From The Archives: Eddie Vedder – Who Are You?
How Pearl Jam’s singer reinvented himself as the voice of an alienated generation
Written by John Colapinto with Eric Boehlert and Matt Hendrickson
Welcome to the R.E.M. album-release party,” Eddie Vedder deadpans from the stage of Seattle’s Showbox theater ”“ “and the Pearl JamÂ reunion tour.”
It’s Sept. 14, 1996, and Pearl Jam are preparing to launch the world tour for their new album, No Code. This warm-up club gig should be Vedder’s ideal venue. Having long professed disdain for his arena-rock superstardom, he faces a crowd of just 800 or so locals in his adoptive hometown ”“ an audience from which journalists, low-level PR flacks, photographers and other industry hangers-on have been barred. It’s a hand-picked crowd of the faithful who have waited a long time for this moment. Apart from scattered dates on their abortive 1995 tour, Pearl Jam have not sustained a tour in more than two years. The scene is set, then, for a legendary show ”“ the band’s triumphant return.
You’d never guess it from Vedder’s scowl. “Have you heard the new album?” he asks in his husky baritone. The applause is scattered. “Well,” Vedder mumbles, “you’re about to hear it again.” With that, Pearl Jam edge into “Sometimes,” the fragile ballad that opens No Code. “Seek my part,” Vedder sings, pushing out the lyrics in a pained rasp. “Devote myself/My small self/Like a book amongst the many on a shelf.”
The muted start seems to confuse the audience of mosh-minded twentysomethings, who are pumped for some of Vedder’s girder-climbing theatrics. The fans are out of luck. Even when the band members kick into “Hail, Hail” ”“ the closest song to a classic Pearl Jam arena anthem on No Code ”“ they seem determined to thwart the song’s urgent, driving momentum. Bassist Jeff Ament, famous for his flying leaps, stands rooted to his spot on the stage. Lead guitarist Mike McCready tries a few flailing guitar-hero moves, but when his band mates fail to respond, he, too, sinks into a sullen torpor. Stone Gossard, who hasn’t bothered to remove his glasses for this gig, works away at his guitar with all the passion of a man digging a ditch. And drummer Jack Irons keeps a steady, if downbeat, pace.
Then there’s Vedder himself. Planted at the mike, he delivers the songs with a throwaway offhandedness that borders on contempt. “This is the part of the show we call the human jukebox,” he announces before Pearl Jam dip into the sure-fire crowd pleasers from Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy. The versions of “Even Flow,” “Alive” and “Whipping” sound like the leaden workings of a cover band. And Vedder seems to know it. “Well,” he says, before quitting the stage, “this was almost worth leaving the house for.”
Lately, it seems, Eddie Vedder is searching harder and harder for reasons to leave the house. While the four other members of Pearl Jam are regularly spotted in Seattle’s nightclubs and restaurants, Vedder sightings are few and far between. And not just on the streets of Seattle. Shunning interviews, refusing to make videos and playing truncated tours because of his unwinnable war with Ticketmaster, he now keeps a low profile in the city, living in his large house in West Seattle, in an enclave of upper-middle-class homes on a tree-lined slope that overlooks Puget Sound. The house is patrolled by two bodyguards who check out even the Domino’s Pizza boy who delivers Vedder’s weekly small pepperoni and sausage pie. Fearful of reported death threats, hounded by fans who have gleaned his other address (in the city’s Capitol Hill district), the singer has surrounded himself with a handful of fellow rock celebrities who are unwilling to speak of him to journalists, even off the record. On the rare occasions when Vedder does talk to reporters, he uses the opportunity merely to bemoan, endlessly, the burdens of his fame and success.
Publicly, Pearl Jam have always described themselves as a democracy where all five members form a consensus on decision making. But sources close to the band say that Vedder is the group’s unquestioned leader and that while artistically, all five band mates contribute, the singer sets the agenda for the band’s extracurricular, anti-rock-industry crusades. “Other members of the band look to him to make decisions,” confirms a confidential source at the band’s label, Epic. “Everybody gets input, but Eddie leads the way.” Another source states the case still more strongly, calling Vedder a “control freak” around whom Pearl Jam personnel “walk on eggshells.” It’s an intraband dynamic that has resulted not only from Vedder’s special status as one of rock’s most charismatic figures but also because of the temperament of his fellow band mates.
Unpretentious journeymen musicians grateful for their success after years of laboring in pre-Pearl Jam obscurity, Vedder’s band mates are affable types who are unlikely to rock the boat with their volatile singer. Jeff Ament, a barber’s son raised in small-town Montana, still lives in the same apartment in Seattle where he lived before the band’s breakthrough. Stone Gossard, a Seattle native and son of a local lawyer, has co-founded a small record label, Loosegroove, which his sister Shelly helps run. Mike McCready, a local boy who began playing in bands in junior high school, has come the closest to falling prey to the occupational hazards of rock stardom: He did a stint at a Minneapolis clinic for booze problems, in 1994, but is by all accounts now clean and sober. He’s also part owner of a popular Seattle pool hall, the Garage. New drummer Jack Irons is an old ally of Vedder’s, the man responsible for hooking the singer up with Pearl Jam in the first place, and is thus unlikely to challenge the singer’s authority over the band.
Vedder’s authority was clear to all in 1994, when drummer Dave Abbruzzese was abruptly fired from the band. “Dave was too much the rock star,” says a source close to the band. “He was giving cover-story interviews to drumming magazines. He was happy, he was achieving his dream. That bugged the fuck out of Eddie. I witnessed Eddie drawing mustaches on Dave’s face on the cover of Modern Drummer.” Some sources say that Abbruzzese’s ouster sent a message to the other band members. “I think that once again, it goes back to Eddie and his very volatile personality,” says the source. “I think all the band members would feel like they’re on the way out, too.” Asked how seriously they take such a threat, this source says, “Put it this way: Stone has his own label; Mike’s working on another record; Jeff has his band Three Fish.”
From his earliest days in Pearl Jam, Vedder claimed that his goal was to be a different kind of rock star. He would resist the temptations of power, wealth and ego. The emphasis, he said, must be on the music ”“ a sentiment entirely in keeping with Seattle’s punk-inspired, anti-commercial ethos.
Vedder seemed to be a ready-made poster boy for the disaffected grunge generation: a disgruntled rebel whose agonized lyrics and raw-throated, rageful singing sprang from an unhappy childhood and an alienated and lonely adolescence. In a wide-ranging series of interviews that he granted toRolling Stone, in 1993, he shaped his myth as a reluctant star ”“ a high-school dropout turned surf-slacker whose ascent from humble beginnings occurred almost despite himself. This, too, fit perfectly with the grunge doctrine, which rejected the careerism and grasping ambition of the pandering 1980s hair-metal bands.
But according to those who knew Vedder before his fame, the singer’s rise was hardly the result of happenstance. “He knows what this whole biz is all about,” says a friend from Vedder’s days before he joined Pearl Jam. “He’s not some kind of little, lost soul who writes great songs.” By many accounts, Vedder’s rise was a concerted effort that was propelled by his flair for self-invention and self-dramatization, his relentless drive to be heard and a steely determination to control his public image. “He is a master manipulator of the people and situations around him,” says a source at Epic. “And he’s a master manipulator of his own image.”
It’s an image ”“ and identity ”“ that is often obscured by the vagaries of Vedder’s parentage. He was born Edward Louis Severson III, in 1964, in Evanston, Ill., the son of a musician father who divorced his wife before Vedder was 2 years old. Raised believing that his stepfather was his natural father and that his mother’s three other sons by her new husband were his full brothers, Vedder was, for about the first two decades of his life, known as Eddie Mueller.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times eight days after Kurt Cobain’s suicide was discovered, Vedder talked about his own depressive nature, describing how as a teenager, thoughts of suicide visited him “as often as mealtime. . . . I was all alone ”“ except for music.” Declining even to name his high school or to discuss his fellow students, he said, “They didn’t treat me well.”
But classmates from San Dieguito High School, which Vedder attended after his family’s migration to San Diego in the mid-’70s, paint a picture that stands in stark contrast to the singer’s recollections.
“He was very popular,” recalls Annette Szymanski-Gomez, a friend who was a grade ahead of Vedder. “He was outgoing. He’d go out of his way to be nice to everyone.” Another schoolmate concurs: “He was so nice to everyone and took the time to chat. That’s why I don’t understand this stuff about him being miserable. He didn’t seem miserable to me! He was also doggone cute.” “All the girls had a major crush on him,” says another friend who fondly recalls engaging in wholesome teenage fun with “Little Eddie Mueller,” as he’d been affectionately dubbed because of his diminutive stature. “We’d play football, climb around in this abandoned building. I remember going to his house and hearing him play guitar with his best friend.”
The Muellers lived in a solid middle-class neighborhood in the San Diego suburb of Encinitas, Calif. “It was a nice house,” says one friend. “It had two floors. They had a piano. It was not at all a deprived childhood. I remember that there was a darling picture of Eddie as a kid. He was about 3 years old. His mother said he’d been in some TV commercial.”
This early brush with show business was only the beginning of Eddie Mueller’s youthful training as an actor. Though he was known to be musical, Mueller’s primary identity at San Dieguito High was as the school’s star thespian. He got his start as a high-school actor in the chorus of Little Mary Sunshine. He soon graduated to leading roles and appeared in Bye Bye Birdie, Butterflies Are Free, Outward Bound, and The World of Carl Sandburg. In his final year, Mueller was voted Most Talented for his acting skills.
“He was just a wonderful actor, really exceptional,” says a former drama classmate. “His idol was Dustin Hoffman.” In Mueller’s junior year, he was cast in a school play with Liz Gumble, a student one grade behind him. The two began dating, in March 1981, and became, by all accounts, inseparable. When Gumble went away for a brief vacation with her family, Mueller expressed his grief with typical theatricality. “He wore her scarf wrapped around his neck every day till she came back,” says a classmate.
Mueller also found a close friend in his theater teacher, the late Clayton Liggett. The drama coach became something of a mentor and surrogate father to Mueller, who, friends say, did not get along with his stepfather. “I remember when Eddie was in school, he would come over to our house quite often and talk to Clayton about personal things,” Liggett’s widow told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1995. “I don’t know if Eddie was looking for a father figure, but I do know he needed someone to talk to, and Clayton was always there for him.”
One former schoolmate surmises that Vedder is “embellishing” his past as part of a “persona” he’s developed as spokesman for the alienated and dysfunctional X Generation. “I don’t think it means he’s being untruthful,” she says in Vedder’s defense. “I just think people don’t understand that you don’t have to be this miserable character in real life. I feel it’s an art, an ability to be the character who sings these tortured songs.”
But if Eddie Mueller’s high school years were less fraught with misery than the singer has claimed, there is little doubt that he did suffer an emotional blow in his senior year when Liz Gumble broke up with him. Friends recall that Vedder was inconsolable after the breakup. “Things fell apart for him in senior year,” says a friend. “He dropped out of the theater production, and someone else had to take over, so I know it had to have been serious, because he took the theater really seriously.” Mueller left San Dieguito High shortly before graduation and moved back to the Chicago area to be with his family. He eventually completed his high school equivalency degree. It was also around this time that “Little Eddie Mueller,” perhaps in a gesture of emancipation from his stepfather, took his mother’s maiden name and became Eddie Vedder.
Though Pearl Jam’s music is closely associated with the Seattle scene and the early ’90s grunge explosion that helped carry the band to the top of the charts, Eddie Vedder’s musical roots and careerist ambitions actually lie in the idyllic beach community of La Mesa, Calif., a suburb of San Diego to which he moved in 1984 after two years in the Midwest.
By then, Vedder’s theatrical aspirations had been supplanted by his ambitions as a singer and songwriter. A childhood fan of the bombastic rock operas of the Who, Vedder became a constant presence at San Diego rock shows, where he spirited in a tape recorder, amassing a vast collection of bootlegs. Working low-end jobs as a hotel security guard and petroleum-station attendant, he penned a large number of original songs while working the graveyard shift but did not take his talents public until late 1986, when he responded to an ad in the San Diego Reader. A Duran Duran-influenced rock band, Bad Radio, was looking for a singer to help take them in the more-alternative, Love and Rockets direction. Vedder submitted a homemade audition demo, which included his cover of Bruce Springsteen’s brooding “Atlantic City.”
At a live audition, Vedder sang a number of cover songs, including the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black.” Three singers auditioned that day. “One guy wasn’t too bad,” says Valery Saifudinov, who ran the rehearsal studio and was present for the audition. “But Eddie had something from the inside, some energy. Everybody agreed that Eddie was the choice.” Only after Vedder got the gig did his Bad Radio mates learn that their new singer had a cache of finished songs. “We were blown away,” says bassist Dave Silva.
A Bad Radio demo cassette from 1989 reveals the band trying to mix bland, radio-friendly rock with the funk-inflected grooves of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Vedder sings in a thinner, higher register than he’s known for today ”“ that is until the last song, a version of “Better Man,” which would eventually appear on Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy and become one of that band’s biggest radio hits. Here, Vedder’s vocal manner emerges full-blown: the testosterone-heavy, David Clayton-Thomas-style baritone that would become his signature. Onstage, Vedder’s early dramatic training came in handy. Constantly fingering his long mane of hair, grimacing, pounding his mike stand against the floor, Vedder brought all his theatrical know-how to bear. “Eddie’s always been a great performer,” says his San Diego friend Mike Aitken, whose parents were Vedder’s landlords for four and a half years. “I’d be at shows, and people would be going, ‘Wow, check this guy out!’ They may or may not have liked the music, but everybody was just like, ‘Whoa, this guy’s good.'”
If Vedder was the focal point of the band onstage, he was also the focal point offstage. Though hired simply as the group’s singer, he quickly seized the reins of the operation, becoming not only Bad Radio’s chief songwriter but their manager, booker and chief promoter. He xeroxed elaborate handmade publicity fliers and designed the artwork for the band’s demo cassette, which he shilled to local radio stations. “It was his deal,” says Marco Collins, one of the San Diego DJs who used to field Vedder’s calls. “He was the one trying to plug the shows. He was the one hustling.”
Vedder was, by all accounts, a tireless hustler. “Eddie was constantly promoting that band, trying to make it into something,” says San Diego club promoter Tim Hall. Steve Saint, a veteran of the city’s rock scene, recalls Vedder’s drive: “90 percent of guys in garage bands are sitting around, waiting to be discovered, waiting for some record agent to knock on their door. Eddie didn’t take that attitude. He was constantly trying to put his band in some place where it could be seen.” Another San Diego music-scene source says, simply, “He was the best networker in the biz.”
Vedder’s main base of operations was the Bacchanal, a local club where rising alternative acts played (and which would later be memorialized on No Code‘s “Mankind”). Vedder was a constant presence in his signature green shorts and combat boots. “He would load equipment for free just so he could meet the Chili Peppers or meet so-and-so,” says Saint. The Bacchanal’s then-manager, Billy Buhrkuhl, recalls: “He’d roadie, stagehand, stick stamps on the mailing list. He knew he wanted to be in music and was focused on where he wanted to go. . . . He was asking me questions about contracts, about what’s the best way to get signed, how do you find a booking agent.” “[Vedder’s] seen everything,” confirms another San Diego scenester.
Hanging backstage, Vedder “saw every single rock star in San Diego when they were on their way up,” says another source. Vedder’s ability to ingratiate himself with big-name bands was legendary. The Clash’s Joe Strummer was one of many rock stars whom Vedder won over. He spent a night drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with the guitarist. On another occasion, Vedder and Silva traveled to Los Angeles to see ex-PoliceÂ drummer Stewart Copeland’s band play a club show. Afterward the two tracked Copeland down as he left through the kitchen and managed to corner the drummer for a long conversation. Red Hot Chili Peppers Anthony Kiedis, Flea and then-drummer Jack Irons were particularly susceptible to Vedder’s charm. After meeting him at a gig, the band invited Vedder along on a backpacking expedition to Yosemite.
Some visiting rock stars, however, were immune to Vedder’s ovations. Fellow surfer John Von Passenheim remembers the night when Bad Radio opened for alternative darlings the Lemonheads. “He got introduced to Evan Dando and said, ‘Look at the flier I made for the show.’ Evan looked at it, said, ‘Oh,’ dropped it on the floor and walked away.” But such snubs were rare. “[Vedder’s] got a personality where you don’t feel threatened by him at all,” says Nick Wagner, another longtime San Diego friend. “He’d just pick up an amp and strike up a conversation.”
Even Vedder’s romantic life dovetailed nicely with his musical ambitions. His girlfriend, (and now wife) Beth Liebling, a product of Chicago’s exclusive North Shore, was well-connected to the industry. While attending classes at San Diego State University, she booked shows on campus and commuted on weekends to Los Angeles, where she had an internship at Virgin Records. Eventually, Vedder and Liebling would help promote Red Tape, a weekly gothic-rock gathering at Winter’s, a local SDSU hangout. “They certainly saw the music business from all sides,” recalls Jay Thomas, a former boss of Liebling’s. “They booked the bands, they paid the bands and they had to get out there and market their facilities. . . . They knew exactly what was going on.” “Between her and Eddie,” says one San Diego club veteran, “they knew everybody.”
One of Vedder’s closest confidants was rehearsal-studio head Saifudinov, formerly the leader of his own rock band in Russia in the 1960s. “We would talk for long hours after rehearsal,” says Saifudinov, whom Vedder lists on his liner notes for a Bad Radio demo as “mentor.” “I’d tell him about Europe, books, music, culture. Bring him some sort of sense of humor. He was really interested. He knew that I started the first rock band in Russia. We had a mutual sympathy for each other. I was 18 or 19 years older than him, but it didn’t feel like it.” According to Saifudinov, the roots of Vedder’s current anti-rock-star stance may originate in certain long, post-rehearsal rap sessions. “I would say to him, ‘First you’re a musician. You’re a songwriter.That’s what counts. Any idiot can put a salami in his pants and pose. Or become an asshole because you have money.’ “
Meanwhile, Vedder worked hard to establish Bad Radio as the band with a social conscience. He booked the group at an array of benefit concerts, including a local Amnesty International benefit and a rain-forest fund-raiser. And Vedder had a song for every occasion. “His songs always took a slice of life ”“ either it was a homeless guy or some kind of racist situation,” says Saint. “So when an opportunity came up, [Vedder] would always jump at the chance to do something ”“ and [he’d] usually have a song that would match the cause.” A live-performance videotape of Bad Radio from those days shows Vedder announcing from the stage, “Here’s one I like. This one’s about the homeless.”
Vedder didn’t confine his activism to the Bacchanal stage. During a San Diego City Council meeting on low-income housing, he set up in the courtyard with his acoustic guitar and sang Tracy Chapman’s then-current social anthem, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.” On another occasion, he and Liebling talked to a homeless man who expressed a wish to return to his native Midwest. The pair bought the man a meal, brought him back to Liebling’s apartment, gave him the use of the shower, clothed him, bought him a bus ticket, then put him on a Greyhound home. Liebling documented the entire transformation with a Polaroid camera. Vedder later brought the photographs to the rehearsal studio and proudly showed them off to Saifudinov. Bad Radio bassist Silva even recalls that Vedder kept one of the photos in front of him while recording one of their demos ”“ for inspiration.
According to some, Vedder’s activist zeal drove a wedge between him and the rest of Bad Radio. “Eddie got so pissed off,” says Pierce Flynn, a surfer friend of Vedder’s. “He wanted to have them play a bunch of benefits and social-activist stuff, and the band wanted to go other ways.” But Silva says it wasn’t so much that they were opposed to Vedder’s activism but that he kept them in the dark about it: “He wouldn’t let us get close enough to him to say we want to be a part of it. He’d just say, ‘We’re doing this show and this benefit.’ He’d go out at Thanksgiving and buy all this food, and feed homeless people. He’d tell us afterward, and we’d be like, ‘Oh, my God, we would have helped.’ He didn’t really let us know what he was thinking.” And there were other problems between the band and its singer. “We were on a different level,” Silva admits. “He had already surpassed us in terms of dedicating his whole life to music.”
In late 1989, three years after answering Bad Radio’s ad in the San Diego Reader, Vedder invited Saifudinov to Bad Radio’s headlining gig at the Bacchanal. “Afterward we were having a party,” Saifudinov recalls. “That’s when Eddie sat with me and said, ‘I’m leaving the band.’ I said, ‘Why? What’s going on?’ He said, ‘I just have to move on. I’m trying to go and do things.'”
Vedder’s next stop was Los Angeles. Liebling had landed a job in the publicity department of Virgin Records, where Vedder became a fixture. By moving to L.A., Vedder managed to put himself at the epicenter of the West Coast music business. Ironically, his destiny ”“ and the entire future of rock music in the 1990s ”“ was taking shape several hundred miles north in Seattle.
Five years earlier, around the time that Vedder hooked up with Bad Radio, the Seattle “scene” existed simply as a close-knit handful of bands that played at tiny venues in warehouses and the backs of taverns. Among these groups was the grunge-rock outfit Green River, featuring the two core members who would found Pearl Jam: guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament. Green River was an unlikely blend of musicians, since Ament and Gossard made no secret of their commercial aspirations; lead singer Mark Arm, later of Mudhoney, made no secret of his contempt for the mainstream. “We were five different guys playing five different things,” Arm recalls. “It worked for a while, and then it didn’t.”
When it stopped working, Gossard and Ament split off and formed Mother Love Bone, a screechy glam outfit whose sound owed much to the slick, radio-friendly vamps of L.A.-based cock rock. According to some, the credibility gap that plagued Pearl Jam’s early years can be traced to this period. “Mark Arm went off to found the ‘cool’ band, [Mudhoney],” says a longtime member of the Seattle music industry. “Stone and Jeff formed the ‘uncool’ band.” Mother Love Bone was duly signed by PolyGram Records, becoming one of the first Seattle bands of its generation to land a major-label deal. But in March 1990, a few months before the band’s debut album was released, singer Andrew Wood died of an accidental heroin overdose on the eve of a scheduled tour.
Gossard and Ament moved quickly to form a new outfit, recruiting guitarist Mike McCready, who had been playing since his early teens in the band Shadow. Like his new band mates, McCready had roots in commercial rock. In the late 1980s he’d moved to L.A. with Shadow in a bid for stardom. After a yearlong stint in the city, where he had worked as a record-store clerk, the band returned, unsigned, to Seattle, and soon broke up. McCready, disillusioned, had given up guitar, cut his hair and applied himself to the teachings of the ultraright-wing former Republican senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater. But after returning to playing guitar in a new band, McCready was spotted by Gossard, who was impressed by the guitarist’s explosive lead work and asked him to join his as-yet unnamed band.
With Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron filling in on drums, the proto-Pearl Jam band recorded a handful of instrumentals that were built around Gossard’s brawny guitar riffs but lacked vocals. To fill that gap, the band turned to former Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Jack Irons, who suggested a singer that the Chili Peppers had met in San Diego: an affable dude who worked as a gofer at the Bacchanal while fronting his own band, Bad Radio. Irons agreed to pass along the Gossard demos to his San Diego friend.
Vedder has said that writing the lyrics and melody lines to Gossard’s demos marked a turning point in both his creative and personal lives. “I started dealing with a few things that I hadn’t dealt with,” Vedder told Rolling Stonein 1991. “It was great music ”“ it was bringing things out of me that hadn’t been brought out.”
The things that he hadn’t “dealt with” were events that dated back to the early ’80s, the day his mother revealed to him that the man whom he’d known as a distant family friend was actually his biological father ”“ a man whom Vedder dimly recalled as a hospitalized multiple sclerosis victim who’d died when Vedder was 13. Vedder has said that while listening to Gossard’s tracks for a song entitled “Dollar Short,” he felt long-buried emotions boiling up. Later, while surfing, the lyrics came to him: “Son, she said/Have I got a little story for you/What you thought was your daddy/Was nothin’ but a. . Â . /While you were sittin’/Home alone at age 13/Your real daddy was dyin’ . . . Sorry you didn’t see him/But I’m glad we talked.” Vedder raced back to Liebling’s apartment, where he dubbed his vocals over the music, titled the song “Alive” and then sent the tape, with two other songs, off to Seattle.
While the individual members of Pearl Jam were seasoned veterans of their respective local music scenes, the band itself, upon forming in late 1990, was the definition of an overnight sensation ”“ at least in Seattle.
Before flying from San Diego for his first face-to-face meeting with the future members of Pearl Jam, Vedder asked only that they waste no time. They didn’t. From the airport, the band members went straight to the rehearsal studio. In five days, they wrote 11 songs. On the sixth, the group played its first live show at a Seattle club, billing itself as Mookie Blaylock, after the then-New Jersey Nets’ point guard.
“I just remember hearing about this amazing, intense singer,” says Kim Warnick, lead singer and bassist for the Fastbacks and reigning queen of Seattle’s punk-rock underground. “[The band was] getting lineups around the block.” But Warnick remembers that Mookie Blaylock (who changed their name to Pearl Jam when the basketball player complained) were not popular with Seattle’s hip grunge elite. “From the beginning,” she says, “they were defined by their audience, which wasn’t punk. They were the ‘bogus’ suburban rock kids.” Nor did it help that the band, complete with a major-label deal, was being fronted by a singer who was airlifted in from outside the scene where so many had toiled for so long in obscurity.
But Vedder, in a pattern that he had established in San Diego, moved to ingratiate himself with the Seattle music clique. After a Fastbacks show at RKCNDY, he approached Warnick and showered her with praise. The next day, Warnick received a fan letter, signed in glitter, by Vedder and Liebling. Vedder has since tapped the Fastbacks to open several live shows for Pearl Jam (including the current world tour), and Warnick has become one of Vedder’s chief defenders. “It’s actually real,” she says of Vedder’s brooding persona. “When he talks to you, it’s like you’re the only person in the room. He leans close, and he’s frowning and real intense.”
Vedder was equally intense, if less voluble, in his early meetings with Epic record executives. “When I first met him, there was something different about him,” says a source who met Vedder at the label. “He was tremendously enigmatic and charismatic.” In their first meeting, Vedder spoke little and kept his eyes fixed on his lap. He gave the impression of a person “naive about the industry,” according to one longtime Epic confidant of Vedder’s who was stunned to learn of the singer’s past as a hustler in the San Diego music scene. “If we were being fooled,” the source says, “I was as fooled as anyone.”
Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten, which was released in August 1991, barely registered a pulse on the sales charts. A month later, Nirvana releasedÂ Nevermind, and by January 1992, that album had landed at No. 1, ushering in the age of alternative. Pearl Jam were soon swept up in the mania for all things Seattle. While Nirvana were reinventing punk for the 1990s, Pearl Jam were infusing hard-riffing ’70s radio rock with a personal feel, touching on themes of divorce, alienation and anger ”“ all of it delivered by a singer who seemed to embody the brooding fears and explosive rage felt by millions of young people. Soon, both MTV and radio were playing “Alive” in heavy rotation.
From the start, Pearl Jam were dogged by skeptics who saw the band as little more than a cuddlier, more MTV-friendly version of the genuinely anarchic and dangerous Nirvana. Among Pearl Jam’s most vocal doubters was Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who described Pearl Jam as a “corporate, alternative and cock-rock fusion,” and bridled at comparisons between the two groups. “I would love to be erased from my association with that band,” Cobain toldRolling Stone in 1992, as Nirvana and Pearl Jam became mutual poster boys for Seattle’s grunge explosion.
Vedder, perhaps in reaction to such scathing criticism, seemed determined to prove his alternative bona fides. As early as 1992, he instituted an array of “alternative” promotions geared toward maintaining a grass-roots connection with Pearl Jam’s fans: a series of unadvertised fan-club-only shows, live concert broadcasts distributed free to radio stations, vinyl album releases a week before CDs and cassettes shipped to stores, and moderate ticket prices. In the current documentary Hype!, which details the commercial rise of the Seattle music scene, Vedder assumes the role of grunge spokesman, the impassioned voice of the city’s punk-inspired ethos: “If all this influence that this part of the country and this musical scene has . . . if it doesn’t do something with it . . . if [we] finally get to the forefront and nothing comes of it, that would be the tragedy.”
For Vedder, changing the industry meant setting himself, and his band, in opposition to it. Thwarting the conventional means of mass marketing, he put an unprecedented ban on video and drastically restricted press access. He has always claimed that these commercially risky moves were made to prevent overexposure. But others suggest that Vedder’s crusades actually stem from his need to maintain rigid control over all aspects of Pearl Jam’s image ”“ just as he had done with Bad Radio. Vedder was incensed, for instance, when a teen-music magazine ran outdated pinup shots of him that he’d posed for a year earlier ”“ one of the many small indignities that would lead to his press ban. He seethed when MTV put “Jeremy” into endless rotation, robbing the song of its emotional power ”“ a contributing factor to his ban on videos. By this year, Vedder seemed leery of promotional efforts of even the most innocuous kind. Prior to Pearl Jam’s recent performance on Late Show With David Letterman, Vedder personally dialed the show’s host, requesting that the appearance not be heavily promoted by the network.
To a generation reportedly suspicious of advertising and hype, Vedder’s prohibitions acted as the ultimate anti-commercial promotional tactic. In 1993, Pearl Jam’s second album, Vs., broke single-week records, selling 950,000 copies its first week out and going on to sell 5.4 million, according to SoundScan. In 1994, Pearl Jam released Vitalogy, which sold an impressive 877,000 copies in its debut week before achieving platinum status five times over and establishing “Corduroy” and “Better Man” as rock-radio staples.
Then came Ticketmaster.
Perhaps bolstered by Pearl Jam’s success at rewriting the industry’s rules for stardom, Vedder might have believed that changing the entrenched ticketing industry was within his power. Today the Ticketmaster fight stands as the band’s most public defeat ”“ and an example of Vedder’s overreaching himself. The seeds for the Ticketmaster feud were sown as early as 1992, when Pearl Jam played a benefit concert in Seattle and demanded that the ticketing giant donate to charity $1 from the service fee that the agency adds to each ticket. The agency agreed, then slapped an extra $1 charge on tickets. According to one source, Vedder was furious at this personal betrayal and began to talk about Ticketmaster “incessantly.”
For Pearl Jam’s 1994 tour in support of Vitalogy, the band tried to proceed without Ticketmaster but could not find venues that did not have exclusive agreements with the ticketing agency. The tour was scrapped ”“ and Pearl Jam’s battles with Ticketmaster ratcheted into high gear. “They truly felt ticketing in this country was monopolized and [that] live entertainment was being held hostage by [Ticketmaster],” says Peter Schniedermeier, co-founder of ETM Entertainment Network, the ticketing company that Pearl Jam selected to handle their 1995 tour. “They felt they owed it to their fans to fight.”
And fight they did. In May 1994, the band precipitated a Justice Department investigation into the alleged Ticketmaster monopoly. While it was Pearl Jam’s Ament and Gossard who testified before Congress about the alleged monopoly, those close to the band have never doubted that the fight was Vedder’s. Indeed, when the band later shopped for an alternative ticketing agent, Vedder was the lone band member present at the meeting with ETM. “He was definitely out front,” says Schniedermeier.
With the tiny and unproven ETM at the helm, Pearl Jam went ahead with a 1995 summer tour, thus opening a Pandora’s box of bureaucratic, logistical, security and climatic snafus. The tour began to unravel from Day 1. The opening June 16 date, in Boise, Idaho, had to be scrapped ”“ the state-run facility required government approval to use an alternative ticketing system ”“ and moved to Casper, Wyo. At the second stop, Salt Lake City ”“ where the band was obliged to play an out-of-the-way outdoor venue ”“ a bone-chilling rainstorm descended before the band even took the stage. The concert was canceled, and 12,000 fans were sent home.
Disaster also struck in Vedder’s hometown of San Diego, where Pearl Jam was slated to play at the Del Mar Fairgrounds ”“ at the same time as the annual county festival. Overzealous local cops, fearing that rowdy rock fans would overrun fair goers, moved to have the two shows canceled. During a week of back-and-forth squabbling over the venue, Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis announced that the band would, if necessary, tour with Ticketmaster. “It’s time for the band to get back to doing what they do best,” Curtis reasoned, “making music and playing for their fans.” But a few days later, an impassioned Vedder called a San Diego radio station and overrode his manager. “If it turns out that we can’t feasibly tour without Ticketmaster,” he said, “then we’ll just go home and make albums.”
The fight was clearly taking a toll on Vedder. On June 24, the singer went to a local hospital, suffering from digestive problems. That afternoon, he faced a crowd of 50,000 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. He made it through seven songs, then stopped to announce: “I just went through the worst 24 hours of my life.” With that, he walked offstage and did not return. Later, Vedder would privately blame his illness on food poisoning from a room-service tuna-fish sandwich ”“ an excuse that did little to explain the cancellation of all the band’s remaining tour dates. Most of the shows were made up by year’s end, but the damage had already been done.
Reaction in the press to Pearl Jam’s scrapped tour was swift and scathing ”“ especially in cities left in the lurch by the cancellations. “For a group that bellows so incessantly in favor of its fans,” read a column in the Austin American-Statesman, “Pearl Jam sure left a whole bunch of them out in the cold, including the 25,000 people who went through a lot of trouble to get tickets [to the local show]. Pearl Jam’s reputation has been damaged, the band’s mystique punctured.”
“Obviously, Eddie is attuned to the evils of the business,” adds the manager of another multiplatinum rock act. “But how many of your fans really give a fuck? The majority of them don’t. They don’t care if it’s in venue X, Y or Z, or what the ticket company is. They want to hear you play good music.” Even Pearl Jam’s former allies in the Ticketmaster fight abandoned Vedder’s crusade. R.E.M., who had expressed support for Pearl Jam’s Ticketmaster fight in 1994, signed on with with the ticketing agency for R.E.M.’s 1995Â Monster world tour. “I don’t like Ticketmaster, but I also am not going to not tour,” R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck told the Chicago Tribune. “I’m not going to cripple my band just because society is not run the way I like it.”
The final blow to Pearl Jam came on July 5, 1995, when the federal antitrust investigation of Ticketmaster was quietly dropped. Vedder has never commented publicly on this defeat. But symptoms of a new disillusionment within the singer seemed apparent. Last February, Pearl Jam made their first television appearance in two years at the Grammy Awards. Vedder, having abandoned his grunge costume of tattered T-shirt, shorts and flannel shirt, appeared at the ceremony in a knee-length black-leather coat and sunglasses. After winning the night’s first statuette, for Best Hard Rock Performance, the singer took the opportunity not to thank fans for remaining loyal to the band but to mumble that the honor “doesn’t mean anything.” The quip might have been a clumsy attempt to play down the competitive nature of awards shows. But to some viewers it came across as the stereotypical musings of a rock star.
Among those who felt that way were his old high-school friends. “I get angry with him when I see him on these awards shows,” says one former drama classmate, “and see that horrible image he put out.” “I don’t know what’s happened to him,” says another former schoolmate. “He just seemed like some Van Halener dude.” Bacchanal manager Billy Buhrkuhl was also watching that night and did not recognize the singer he’d known back in San Diego. “If you’d known him 10 years ago, you just wouldn’t believe he’d ever say anything like that. Back in the old days, Eddie was grateful for everything and anything.”
Evidently, Vedder’s old friends weren’t the only ones put off by his performance that night ”“ or Pearl Jam’s endless crusades against their own popularity. Fans’ impatience with the band’s near-invisible profile has begun to affect sales. Released last September, No Code debuted at No. 1 but within two months had dropped out of the Top 20 ”“ an ignominious fate for a band whose previous three records were among the best sellers of this decade. It’s also a grimly ironic fate for a record that is the band’s finest, most mature work to date ”“ a dazzlingly varied and assured collection that ranges from Buddhist-inspired chants to glam-punk raves to moody ballads.
Still, Pearl Jam have shown no symptoms of trying to goose up the CD’s sales: The group staunchly refuses to make a video and has rejected virtually all requests for interviews. Indeed, when the Pearl Jam tour arrived in late September at Randalls Island, in New York, Vedder reiterated his resolve to boycott the press. Having caught wind of Rolling Stone‘s investigative efforts to throw light on his shadowy pre-Pearl Jam past, the singer interrupted himself in the middle of the song “Who You Are” to make a pointed announcement. “I know who I really am,” he declared from the stage. “It’s a long story, and it won’t fit . . . in a Rolling Stone.”
Vedder’s stated aim in fighting the rock industry has been to keep the emphasis on the music. On No Code‘s “Off He Goes,” he sings that “Nothing’s changed but the surrounding bullshit.” But on the eve of Pearl Jam’s current tour, which Vedder insisted include only 12 stateside appearances, the “surrounding bullshit” seemed finally to have eclipsed the music. “It’s all caught up to them,” says an Epic staffer. “No band is bigger than the system, and consumers are punishing them. Pearl Jam hurt themselves when they don’t do things America wants. If you only do 12 shows, you need to do videos to remind the country what you look like.”
Disenchantment with Pearl Jam’s modus operandi is not confined to the press and public. Two weeks before the launch of the band’s current tour, bassist Jeff Ament confided to a friend that he was dreading the coming road trip: “I had so much more fun on the road with [his band] Three Fish.” Guitarist Gossard put it still more strongly. After promising to look up a mutual friend when the tour reaches Europe in midfall, Gossard added, ruefully, “If we’re still together by then.”
That Vedder might leave the band is, sources say, an ever-present threat that hangs over Pearl Jam and their management. Asked in a 1994 interview whether Vedder is tempted to run away, manager Curtis said, “I believe he thinks about that every day.” “I was really pushing Eddie to do something he didn’t want to do,” says a source who worked with the band. “I was told: ‘Just don’t push him too far, or he’ll just go away.'” And that’s an eventuality that no one associated with Pearl Jam wants to contemplate. “Pearl Jam without Eddie Vedder,” says the source, “is Mother Love Bone with a dead singer.”
There’s evidence to suggest that Vedder is searching for grounding by revisiting his pre-Pearl Jam past and reaffirming old loyalties. In 1995, he arrived unexpectedly at the funeral of his old drama coach, Clayton Liggett. After the service, he joined several old drama classmates at the house of their former teacher, where they talked until 10 p.m. And lately he has been dropping in unannounced on old San Diego basketball buddies who still find Vedder the “down to earth” friend they knew in the old days. “He wanted to go down to the park and play ball and drink some beers,” said one. “It was so weird, because it was like he had never left.”
Apparently, Vedder feels differently. “[When] I hang out with people that I have missed,” he told a reporter in a long, rambling interview, “and that I’ve been friends with before, that I’m looking forward to sharing moments with like we used to have . . . it feels like I’m a child being eaten by dingoes. . . . I’m in conflict.”
Trapped by his fame, alienated from his past, the one place that Vedder does not seem to be in conflict is onstage before thousands of worshiping fans. It’s Sept. 16, 1996, two nights after Pearl Jam’s listless tour-opening gig at Seattle’s Showbox theater, and the group is playing the first of its large-scale shows, at Seattle’s Key Arena, a Ticketmaster venue where the band has agreed to perform on the condition that the proceeds be donated to charity. Thanks to Pearl Jam’s Byzantine “alternative” ticketing system, the crowd has spent an hour outside the arena while all 16,000 tickets are passed through a bar-code scanner.
Inside, things aren’t going much better. Working studiously at their instruments, heads down, the band churns joylessly through the set list while Vedder, spotlit beneath a crown-of-thorns-like circular structure strung with colored lights, repeatedly extends his arms in a Christ-like crucifixion pose.
It’s clear from the pit of moshers down front that this crowd wants nothing more than to rock out to its favorite Pearl Jam oldies. But Vedder seems determined to thwart his fans, draining the show’s energy with earnest speeches between songs. “We didn’t use a promoter,” he announces. “I hate to even mention it, but we did do it all ourselves.” Soon, the music begins to seem little more than a backdrop to Vedder’s speechifying, the fans little more than a receptacle for Vedder’s polemics.
That is, until late in the show, when Pearl Jam kick into “Alive.” As Gossard’s and McCready’s guitar lines churn and the singer leans into the life-affirming chorus, a flannel-shirted mosher arrives at the edge of stage. Vedder hauls the kid from the grip of the security guards and onto the stage, where the fan sinks to a sitting position, then tips over onto his back. Vedder crouches and directs the song to the spread-eagle fan. “You’re still alive!” Vedder sings, adjusting his most famous lyric in a gesture of inclusion that seems to strike at the heart of what Vedder has always said Pearl Jam’s music is all about. The band, looking on, throttles into high gear as the fan rises and backs up to the drum riser. Vedder howls as the kid charges the lip of the stage and launches himself in an arcing dive into the pit. The crowd roars ”“ and for the first time in more than a year, the band and Vedder are playing in perfect sync, thrashing hard, exchanging dumbstruck smiles.