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The Meaning Behind “Last Kiss” by Wayne Cochran and Pearl Jam

The Meaning Behind “Last Kiss” by Wayne Cochran and Pearl Jam

“Last Kiss” was always a great song back when Wayne Cochran took a true, heartbreaking story and put it to music. But it was an unlikely cover by grunge rockers Pearl Jam that made the song internationally famous and gave the group one of their biggest hits.

The song still resonates with audiences, Pearl Jam occasionally still play it, and audiences are baffled by the story covered in the lyrics.

Today I am looking at the meaning of “Last Kiss” and at just what it meant for the careers of Wayne Cochran and Pearl Jam.

Wayne Cochran and Teen Tragedy Songs

No, “Last Kiss” is not an original Pearl Jam song. The band often plays covers live but rarely records them. “Last Kiss” was an exception, partly due to the immediate reaction it had with audiences.

“Last Kiss” was written by Wayne Cochran. In many ways, the story of how the song came to be is just as fascinating as the tale of its unlikely success.

Wayne Cochran is best remembered as an outlandish performer. He got his start in the 1960s, put a lot of elbow grease behind his career, and modeled himself after Elvis Presley and James Brown.

Modern internet audiences are very likely to know Cochran from his stage look. This included an over-the-top pompadour haircut and eye-catching attire.

How Wayne Cochran Wrote a Classic

However, Wayne Cochran also wanted to make it as a songwriter. The 1960s included a whole slew of songs centered on the morbid theme of teen tragedies. Songs like “Leader of the Pack,” “Tell Laura I Love Her,” and “Dead Man’s Curve” explored these darkly romantic stories.

Cochran decided he would write one himself. As chance had it, the singer lived near Route 1941. Car wrecks were frequent around these parts. Sadly, wreckless teenage drivers were often the victims.

wayne cohcran and elvis prsley. cochran wrote and originally sang "last kiss"

No, Wayne Cochran was not himself involved in such a crash, as is sometimes believed. His words of love and loss were convincing enough, however. He first released the song in 1961, recording it with his backup group the C.C. Riders. It failed to cause many chart ripples.

As luck would have it, a cover would turn it into a hit in 1964. That belonged to J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers. It reached #2 in the charts being kept off by the even more famous “Baby Love” by The Supremes.

This is the version that Eddie Vedder heard. Pearl Jam’s cover of the cover also reached #2 on the charts. It was kept off of the top spot by the equally famous “If You Had My Love” by Latin-pop star Jennifer Lopez.

The Meaning Behind “Last Kiss” by Wayne Cochran and Pearl Jam Single Cover

Pearl Jam Look to Escape From the Shadow of Grunge

Truth be told, Pearl Jam needed a break by the end of the century. They were one of the biggest bands of the 90s. Along with Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden, they’d helped put Seattle rock back on the map.

But they’d grown tired of people’s expectations of grunge bands. They didn’t even think of themselves as a grunge band anymore. Recent albums like “No Code” had pushed against that label as forcefully as the group could.

Besides all of this, they were tired of the success and tired of the ghosts that came along with it. Kurt Cobain, an early naysayer and hero to singer Eddie Vedder, had died in 1994. Layne Staley, singer of Alice in Chains, had disappeared into reclusion and would soon pass away.

Pearl Jam was now a stadium-filling band. They’d sold millions of albums. But they were done making labels happy, done making music videos, and done making another single like “Alive” or “Jeremy.”

Besides, they were the last surviving members of the chart-topping grunge bands. And they were done trying to be one.

The Meaning Behind “Last Kiss” by Pearl Jam

Eddie Vedder Pushes for Pearl to cover “Last Kiss”

By 1999, Eddie Vedder was physically and spiritually drained. He needed some relief. That would come from an unlikely source – an antique yardsale.

He bought the J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers version of “Last Kiss” before a show in a Seattle along with a few other pieces of vynil. “Last Kiss” made an immediate impression and Vedder kept playing and playing the record.

The singer brought the song to the band and they all learned it. Playing covers live wasn’t anything new. It kept them sharp and entertained.

And their fans, some of who had seen the band play hundreds of times, loved it. So, Pearl Jam recorded a version at a soundcheck in 1998 and stuck in on a single intended for their fan club. They’d been doing this since 1992.

“Last Kiss,” an Unintentional Hit

And then it happened. Without a music video, without being released as a proper single, “Last Kiss” as performed by Pearl Jam started being picked up by U.S. radio stations. By May of 1999 it had cracked the Hot 100 without any promotion behind it.

Eddie Vedder loved it. This was just he’d hope would happen for Pearl Jam. This was success on their own terms, global fame mixed with semi-anonimity.

Pearl Jam agreed to release “Last Kiss” as a proper single and give the proceeds to charity. Money generated from the single went to help Kosovo refugees.

By the Summer of 1999, there it was – the biggest single in Pearl Jam’s career! “Last Kiss” was #2 on the U.S. chart, just shy of the top spot because of the success of Jennifer Lopez.

But it didn’t matter. They’d done it their way. An emotional, macabre song written in the 1960s had struck a chord with audiences again. Pearl Jam’s name was in the limelight without the reluctant rockstars having to step into it themselves.

The Meaning Behind “Last Kiss” by Pearl Jam

The Legacy of “Last Kiss”

“Last Kiss” is a beloved classic. For a dark song about a terrible car crash, there’s plenty of love around it. Much of that is due to Wayne Cochran’s words and to the soulful performance of Eddie Vedder and of J. Frank Wilson.

While “Last Kiss” was released as a single because of public demand, Pearl Jam never took the overly commercial decision of sticking it on an album. It remains an anomaly in the Pearl Jam discography.

It is the song’s fifth most streamed song on Spotify behind “Ten” singles like “Evenflow,” “Alive” or the famous deep cut “Black.”

The song was a hit in the U.S.A. and outside of it. “Last Kiss” is charted in Australia, New Zealand, and part of Asia. It has been performed live by Pearl Jam more than 140 times, most recently on their 2024 “Dark Matter Tour.”

What is the secret to the enduring success of “Last Kiss”? Guitarist Stone Gossard, the songwriter for some of the band’s biggest songs, explains: “You can try album after album to write a hit and spend months getting drum sounds and rewriting lyrics, or you can go to a used record store and pick out a single and fall in love with it.

About author

Eduard Banulescu is a writer, blogger, and musician. As a content writer, Eduard has contributed to numerous websites and publications, including FootballCoin, Play2Earn, BeIN Crypto, Business2Community, NapoliSerieA, Extra Time Talk, Nitrogen Sports, Bavarian FootballWorks, etc. He has written a book about Nirvana, hosts a music podcasts, and writes weekly content about some of the best, new and old, alternative musicians. Eduard also runs and acts as editor-in-chief of the alternative rock music website www.alt77.com. Mr. Banulescu is also a musician, having played and recorded in various bands and as a solo artist.
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