There are two Eddie Vedders. One is quiet, shy, barely audible when he speaks. Loving and loved in return. The other is tortured, a bitter realist, a man capable of pointing out injustice and waging that war on the home front, inside himself. On a warm and windy late-spring day in San Rafael, Calif., it's easy to see which Eddie Vedder is shooting baskets outside the Site, the recording studio where Pearl Jam are finishing their second album. It is tortured Eddie, the one with the deep crease between his eyebrows.
"Your shot," calls Jeff Ament, the group's bassist. He bounces the ball to Vedder, who takes a long outside jumper. It rattles into the basket and rolls away. By the time Ament retrieves the ball, Vedder has already disappeared into the studio. His mind is on a new song, "Rearviewmirror." This is the last day of recording at the Site, and the track's fate hangs in the balance. It's a song about suicide . . . but it's too "catchy."
The choice of studio seemed perfect back in February, when the band decided to record the new album here. This idyllic studio compound in the hills outside San Francisco offered privacy and focus. Keith Richards had recorded here; his thank-you note to the studio is framed on the living-room wall. This is gorgeous country, where locals look out at the expansive green horizon and say things like "George Lucas owns everything to the left." This is where Pearl Jam would face the challenge of following up Ten, one of the most successful debut albums in rock. There was only one problem.
"I fucking hate it here," says Vedder, standing in the cool blue room where he is about to sing. "I've had a hard time." He places the lyric sheet on a stand between two turquoise-green guitars. "How do you make a rock record here? Maybe the old rockers, maybe they love this. Maybe they need the comfort and the relaxation. Maybe they need it to make dinner music."
Frustrated, Vedder shakes his head. He pulls at his black T-shirt, uncomfortable in his own skin. A long moment passes. Finally, producer Brendan O'Brien speaks over the intercom. "Ready to give it a shot?"
"Sure," Vedder says quietly, turning his back for the vocal. He slips on headphones, and for a long time the only sound in the room is his tapping foot.
"Took a drive today," he sings. "Time to emancipate/I guess it was the beatings/Made me wise . . ." He holds a shaking hand to his head. "But I'm not about to give thanks . . . or apologize."
Now listening carefully, his weight shifts from foot to foot. He growls and begins spitting on the floor. "Divided by fear . . ." Louder now. "Forced to endure/What I could not forgive . . ." He's bellowing now, eyes shut. "Saw things . . ." The room is filled with his anger. "Clearer . . . once you were in my . . ." Eight feet away, a snare drum leaning against the wall starts to shake. "Rearview . . . mirrorrrrrr!"
In another part of the building, Ament, the band's resident artist, prepares for a group meeting about the new album cover. For months, the unwritten rule had been Don't talk about it. Just make the record. Forget about the pressures on the other side of that hill. But now decisions must be made, and the band slowly gathers in the kitchen to look at Ament's ideas.
"I've been thinking about windows," Ament says, fighting nerves, passing his artwork ideas to the other members. Ament's distinctive hand-scripted style adorns all the group's T-shirts and record releases. On the table before them is a complex collection of his photos and sketches.
"Cool," says Vedder softly, just returned from the studio and still hunched from the emotional vocal. Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, the band's guitarists, study the ideas with growing enthusiasm. Buoyed, Ament continues. He likes the idea of contradiction. Conflicting images. The five members kick the concept around until it sticks. Contradiction. There is the lull that follows a winning idea.
"So are we talking about 'Daughter' as the first single?" drummer Dave Abbruzzese asks casually.
Suddenly, all air leaves the room. The other four members dog pile on Abbruzzese. What single? One meeting at a time! What do you mean, single? Abbruzzese shrugs. Perhaps it's still a little too soon to mention the unmentionable. Soon, the subject returns to the album-cover art. Abbruzzese suggests adding a battered and bolted New York City apartment window to the artwork. The idea is instantly accepted and the meeting ends on an exuberant note. The band disappears to play softball while Brendan O'Brien finishes the mix of "Rearviewmirror."
Abbruzzese stays behind, nursing a sore wrist. (He occasionally suffers from carpal-tunnel syndrome, which causes numbness in three of his fingers.) "To me, when I was younger and I heard about a band selling a million records, I thought the band would get together and jump up and down for at least a minute," he says with a wide-open East Texas laugh, "and just go, 'Wow, I can't believe it.' But it doesn't happen that way [in this band]. Me, I flip out. I jump up and down by myself."
For Abbruzzese, who co-wrote the album's opening track, "Go," it's sometimes hard to watch his band mates deal with success. "There's a lot of intensity over decisions," he says cheerfully. "And I think it's great. But every once in a while, I wish everyone would just let it go. Make a bad decision!" He looks out at the same green forest Vedder had raged at earlier. "Look at this place! It's paradise."
Sitting in a downtown-Seattle coffee shop a few weeks later, Stone Gossard analyzes the combustible nature of his band. "I think we're doing fine," he says in the clipped rhythm of an athlete. "I think we made a great record. Nobody's out buying limos and thinking they're the most amazing thing on earth. There's a natural balance in the band where we need each other. Everybody sees things from their own angle, and all those angles are the archetypes of the things you need to really cover your ass. It's what makes a band to me."
And he has heard the criticism of Pearl Jam's success. "If somebody wants to say, 'You guys used to be my favorite band, but you got too big' – to me, the problem with getting too big is not, innately, you get too big and all of a sudden you stop playing good music," Gossard says. "The problem is, when you get too big, you stop doing the things you used to do. Just being big doesn't mean you can't go in your basement and write a good song. I think people are capable of being a lot bigger on that rad big scale." He laughs. "A lot more people are capable of being big out there that just don't give themselves a chance."
At first, the songs on the new album, Pearl Jam, came in a burst. The initial week of recording at the Site had produced "Rats," "Blood," "Go" and a slow, potent version of their previously unrecorded stage favorite, "Leash." Then the band hit a wall. Vedder disappeared into San Francisco, often sleeping in his truck to preserve his fighting spirit. Hiking, he'd even picked up poison ivy. "He needed to get in the space of his songs," says Ament. "Soon we were back on track."
Pearl Jam is the band's turf statement, a personal declaration of the importance of music over idolatry. But the burden of Pearl Jam's popularity has fallen most solidly on Vedder, who spent much of his off-season wondering about the effects of being in such a high-profile band. Vedder had – uncharacteristically – even gotten into a barroom fight defending the band. (In a Waits-like voice, he offers a snippet of an unrecorded song that he has written about it: "Gave myself a black eye/To show off just how I was feeling.") And one night, while sitting out on a deserted coastal sand bluff, contemplating life after the death of a friend, guitarist Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch, he heard strange voices coming from the hill behind him. They were singing "Black," the fragile song that to Vedder had come to symbolize the overcommercialization of the band. He'd fought to keep it from getting overplayed, didn't want a video made of the song. Vedder hiked out of the bushes to ask the surprised hikers not to sing the song. Months later, he still remembers their odd and concerned looks as they faced the angst-filled author of the song.
"I had a hard time getting away," Vedder says now with a laugh. But as Ament says, the struggle is everything. "The push and pull," he says, "is what makes our band."
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