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].
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  – 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.
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