Eddie Vedder's Embarrassing Tale: Naked in Public

In an excerpt from his cover story interview, Pearl Jam's leader talks about writing lyrics, yoga and a hotel lobby visit without his pants

By |

Do you agree when people say your new album is your strongest in years? It's one of those weird compliments where there's an implied put-down of previous stuff.

We've heard a lot of that. And, you know, if that needs to be said in order to prick up someone's ears and say, "I'll have to revisit this band," then I don't think we can complain about it....I think this record is stronger. I'm thankful that it turned out to be a more aggressive record.

Was there a particular song that set the template for everything else?

We played music for about five days with all these discussions about all these arrangements and whatever. And at the end of the five days we had probably like ten pieces of music. And then on the sixth day I asked for the room to myself and just like belted it out over the ten pieces of music. In, literally, a day and a half or something I pretty much had most of the melodies down for the first ten songs. And we ended up writing forty other pieces of music. And it all kept getting [pared down]. That's another reason why it ended up being aggressive. It wasn't that we tried to write all aggressive songs -- it's just the ones that were kind of mid-tempo, we left them behind.

Yeah. And you worked hard on the lyrics? Unusually hard, from what I understand.

Well, it wasn't that I set out to work hard on them. Because it's not always hard. And it should be easy. If you connect with the idea and the light hits you in the forehead, you get it on the typewriter, you get it on the eight-track machine in front of you -- your little portable machine -- then sometimes it can go quick. The hard part was just sticking at it for, you know, it could be eight days for one song until the fucking beam hits you between the eyes and then you're ready. You're ready to capture it. You need the patience of like a National Geographic photographer sitting underneath the bush in a tent, trying to get a picture of zebras fucking or something for the first time. [Laughs] For some reason, a lot of the songs I wrote eight versions until I got the right one, or until it was like up to the standards of what the Earth's atmosphere is demanding for music. And it needed that, or I'd figure out after eight, nine or eleven drafts that the first one was actually the one.

When I think of you at fifty, I still can imagine Pearl Jam being together. Can you?

Yeah, yeah. That's not hard to do.

You've never even temporarily broken up, not that you've told anyone at least.

Right. I mean, at the end of every tour you basically break up. You just keep it to yourself. Then you can relieve yourself of the pressure, and right about the time you feel like playing music again, you think, "Well, there's not a better bunch of guys to do it with."

After all this time, you still haven't done your own solo project.

I think it's just because...I am so fucking beat at the end of...the amount of communication it takes to be on the road and the amount of physical...I don't know who said it...someone said like, "I play the shows for free; they pay me to travel." And Flea and I were talking about that the other day. We started laughing about it hysterically, because we were just in that mode, you know. I've recorded a bunch of stuff just for myself, and I've done a number of benefits for kids by myself because it's easier for me to get there than the whole group and kind of make a bit of a difference. Also, I've had some real genuine offers to collaborate with a few people here and there in our off time. That's kept me pretty busy. And I think too, during that time when you're not functioning as one of the limbs of the group and having to be in motion with each other at all times, that off time, that's when you kind of get away from everything and refill everything that you've emptied out and kind of get your soul back. You remind yourself what's it's like to be a regular human being and not be part of the band. Any one of our guys will tell you that. We're proud to be in it and we're proud to come together. But you're talking about five extremely different individuals who don't define themselves by being in this group. It's what it will say in the paper when we die, but it's not how we define ourselves.

During your period of unhappiness with fame and everything that was happening with the band, are there things that you did that you regret?

Yeah, I'm sure there were, but I'm not going to think about them now because it just doesn't matter. It's hard for us to watch early performances, even though that's when people think we were on fire and young. Playing music for as long as I had been playing music and then getting a shot at making a record and at having an audience and stuff, it's just like an untamed force... a different kind of energy. And I find it kind of hard to watch those early performances because it's so just fucking, semi-testosterone-fueled or whatever. But it didn't come from jock mentality. It came from just being let out of the gates. And Jeff and Stone, their horse was just about to be put down when it was put in the race. And I was coming from the same place. So when they finally let us out of the gates, we didn't have a smooth, galvanized, streamlined gate. We were just rocking all over the place.

I saw a clip on the Jools Holland show where they made you watch an old performance and you looked like you were going to die.

Could you see us watching the performance?

Yeah, I mean you were laughing, but you were also were starting to get really uncomfortable.

I was thinking, "OK, I've had enough. That's enough. OK." And it's not even that bad. It's like looking at pictures from high school or something. But outside of that, we made it through. So we shouldn't have too many regrets. I can listen to the early records [except] the first record, which is strange because it's the one that, in a way, we've been defined by, or people know those songs most. But, it's just the sound of the record. It was kind of mixed in a way that was...it was kind of produced.

I understand that the guys would present riffs and you'd pick the weird one instead of the one that sounded like Pearl Jam. And also, I wonder if there were other songs that were as catchy or as poppy as "Betterman" but we never heard them because they weren't what you wanted.

Yeah. We were all trying to tame the beast. I was the guy who got [stalkers] or whatever, it just happened. And so it probably seemed more life-threatening to me to tame the beast. And you know, we're talking about melodies and hooks in a song, and could that be life-threatening? But, I've just explained it. I felt that with any more popularity we were going to be crushed, or our heads were going to pop like grapes. I went through this fucking yearlong period where I wore helmets all the time. It was like army helmets that I'd find, or just like whatever. It was this kind of analogy, like I need a helmet...I felt like...it's just funny looking...sleeping in a fucking army helmet. I remember one day after a Lollapalooza gig, I woke up in a hotel in an army helmet and a T-shirt. And, I heard a live band playing. I thought it was a live band. So I went out the door to see if it was live. I had to know -- was that a real stand-up bass? Or were they just playing music in the atrium or whatever? So I pushed the door open, went to look, you know, and I looked back and the door just went [makes a clicking sound]. So I'm standing in the hotel, in this atrium thing and I've got an army helmet on and a T-shirt.

In like your underwear? Nothing?

Nothing; army helmet and a T-shirt. I was thinking, "Aww, this is really bad." And so I go down to the maids, but they won't let me in. I don't know anybody else's room number. Everyone's got a pseudonym. I don't know who's what. And, so I take the T-shirt off, wrap it around the back, put the army helmet over the front, go down in this glass elevator, it's Easter Sunday -- this all starts to hit me -- it's Easter Sunday, there's all these people in their Easter [best]. It was somewhere in the Midwest like Milwaukee or something. I had to walk through the people, and parents were hiding their kids from this freaky guy. It must have been like a real apparition. Then -- sorry I got into this story; I'll just finish it -- but the funny thing is that I actually waited in line. There was a line at the front desk. I actually waited in line behind two other people. It was kind of a Tarzan goes to Vietnam look or something. And then of course you get to the lady, tell her your problem, locked out of your room and, of course, she asks for an ID. That's when I lost it.

Your helmet period was like in '92 when you were playing Lollapalooza?

Yeah, yeah. It's a joke. I mean, it happened, but it probably wasn't a year; it was a couple of months. If you look back, you'll see pictures of me wearing it.

Do you ever wish that you'd embraced the machine more? If you had even more of the spotlight on you, if you had completely gone for it and embraced it, then maybe you'd have more power to speak out politically. Do you ever think about that kind of thing?

I tell ya. I had the chance. I just didn't take the bait. Believe me, we put ourselves out there, with Nader, and whatever it is, as much as we can. But as a band we know our limits and as a human I certainly know my limits. I just have this deep kind of connection to reality of being like... in a way, I feel like a dock worker. I want to stay in connection with my dock-worker side, 'cause that's how I grew up...I'm not ready to be that guy who can meet with world leaders and all that. It's tremendous what Bono does. I don't know if I could do it, not the way he does. I don't think many people could. The physicality of what Bono does, the physicality of like, meeting with Mitterrand and then going and playing Sweden that night, and then more shows after that... I've told him that I was in awe of what he did, not only what he accomplished, but how he fuckin' did it, from the point of taxing his body. I told him this, and he kind of raised his eyebrows and asked for another drink. [Laughs]

Roger Daltrey once said to me that he felt rock music can speak to the concerns of adulthood and middle-age as well as it does to adolescence. What do you think?

I think you could do both. We're probably in a position to do that. I look around the audience, and there's so many faces, and I've looked into the eyes of at least the ones I could see -- there's at least 1,000 faces -- and I've communicated directly to them and seen where they're coming from. Those faces range from like twelve-year-olds, to tonight probably fifty-year-olds, and it seems like we are connected. They knew what was going on, singing along, not to the old songs but the new songs. They know how old I am, they know where I'm coming from. One thing I don't feel is separation from the crowd. I don't feel like we're speaking from a platform, I feel like we are communicating on the same level.

I mentioned before as a joke, why not go all the way? Why not go on TRL, for instance, and play on TRL and reach out to the masses of teens. What would be so bad?

I haven't even thought about it. It might be a great idea.

There might be a horrifying encounter with a host and stuff. But if you could just play...

If you could play a song...I would like to play on Ellen DeGeneres' show.

Nice, nice. So do it.

I think she's tremendous.

Yeah, she's cool.

But, you know what? I wouldn't do it based on know what her -- what's the word...?

Demographic?

Demographic. It wouldn't be based on that. It would be based on that I think Ellen DeGeneres has done. Tremendous things. Who hosts TRL? What have they done?

The real point is, that's what kids watch.

I'm sure the kids would have a good time watching our band play, I mean, I don't know. I think, to be honest, no one's approached the subject.

I think maybe, people think it's unthinkable, for some reason.

Could be.

Were you uncomfortable at all on Saturday Night Live this time?

No...I mean, we were still learning the songs, you know...

You seemed restrained, especially compared with how you are in a real concert.

Well, I'm aware that it's TV, too, you know? We don't do that much TV. We did some TV in London, and then we came back, and we did Letterman. So I mean we do it once every few years, but what I think is interesting is other people do this stuff, and they do it all the time and they do it really good, and they're kind of our peers, and I respect them and I admire them. I see things that are absolutely great.

Like the Chili Peppers? Is that who you're thinking of?

...or Tim Robbins, interviewing on Letterman. He gets his point across. Maybe the more you do it, the better you get at it. We were coming from a standpoint where, it was like the Native Americans, where if they took your picture, part of your soul got sucked out of you.

I was just thinking that that's how you guys have been acting, literally, today. Did something make you start thinking that way?

TV made us feel that way. I mean the fact that it's transmitted to -- I'm just guessing -- millions, it's tangible, that it actually sucks it out of you. But that's when you don't do it. I think you can kind of callus yourself to it and be more giving with it and free and say like, "Hey, here it is." It's so psychological in a way. To grasp it, especially when you feel proud of the information that you're disseminating, and your beats and rhythms and lyrical content, then how could this be bad? We stand behind what we're saying and playing so let's let it fly. I'm sure you can get pretty professional at it, which will suck all the life out of it and then you'll just be show business. But we're far from that. For us it's probably a good time to realize this is not a bad way to transmit information.

How did you get into yoga?

I made some changes... like we talked about earlier, when I found a place to get away. I met the few people who were around on this kind of deserted existence. I realized that these people were not impressed by what you had and what you were. They were impressed with how old you could live to be and how little you could live with. And we're talking about guys who are like eighty-five years old, looking like their bodies were in their 30s or 40s. Their faces showed it a little bit, doing yoga poses I still can't do, and living under a lean-to next to a river, and they usually have some artistic bent -- they drew these incredible maps or something. This was the most respectable way to live. And I was down with that.

When did all this change for you? Was it when you found this place to go away, when you found a meditation, that your attitude changed?

I just disappeared. The world is bigger than the world I was living in. That's all there is to it. You know, we were in a band, we played and promoted ourselves and then we complained about it. It just got to where it was beyond the beyond. We thought we were keeping up with each other. We all thought we were doing the right thing, and then we realized pretty quickly it was kind of out of our hands, and that's when we wanted to get some control back of our lives and our own destiny.

There was a time when you seemed reluctant to play your hits. But now you sound as if you're really into playing "Alive," I mean really into it. What changed?

I don't know if it changed, I don't think it was ever a problem. I mean I dare you to sing "Black" and not feel it. I dare you. That's why, like, I think about someone singing karaoke to our songs. You gotta feel it -- it's gotta be the real deal. That's part of the curse: If you're gonna play the song, you better play it. I've tried to phone in "Jeremy" a few times, and it's tough. It doesn't work.

[Expanded From Story in Issue 1003 — June 29, 2006]

x