The Story Behind Pearl Jam’s 1992 Censored Music Video
28 years later, the unedited version of the band’s video clip for the song “Jeremy” has resurfaced on their YouTube page for National Gun Violence Awareness Day.
In January 1991, Jeremy Delle, a 15-year-old sophomore from Richardson High School, Texas, shot himself with a Smith & Wesson Model 19-4 .357 Magnum revolver in front of his English class. The event inspired Pearl Jam frontman, Eddie Vedder, and bassist, Jeff Ament, to write the track which would end up becoming the band’s debut album third single.
In that same year, Pearl Jam became one of the bands launched into stardom in the wake of the explosion of the Grunge movement. The group had emerged from the ashes of another of Seattle’s promising bands, Mother Love Bone, whose tenure was ended abruptly after the death of singer Andrew Wood shortly before the release of their acclaimed first album. Vedder, who at the time was a blue-collar worker and drifting California’s surfer with a taste for both Classic and Punk Rock, joined the band after composing melodies and lyrics for an instrumental demo tape created by the remaining members of the group. What ensued was a small and emotional Rock Opera that chronicled the tales of a young man who, like Vedder, found he had been lied to about his paternity, while his real biological father was dying from a terminal illness.
Most of these tracks eventually made into the band’s first record and resonated with the wave of northwestern Alternative Rock that emerged throughout the early ’90s. Although, as a musical genre, the term “Grunge” remains ambiguous, it is often used to describe the music of said bands, which contradicted the aesthetic of the Hair Metal and often formulaic commercial Rock popularized in the previous decade. In mainstream culture, this had also been the first artistically impactful scene created by the Generation X, the youngsters who had grown in the often dysfunctional families fathered by the Baby Boomers and lived under an economy that had just recently seen the rise of neoliberalism, with the subsequent lack of meaningful and stable career opportunities as well as the marginalization of the youth from the grown-up professional world.
In a lot of ways, this generation of young musicians lacked the unrestrained utopian idealism which had characterized their parents’ youth. As a result, their music was often dark and anguished, focused on themes like psychological trauma, social alienation, abuse, broken relationships, a pursuit of authentic freedom and, in Pearl Jam’s case, sympathy for troubled individuals. Somewhere among it all, there was Jeremy, whose lyrical thematic inspiration came to Vedder after reading a newspaper article on Delle’s suicide.
With the instrumental composition envisioned by bassist Jeff Ament, Jeremy starts off with an intro played on a 12 stringed bass and an uncommon creative use of bass harmonics, a technique initially popularized in the late 70’s by legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius. The powerful bass lines built on this initial motif are what carries the song forward, a testament to Ament’s musical prowess. The guitars played with a tremolo effect pedal create melodic phrases that alternate between the outline of two different chords, Stone Gossard’s guitar to bring out the tense harmony in the higher notes combined with Mike McCready’s assertive use of power chords. The chorus makes use of an often unnoticed acoustic section with the added dramatic ambiguity of the lyrics sang by Vedder. There is also a genius key modulation from A minor to A Major built on top of the dissonant note choices of the two electric guitars.
Although, with its Punk roots, the Grunge movement rejected the pompous idea of the musical virtuoso, a closer look proves that those musicians had their own layer of subtle sophistication. On this track, the melody sang by Eddie Vedder on both verses makes use of plenty of intervallic jumps between notes, which makes it uncommon in comparison to most modern popular songs. It’s also worth noting that the final half of the second verse introduces the creative use of a cello played by Walter Gray of the Seattle Symphony, something unconventional in Rock music.
The bridge that builds up to the final chorus starts off with plenty of intensity, with all instruments playing the same riff along with Vedder’s angst-filled vocals. The final section that leads the song to its coda is defined by tense prolonged guitar notes and phantasmagorical vocals which together transmit to the listener the idea that something tragic has happened.
There are elements of Jeremy that give it the feel of a protest song, but, obviously, in a more abstract and less explicit manner. The lyrics chronicle the journey of Jeremy as a boy that struggled with his loneliness and lack of care by his community until he arrived at his final destination —, not as a tale to be glorified, but that, either way, is a story deserving of being told and emphasized. We are left with the idea that, perhaps, there were many things that could’ve been done to prevent Delle’s death that were neglected by his family and school. This compassion is possibly the ultimate lesson of the song.
The Music Video
After an initial attempt at shooting an unreleased video for the song by photographer Chris Cuffaro, the record label Epic had become receptive of the idea of the track being released as a single and was now willing to fund a new high-budget video with director Mark Pellington and editor Bruce Ashley behind the project, which now revolved around the idea of a juxtaposition of various visual and audio elements as a mean to tell a story. Visually, the video was now a combination of close-ups of Vedder as a narrator, classroom scenes shot at Bayonne High School in New Jersey and the dramatic acting of 12-year-old Trevor Wilson, whose magnificent performance gave a face to Jeremy in the eyes and collective imagination of the millions who have watched the video since its release.
The clip starts off with a collage of various newspaper articles concerning other cases throughout the country that could perhaps share some degree of similarity to the main story. We are then shown the shirtless Jeremy alone in the woods, drawing and painting with obsessive vigor. There are glimpses of passages from the Bible such as “the serpent was subtil”, and ”the unclean spirit entered”, from Mark 5:13, and Genesis 3:6 respectively, as well as shots of words used by acquaintances to describe Delle. We see Jeremy running alone throughout the woods, which possibly symbolizes his tumultuous walk through the painful coming of age experiences of adolescence. His depiction as a feral child is meant to represent the emotional abandonment he was subjected to, alone to fend off for himself. There is also a shot where a large portrait of a wolf seems to be about to eat him, which could possibly be a metaphorical foreshadow of the impending doom.
The school images show Jeremy as being alienated from the rest of his peers, either scrambling on his notebook, exhibiting frustration and disgust from the surrounding environment or being subjected to bullying and humiliation by his classmates and teacher, who collectively point their fingers at him, their faces deformed by laughter. The main character is also shown enveloped in the American flag, symbolizing he was a child of the country and his tragic story is a byproduct of it. In one of the most haunting scenes, we see the children standing with their right hands on their chest, pledging their patriotic allegiance to the flag, but their gesture quickly turns into a different one that resembles a fascist salute.
Most of the shots with Jeremy are stationary, with him being the only character to move. We also witness a reference to his home life, with his static parents arguing and ignoring their child’s angry pleas and desperate outburst. Jeremy’s tormented and anguished emotional state is then alluded to by a shot of him standing with his arms raised in front of a wall of fire. His actions become more erratic has the ending grows closer, the woods of his adolescence becoming dark as he leaves them behind with all of the paintings that perhaps represented the multiple possibilities of what he could’ve been.
In a final scene, we see the shirtless Jeremy walking the door to his class and tossing an apple to his teacher before proudly standing before his classmates. The child grabs a concealed gun and puts it inside his mouth as the real-life Jeremy Delle did. In the next shot, we see the remaining children frozen in shock as their classmate’s blood is now splattered all over their clothes and hands.
Although this is how the initial version of the video went, MTV was displeased with the ending. For it to be accepted, an edited version had to be made in which there was a close-up of the main character's face that omitted the gun, as well as a shortening of the fascist salute scene. Oddly, this in turn ended up making the video more ambiguous and many people believed Jeremy to be a school shooter who had fired upon his classmates, a misconception that was far from the truth and was further reinforced in a short misleading coverage by Rolling Stone magazine. This was one of the greatest frustrations of director Pellington, who claims that the final shot is meant to present the idea that Jeremy’s blood is on his classmates, not that they were physically harmed. Nonetheless, the clip became quite popular among MTV viewers and won multiple awards after it’s release in August 1992.
However, in 1996, the legal defense team for a school shooting case in the city of Moses Lake, Washington, affirmed that the shooter had been influenced by the edited version of the video. After the Columbine High School massacre three years later, it became rarely exhibited and mentioned on TV, with its memory preserved mostly exclusively on the internet.
It remains to be asked whether the censorship did more harm than good because the truth is this — neither the song nor the video ever had anything to do with a school shooter. The story was, instead, about the tale of a lonely and tormented teenage boy whose death could have been prevented had his community demonstrated greater care for him. Earlier this month, the uncensored version of the video was finally released on YouTube in coordination with National Gun Violence Awareness Day.
On Mental Illness Among The Youth
According to the World Health Organization, depression is one of the principal causes of illness and disability among teenagers and suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15–19-year-olds. The repercussions of not addressing adolescent mental health conditions extend to adulthood, harming both mental and physical health and inhibiting opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults. Young people that struggle with mental illness are particularly vulnerable to social exclusion, discrimination and stigma, which diminishes the readiness to seek help.
In the late 19th century, French sociologist Durkheim concluded that suicide has causes and reasons that are not purely on the individual but on society itself. This should serve as a powerful reflection point on how to address the subject not necessarily by avoiding bigger discussions on the issue but by recognizing the problem and reflecting on what can be done to prevent it.
Perhaps there is a real danger that a depiction of a suicide can further encourage someone else to commit a similar act but art should not be used as a scapegoat to avoid confronting deeper issues concerning our communities, domestic households and perhaps even ourselves and our hidden stigmas concerning the topic of mental illness and depression.
Sadly, Trevor Wilson, the young actor who played the main role in Pearl Jam’s video, has also passed away in 2016 at age 36 in a drowning accident in Puerto Rico. We can honor Jeremy’s life and Wilson’s artistic contribution to his portrayal by reflecting and raising awareness to the topic of suicide prevention and do what we can to fight the stigma. The best way to deal with the issue of mental illness and suicide among the youth is not to find scapegoats or to repress deeper conversations on the subject but to openly recognize the problem and consider what can be done to make the world a better place for those who are struggling with it.
This story serves not only as a cautionary tale on the topic of mental illness among young people but also as a testament to the power of Rock music as a vehicle to found catharsis, comprehension and purpose in the wake of a tragedy.
If either you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, it’s highly recommend getting in touch with a family member or acquaintance that can provide support. It is also vastly advisable to schedule an appointment with a therapist or health professional or simply to visit your local walk-in clinic or urgent care center. Call 911 or any other national emergency phone number if either you or an acquaintance are in the process of a suicide attempt.
Also recommended are the following free services and resources:
24/7 Crisis Hotline: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network
1–800–273-TALK (8255) (Veterans, press 1)
Crisis Text Line
Text TALK to 741–741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7
Veterans Crisis Line
Send a text to 838255
SAMHSA Treatment Referral Hotline (Substance Abuse)
RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline
National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline
The Trevor Project