Eddie Vedder: Who Are You?

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The final blow to Pearl Jam came on July 5, 1995, when the federal antitrust investigation of Ticketmaster was quietly dropped. Vedder has never commented publicly on this defeat. But symptoms of a new disillusionment within the singer seemed apparent. Last February, Pearl Jam made their first television appearance in two years at the Grammy Awards. Vedder, having abandoned his grunge costume of tattered T-shirt, shorts and flannel shirt, appeared at the ceremony in a knee-length black-leather coat and sunglasses. After winning the night's first statuette, for Best Hard Rock Performance, the singer took the opportunity not to thank fans for remaining loyal to the band but to mumble that the honor "doesn't mean anything." The quip might have been a clumsy attempt to play down the competitive nature of awards shows. But to some viewers it came across as the stereotypical musings of a rock star.

Among those who felt that way were his old high-school friends. "I get angry with him when I see him on these awards shows," says one former drama classmate, "and see that horrible image he put out." "I don't know what's happened to him," says another former schoolmate. "He just seemed like some Van Halener dude." Bacchanal manager Billy Buhrkuhl was also watching that night and did not recognize the singer he'd known back in San Diego. "If you'd known him 10 years ago, you just wouldn't believe he'd ever say anything like that. Back in the old days, Eddie was grateful for everything and anything."

Evidently, Vedder's old friends weren't the only ones put off by his performance that night – or Pearl Jam's endless crusades against their own popularity. Fans' impatience with the band's near-invisible profile has begun to affect sales. Released last September, No Code debuted at No. 1 but within two months had dropped out of the Top 20 – an ignominious fate for a band whose previous three records were among the best sellers of this decade. It's also a grimly ironic fate for a record that is the band's finest, most mature work to date – a dazzlingly varied and assured collection that ranges from Buddhist-inspired chants to glam-punk raves to moody ballads.

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Still, Pearl Jam have shown no symptoms of trying to goose up the CD's sales: The group staunchly refuses to make a video and has rejected virtually all requests for interviews. Indeed, when the Pearl Jam tour arrived in late September at Randalls Island, in New York, Vedder reiterated his resolve to boycott the press. Having caught wind of Rolling Stone's investigative efforts to throw light on his shadowy pre-Pearl Jam past, the singer interrupted himself in the middle of the song "Who You Are" to make a pointed announcement. "I know who I really am," he declared from the stage. "It's a long story, and it won't fit . . . in a Rolling Stone."

Vedder's stated aim in fighting the rock industry has been to keep the emphasis on the music. On No Code's "Off He Goes," he sings that "Nothing's changed but the surrounding bullshit." But on the eve of Pearl Jam's current tour, which Vedder insisted include only 12 stateside appearances, the "surrounding bullshit" seemed finally to have eclipsed the music. "It's all caught up to them," says an Epic staffer. "No band is bigger than the system, and consumers are punishing them. Pearl Jam hurt themselves when they don't do things America wants. If you only do 12 shows, you need to do videos to remind the country what you look like."

Disenchantment with Pearl Jam's modus operandi is not confined to the press and public. Two weeks before the launch of the band's current tour, bassist Jeff Ament confided to a friend that he was dreading the coming road trip: "I had so much more fun on the road with [his band] Three Fish." Guitarist Gossard put it still more strongly. After promising to look up a mutual friend when the tour reaches Europe in midfall, Gossard added, ruefully, "If we're still together by then."

That Vedder might leave the band is, sources say, an ever-present threat that hangs over Pearl Jam and their management. Asked in a 1994 interview whether Vedder is tempted to run away, manager Curtis said, "I believe he thinks about that every day." "I was really pushing Eddie to do something he didn't want to do," says a source who worked with the band. "I was told: 'Just don't push him too far, or he'll just go away.'" And that's an eventuality that no one associated with Pearl Jam wants to contemplate. "Pearl Jam without Eddie Vedder," says the source, "is Mother Love Bone with a dead singer."

There's evidence to suggest that Vedder is searching for grounding by revisiting his pre-Pearl Jam past and reaffirming old loyalties. In 1995, he arrived unexpectedly at the funeral of his old drama coach, Clayton Liggett. After the service, he joined several old drama classmates at the house of their former teacher, where they talked until 10 p.m. And lately he has been dropping in unannounced on old San Diego basketball buddies who still find Vedder the "down to earth" friend they knew in the old days. "He wanted to go down to the park and play ball and drink some beers," said one. "It was so weird, because it was like he had never left."

Apparently, Vedder feels differently. "[When] I hang out with people that I have missed," he told a reporter in a long, rambling interview, "and that I've been friends with before, that I'm looking forward to sharing moments with like we used to have . . . it feels like I'm a child being eaten by dingoes. . . . I'm in conflict."

Trapped by his fame, alienated from his past, the one place that Vedder does not seem to be in conflict is onstage before thousands of worshiping fans. It's Sept. 16, 1996, two nights after Pearl Jam's listless tour-opening gig at Seattle's Showbox theater, and the group is playing the first of its large-scale shows, at Seattle's Key Arena, a Ticketmaster venue where the band has agreed to perform on the condition that the proceeds be donated to charity. Thanks to Pearl Jam's Byzantine "alternative" ticketing system, the crowd has spent an hour outside the arena while all 16,000 tickets are passed through a bar-code scanner.

Inside, things aren't going much better. Working studiously at their instruments, heads down, the band churns joylessly through the set list while Vedder, spotlit beneath a crown-of-thorns-like circular structure strung with colored lights, repeatedly extends his arms in a Christ-like crucifixion pose.

It's clear from the pit of moshers down front that this crowd wants nothing more than to rock out to its favorite Pearl Jam oldies. But Vedder seems determined to thwart his fans, draining the show's energy with earnest speeches between songs. "We didn't use a promoter," he announces. "I hate to even mention it, but we did do it all ourselves." Soon, the music begins to seem little more than a backdrop to Vedder's speechifying, the fans little more than a receptacle for Vedder's polemics.

That is, until late in the show, when Pearl Jam kick into "Alive." As Gossard's and McCready's guitar lines churn and the singer leans into the life-affirming chorus, a flannel-shirted mosher arrives at the edge of stage. Vedder hauls the kid from the grip of the security guards and onto the stage, where the fan sinks to a sitting position, then tips over onto his back. Vedder crouches and directs the song to the spread-eagle fan. "You're still alive!" Vedder sings, adjusting his most famous lyric in a gesture of inclusion that seems to strike at the heart of what Vedder has always said Pearl Jam's music is all about. The band, looking on, throttles into high gear as the fan rises and backs up to the drum riser. Vedder howls as the kid charges the lip of the stage and launches himself in an arcing dive into the pit. The crowd roars – and for the first time in more than a year, the band and Vedder are playing in perfect sync, thrashing hard, exchanging dumbstruck smiles.


This story is from the November 28, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone. 

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