Pearl Jam: Five Against the World

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"Let's do 'Black,' says Gossard.

It's rehearsal time back in Seattle, June 1993. Later in the summer, Pearl Jam will do a brief "fun" tour of Europe, opening shows for Neil Young and U2, and the band has rented out the downtown Moore Theater for practice. Half-seriously, Gossard asks that the stage lights of the empty theater be darkened. (They are.) He begins strumming the simple chords that open this anguished song to a former lover. Then, hands in pockets, Vedder eases into the words. He gives himself, wrenchingly, to a thousand empty seats. When it's over, there is a buzz in the air. The band is clearly energized.

Soon Pearl Jam are racing with a new riff by Gossard. Abbruzzese tries a few different feels, locks in on one with Ament. Then McCready adds a spitfire lead. Like McCready himself, his playing is quietly expressive, marked by sudden explosions. Now Vedder joins in, trying random lyrics ("When it comes to modern times/You're standing in line"). His omnipresent yellow-tweed suitcase, the one filled with journals and lyrics and masks and tapes, is open and spread out onstage. He selects phrases and thoughts as the band blazes behind him. Before long, they've honed loose versions of two new songs.

At the heart of Pearl Jam is the relationship between Gossard and Vedder. "I consider us to be very different people," says Gossard, whose razor-edged wit is far different from Vedder's deadpan irony. "Almost polarized in a lot of ways. I mean, name any given issue, and we'll take opposite sides of it. We give each other the total different end of the spectrum so we can always somehow find the middle. My goal, what I really want to achieve, is not to need him. Because he is needed by so many people who don't really understand him."

Later, Vedder grabs a pitcher of beer at a bar next door, the Nightlite, and unwinds from the rehearsal. He reflects on singing "Black" for the first time in months. "There are certain songs that come from emotion," he says. "It's got nothing to do with melody or timing or even words; it has to do with the emotion behind the song. You can't put out 50 percent. You have to sing them from a feeling. Like 'Alive' and 'Jeremy' to this day – and 'Black.' Those songs, they tear me up."

Ament is sitting next to him. The two have not been out together socially since the 1992 Lollapalooza tour. They share the easy camaraderie of music lovers. "My relationship with the band," Vedder says, "began as a love affair on the phone with Jeff." Soon the two musicians are recalling the early history of Pearl Jam, the scuffling days of only two and a half years ago.

It had all begun with an unassuming tape marked stone gossard demos 91. The guitar-god magazines have only recently discovered it, but most Pearl Jam songs began life as a Gossard riff. One of his early favorites was a song called "Dollar Short," an unfinished track that he'd started working on back when he and bassist Ament were in Mother Love Bone. Love Bone was the promising Seattle hard-rock band they'd formed after the breakup of their previous group, grunge pioneers Green River. When Love Bone singer/songwriter Andrew Wood died in 1990 of a tragic heroin overdose, Ament – the Montana-born son of a barber – downshifted, playing around town with a group called the War Babies and returning to his other love, graphic arts. Gossard – a Seattle native whose father is a lawyer – barely put down his guitar, playing constantly, moving away from the trippy atmospherics of Love Bone and toward a hard-edged groove. Part of the new blueprint was "Dollar Short."

Eventually Gossard called in McCready, an explosive lead guitarist who had been so bummed out by the breakup of his own Seattle band, Shadow, that he'd started turning into a Republican – literally. He'd cut his hair, was working in a video store and was reading a book by archconservative Barry Goldwater. "I was becoming a staunch conservative," McCready says, "because I was so depressed." Gossard saw him more as his new secret weapon for the band he wanted to form. "Whatever you're playing," says Gossard, "'Cready comes in and lights the fuse."

As the Seattle sound started to gather momentum around them – Nirvana were about to enter the major-label arena, Sub Pop Records was flourishing – Gossard and McCready jammed in the attic room of Gossard's parents' house. That room had already been the musical hothouse for Green River and Mother Love Bone. When Ament joined the Gossard-McCready jams, inspiration struck again. "I knew we had a band," McCready says, "when we started playing that song 'Dollar Short.' "

Dave Krusen joined the band later, playing on Ten, but soon left to deal with some domestic problems. He was replaced by Abbruzzese, who had been playing in a funk band and co-hosting a radio show, Music We Like, in Houston. At first, Abbruzzese was tentative about playing rock full time; after two shows, he'd tattooed Ament's stick-figure Pearl Jam logo on his shoulder.

Today, listening to Gossard's original '91 demos is not unlike hearing Ten without the vocals – powerful but incomplete. The missing piece, it turned out, was in San Diego. Originally from Evanston, Ill., Vedder – better known on the San Diego music scene as "the guy who never slept" – had brought a Midwestern work ethic to the sunny beach community. Working at hyperspeed, laboring days at a petroleum company to finance his budding career as a singer and songwriter, Vedder had befriended Jack Irons, formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Irons passed along Gossard's tape.

The demo tape from Seattle contained five instrumentals, Vedder remembers, but there was something about that one song, the one with that great bridge, that was triggering things that Vedder had kept long contained. It all came to a head one morning in the fog as he was surfing, the morning "Dollar Short" became a song called "Alive."

Vedder raced back to the Mission Beach apartment of his longtime girlfriend, Beth Liebling. Working from yellow Post-it pads lifted from his job, Vedder taped himself singing over three of the instrumentals. Together the three songs told a story, as Vedder recalls today, "based on things that had happened, and some I imagined." The "mini opera" tape was carefully designed by Vedder, the graphics Xeroxed at work and the package entitled Mamasan.

Sitting in his apartment in Seattle, Ament listened to the tape three times and picked up a phone. "Stone," he said, "you better get over here."

By the time Vedder arrived in Seattle, he'd already written "Black." All he'd requested in his earlier, lengthy phone conversations with Ament was not to waste time. He wanted to come straight from the airport – right to their rehearsal room – and make music. And that is what happened. The first song they played together was "Alive." Within a week, they were a fully functioning band. And Vedder's creative floodgates were wide open. Most of his songs, from "Why Go" to "Oceans," were real stories about people he knew. Some of them contained riddles, private messages to himself or friends. Even the lyrics printed on Ten are only partial, but it's hard to dispute the pain in his delivery of such aching lines as "Daddy didn't give attention/To the fact that Mommy didn't care."

"I don't know where all those songs came from," says Ament. "I know a little about his childhood. I know he loved [the Who's] Quadrophenia . . . I guess I don't know many details."

"Alive" set the tone for everything that would follow. The first song on Ten was also the first song to bring attention to the band. It was clearly Vedder's creative breakthrough, and the band's initial video celebrated a cathartic live performance of the song. In an early Los Angeles Times review, writer Chris William had even compared the song to the Who's "My Generation." Today, "Alive" is a Gen X rallying cry, but tonight, sitting in the Nightlite, Vedder reveals the true meaning of the song.

"Everybody writes about it like it's a life-affirmation thing – I'm really glad about that," he says with a rueful laugh. "It's a great interpretation. But 'Alive' is . . . it's torture. Which is why it's fucked up for me. Why I should probably learn how to sing another way. It would be easier. It's . . . it's too much."
Vedder continues: "The story of the song is that a mother is with a father, and the father dies. It's an intense thing because the son looks just like the father. The son grows up to be the father, the person that she lost. His father's dead, and now this confusion, his mother, his love, how does he love her, how does she love him? In fact, the mother, even though she marries somebody else, there's no one she's ever loved more than the father. You know how it is, first loves and stuff. And the guy dies. How could you ever get him back? But the son. He looks exactly like him. It's uncanny. So she wants him. The son is oblivious to it all. He doesn't know what the fuck is going on. He's still dealing, he's still growing up. He's still dealing with love, he's still dealing with the death of his father. All he knows is 'I'm still alive' – those three words, that's totally out of burden."

Elvis' "Suspicious Minds" blasts on the jukebox as Vedder continues. "Now the second verse is 'Oh, she walks slowly into a young man's room . . . I can remember to this very day . . . the look . . . the look.' And I don't say anything else. And because I'm saying, 'The look, the look,' everyone thinks it goes with 'on her face.' It's not on her face. The look is between her legs. Where do you go with that? That's where you came from.

"But 'I'm still alive.' I'm the lover that's still alive. And the whole conversation about 'You're still alive, she said.' And his doubts: 'Do I deserve to be? Is that the question?' Because he's fucked up forever! So now he doesn't know how to deal with it, so what does he do, he goes out killing people – that was [the song] 'Once.' He becomes a serial killer. And 'Footsteps,' the final song of the trilogy [it was released as a U.K. B side to 'Jeremy'], that's when he gets executed. That's what happens. The Green River killer . . . and in San Diego, there was another prostitute killer down there. Somehow I related to that. I think that happens more than we know. It's a modern way of dealing with a bad life."

Then he smiles as he says, "I'm just glad I became a songwriter."

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