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 Stone in 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. . . /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 released 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.
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