Eddie Vedder: Who Are You?

How Pearl Jam's singer reinvented himself as the voice of an alienated generation

eddie vedder rolling stone cover 1996
Eddie Vedder on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Ross Halfin/Photofeatures

Welcome to the R.E.M. album-release party," Eddie Vedder deadpans from the stage of Seattle's Showbox theater – "and the Pearl Jam 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."

The New Immortals: Pearl Jam

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 to Rolling 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."

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