest Pearl Jam fan when the “Jeremy” gig came his way. “My producer at the time said he had this Pearl Jam track and I heard it and I said, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ Not, ‘Oh my god I have to do it!,’” Pellington said in a 2017 Billboard interview. But the more he listened to “Jeremy,” and talked to Vedder, he started to change his mind. “I was never really bullied at school, yet I definitely had some 13-14-year-old anxiety and alienation from my parents, and I shared some of that feeling of being a bit misunderstood,” said Pellington. “Then I spoke to Eddie to see what I could elicit from him, and he poetically and passionately spoke about Jeremy and the true story and what inspired the lyrics.”

Whereas Cuffaro had put the emphasis on the band — not the fictional Jeremy, who only pops up occasionally — Pellington wanted to flip those ingredients. Pearl Jam had no problem with that. According to “Jeremy” video cinematographer Tom Richmond, who also spoke to Billboard, “They didn’t want to make any more videos. Eddie didn’t like the idea of selling himself to MTV.” The idea would be that Pellington would get a little footage of the group performing, and then he’d focus on the Jeremy storyline. His budget was $400,000.

Pellington combed through hundreds of audition tapes from young actors wanting to play Jeremy, who the viewer would see being tormented, ignored and ridiculed, occasionally getting in touch with his feral side out in the woods by himself. “In a cliché movie about junior high it would have been the picked-on kid, the outcast who looked funny or strange, and I could tell Mark was dissatisfied with that idea,” Richmond said of the video’s casting process. “[Pellington] couldn’t articulate what he was looking for, but he knew he wasn’t looking for that.” 

They landed on Trevor Wilson, who was 12 at the time. Later, his dad Jim would recall pinching his son’s leg before the audition to get him into the character’s mindset, as well as telling Trevor about Jeremy Wade Delle’s story. Even though Wilson was sick the day of the audition, he had that ineffable essence Pellington was seeking. “He didn’t play it like, ‘Oh, I’m all angsty,’” Pellington said. “He was sitting there and I was looking at [his audition tape], and he was kind of dazed and numb and fucked-up. I found out later that he was sick. But he was so expressive, in a non-histrionic way.”

Pellington’s initial idea to make the video all about Wilson’s performance had to be readjusted, however, after the director filmed Vedder and was taken in by his intensity. “His eyes have a bit of a beguiling mastery in his performance,” Pellington later said. “I don’t think singers act, they perform. Instead of doing it for an audience where they are outward, they can perform to the camera.” He knew that Vedder was going to have to be integral to the clip, almost as if (like in the song itself) he was a narrator telling us the story of poor Jeremy. Where the earlier Pearl Jam videos showed off his talent as a frontman, “Jeremy” gave us an up-close glimpse of his charisma and soulfulness. Maybe he wasn’t acting, but he sure was projecting something intimate directly to the viewer.

Initially, MTV rejected the video because of a scene that showed Wilson putting the gun in his mouth, an acknowledgment of Delle’s suicidal act. As a result, Pellington had to zoom in on the young actor’s face, making it hard to know what had happened. “It was not an easy edit to change, as I didn’t have any footage from over the shoulder, or reverse or even a closeup of the hand or the gun to add mystery or implication,” Pellington lamented. “All we had was a front master, so we tried blowing the image up, defocusing and editing it a little earlier. There were three permutations before we got to the final one.” 

Years later, Pearl Jam released the unedited version of the video, which appears above, but before then, many viewers thought that the blood on the classmate characters was an artful way of suggesting that Jeremy had used the gun to kill all of them. Quite the contrary, that was supposed to be Jeremy’s blood, which you could say was literally and metaphorically on their hands (and elsewhere on their bodies).

“Probably the greatest frustration I’ve ever had is that the ending [of the ‘Jeremy’ video] is sometimes misinterpreted as that he shot his classmates,” Pellington told Spin in 2001. “The idea is, that’s his blood on them, and they’re frozen at the moment of looking. I would get calls years later about it, around the time of Columbine. I think that video tapped into something that has always been around and will always be around. You’re always going to have peer pressure, you’re always going to have adolescent rage, you’re always going to have dysfunctional families.”

“Jeremy” won four MTV Video Music Awards, including Video of the Year and Best Direction, with Vedder and the band joined by Wilson on stage when they accepted the evening’s top prize. “The real shit is if it weren’t for music, I think I would have shot myself in the front of the classroom,” Vedder told the crowd. “It really is what kept me alive.”  

Those awards, along with two Grammy nominations, cemented just how big “Jeremy” was for Pearl Jam. “Alive” and “Even Flow” had signaled grunge’s ascension, but in the wake of Nevermind’s commercial breakthrough, the song made the band just as major. “Jeremy” didn’t top the Billboard charts — it didn’t even crack the Top 40 — but its cultural impact was felt elsewhere. You could hear it in the way every Gen-X kid would mimic/mock Vedder’s manly growl and brooding baritone. You could see it in the “Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam” debates that quickly sprang up, pitting rock fans against one another. And it was in the way the culture embraced Vedder, who seemed more sincere and thoughtful than the hair-metal frontmen of the 1980s who were just into hot chicks and bad drugs — a musical feud, amusingly enough, that continues to this day

As the 1990s rolled along, and Cobain took his own life, Pearl Jam became grunge’s standard-bearers, having to live up to Nirvana’s artistic legacy while simultaneously weathering a million complaints that they weren’t as epochal a band. I’ll always love Nirvana more, but I respected what Pearl Jam did in those ensuing years, standing up to Ticketmaster and speaking out about different causes, like abortion rights. Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy were bestsellers, they got to make a record with their hero Neil Young, but then nu-metal and the garage-rock revival moved in, replacing grunge as the dominant rock sound. Along the way, Pearl Jam never really embarrassed themselves, never made a truly terrible record — they just became less relevant to the zeitgeist, despite maintaining a loyal following and earning a reputation for being a pretty stellar live band. And considering that Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley and Chris Cornell are all gone, Vedder really is the last man standing from an era of monumental Seattle hard rock. 

Jeremy Wade Delle’s mother Wanda hasn’t spoken much in the years since her son’s suicide, but in 2018, she was interviewed by a local new station. “That day that he died did not define his life,” she said. “He was a son, a brother, a nephew, a cousin, a grandson. He was a friend. He was talented.” When school shootings happen today, “I think of what will be said or what opinions will be thought about the student,” Wanda said. “But it’s the mothers and sisters that I want to wrap my arms around and tell them someday it’ll be better.”

There’s a website dedicated to preserving Delle’s memory, and the band has been supporters of Wear Orange, raising funds for groups advocating for gun control. “The increase in gun violence since the debut of ‘Jeremy’ is staggering,” Pearl Jam wrote on Instagram in 2020, later adding, “We can prevent gun deaths whether mass shootings, deaths of despair, law enforcement or accidental.”

But partly because of the confusion over the video’s finale, “Jeremy” has often been misunderstood or co-opted. Perhaps the most notable example was in 1997, when Michael Frost, the lawyer of Barry Loukaitis, a teenager who killed three at his school, claimed that the video had inspired the shootings. “Nobody is condemning Pearl Jam or MTV,” Frost said. “Because of a bipolar disorder, my client was vulnerable to a number of outside stimuli … but the ‘Jeremy’ video spoke directly to him.”

Loukaitis was found guilty, but there has remained an idea that, somehow, Pearl Jam was glorifying its subject matter, the song becoming part of a tradition of popular culture that romanticizes young people’s angst. (In 2016, New Yorker writer Daniel Wegner noted that a Delle website “​​published a 2009 letter attributed to Delle’s father, recounting years’ worth of trinkets and notes left at his son’s grave site, as well as calls and emails ‘from young teenagers with some perverse idea that what he did was really cool.’”) 

Not surprisingly, and rightfully so, Pearl Jam never appreciated this interpretation of the song or the video. “The message of the video was a warning of what happened at Columbine,” Ament told Blender in 2002. “Parents and teachers don’t always pay attention to what’s going on. If I were getting paid 25 grand a year, I wouldn’t feel very responsible either.” During a 1993 radio interview, a caller asked the band how they felt about “Jeremy” being blamed for real-life violence. According to the Pearl Jam fanzine Five Horizons, this is how Vedder responded:

“Some kid did this. I didn’t make that up and that’s a fact. It came from a small paragraph in a paper which means you kill yourself and you make a big old sacrifice and try to get your revenge. That all you’re gonna end up with is a paragraph in a newspaper. Sixty-three degrees and cloudy in a suburban neighborhood. … [I]n the end, it does nothing … nothing changes. The world goes on and you’re gone. The best revenge is to live on and prove yourself. Be stronger [than] those people. And then you can come back. That’s kinda what I did. Now all those people who were my enemies want to be my friends. They don’t understand why, uh, I don’t respond to them.”

Seen today, the “Jeremy” video — and, to some extent, the song itself — is a perfect encapsulation of the lumbering earnestness of that alt-rock era. Moved by a tragedy he read about in the paper, Vedder drew from his own unhappy childhood to write a heartfelt song that paid homage to anyone who’s ever been picked on. But especially in the video, there’s a heavy-handedness to the execution, a self-seriousness that can reek of self-importance — it turns a tragedy into art that announces itself as such. The video very much embodied the ethos of Pearl Jam, who have used their platform for good but often in a humorless manner that could come across as overblown. 

That shouldn’t matter — the good deeds are more important than the public perception of the presentation — but at a time when, sadly, school-shooting art is prevalent, and often very good, the limitations of “Jeremy” stand out. You could say Pearl Jam cared a lot, but didn’t necessarily have the perfect execution. There are far worse sins.

Trevor Wilson, the boy who played Jeremy in the video, died in August 2016, drowning in Puerto Rico while on vacation. After “Jeremy” catapulted him to stardom, he decided that performing wasn’t something he was interested in pursuing. “When you’re famous like that, you don’t know who your friends are and who likes you for being famous or for who you are,” his mother Diane said in 2017, expressing a sentiment that the notoriously publicity-shy Vedder would certainly have appreciated. “He was going to auditions and decided he wanted to just be a kid. He didn’t want to act.” 

Instead, Wilson went to school for international relations. He worked for the United Nations in Egypt, focusing on things like improving women’s education. Much like Pearl Jam, Wilson wanted to make the world a better place. And he wrote a lot, including poetry and fiction. “I started going through his stuff and I came across a letter he wrote to me when he was going off to Europe to get his masters,” Diane said, “and it crossed my mind to let Eddie look at it and see if he wanted to do something with it.”

There’s a natural inclination among artists to derive meaning from the ephemera of real life, to want to make something positive out of what’s often random and cruel about existence. That’s one reason why we return to certain songs and movies — they give voice to something we can’t quite articulate ourselves. “Jeremy” speaks to the power and the problems contained within this reciprocal relationship we have with an artist — we absorb their pain while processing our pain, which we feel like we’re sharing with the artist. But we don’t have the answers, and they don’t either, and somewhere in Texas there’s a mother whose son has been dead for more than 30 years who inspired one of the biggest rock songs of the 1990s.

Eddie Vedder is out promoting his new solo album, Earthling, and recently he sat down to talk to the New York Times’ David Marchese. The singer was asked who his audience is these days and what they get out of his new music. “People tell me powerful stories about what the music means to them, so, in that way, I know what they get out of it,” Vedder replied. “When people tell me that stuff, I don’t feel like I should get credit. They’ll say that a song helped them, but, ultimately, I’m like: ‘You did it.’”

In the interview, Vedder and Marchese talk about death and suicide, with Marchese opening up about the fact that his best friend killed himself. It’s a very moving profile as they discuss grieving and trying to come to terms with the people they’ve known who have taken their life. “Jeremy” never comes up, but they do talk about a song off the new album, “Brother the Cloud,” which seems to be dealing with a friend’s suicide. 

“I’d rather leave it interpretive,” Vedder tells Marchese. “The general thing I can say is that some people leave this planet, and it could be by accident, design, tragedy or all of the above.” Marchese pushes him on this point, talking about his own friend’s suicide and the conflicted feelings he wrestles with. Vedder, who’s experienced plenty of death and suicide in his life, seemed to understand. “Maybe that’s why the song was there waiting to get out,” Vedder says. “The music goes where it goes.”

I couldn’t help but wonder how Vedder, now 57 and a father of two teenagers, would respond if he saw Jeremy Wade Delle’s story in the news today. “Jeremy” is a bit grandiose for my taste, but the tune’s dramatic fireworks are very much in keeping with being a younger guy, not that far removed from childhood yourself, reacting emotionally to such a shocking story. 

Pearl Jam made someone’s tragedy a universal anthem that spoke to larger issues that haven’t gone away: gun violence, parental neglect, mental health, suicide. “Jeremy” is blunt and emphatic — histrionic and overreaching — but what it’s talking about is so gripping and troubling that you can’t wave it away. Like the rest of us, Vedder stumbles his way through these issues, trying to figure out how best to respond to the unimaginable. His inability to have an answer is hardly a damnable offense — no one else seems to have one, either.