Pearl Jam: Reluctant Hero

After years of putting Eddie Vedder down, Kurt Cobain’s final retribution was to pass him Grunge’s crown of thorns. But will he be able to carry the burden?

THE LAST TIME I saw Eddie Vedder. I shook his hand, wished him whatever luck I had at my disposal and, as he shuffled off into the damp night, hunched against the drizzle, I seriously wondered whether he’d be OK.

I’d first met him six months earlier, in 1992, when I’d travelled to Norway and Denmark with Pearl Jam as their debut single ‘Alive’ staged a surprise attack on the January charts. Vedder had struck me as one of the most wild-eyed, naive, recklessly romantic people I’d ever encountered. Over the course of a lengthy conversation in the back of the tour bus, Vedder had spoken honestly and movingly of his childhood, of his compassion for the tottering parade of bedraggled loners who populated his songs, how his cast of institutional victims, deserted lovers and latent killers were all him but for the grace of whomever. Here, it seemed to me, was a man who genuinely believed in people and in the healing, affirming power of music.

The months between that night and our next meeting, in a rain-lashed paddock near Bremerton, a dull little burg in Washington State, could hardly have been more dramatic. This time, Vedder was hunched on a plastic chair in an empty dressing-room trailer, talking of an amazing backlash against his band, a friend’s death from an overdose, the theft of his diaries from a Stockholm dressing room and a subsequent breakdown that he described as “a bit of a tailspin”. His hands gripped his temples as he peered intently at the floor between his feet.

The travelling carnival of Lollapalooza 1992 had played Bremerton’s Kitsap County Fairgrounds that evening and Pearl Jam had gone on, to a predictably riotous response, in between Lush and The Jesus And Mary Chain. I’d spoken to Eddie that morning, just to ask if he was having a good time. He’d said no, not really, and appeared to be on the verge of unleashing one of his customary octane rants when someone recognised me from the Scandinavian dates and hustled him away. “No interviews,” said an efficient-looking person with a walkie-talkie. He’s just saying hi, reasoned Eddie. No dice. No interview. Not in the mood for an argument, Eddie had shrugged, and said he’d talk to me later, when everyone had gone.

Hours later, when it was pushing midnight. I was looking despairingly around the emptying car park in the hope of a lift, when a familiar voice called out: “Hey, there you are. I’ve been waiting for ages. I thought you’d gone. We can talk now.”

This was not, in my experience, the behaviour of a cynical corporate careerist. But then neither is trying to make up for the cancellation of a free outdoor gig by driving to the site and apologising personally to as many of the assembled crowd as possible. Eddie did this in July 1992 when a projected homecoming concert was pulled by Seattle’s mayor and police department, who were panicking about such a vast gathering taking place only a week after the LA riots. Vedder also embarked on a kamikaze crusade against America’s all-powerful booking agency, Ticketmaster (Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard appeared before Congress’s Government Operations Information Sub-Committee to protest against Ticketmaster’s monopoly. Pearl Jam, determined to keep concert tickets below $20, will now have to organise their next US tour themselves).

The band still flout every marketing rule by releasing records on vinyl a week before other formats and tempted the wrath of American right-wing Christian fundamentalism by sending out a record sleeve, Vitalogy, bearing a petition protesting against the threatening, harassment and murder of doctors who perform abortions.

Despite all these incidents, Vedder and Pearl Jam have been labelled, by peers and commentators alike, as corporate careerists, fakers, shysters, charlatans – a cipher for what some perceive as a comprehensive corporate hijack of this decade’s alternative American rock scene. Chiefly responsible for this myth was, of course, Kurt Cobain, who began rivalling, then exceeding, the already staggering quantities his own records were shifting. Cobain’s view, for anyone who persisted with his petulant whining long enough to unearth something resembling a point, appeared to be that Pearl Jam were what he was rebelling against: they didn’t mean it, had no intention of walking it like they talked it and were, that word again, corporate. An extraordinary point of view for three reasons: first, Nirvana themselves were signed to Geffen with money made from Cher and Guns N’Roses. As far as anyone knows, they agreed to the contract without needing to be thrashed into submission and didn’t exactly make the Number One spot in Billboard by selling Nevermind out of the car boot after gigs. Second, two of Pearl Jam – bass player Ament and guitarist Gossard – had been, far from opportunistic arrivistes, members of Green River, the mid-80s band that also featured Mark Arm and Steve Turner (later to join Mudhoney), universally credited with inspiring the entire Seattle Sub Pop scene. Third, Pearl Jam’s genesis was such an extraordinary sequence of tragedy and fluke as to be utterly unplannable. After Green River split (revealingly, Arm accused Ament of being careerist), Ament and Gossard had formed Mother Love Bone, recorded a fine album and appeared poised to go supernova when their singer, irrepressible glam tart Andrew Wood, died of a heroin overdose. Gutted but still determined, Gossard and Ament began writing again. They played what they’d written to Jack Irons, then drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He played it to a guy he used to shoot baskets with in San Diego, a slightly weird surfer kid called Eddie who hung around sound-checks, humping gear for free – anything to get near the music and the people who made it. The world knows the rest.

Pearl Jam’s initial response to the Kurt-led backlash was to stick one slice of Cobain’s sulky invective on a T-shirt, along with a few of the choice slanders from the American press, and distribute it as a self-deprecating promotional item. When asked to respond further, they invariably declined, totally baffled by Cobain’s vitriol and reaffirming their admiration for, and debt to, Nirvana. The odd one-sided feud continued to rage after Cobain’s overdose in Rome, when Courtney Love reportedly demanded to know why it couldn’t have been Eddie instead. And still the battle rages: there have been rumours that the recently vacated Pearl Jam drum stool was to be taken up by Nirvana’s Dave Grohl and that Nirvana’s surviving two members were recording with Vedder; and an extraordinary war of words has been waged on the Internet by Courtney and Eddie (or, at least, by people claiming to be them).

Cobain’s ghastly suicide in April this year came as Pearl Jam were on the road in America, touring their second album Vs, which, having sold more than a million in its first week, was the fastest selling in history. The fact that Eddie was hardly top of Kurt’s Christmas-card list didn’t stop the news from Seattle pulling him inside out. As far as Eddie was concerned, he and Kurt had always been on the same side, suffered the same nauseous unease from the same dizzying success, were under the same contradictory pressure to be the messianic voice of an unrepresented, alternative-oriented demographic, while remaining faithful to punk rock, anti-hero ideals. Like Kurt, Eddie had been placed in the position of being asked to justify, explain and succour millions of people he didn’t know, things he wasn’t sure he could do for himself. And his first recorded reaction? “I honestly though it would be me first.”

Pearl Jam’s third – and best – album, Vitalogy, which the band began recording in the immediate aftermath of Cobain’s death is, as might be expected, heavily informed by his abrupt loss. The first words on the lyric sheet are a typewritten prelude to the song ‘Last Exit’: “Die on a hilltop/Eyeing the crows, waiting for your lids to close, but you want to watch as they peck your flesh… ironic that they go for the eyes first.” Later, the same song asks: “If one cannot control his life, will he be driven to control his death?”

Elsewhere, while there’s no mistaking the subtext to ‘Immortality’ (“Truants move on/Cannot stay long/Some die just to live”), Vitalogy seethes and rumbles with a feral fervour rarely found in major-league rock records. There’s also a looming air of desolation, a struggle to find resolve in the void. Eddie’s out there on his own now and he has the humanity to sound more than a little frightened by the prospect. Whether we, or he, likes it or not, he is now the face of America’s newly emerged underground and the face of all the questions and confusions that go with it. Nobody else is in a comparable position. Billy Corgan isn’t sufficiently charismatic; Chris Robinson is far too stoned; Michael Stipe is a little too clever to be sucked into it.

A lot of people are never going to believe Pearl Jam and it’s unfortunate that most of them will never meet Eddie – I know of no one who has and came away still doubting his sincerity. It’s even more regrettable that the same people didn’t see what I saw one winter’s afternoon in one tiny club in Oslo: Vedder on his knees in front of his band. One hand, covered in blood, was wrapped around his microphone, the torn nails of the other hand gouging into his foldback, his cheekbones coursing with sweat and tears as Pearl Jam tore off a ferocious version of ‘Once’. They were soundchecking. The only people watching were the sound engineer and me, and they didn’t know I was there.

If I see Eddie Vedder any time soon, I’ll shake his hand and again wish him any luck I’ve got going spare. Whatever you think of the music they make, only an idiot would argue that, at this potentially critical juncture, music doesn’t need Pearl Jam. Anyone whose blood is regulated by the maverick heartbeat of great rock’n’roll should be cheering them on.

© Andrew MuellerVox, January 1995

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