Eddie Vedder is pissed. Pearl Jam‘s angry young frontman beckons me upstairs at the Rotterdam, Holland, sports arena where his band has just begun its soundcheck for the first of two sold-out shows. Seeking refuge from the reverberant thud of Dave Abbruzzese’s cavernous kick-drum (if there’s a specific hell for rock musicians, it’s their drummer’s soundcheck), we find a faraway nook where, with the help of expressive hand gestures, it’s almost possible to carry on a conversation.
Vedder’s problem is with the size of the venue—it’s the biggest headlining gig the band’s ever played (somewhere around 10,000 capacity). “I just spent the best of what’s left of my voice screaming at people back in America about booking us here,” he begins, brow furrowed. “I mean, I may be shy about some things, but not when it comes to the music.” He flings his arm in the direction of the immense hall. “This place—how can you have a religious experience watching a band in a place this size? I can’t speak for the rest of the band, but I feel like someone has to stick up for the music.”
Eek. We talk for a while about the unarguable virtues of club gigs, and the rigors of touring, how different bands (Fugazi, R.E.M.) deal with bigger audiences, then Vedder decides it’s time to join his bandmates. Our conversation has only worked him up further, and as he makes his way to the stage he takes the cup of tea from which he’d been desultorily sipping (tea with lemon and/or honey is good for the vocal cords) and dashes it angrily to pieces on the concrete floor. It’s such an impotent rock move (I mean, a tea cup?) that I have to suppress an urge to laugh; but, as with everything Vedder does, it springs from deep reserves of unfeigned commitment to his ideals that come across despite the outwardly inappropriate gesture. Which, if you think about it hard enough. pretty much explains Pearl Jam.
The History of Rook, Episode 356: Pearl Jam’s two founding members, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament, were also in the seminal Northwest punk band Green River, along with eventual members of Mudhoney Mark Arm and Steve Turner. Gossard and Ament then formed Mother Love Bone with singer Andrew Wood, who died of a drug overdose shortly before the release of the band’s debut record, Apple, in 1989. Gossard, Ament, and guitarist Mike McCready then recruited San Diego surfer boy Eddie Vedder to sing for a new outfit, initially called Mookie Blaylock, and cut a tribute record to Wood with Vedder on co-lead vocals with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, under the name Temple of the Dog. Mookie Blaylock re-christened itself Pearl Jam, signed to Epic Records, recorded Ten, and released it in September of 1991. Since then, Ten has gone on to sell approximately a zillion trillion records worldwide, and has made bona fide rock stars of the members of Pearl Jam.
People with a great deal of free time on their hands (read: rock critics and lesser talents) sniped that Pearl Jam’s enormous popularity was due to Seattle-fueled hype, that it wasn’t a “real” alternative band, that it rode Nirvana’s coattails to fame and fortune. This is, of course, bullshit. Pearl Jam succeeded by appealing to the same metal audience that bought so many copies of Nevermind, and in doing so helped expand the notion of what “alternative” might mean, which only shows how much both bands owe to Lollapalooza, and to previous trailblazers such as Jane’s Addiction and Faith No More. Pearl Jam’s music is no more contrived or calculated than any of those bands, and if its resultant record sales have surpassed anything yet achieved by any band unfortunately pigeonholed as alternative, maybe it just has a better record company.
That said, there’s another element to Pearl Jam’s success: the band’s extraordinary connection with its audience, a result of the absolute lack of cynicism in its music and, especially, in its lead singer and de facto figurehead. Vedder is an extremely serious. extremely sincere young man, and. most importantly, his sincerity translates. His fans make an emotional connection with him that Kurt Cobain simply will not allow, and as much as it might at times make Vedder uncomfortable, it is a fundamental source of his power.
The same power has also made a near-icon of Vedder’s famously furrowed brow and collection of passionate grimaces. (By the way, he claims never to have seen “Plush,” the Stone Temple Pliots video where Welland cops most of his facial tics. “Although,” Vedder says, “all my friends have mentioned it to me.”) He copes with his newfound celebrity mostly by ignoring it, something that’s relatively easy to do in the friendly confines of Seattle. Vedder doesn’t have cable, so he doesn’t watch MTV. “I really should have said, ‘Uh, thanks, but you know, I don’t have MTV, so I don’t know what this means,'” he jokes about his acceptance “speech” at the last MTV Video Music Awards, and Vedder professes not to apprehend the true scope of his fame. “I don’t want to understand it,” he insists, “because as soon as I understand it, I get real upset about it, and either want to shoot myself, or go through the 30-day process and get my machine gun—’cause I’ll still be angry about it in 30 days—and then go in and take care of some of my problems.”
Vedder’s joking, sort of. He worries about overexposure because he doesn’t want his image, or any image, to overshadow the music, which to him is the be-all end-all. “I was talking to someone from Sub Pop at a party and they said to me, ‘Man, you’re fucking everywhere. I see your face everywhere,'” Vedder relates. “And I’m like, I haven’t given an interview in a year, every time someone tries to take my picture I put my head down, so how does that fucking work that I’m everywhere? I know what it’s like to go—and it has nothing even to do with the music—’If I see that guy’s face one more fucking time,’ or, you know, ‘I hate those fucking guys.’ And I don’t want it to be like that.”
The release of Vs., the follow-up to Ten, may hamper Vedder’s efforts to keep a low profile, even though the band plans to eschew most of the traditional marketing ploys except touring. (There’s even some discussion of not making a video, which would be a truly revolutionary move, albeit one fraught with political music-biz complications.) The new album is, in general, harder and faster than its predecessor, although such quiet surprises as “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” and “Daughter” augment and expand on the band’s previous musical vocabulary. The driving riff in “Rearview Mirror” and the near-dub intro to “Rats” are additional highlights. Then there’s “Blood,” Vedder’s bile-drenched anti-media screed.
“I have a problem with the good things people write about us,” explains Vedder. “I have a problem with everything. I don’t know, there are so many people out there talking about music that don’t listen to music. They know it all, they know everything about music. Why? Because they read about it. They aren’t listening. So that’s what upsets me. It’s all just talk, it’s all just words.
“I never in my wildest dreams … believe me, when you sit in your room and play guitar, that’s just not what you’re thinking about, at least it wasn’t what I was thinking about. Music is a powerful art form. It’s incredibly powerful. It’s multimedia in a way: You’ve got words and music and volume; I mean, not just the way the chords move that can uplift you, but you have volume, you can turn this thing loud. Live, it can be so loud it shakes your chest. It’s a very powerful medium, and it can be very emotional, and I am really into it for that.”
It’s kind of ironic that one of the most emotionally powerful songs on the record is also one of the quietest: “Small Town.”
“It’s kind of about a lady, and she’s getting on in years, and she’s stuck in this small town,” Vedder explains. “Small towns fascinate me: You either struggle like hell to get out, or some people want to stay, ’cause then they’re the big fish in the small pond, and then others just kind of get stuck there. So here she is working in this little place, and then an old flame comes in, and he’s probably driving a nice car and looking kind of sharp—not a fancy car, but he’s moved on. And then she sees him, and at first she doesn’t even remember who he is, and then she realizes who it is. She’s just too embarrassed to say hello.”
Was this scenario derived from a specific actual event? Or did you just make it up?
“That’s one of those pocket memories, just one of those memories that I have and think about all the time,” says Vedder. “It was interesting because I had a little room that used to be a sauna where we were recording, kind of off the main building where the studio was and where everyone was staying. There was a little shack off to the side, that’s what I stayed in; it used to be a sauna so you can imagine the size. And I brought a little pink Shure Vocal Master PA. So I had that down there and a four-track where I could do work at night—I’d stay up all night and kind of finalize ideas or whatever. So anyway, Stone heard me warming up with the guitar and the Vocal Master one morning, and he came down and says, ‘That was a fucking really cool song,’ and it wasn’t a song, it was just me kind of warming up, and making up some of those words. But anyway, I had taped it so I just played back the tape and typed it out, and changed some of the words and wrote the chords above it. Then I went up and recorded it on acoustic guitar.”
Another of Vs.‘s finer automatic-for-the-people moments is the anti-parent anthem “Leash,” which Vedder says was written about “the same girl, Heather, that ‘Why Go Home’ [from Ten] was about. She was stuck in a home because she was, like, caught smoking pot or something. This is what they do in Chicago in the suburbs. That’s another thing I should have said at the MTV Awards, I should have just went up and said, ‘You know, as long as I’ve got everyone’s fucking attention, will you guys start fucking listening to your kids. Will you just please open up your ears and eyes and quit paying so much attention to yourselves, and just spend a little time with your kids, trust them, open yourself up to what they’re going through these days?’
“Instead of doing that, they put ’em in a little hospital, which is a big insurance scam anyway, It tho kid has any resilience at all, they’ll go, ‘Fuck you, there’s nothing wrong with me. My parents are fucking freaks. My mom’s a fucking paranoid freak, she gets home from work and sits and watches TV, gets all this information about teenagers from Hard Copy and then takes it out on me. I’m a pretty good fucking kid.’ This girl Heather was in for two years, two fucking years, and she was one of the smartest kids I knew. Now, Heather finally gets out, but the mom’s still doing the same fucking thing, and threatening her with putting her back in the hospital. I mean, this girl was 15, 16 years old, she couldn’t be on the phone after 8:00 at night. She couldn’t do this, she couldn’t go out, she couldn’t spend the night at anyone’s house, she couldn’t do anything. It was after talking to her again one day that I wrote the song in the car. ‘Drop the leash,’ you know? ‘Get out of my fucking face.'”
Later that night in Rotterdam, despite Vedder’s misgivings, or maybe because of them, Pearl Jam plays ferociously, spitting out big greasy chunks of new material, as well as gristly versions of most of Ten—”Even Flow,” in particular, sounds completely revivified. Pearl Jam live is typically such an intense experience that even nonbelievers walk away with a newfound respect for the raw emotional energy the group conjures. Tonight is top-form stuff, and Vedder makes up for the increased performer-audience distance (“Nice club you got here,” he quips after the first song) by turning up the house lights; all the tall, blond Dutch kids with really good skin go fucking mental.
After the show, Vedder ushers me into a quiet room apart from the main dressing room, and we chat briefly about playing with Neil Young and U2 before he’s called away by Eric, the tour manager, for the presentation of the band’s umpteenth platinum record award, this time from the Dutch record company. “You must have a ton of those,” I muse out loud.
“Not really,” replies Vedder. “The first one I smashed in a fit of rage, you know. This is the source of all my problems!” He self-mockingly mimes the act of destruction. “I told L7 that story once, and they said, ‘Oh, that’s too bad, you could at least have used it as a serving tray or something.'”
Left to my own devices, I spy an unopened bottle of red wine in the corner of the room. Vedder’s taken to carrying a bottle onstage with him most shows. sharing it with the front row (“You should see the look on my allergy doctor’s face when I tell him that,” he says. “‘Yeah, I pass a bottle around with 20 or so strangers every night. Is that bad?'”), so I figure he won’t mind sharing with me. Wandering through the halls, I pass the band’s dressing room, where Stone Gossard tries to get me to dance to some Prince record or other. The band seems particularly upbeat tonight, jazzed by the show and by Vedder’s apparent good spirits; I’ve noticed that the overall backstage barometer is loosely tied to Vedder’s emotional state. When he’s in a bad mood, which on tour is apparently often, people tend to act more subdued, even when he’s locked away in his tiny dressing room, unapproachable.
Tonight, though, all is well. I’m slumped on the floor talking to a friend when Vedder comes by holding a serving tray laden with potato chips and beer. Upon inspection the tray proves—you guessed it—to be the platinum award Pearl Jam received earlier that night. “They don’t even give you a record anymore,” he jokes, “just this little CD.”
Eventually, everyone troops downstairs to load onto the bus heading back to the hotel. There’s a gaggle of Dutch kids crowding the ten-foot passageway from the stage door to the bus, and when they see the band, near-pandemonium ensues. Vedder’s taken to wearing an assortment of rubber monster masks lately, mostly to ward off photographers and overeager “fans,” and as he boards the bus, he slips on what looks like a lesser demon over his cherubic features, much to the dismay of the kids. “Eddie, please, take off the mask!” they entreat. “Don’t do this to us!” As if it’s a poisoned arrow aimed at the swollen heart of their devotion. “This is getting weird,” he mutters darkly as the bus pulls out. Kids are climbing the sides of the bus, clinging desperate ly, and band photographer Lance Mercer runs around popping flash bulbs in their faces to get them to let go.
An unannounced show in Amsterdam, at the (relatively) tiny Paradiso, is the last on the tour, which is a good thing: Eddie Vedder is sick. His voice has more or less evaporated, and he’s got a bad cold; he probably shouldn’t stay up till all hours drinking wine with journalists, but hell, too late now. I sit in my hotel room before the show watching European MTV, which must be where all the bad bands go to be punished. Last night’s Rotterdam gig (the second one) was okay, but you could see Vedder running out of steam towards the end, and afterward he hid in his little dressing room working on music. This morning we all took the bus to Amsterdam and Vedder buried his head in Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and I tried to take some pictures of windmills but the trees kept getting in the way.
Later, at the packed club, the show starts off shakily (“I’m gonna need your help tonight,” announces Vedder to the crowd before the first song) and kind of goes downhill from there. Watching Vedder try to wrench the last weak rasp from his wrecked throat is excruciating, and arouses in me maternal instincts of which I had been previously unaware. Snot pours freely down his face as he sings, and at the end of each song he staggers back to the box of Kleenex sitting on the drum riser and wipes it off. Ament and McCready valiantly try to make up in kinetic antics what Vedder lacks in energy, but for better or worse, as goes Vedder, so goes Pearl Jam. After four songs, Vedder gives up, slams the microphone down in self-disgust, and walks offstage. The rest of the band continues to jam halfheartedly, then slinks off, Gossard making promises to the disgruntled kids that he’ll try to talk Vedder into coming back. Sensing a possible riot, and being by nature a coward, I leave quickly and wander the streets aimlessly for an hour or so, thoroughly depressed by the experience. I find out later that Vedder did come back, and the show was “great,” and then there was a “great” party that I missed, too, but somehow I prefer my ending to the slightly spurious reality.
A couple of weeks after the European tour, I pay a visit to Seattle during a rare period of sunny, mild weather. Vedder’s wandering around the Pearl Jam rehearsal space (“Except we never rehearse anymore,” he jokes), located in the basement of a former art gallery in downtown Seattle. The basement is the first place Vedder came when he flew into Seattle from San Diego, after getting the call to sing for Mookie Blaylock. He lived there, too, in a tiny alcove off the rehearsal space, pissing in Gatorade bottles, wandering around late at night in the gallery upstairs. In one corner of the spacious room, draped with colored banners and huge crayon portraits of rock icons, are stacked the yard-high letters that were used to spell out “Pearl Jam” on the cover of Ten. “I hated that cover,” says Vedder. “Jeff works a lot on the artwork, and he’s really into color. I’m sort of color-blind, so I kind of resent color. I’m joking,” he adds. “But really, the music I listen to and like the most is black-and-white.” I ask him what he means exactly.
“I don’t know,” he replies. “Just really stark, emotional, direct stuff. Simple.”
I ask Vedder if he thinks Vs. is a success by his own definition.
“Yeah, I just started listening to it again. But it’s weird. I was talking to Chris Cornell the other day, and he says you can’t listen to your own music stoned. Which I thought, that’s always the goal, ’cause you get high and listen to other people’s music, you did since you were little, so it would be the greatest thing to just fucking suck down a little herb and listen to music that you helped create. But you can’t do it, because somehow you just get overcritical. I can listen to music that Chris created, and I’m sure that he can listen to ours, but it’s weird that you can’t listen to your own. That’s kind of messed up.”
Somehow the rehearsal space has vanished and we’re now in a near-deserted pool hall, where Vedder is thoroughly kicking my sorry ass. He’s talking about one in his litany of favorite villains, MTV, insisting that it’s extremely difficult for him to work himself up to do a video, which to Vedder has nothing to do with music.
“I just don’t put any weight into those things at all. I have a hard time caring about it, and being nominated [for a Video Music Award, of which “Jeremy” recently snagged a fistful] is such a weird thing. I have a hard time handling it, and I don’t think I handle it very well. ‘Cause I just don’t know how, and I’m honest about it. I’m just like, ‘I don’t know, whatever, you know, thanks.’ But the thing is, when other bands are nominated, I’m rooting for them. It’s really weird. I don’t understand it when it’s our band, but when, like, Nirvana’s up I’m like, ‘Come on, Nirvana.’ Maybe I’ll figure out how to deal with it someday. Hopefully I won’t have to.”
“Hopefully,” I ask, “in the sense that you don’t want to do any more videos.”
“Well, you never know. I was thinking, like, Beth [his longtime girlfriend] and I shoot a lot of stuff on Super-8, cool stuff, maybe we’ll release a small tour video or something on 8mm, sell it for real cheap, and then MTV can play it like a couple times and people can tape it at home.”
Somehow the pool hall turns back into Vedder’s car (actually Beth’s; his is broken), and he’s driving me to the hotel to rest up before tonight’s Urge Overkill show at a local club (the band was soon thereafter tapped to open Pearl Jam’s U.S. tour). Vedder’s life in Seattle seems unaffected; the guy can obviously afford a car that works, but he eschews ostentation like the plague he imagines it to be. We browse through a local furniture shop where Vedder admires some heavy marble pieces before he balks at the prices. “You should just wait till a church burns down, or burn one down yourself,” Vedder jokes. His main source of stability is his nine-year relationship with Beth, whom he met while they were both waitroning at adjacent Chicago restaurants. Being the only member of Pearl Jam with a serious relationship makes touring especially lonely for Vedder, particularly when coupled with his naturally reclusive tendencies.
Plus, he genuinely likes living in Seattle. “There’s some amazing shit around here that I think is going to take me a lifetime—especially since we’re gone so much—to soak up and get bored with,” Vedder explains. He enjoys the simple pleasure of hanging out with his friends, too, though he uses the breakdown of his car to point out a distressing pattern he’s detected in his life. “I always tell people, ‘You don’t want to be my friend, ’cause I’m the sort of person that things just happen to,'” he says. “‘If we take a trip in the car, we’ll end up stranded in the middle of nowhere or something.’ When Beth and I first moved to Seattle, we went up to the Space Needle, and she didn’t know the restaurant at the top revolved, so she thought it was an earthquake. And I said, ‘See, I told you you didn’t want to be my friend.'” His bandmates would doubtless agree that when you hang out with Eddie Vedder, things happen.