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Eddie Vedder: Who Are You?

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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.'"

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