By the time Pearl Jam had released their third single and video from their debut album, TEN, in late 1992, they were already on the cusp of super stardom, following in line with a long list of Seattle-based bands that the media and record labels were hoping would be “the next Nirvana.” They’d already successfully made two well-received live music videos for their previous singles “Alive” and “Evenflow.” But “Jeremy” marked the first (and only) time they delved into narrative storytelling to enhance their music visually. It was a long & turbulent road to make the “Jeremy” music video a reality, but when the dust settled, the video clip ended up winning 4 MTV Video Music Awards, opened up the floor to serious discussions about the troubles of our youth and simultaneously catapulted the band into the stratosphere of rock fame.
In the summer of 1991, frontman and lead singer Eddie Vedder struck up a friendship with photographer Chris Cuffaro and invited him to direct their next music video based upon whichever song he wanted off of TEN. Cuffaro chose “Jeremy,” but Epic Records was against both the song as the next single and Cuffaro as the helmer. Hence, Cuffaro raised the money himself and shot the original video version of “Jeremy” in a warehouse in Los Angeles in October of 1991. The clip featured the band performing the song on a circular moving platform, cut with quick sections of Jeremy, played by Eric Schubert, being pensive in his room.
The video was rejected by Epic, but they had a change of heart regarding “Jeremy” being the 3rd single & suggested another attempt with Mark Pellington at the helm. Vedder hopped on the phone and had a conversation with the up-and-coming director, and immediately, the two were on the same page about the vision for the short. The Pellington version would primarily focus on Vedder singing the main parts from the song, while cutting to a narrative story featuring the inner turmoil of teenager Jeremy, played by Trevor Wilson. Ignored by his parents, and shunned by his teachers & classmates, Jeremy lives in his own world, until that burden becomes too much. At the close of the video, Jeremy enters his classroom, throws an apple at his teacher, puts a revolver into his mouth and takes his own life in front of his peers. The powerful story from Vedder’s lyrics became fully realized in a commercial pop music video that was intended to air to the masses on MTV.
Although the music video was cut by Bruce Ashley, a veteran in the professional editing world, the biggest challenge came in properly articulating the ending. Due to MTV’s strict restrictions and personal issues with a gun physically being seen on screen, the conclusion of the short as it aired on the network has become confusing. It’s something that has frustrated the director and editor ever since its release. Closing on a shot of fellow students covered in blood, people assumed that Jeremy had raised his gun and killed his fellow students, when in actuality, they filmed the young boy putting the gun into his mouth; a shot which had to be zoomed in on to meet airing regulations. The intention is that his blood is literally on their hands. (The original uncensored director’s cut is above.)
Regardless of people’s interpretations of the video, the lyrics themselves are clear, and the message, potent. “Jeremy spoke in class today.” The one time everyone finally listened. “Try to forget this. Try to erase this. From the blackboard.” His last act of desperation, forever embedded into the psyche of these kids. And the saddest revelation was that the story of Jeremy was in fact based on a real teenager that Vedder had read about in the newspaper.
Jeremy Wade Delle was a shy 15-year-old sophomore at Richardson High School in Richardson, Texas; just outside of Dallas. His parents, Joseph R. Delle and Wanda Crane were divorced. Jeremy lived with his father and was described by his fellow classmates as “real quiet,” yet funny. Classmate Sean Forrester told The Dallas Morning News, “He never looked like he had anything wrong with him. He always made a joke over everything.” He also frequently passed notes with Lisa Moore, whom he’d often see in detention. “He signed all of his notes, ‘Write back.’ But on Monday he wrote, ‘Later days.’ I didn’t know what to make of it,” she said. “But I never thought this would happen.”
On the morning of January 8th, 1991, Jeremy Wade Delle walked into his classroom late. His teacher insisted he go get a tardy slip. He returned at 9:45am, said aloud, “Miss, I got what I really went for,” put a .357-calibur Magnum into his mouth, and killed himself in front of his class. The stunned students and teacher didn’t have any time to react. He died instantly.
What really happened to Jeremy to drive him to suicide? Was it incessant bullying from his classmates? A broken home? Or depression? Although unconfirmed, it’s said that Jeremy wrote several hand-written suicide notes to close friends, along with recording an audio cassette outlining his plan, but none have ever been made publicly available, nor do any give much insight into why he did it. His suicide was no doubt intended to traumatize his classmates, some of whom may have been the bullies. Sheryl Pender, a counselor with Willow Park Hospital in Plano told The Dallas Morning News that the witnesses will likely never get over this ordeal. “They are going to go through a ton of sadness, anxiety and fear.”
What’s more shocking than Jeremy’s death is that this wasn’t an isolated incident or the first time this had happened there. The history of suicides in Richardson is a strange one. Prior to Delle’s 1991 suicide, three Richardson students took their lives during the first half of 1988. In 1985, a 17-year-old Arlington student had shot himself in front of his drama class. Eight youths killed themselves in Plano between 1983 and 1984. In 1982, the year prior, 28 suicides were reported.
With “Jeremy,” Pearl Jam had tapped into something in the public subconscious and brought to the surface issues that no one wanted to talk about. Bullying. Depression. Suicide. Gun Violence. “Nobody was talking about kids and guns then,” Pellington told Smashbox Studios in a recent interview. “This was seven years before Columbine.” I think what “Jeremy,” both the song and video, show is that anyone could easily become Jeremy.
The middle section of the song is actually inspired by another teen that Vedder knew in junior high school. In a 1991 interview, Vedder talked a bit about a kid named Brian he knew in San Diego and would often get into fights with in the halls. Brian brought a gun to school one day and shot up the oceanography room, thankfully not hurting himself or anyone else. “A lot of people interpret it different ways and it’s just been recently that I’ve been talking about the true meaning behind it,” Vedder said in this vintage interview. “I hope no one’s offended and believe me, I think of Jeremy when I sing it.”
Because of the massive success of the video, which helped push Pearl Jam to the top of the billboard charts, the band slowly began withdrawing from their public persona. They decided to stop making music videos for MTV to promote their albums (with the one exception of the 1998 animated video for “Do The Evolution“), and picked battles with corporate giants like Ticketmaster over monopolizing the monetization of the concert going experience. For a few years there, they even tried to omit “Jeremy” from their set list or play alternate versions of it live. As a fan, I initially felt a bit of disappointment that they ran from the attention that video & song garnered as opposed to embracing it. If anything, it showed the power that a piece of art can have on the general public, and it opened up discussions that otherwise wouldn’t have been brought up.
Then again, maybe there was more to it than not wanting to play their “big hit” anymore? There comes a certain responsibility with putting out any art into the world, and perhaps “Jeremy” was too much, too soon for the band. In my research for this article, I stumbled upon this letter drafted by Jeremy Delle’s father that made me take pause and look at both the song & story slightly differently.
For director Mark Pellington and editor Bruce Ashley, they’ve maintained their working relationship and continued to collaborate on things that raise awareness, like this Coalition To Stop Gun Violence public service announcement video.
Nearly 25 years later, “Jeremy” is still just as powerful a song & video as the day it was released, and if anything, should continue to elicit & inspire conversations. September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. If you or anyone you know is suffering from depression, there is always help and there is always someone to talk to. There are several great organizations linked below, or you can chat anonymously with someone at this link.