One year shy of their 25th anniversary together, Pearl Jam is still a fondly and ferociously debated topic among rock fans. Some still consider them to be Seattle-scene sellouts (a faction that famously included Kurt Cobain, until he reversed that stance later in life), while others pledge to their enduring nonconformity, reliably solid albums and politicized passion.
The Ovation TV network jumped into the fray last night, devoting the latest episode of its Music Mavericks documentary series entirely to Eddie Vedder and his cohorts. Through music video footage and interviews with several British music journalists, the half-hour program gave an appreciative, introductory look at the rockers' past. Here are the five main insights of the show.
1. Pearl Jam's progenitor, Mother Love Bone, was on track to conquer the world.
Despite their frequent qualifying as "grunge," Pearl Jam were always a classic rock-derived band with strong ties to Creedence Clearwater Revival and Neil Young. The Times' chief pop and rock critic, Will Hodgkinson, pointed out both those artists' influence on Green River, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard's early band together. "In late-Eighties, early-Nineties Seattle, they were actually the forerunners of the whole grunge movement," Hodgkinson explained.
Ament and Gossard went on to form Mother Love Bone, a band that narrowly missed its chance at glory. "Mother Love Bone are the great lost band of Seattle grunge," lamented John Aizlewood of The Evening Standard. "They were fronted by the extremely charismatic Andrew Wood and seemed set to be the first Seattle band to break through."
However, Wood died of a heroin overdose a few days before their debut album, Apple, was scheduled for release. Distraught but still ambitious, Gossard and Ament regrouped as Temple of the Dog and recruited Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder; Cornell eventually drifted away, returning to his main band – a little troupe called Soundgarden – and Temple's distilled lineup became Pearl Jam.
2. "Alive" is about Eddie Vedder's Jerry Springer-esque family life.
When Pearl Jam signed to Epic – a move that would, in the staunchly purist Seattle rock scene, affix them with the "sellout" label – one song on their demo particularly impressed the executives: "Alive," Eddie Vedder's semi-autobiographical family saga.
"He didn't realize that the person who he thought was his father was, in fact, his stepfather," explained Aizlewood, "and that his biological father had died of multiple sclerosis some years ago after his parents had divorced."
The story has a happy ending, though; as Vedder said on the band's episode of VH1's Storytellers, his fans' embracing of "Alive" as an self-confidence anthem "lifted the curse" of his childhood. "The audience changed the meaning for me," he said then.
3. "Do the Evolution" is about a telepathic gorilla (sort of).
Pearl Jam were hardly video music enthusiasts; after releasing the controversial clip for "Jeremy" in 1991, they waited seven years to release the next, and then elected not to appear in it. The visuals for "Do the Evolution" were stunning, though – a grimly fatalist cartoon about warfare, Nazis and the evil underbelly of industrial progress. "It suggests we only evolve into horrible situations," said Hodgkinson.
The track was based on Ishmael, Daniel Quinn's philosophical novel about a telepathic gorilla that also delves into the agricultural revolution and the biblical Fall of Man. That's heavy reading, baby.
4. The band set up their own label to kill several birds with one stone.
When Pearl Jam set up shop with their own record label, Monkeywrench, in 2009, it was an overdue effort to shake off some of the more frustrating events of their past.
"It was a continuation of the Battle of Ticketmaster," said Hodgkinson, referring to the band's vocal opposition to the concert site in the mid-Nineties. Added Camilla Pia of BBC Radio 6, the independent distribution was the band's attempt at "getting away from that whole sellout tag."
5. Lightning Bolt is just a few lights short of Laser Floyd.
When the band's tenth studio album, Lightning Bolt, was released last year, many critics nodded to the heavily Pink Floyd-inspired guitar interludes (including Rolling Stone's Will Hermes).
This is no accident: guitarist Mike McCready learned it right from the source. He "had been to see Roger Waters in concert and was really kind of influenced by it," says Pia. She clearly approved, adding enthusiastically, "They sound like they've got their mojo!"