Near the end of Pearl Jam’s sessions for their 1994 LP Vitalogy, Eddie Vedder picked up a cheap thrift store accordion and began singing a bizarre, Tom Waits-like dirge about insects. “I got bugs in my room,” he howled. “Bugs in my bed/ Bugs in my ears/ Their eggs in my head.” Many interpreted it as him venting about the relentless fans and pressures that were circling around him in the wake of Pearl Jam’s huge success, but he claimed it was simply was about a bad case of poison oak he’d come down with. “I was itching out of my skin,” he told Spin. “The song really is about bugs.”
For most people that bought the album, it was the song they played once and then forever skipped past so they could go right to “Satan’s Bed” and “Better Man.” But for the hardcore, it became somewhat of a perverse favorite, the most un-commercial thing they’d ever done. (Fellow Vitalogy tracks “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me” and “Pry, to” are also in the running for that title.) In the 14 years after Vitalogy came out, the group delighted in dragging out super obscure B side at their concerts, but even then, “Bugs” remained untouched.
That finally changed during Pearl Jam’s four-night run at Philadelphia’s Spectrum in October of 2009, shortly before a demolition crew pulled in to to knock the old arena to the ground. The run ended on Halloween with an incredible 42-song set that lasted nearly four hours. It featured super rarities like “Pilate” and “Out of My Mind” along with a cover of Devo’s “Whip It” performed in the group’s trademark yellow hazmat outfits. But the most shocking moment came during the first encore section when Vedder was handed an accordion and began playing the opening notes of “Bugs.”
A string section was there to flesh out the tune, but accordions are notoriously hard to mic and Vedder nearly gave up after singing just a few lines. “I wanted to do that one so badly,” he said. “It’s too nice of an accordion to smash, but I’m just about to do it. Philadelphia, I’ll tell you what. We just won’t play it. The first time we play it, we’ll play it here. I thought it was going to happen tonight on Halloween. I thought it was going to happen!”
The hardcore Pearl Jam fans in the crowd were not about to accept that. They’d waited 14 years for a live “Bugs.” Their desperate pleas filling the arena convinced Vedder to give it another try. “It might take me a minute,” he said. “Should we try one more time?” A technician came out to set the fiddle with the mic and the song kicked in again. A hesitant Vedder instructed the string players to just keep playing no matter what happened, but “Bugs” went off without a hitch.
The group only played it two more times (in Amsterdam in 2012 and Chicago’s Wrigley Field the following year). Should they ever get around to playing Vitalogy live straight through, they’ll need to break out the accordion one more time. But that would involve a live “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me,” and pulling that off would make “Bugs” seem simple.