Eddie Vedder's Combat Rock

Vedder exercises his right to free speech on George W. Bush, the Iraq War, Kurt Cobain and the moment Pearl Jam almost broke up

Eddie Vedder exercises his right to free speech.
Martin Philbey/Redferns
Eddie Vedder exercises his right to free speech.
By |

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.

The New Immortals: Pearl Jam

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.

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.

Readers' Poll: The Best Grunge Albums of All Time

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.

But a month later, you were onstage in Virginia Beach opening a U.S. tour.
Playing, facing crowds, being together – it enabled us to start processing it. I had written "I Am Mine" [on Riot Act] the night before – "We're safe tonight" – to reassure myself that this is going to be all right.

But the killer was Sonic Youth opening for us. That sealed it: the power and majestic beauty of their sound and the people they are. And Thurston [Moore] and Kim [Gordon] have a daughter, Coco, who took a shine to me. She didn't know what happened; there was no need for her to know. But she would bring me a card she drew of flowers with smiley faces, and she would say she and I were the two flowers [laughs]. When she's in her twenties, I'll tell her how much that meant to me.

Given the media mauling you got for the Bush mask in Denver, how do you feel about the way Pete Townshend, a friend, was treated in the press after he was arrested for downloading child porn?
He had written a piece called "A Different Bomb" on his Web site; I read it last November. I was so upset by what he described: the access to child pornography, what kind of images are there. The second I heard [of his arrest], I knew what his stand was.

The hard thing was to see the press pin that scarlet letter on him: "rock-star pedophile." So many of the benefits we have worked on together had to do with children: orphanages in Chicago, teenage cancer units in London. He doesn't just show up and play. He does research. To see that turned around – it was sickening. Then he was let off with a caution. Someone gave me a printed fax of it. I didn't read it in any paper.

Have you talked to Pete about this? Do you think this will be a blot on his legacy?
I checked in through friends and people he works with. If anybody in the world can take this and turn it into a positive, with his eloquence, he can. Because Pete Townshend could tell everyone to fuck off and live on a sailboat in the Bahamas for the rest of his life. He doesn't have to worry about these issues if he doesn't want to.

How would you describe your personal life now off the road, away from Pearl Jam?
Surfing a wave a half-mile out to sea, where there's no buildings on the land, just 2,000-foot cliffs and waterfalls. I'm usually way away, around people that don't even know what rock music is. There have been times when I've done a disappearing act, literally gone more than seven days without speaking a word. The last time, [friend and ex-Pearl Jam drummer] Jack Irons called me on the phone. I answered, and he asked if something was wrong, because I couldn't get my mouth to work [smiles].

Photos: The Rise of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, and More 

To think that I have that opportunity through music – it gives me a sense of being whole, proud of what I've accomplished. When everyone else was surfing at the end of high school, for me, things were fucked up. I was doing whatever I could to keep afloat. So I make up for it now. And to know that you make your living not backstabbing or stepping on anybody, selling people something they don't want, not ripping anybody off – that's one of the keys to being content.

How do you feel about Pearl Jam's level of success now? In 1993, Vs. sold more than a million copies out of the box. Riot Act sold a tenth of that in its opening week.
We would be completely resigned to that. However, there is a group of people making music that seems to be very derivative of our first record [smiles]. And they are doing incredibly well – with much less raw talent to work with.

Would you like to mention some names?
They know who they are. I've heard a few of them – it's part caricature, part karaoke. I guess we should be flattered, because they must have heard this stuff and been influenced by it. I just wish it was better.

It's purity that I'm missing in those bands. To walk in a room and see people with just bass, drums and guitar, and to have it be such an experience: That's one of the things you live for. That's one of the reasons I've never responded to hip-hop, never given myself up to it. It's the live performance. I saw Public Enemy at their peak – Fear of a Black Planet [1990] – in Los Angeles. It should have been one of the greatest shows of my life, and it wasn't. I want to see the distress coming out of somebody's head as they're playing guitar and singing at the same time.

That's what you did in Denver and you were attacked for it. If rock is no longer a venue for free speech, what good is it?
It's still going to sell records and soap and Coke, if you just jump into bed and play along. There's going to be people who take the job: get the perks, do the commercials. There's not going to be any job openings.

I guess there's a bit of arrogance that goes along with feeling we can say whatever we want, play whatever we want, in front of 11,000 people. Denver was a shock: We could have our lives ruined, just by going about things the way we've always done them.

Ultimately, I think of the line in [Neil Young's] "Rockin' in the Free World": "Don't feel like Satan but I am to them/So I try and forgive 'em any way that I can." I'm even looking to forgive George Bush in my heart – to send love and faith that we can bury this doctrine of pre-emptive action in Iraq and leave it there.

This story is from the May 29th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 923: May 29, 2003