For a band forged by survivors, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Pearl Jam will be marking its 11th album, Gigaton, this month, and its 30th birthday this fall. But in a world where the median age for any group is just a few years, Pearl Jam’s ability to thrive so long has come down to some fateful situations through the years.
The Birth of ’No’
Beginning in 1993, Pearl Jam was well-known for largely eschewing traditional promotion, particularly the music videos that drove the industry at the time. The band’s self-preservation mode as the tornado of fame became difficult was the ability to say ‘No’ to anything that didn’t feel right, but it hadn’t always been that way. Pearl Jam made several videos for their 1991 debut Ten, including “Alive, “Oceans,” and two versions each of “Even Flow” and “Jeremy.”
They spent most of 1992 on the road with few days off. The breaking point came at the disastrous MTV Singles premiere party that September when the group grudgingly agreed to play on one of those precious days off. Long story short, the burned-out band got drunk to face the gig and frontman Eddie Vedder wound up shouting “Fuck MTV” repeatedly. In the 2011 Cameron Crowe documentary Pearl Jam Twenty, the band called this moment “the birth of no.” And the band has been able to keep an even keel by only doing things that felt right ever since.
Jack Irons Steps In
By the time 1994 hit, the band was dealing with a lot of issues. That year, Pearl Jam had to face Kurt Cobain’s death, battle Ticketmaster, cancel a tour and grapple with fame in ugly ways that included Vedder being stalked. Chemistry with drummer Dave Abbruzzese, who’d been in the band since right before Ten was released, was not great and the band fired him that summer. It was a time when it would have been easy to just call it quits. Instead, they summoned ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons. Years before, he’d been the acquaintance who’d given Vedder a demo from a group of musicians from Seattle and got him invited to sing for what became Pearl Jam. He was immediately a grounding force that allowed the band to concentrate on music again. “Everybody had a strong sense of friendship with him immediately,” guitarist Stone Gossard said of Irons in 2001. “He was just there to play drums and help out.” Irons left the band in 1998 but he proved to be the stabilizing force that they needed during this critical period.
Under Neil Young’s Wing
Bruce Springsteen. The Who. The Ramones. Tom Petty. Crowded House’s Neil Finn. A long line of iconic rockers with long careers have been fatherly and older brotherly teachers, examples, and supporters of Pearl Jam through the years. None more so than Neil Young, who the band has often called Uncle Neil. After meeting Young at the 1992 Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary concert in New York, Young has helped them keep their heads on straight through all manner of turmoil and triumph — even recording an album with them in early 1995 at the height of their fame. When Vedder got food poisoning during PJ’s ill-fated 1995, non-Ticketmaster tour, Young subbed in at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park so the show of 50,000 fans wouldn’t be canceled.” After that show, Neil said you know what, if it doesn’t feel right, go home,” the band’s manager Kelly Curtis told SPIN in 2001. In addition to the Mirrorball album, Neil Jam hit the road in Europe that summer. “That came at a time when we needed it,” Gossard told SPIN.