This is a public service announcement – with guitars!" bellows Eddie Vedder in a hoarse rage, leading Pearl Jam into a savage encore cover of "Know Your Rights," from the Clash's 1982 album, Combat Rock, at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans. Gripping the microphone with both hands as if for dear life, Vedder belts the third verse with special, atomic indignation: "You have the right to free speech – except, of course, if you're dumb enough to actually try it."
Vedder knows of what he sings. A week earlier in Denver, on the opening night of Pearl Jam's current U.S. tour, he donned a George Bush mask for "Bu$hleaguer," a song from the band's latest album, Riot Act. Newspapers and radio stations nationwide reported that more than two dozen offended fans "walked out" after Vedder "impaled" the mask on his mike stand. Pearl Jam's office in Seattle received a torrent of threats. "E-mails and phone calls in the hundreds," Vedder says over coffee and cigarettes the day before the New Orleans show, "enough that were fairly strange.
"We're still a band – what we offer is music," he insists, speaking for guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron. "But anyone who knows us," Vedder notes without apology, "would not be surprised by anything I said or did."
The Denver incident and his central belief in the sanctity of free speech – anywhere, anytime – dominate Vedder's first major interview with Rolling Stone since 1993: six hours of conversation, over two days, in a New Orleans hotel room. But Vedder, 38, speaking in a low, even voice and long, thoughtful pauses, also talks about his life before, in and out of Pearl Jam, including his violent distaste for celebrity after the band's multiplatinum debut, Ten; his rocky relationship with Nirvana's Kurt Cobain; and the horrific night in 2000, at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, when nine fans died at Vedder's feet during Pearl Jam's set.
"This song is about what's inside you," he says onstage in New Orleans, introducing "I Am Mine" from Riot Act. "You own it, and you have the freedom for it to come out. It's allowed to come out." Here it comes.
Describe exactly what you did with the George Bush mask and the mike stand during "Bu$hleaguer" in Denver.
It was our first show since the war started. I come out with the mask on and do a dance, a little moonwalk, to let people see George Bush with rhythm, being free. But I can't sing through the mask. So I take the mask off, take the mike off the stand and set the mask on there. I have to be gentle, because I want the mask facing forward. Then I sing to him. Somehow, this was interpreted as "impaling."
I always have rubber masks around. I did it with Clinton. I've been told, "Where were you when Clinton was bombing Iraq?" I was critical then, too.
In rock & roll, I should be able to do whatever I want – run around with a sixteen-inch dildo on my head. This was a rubber mask, mock theater. You have to be allowed to do that. A close friend of mine, who's hardcore right, said, "It's too sensitive. You can't do it during time of war." If you can't be critical of a president during time of war, doesn't that encourage him to be at war?
Did you see anyone leave while you did your Bush dance?
I saw people enjoying themselves. I didn't hear boos. It was written that dozens of fans left, out of 11,000, because they were upset by the rubber mask. It could also have been said that 10,900 had a great time.
But once the story hit the rightwing talk shows, it was on fire: I was unpatriotic, un-American; I should move to Iraq and make my music there; after the concert, I rode home in my limo, counting my millions [laughs]. That was something Jeff read. And it was funny: I was counting my millions. I was counting the millions of dollars we had given out, going over a list of charitable contributions, things the government should be taking care of: housing for unwed mothers, educational programs. And it wasn't a limo. It was a van.
Does that make you angry, to be demonized for having both money and opinions?
They insinuate that you're privileged, and because you're privileged, you don't have the right to speak out. Who's more privileged than the son of a president? In the 2000 election, someone asked Bush, "Do you have a favorite song?" He said, "John Fogerty, that song, 'Put me in, coach, I'm ready to play' ["Centerfield"]. That's me. I like that." I'm staring at the TV, ready to smash a bottle through it: "You son of a bitch, have you never heard 'Fortunate Son'?"
What is a Pearl Jam show for you now – entertainment, a pulpit, release? Does the price of a ticket automatically include your personal politics?
Release is first – for everybody. We do it for ourselves, and it comes out for everybody. We wouldn't have to say a thing. It's not like our body of work is Shakespeare, by any means. But it can cover a lot. I feel fortunate to have drums coming from behind me, a loud guitar in my hands and a big PA for my vocal, to get this stuff out.
I feel like a private citizen up there, who happens to be in a group. But the pulpit should be handled responsibly. It's been all nonfiction books for me for the last two years, since September 11th, trying to figure this out for myself and understand where effective criticism could be directed. When it comes down to having an opportunity to speak from the stage, at least I feel like it's coming from a true place. [Smiles] If this was happening back in the Vs. touring cycle, it might have been “Fuck that motherfucking motherfucker.”
You didn't talk as much at early Pearl Jam shows, in 1991 and '92. You spent more time diving from balconies into the crowd.
Before Pearl Jam, I used to go to shows, look around the hall – like the Metro in Chicago – and go, "I wonder if I can climb that ornate frame around the stage?" When we got to play there, I was like, "I'm gonna find out." It was also a way to raise the energy. By the end of the show, people would think I was really crazy, that they were seeing something that was life and death.
Were you, in fact, crazy?
I felt invincible, like I had nothing to lose. I'd been working on music since my teens. It was exciting to have crowds. It was like getting out of the box and showing them something – probably too much energy. I learned to dignify it. At some point, you don't want to be known as Diving Boy, the Flying Squirrel.
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