Pearl Jam: Five Against the World

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Sitting next to Vedder, Ament listens like a fascinated brother. Perhaps he is remembering the first impressions Vedder made upon arriving in Seattle. Friends from his early days up north recall a different Vedder from today, a desperately shy surfer, a guy with a lot of heart and little irony. One friend even called him Holy Eddie. "He was genuinely quiet and loving Eddie when we first met him," says Ament. In the band's earliest shows, Vedder had been so self-effacing, he barely looked up. "And at a certain point, he changed."

An early turning point came onstage at a club called Harpo's, in Victoria, British Columbia. It was Pearl Jam's maiden tour, their first appearance away from a nurturing audience of Seattle friends. But this Canadian crowd was far more interested in getting drunk. In midset, Vedder decided to challenge the jaded audience, to wake them up. Unscrewing the 12-pound steel base of the microphone stand, Vedder sent it flying over their heads, like a lethal Frisbee. The steel disk crashed into the wall of the back bar.

They woke up.

Vedder would never fully be the same. Gossard credits the influence of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, who had asked Vedder to sing on his tribute to Andrew Wood, Temple of the Dog. "Cornell had already transformed himself in an intense way," Gossard says. "Eddie looked to him as a guide to help us through that time."

Vedder soon developed a new stage habit. He began climbing the stage scaffolding or the wings of the theaters the band was playing, falling into the hands of an often worshipful crowd. "I think the first time I got really worried, we were in Texas," recalls McCready. "Eddie climbed up on this girder, about 50 feet in the air. Nobody knew where he was. And all of a sudden you look up – some guy had a flashlight on him – and it was like 'Fuck!' He's up there clinging to a girder. I'm thinking, 'This guy is insane, but I'm so totally pumped.' "

"That whole thing almost turned into a circus event," adds Ament. "People weren't looking at his eyes when he was doing that. I think they were looking at the fucking freak, you know. The guy who was dumb enough to put his life on the line. Evel Knievel. But if you looked at his eyes, man, there was an intensity in what he was doing. That was his belief in himself. He was saying, 'This isn't just "rock" to me.' "

The band returned from a European tour and taped a stirring edition of Unplugged. There was a particularly galvanizing, unforgettable moment at the end of "Black." "We belong . . . together . . . together," Vedder sang. It was simple, a guy sitting on a stool, ripping his heart out, drowning emotionally, right there in front of you. After Unplugged, letters to the band's Ten Club almost doubled, many were about "Black," and they began in an eerily similar fashion: "I was recently considering suicide, and then I heard your music. . . ."

Vedder answered many of the letters himself, sometimes leaving the band's office in a wreck. But there was more work to be done. Almost immediately, the band returned to Europe to play some of the big summer festivals in front of 30,000 to 50,000 people. It was trial by fire.

"The whole thing culminated in Denmark," says Ament. "The Danish, I think, were playing Italy in the World Cup, so the city was crazed. Nirvana was playing there, and they were dealing with their fame, too. We played the show in front of 70,000 people. Eddie went into the crowd, like he usually does, and he came back, and the security didn't know who he was. They started beating him up. Half the band went down. This was during 'Deep.' I remember we stopped, and I was ready to jump down, seeing this total riot happen . . . and Eddie and Eric [Johnson, tour manager], they're totally swinging. And Mike's down there, and Dave's down there."

The previous night in Stockholm, Sweden, Vedder explains, the band had played a longer show than usual. A group of Americans had reportedly broken into the dressing room and, among other things, stolen Vedder's lyrics and journals. He had intended to give them away at the end of the tour, just as he'd done on an earlier European visit (with a backpack personalized by handwritten accounts of each show). But the theft weighed on him; it felt like a breach of trust, a bad omen. For Vedder, it was a metaphor for the growing success of Pearl Jam. The band about which Ament had once written, "Add water, watch Pearl Jam grow," was growing wildly, far beyond the small-scale plans for a small-scale debut. "It made us feel like playing those huge shows maybe wasn't as important as we thought it was," says Ament. "We packed our bags, and we left the next morning."

Sitting in the Nightlite, Ament and Vedder recall the bruising end to that 1991 tour. The band had seen their unassuming debut album, Ten, sell into the millions. Only Billy Ray Cyrus had kept them from the No. 1 slot, thankfully saving at least one achievement for later. Pearl Jam had been designed for a slow build. Instead, they were strapped to the rocket. The band held numerous meetings: "Where do we draw the line?"

The line was drawn at "Black." Eddie Vedder refused to turn the song into a video, wouldn't listen to the corporate coaching that told him the track was, as Vedder puts it, "bigger than 'Jeremy', bigger than you or me." Vedder held firm, and the band backed him up.

"Some songs," he says, "just aren't meant to be played between Hit No. 2 and Hit No. 3. You start doing those things, you'll crush it. That's not why we wrote songs. We didn't write to make hits. But those fragile songs get crushed by the business. I don't want to be a part of it. I don't think the band wants to be part of it."

The subject soon turns to video, and Ament describes a recent encounter with Mark Eitzel from the group American Music Club. Ament and McCready jammed with the band in Seattle, but within 30 seconds of conversation, Eitzel took the opportunity to challenge Ament on the "Jeremy" video. "I liked your hit," he'd told Ament, co-author of the song, "but the video sucked. It ruined my vision of the song."

The exchange stuck with Ament. "Ten years from now," he tells Vedder, "I don't want people to remember our songs as videos."

Vedder agrees. He promises that the new album will be released before any videos. "I don't even have MTV," he says with a shrug. "I don't know why I'm commenting. People stop me in the streets and tell me about this band Stone Temple Pilots. I don't even know who they are. I'm buying a sandwich, and they go, 'What's going on with the Stone Temple Pilots?' "

"You haven't seen the video?" asks Ament. "You have to have seen it."

"I haven't," he says. "I don't have MTV."

Ament tells Vedder about the "Plush" video, with the singer's uncanny appropriation of Vedder's mannerisms. Vedder's heard it before. In fact, he hears it daily. From fans, from friends, even from a French musician who complimented him on the song and his new short orange hair. (Vedder's hair is still longish and brown.)

"Apparently, it's something that the guy is dealing with, too," Vedder suggests. "It's like, am I supposed to feel sympathy? Get your own trip, man. I don't think I was copping anybody's trip. I wasn't copping Andy Wood's trip. I wasn't copping Kurt Cobain's trip, even though Kurt Cobain's one of the best trips I could ever cop. But Beth and I were part of the San Diego scene. We knew everything that was going on, and it was small enough to know. Those guys came from there? I never heard of 'em." End of subject.

For several more hours, Vedder and Ament reminisce over the strange daze of the last few years. Vedder admits to Ament that it's no longer as easy, the stage appearances are tougher now. It's harder, he says, to gear up to sing the songs the way that they must be sung. And although Vedder is only an occasional drinker, he has taken to slugging at a bottle of red wine onstage. When the conversation turns to the late Andrew Wood, though, Vedder becomes reflective.

"I wonder about Andy," he says. "I relate sometimes. Not the drug part – I don't need drugs to make my life tragic – but the fact that things were going so well for him. He didn't know." Vedder pauses. "There's one song of his that I'd be proud to sing. I won't tell you which one. But there was one song of his that always got to me. Someday I'm going to sing it."

Vedder excuses himself to visit the restroom. Ament shakes his head. "First time I heard that," he says with a private smile.

It's 2 a.m. now, a chilly night in June. Ament and Vedder stand shivering on the corner outside the Moore Theater. Neither seems anxious for the night to end. Fingering their car keys, they continue talking under the darkened marquee. Tonight is Grad Night in Seattle. Last-call barflies and late-night prom couples brush past them on the street, no one recognizing the two musicians, save for one woozy grad in a crimson tuxedo. For a few minutes, he stands watching them from nearby, softly repeating a drunken mantra to himself. "Eddie, Eddie, Eddie, Eddie, Eddie," he says and then moves on.

"I don't know if it was the beer or the company or what," Ament remarks, "but I got to a place tonight I hadn't been in a long time."

"Me, too," says Vedder. "So much has changed around here."

"There's going to be a point where it'll revert back to the way that it was," says Ament. "We'll get through this whole period right now. We'll get back out there, playing. We'll get back to actually being five guys who want to work it out together."

Vedder thrusts his hands deep into his pockets. "I'd really like that," he says.

The two band mates stand in the dark for another 10 minutes, talking about Oliver Stone, about Reservoir Dogs, about attitudes in the band and sexism on the road, about their pride in the new songs and about Vedder's ultimate meltdown plan. He can always sell solo cassettes out of his house for $1.50. Finally the cold overtakes them.

"See you tomorrow," says Ament, heading for the parking lot across the street.

"Wait," says Vedder, "I'll go with you."

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