Eddie Vedder's Combat Rock

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What was the first rock concert you saw?
My uncle took me: Springsteen at the Auditorium Theatre [in Chicago, 1977], in the last row. It was a vinyl seat with hay coming out of it. I thought it was the greatest thing of my life. It was a really long show, but I didn't want to leave. When all the lights came up, some people were still there, and I thought, "He might still come out, right? How cool would that be if he played for just the fifteen people here?" I sat there for a half hour, waiting.

I used to take tape recorders into shows and tape them. I was mugged once on a train, the Howard El in Chicago, on my way to work, waiting tables. I got kicked in the head, bloodied, and they stole this little pack I had. I had a perfect tape of The River tour – one of those few tapes where you didn't miss a song or an intro – and that was gone [sighs]. That's when I broke down.

I came home, all rattled and battered. I was living with my mother and four brothers in a tiny apartment. My mom and little brother were sitting at this picnic table we had in the kitchen, and my mom says,

"What's the matter? Are you on drugs?" And she hauls back and whacks me across the face [laughs]. It was one of the worst days of my life. "Can this get any more bizarre?"

But my mom's a strong woman. She raised four of us with nothing. We had some stuff for a while. My [stepdad] was an attorney. I was feeling semi-privileged. Then things fell apart when I was sixteen. I was real resentful at the time. But in the end, it gave me better values and a strong work ethic.

Yet at the height of Pearl Jam's success, in the mid-1990s, you got pegged as the archetypal, whining rock star: "I don't like this, I won't do that." In a recent interview, Jeff said he considered quitting the band at the time of No Code (1996), because "it was kind of Ed's band."
You know, I just heard that. I didn't feel that way, but that's typical of a control freak [laughs]. I was just trying to make the music I wanted to be making. I remember wanting everything to be faster. “Spin the Black Circle” [on 1994's Vitalogy] – Stone gave me a tape with this riff [hums it at slow speed]. I had a speed control on my machine. I speeded it up, came back and said, "Can we do it this way?"

I don't think that was a control thing. What I might have been guilty of is feeling that I got more criticism than anyone else in the group, because I was the face put on it. I might've been more sensitive that the group be something I could be really proud of. The hype of that time, of Seattle music – it had tangible effects on everyone's lives, Kurt [Cobain] being the most extreme example. He was a fragile individual as well. But that was a lot to cope with. I was freaked out.

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I'd come from working solid jobs for eight or ten years straight: security at a gas station, security at a hotel. I was a waiter, did construction. I would work at a local club, loading in gear for no pay, because you wouldn't have to pay to get into the show. I was based in that reality. A Time magazine cover with me on it – that's not real.

When Time put you on the cover, in 1993, why didn't you enjoy it?
One of the reasons I was upset was because Kurt and I had talked about it. It was one of our few phone calls. They wanted to do interviews with us. We talked about whether Time was co-opting our thing, and we both decided not to do interviews. They put me on the cover anyway. I was like, "Oh, man, I hope Kurt's not pissed about this."

He took a lot of shots at Pearl Jam in the press for being a corporate rock band. How would you describe the relationship you really had with him?
Small. I'm glad there were a few times we had together, one in particular. Eric Clapton was playing "Tears in Heaven" at the MTV Awards [in 1992], and we slowdanced underneath the stage. I'm glad I got that moment with him. I had so much respect for him. I was trying to stay out of the fray, so it was kind of up to him to lay down his arms. So that was symbolic for me.

He did not survive the hype and stardom. You did. Why?
I can't imagine going through that with a physical addiction. I would zombie out, become super-withdrawn. I imagine he had the same thing going on, but he had a whole other physical issue to deal with. I could barely keep things together straight. I couldn't imagine doing it the other way. After Denmark, my brain will barely allow me to smoke pot anymore. I can't keep it from going to dark places.

You refer to the fans crushed in the mosh pit during your show at the Roskilde Festival in 2000 on Riot Act ("Lost nine friends . . . two years ago today": "Love Boat Captain"). But you have not spoken publicly about what you saw that night. When did you realize people were dying in front of you?
The second they were pulled over the front [wall]. It was chaos. Some people were yelling, "Thank you!" Others, who weren't in bad shape, were running up and saying hi [shakes his head in disbelief]. Then someone was pulled over, laid out, and they were blue. We knew immediately it had gone to that other level.

There were still 40,000 people out there; they were ready for the show to start again. They started singing, "I'm still alive." "Alive" was going to be the next song. That was when my brain clicked a switch. I knew I would never be the same.

Did you consider ending the band?
This is hard. [Long pause] We came together as close as we could. People handled it in different ways. The guys whose general disposition is more emotional – they became more composed. Whereas some of the people who are more conservative with their emotions – they kind of cracked. Stone became the most affected by it. Stone was ready to close up shop. And I thought that if anyone ever lost their lives at one of our shows, that would be it. I would never play again.

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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