Yellow Better, Red Better
The name of the Pearl Jam song “Yellow Ledbetter” is supposedly derived from an old tongue twister in which you try to say “yellow better, red better” as fast as you can. Repeated a few times, the words become jumbled and thus, you land on a sound which can only be described as “yellow ledbetter.” The reason they named the song, as one fan theory suggests, is because the lyrics are indistinguishable just like the tongue twister. Another theory suggests that the song is a tribute to Huddy Leadbetter, a founding father of blues in the 1930’s, who recorded a majority of his music while he was in jail for assault. But the supposed real reason, as stated in Five Against One: The Story of Pearl Jam by Kim Neely, is that the title is a play on words dedicated to singer Eddie Vedder’s Chicago friend, Tim Leadbetter.
“Unsealed on a porch a letter sat
Then you said I wanna leave it again
Once I saw her on a beach of weathered sand
And on the sand I wanna leave it again, yeah”
Once I did see you on a bed of weathered sand and I found myself there beside you. We visited that beach so often that the sediment eroded from the rocks and found its way into our friendship at one point or another. You always said you wanted to leave, to go anywhere from where we currently were, even if that place was somewhere you had waited in anticipation to be. “I can’t wait to get the fuck out of here,” you would tell me every other year or so, regardless of where we had landed. But how? I thought. How can you move with all that sand inside of you? Do you think if I said resentment five times as fast as I could, would it begin to sound like resentment?
“On a weekend, wanna wish it all away
And they called and I said that I want what I said
And then I call out again
And the reason ought to leave her calm, I know”
I had a dream last night that I threw a drink in your face. You looked at me as if to say something in retaliation, but I walked away to delay whatever response you ended up having. I walked so far that I found myself in San Francisco with a couple you’d think would belong in a magazine. They told me that you were not in my best interest whilst I looked into a bottomless plastic cup of cheap sangria, the dark plum stretching for miles deep. Out of a state of grief, I fell into the cup and engulfed myself in purple. I lay dormant in this purple for 12 years and came back up, the couple in the same seated position. They looked at me with concern. I only nodded in response and fell back into the purple, this time for 24 years. I came back up once more and there you are. “Why are you still here?” I say “after I threw that drink in your face?” You didn’t answer and instead stuck one arm into the last sip of sangria in the plastic cup. You soon realized you could not go any further than your finger that grazed the bottom of the cup. And then you looked melancholic. So finally I said that you had lost me and I walked away this time carrying the empty Sangria bottle in hand. I imagined you were anything but calm at that moment, forget the reason.
At their live shows, Pearl Jam often saves “Yellow Ledbetter” for the last song. Eddie has been known to change the lyrics quite a bit, sometimes going so far as to just telling the story within the melody of the song. The story Eddie tells is that of a young man during the first gulf war, where his brother is killed off. He receives a yellow army envelope that informs the man of his older brother’s death, hence the “yellow” in the title.
So the song happens to be synonymous with endings, I think to myself on an afternoon supplied with aimless desires and a lukewarm coffee with no lid. The end of a show, the end of a life, and what now appears to be the end of us. I can’t help but to think whether our friendship is a tongue twister from all the times you mention to almost everyone, old or new, that we have stood next to one another for over 10 years. Maybe if we say 10 years fast enough, it will somehow jumble to sound like 15, maybe 20 years. Or that all the time we spent together was in tribute to our longevity. But the real reason just may be that like Eddie to his friend, this piece is a joke in honor of you. But I saw you last Tuesday like many other Tuesdays before it. I’ll continue tripping on my words because I know nothing else. Maybe if I say “ledbetter” fast enough, do you think it will sound a lot like longevity?
“Oh yeah, can you see them
Out on the porch
Yeah but they don’t wave
I see them
‘Round the front way, yeah
And I know and I know I don’t want to stay”
Camille Dunavin is a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a forest spirit entity and 90’s alt rock enthusiast. In her free time, she enjoys astral projecting, breaking the 4th wall, and drinking enough sangria to fight God. She is currently looking for a nice Jewish boy, applications open!