Eddie Vedder: 'Music, For Me, Was Heroin'

Pearl Jam's leader on the difference between surfing and crowd surfing, and the best advice Bob Dylan gave him

Pearl Jam
Nigel Crane/Redferns
Pearl Jam perform at The London Astoria.
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There's so much information in the songs and the lyrics that it felt like one more title was almost pretentious," says Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. That's just one explanation for why the band's eighth studio album is simply called Pearl Jam. Another would be that it is the group's most democratic effort since its massive 1991 debut, Ten. On songs like the laid-back acoustic beauty "Parachutes" (music written by Stone Gossard), the eight-minute trip "Inside Job" (lyrics by Mike McCready) and the first single, "World Wide Suicide" (which is killing at radio), PJ brought a live feel to the studio, laying down tracks that showcase tasty guitar interplay and a heavy backbeat. "When you collaborate, you still have this urge to stay in the studio after everybody's left and do things the way you want to," says a chilled-out Vedder on a cold, dark day in Seattle, "But you can't do that."

What instruments did you have around the house growing up?
My brother got a guitar, we got a stand-up piano, and then I got a Les Paul-copy guitar. It looked like the guitar Ace [Frehley] played. My brother excelled immediately he was playing blindfolded and I couldn't push down a chord. I was very disturbed by that. Then after a year, all of a sudden it felt like a friend. I'll never forget it.

Was there a moment?
Yeah, It was "Cat Scratch Fever." All of a sudden, the guitar felt right. This guy, Bud Whitcomb, I'd do weeding in his back yard to get free lessons, but he wouldn't teach me anything but bar chords. I hated him for it – that was a lot to ask of twelve-year-old hands. I remember Bud went on vacation, and I went to church, and they had this booklet of songs – like "Black and White" – with charts with open chords in it. And I stole it! Suddenly the open chords made me feel like writing.

What do you remember about your first gig with the Pearl Jam guys in 1990, as Mookie Blaylock?
On the sixth day of my first trip to Seattle we played a gig, and on the seventh we were supposed to rest, but we recorded. The show was at a place called the Off Ramp, and we were opening up for two other bands. I remember during our sound check, they opened the doors. I was singing with my eyes closed to an empty room, and I opened my eyes for the last chorus, and the place was full. It's a good analogy for how quick things happened for us.

What was it like meeting Dylan at his thirtieth-anniversary concert?
Everyone congregated in a corner of an Irish bar in New York after the show. Some real history took place that night. The oldest Clancy brother was reciting eight-minute Irish poems; Ronnie Wood and George Harrison were there. We were about to do our second record, and Bob passed on a few lessons to me there in the corner, one of which was "Don't read anything in the paper, don't watch TV. Get away." I felt the same way. Back then I felt like we were part of the pollution.

You bootlegged concerts growing up. Still have the tapes?
I've still got them. I listened to them a lot. Music, for me, was fucking heroin. It was something I needed. Live shows gave me strength. A day or two after a show, the high would wear off, but listening to the bootlegs with your eyes closed was like getting high again. Like an X show, or the Tubes, or the Who. I was a user.

Can you compare surfing with crowd-surfing?
The crowds are much more dangerous, because of the germs and bacteria in a sweaty mosh-pit circa 1992. Surfing is like no other thing I've felt, except for music and holding your newborn.

What's the most amazing thing you've seen from the stage?
I remember a gig in Florida at a big baseball stadium, toward the end of our Vs. tour. There were three pits – it looked like a Norelco razor. I remember a wheelchair being carried to the front. We got him onstage during "Rockin' in the Free World." Last year I heard that he was one of the guys in Murderball.

No way! Last year you hopped onstage with Kings of Leon. Are they your favorite young band?
They hit a reflex in me. They opened for U2 and we hung out, and the next night we played "Slow Night, So Long." I bashed some tambourines – it was exciting. The new Strokes record is also a great piece of work. Caleb [Followill] and Julian's [Casablancas] vocal deliveries are great, and unconscious – it's like what they said about Sinatra or Joey Ramone or Lennon and McCartney.

Was there something unique to writing "Elderly Woman . . ."? Did that spring from a dream?
It's funny you say that. You're exactly right. We were recording Vs., and we were staying in this house in San Francisco, but I was outside in a little outhouse, in my own world. I slept in there too. It was the size of a bathroom, and I was able to fit a little amp and a four-track. I was dreaming that I was going back to where I lived in San Diego, and when I woke up, the dream was still alive. It came out right quick – I don't even think I scribbled down the lyrics. It was bizarre.

Do you feel better listening to Pearl Jam than you felt about previous albums?
Looking back, you can say, "This record is a little midtempo" or "Why was that the single?" but I can't necessarily answer objectively. Melodically speaking, the new songs are pretty strong. I think the drumming is impeccable. And we've figured out a way to create space for the guys in the band, for them to get to that level of energy that they have when we play live. I'm not sure how that happened, but I think it's a step in the right direction.

What kind of wine do you like to guzzle onstage?
As long as it's red and there's a spare in the back . . .

This story is from the May 4th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 999: May 4, 2006
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