Pearl Jam Open Spring Tour on a Wing and a Prayer

The Seattlites go where angels fear to tread

Pearl Jam
Peter Still/Redferns
Jeff Ament and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam perform on stage.
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Did you really have fun tonight? If you continue on the road you are on, you will have a front row seat in the hottest concert in dark, burning, eternal hell. When the doors close, you are in forever. . . ."

Welcome to Pensacola, Fla. – home of grand, old magnolia trees and slow-moving freight trains whose tracks, even in the '90s, serve as a sharp demarcation between the "right" side of town (read: white) and the "wrong" side (read: other). Welcome to Pensacola, where you're apt to check in to your hotel and find a religious leaflet – like the one above – under your door. Welcome to Pensacola, where You'd Best Accept the Teachin' When the Locals Come A-Preachin' – lest one of them sneak up behind you and shoot you in the back.

Chances are, Pearl Jam felt anything but welcome when they arrived in Pensacola to launch their spring tour. The tension surrounding the band's opening date, a Rock for Choice benefit at the Pensacola Civic Center on March 9 – one day short of the one-year anniversary of the shooting death of Dr. David Gunn outside a local abortion clinic – was great enough that the promoter had a SWAT team on call to protect the bands. Death threats were said to have been received by Pearl Jam; members of L7, also on the bill, checked into their hotel to find their rooms littered with religious propaganda; and representatives from the Feminist Majority Foundation were advised by a desk clerk to watch their backs, because the hotel was crawling with "spies." Not exactly a conducive environment for creativity.

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The Lord, however, works in mysterious ways. Rain, for instance. On show day, a massive storm – complete with thunder, lightning and tornado warnings – rolled in to town, and by evening, it was still coming down in torrents. The venue kept security tight, but there was a decided lack of action outside, the expected barrage of anti-abortion protesters numbering only a soggy half-dozen by show time.

Follow for Now and L7 revved up the rather sluggish crowd in fits and starts during their sets, but there was no question whom Pensacola's youth had braved the downpour to see. When Eddie Vedder – sporting a T-shirt with DR. duct-taped on the back – opened Pearl Jam's set with a plaintive, acoustic version of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," he could barely be heard above the ear-splitting screams.

Pearl Jam had no trouble making themselves heard after that, though. The band, clearly in fighting trim and happy to be treading the boards again, plowed in rapid-fire succession through "Go," "Animal," "Even Flow," "Dissident," "State of Love and Trust" and "Glorified G," pausing only for an occasional aside from Vedder. The singer kept politicalspeak to a minimum initially, contenting himself to tease guitarist Mike McCready, who, it turns out, was born in Pensacola. ("Mike and I used to room together, and he used to sit on the bed and mumble. I always thought he was praying, but it turns out he was just thanking God he got out of Pensacola.") Just past the show's halfway mark, though, Vedder let fly with a lungful of pro-choice-inspired hot air.

"I'm usually good about my temper," Vedder told the crowd, "but all these men trying to control women's bodies are really beginning to piss me off. They're talking from a bubble. They're not talking from the street, and they're not in touch with what's real. Well, I'm fucking mean, and I'm ugly, and my name is reality."

McCready, drummer Dave Abbruzzese, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament roared into "Blood," the turbulence of the song mirroring perfectly the proclamation that had preceded it, Vedder riding the riff with gut-wrenching screams of "It's . . . my . . . bloooood!" and pounding his mike stand onto the stage for punctuation. The band kept up the breakneck pace with "Why Go," then eased back into real time with "Jeremy," a stunning version of "Black" and, finally, "Alive." Vedder dedicated the latter to David Gunn Jr., who was watching stageside with his girlfriend as thousands of Bics ignited in tribute. Pearl Jam worked themselves into a frenzy as the song built momentum, McCready plowing into his amp stack to send it tumbling, Vedder, the picture of unmitigated rage, striking repeated blows at the wooden stage floor with the base of his mike stand until he'd succeeded in hacking a gaping hole in it.

At encore time, Vedder brought out Gunn, who did his late father proud, despite any anxiety he might have felt about facing such a large gathering. "We are the majority," Gunn told the crowd, "and as long as we stand together, we can take this country back from the zealots who are trying to take our choices away from us." The applause was deafening; Gunn, who later left the show with Vedder's mangled mike stand, looked truly overwhelmed.

After sterling versions of "Rearviewmirror," "Porch" and "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," Pearl Jam left the stage, returning just as the insistent chants of "Ed-die! Ed-die! Ed-die!" were growing unbearable. Given Vedder's reluctance to wear an MTV icon's crown of thorns, not to mention the agenda of the previous few hours, the dreamy, low-key "Indifference," with its mantra of "How much difference does it make?" seemed sadly appropriate as a set closer. Still, a little idol worship probably feels like a big wet kiss compared to a death threat, and all told, the band left Pensacola one up in the game.

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Pearl Jam have more to deal with on this tour than the religious right. Before their second album, Vs., was even finished, the incessant doom-mongering that is always a side effect of success set in, and for months, concerned fans have been batting around rumors of the band's impending demise. Most of the speculation has focused on Vedder, the telephone game having twisted the singer's onstage sips from a wine bottle into episodes of full-out alcoholic stupor and transformed his silence in the press into horror stories painting him as a surly hermit who's completely alienated his band mates.

"This has been going on for a year and a half," says Abbruzzese. "People see Eddie onstage with a bottle, but they don't see him the other 22 1/2 hours of the day." The drummer rolls his eyes. "Eddie died three times last year."

The band members have grown accustomed enough to the rumors by now that they mostly view the inaccuracies as fodder for laughs. But not always. "It bothers you," says Ament. "You try your hardest not to be affected by that stuff, but when people say shit about you without knowing you, it stings. A lot has changed, and for us to deny that would be ridiculous. But at the same time, I think we've dealt with it really well."

Judging from the current vibe in the Pearl Jam camp, Ament isn't just engaging in spin control. A week spent tagging along with the band revealed no infighting or instances of boorish rock-star behavior, no trashed hotel rooms or rampant substance abuse – unless you want to count coffee or the occasional beer. As for Vedder, the much ballyhooed wine bottle never materialized at all; even more shocking, the singer was observed having a good time – not just once but on six or seven different occasions. Apocalyptic scuttlebutt to the contrary, Pearl Jam have clearly emerged from what Ament refers to as a "major freakout" with their collective psyche – and sense of humor – intact.

"Maybe the insanity and the neurosis has come full circle from when we started," says McCready. "I'm still getting used to it – and there's always some new excitement that will happen, like someone knocking on your door in the middle of the night or following you around a mall. But we're maintaining our sanity. We're lucky that we can tour for shorter periods of time now, and tour, as Frank would say, 'our way.'"

For starters, "our way" means that longtime fans don't get shut out of the loop; local fan-club members are being given the opportunity to buy tickets to many of the shows before the shows are announced to the general public, and Pearl Jam are experimenting with different anti-scalping measures: announcing shows at the last minute, issuing tickets by lottery, imposing two-ticket limits on sales. The band is also adhering to a more humane tour schedule this time around, going out in short bursts and allowing plenty of time between shows for writing and recording. Given the slew of new songs that turned up during the two Chicago shows – among them "Not for You," a harangue about star fuckers that would have been right at home on Rust Never Sleeps; "Tremor Christ," an unusual, almost carnivalesque stomp with a monster of a descending guitar riff; and "Black Circle," a punk paean to vinyl – Pearl Jam have been doing more writing than anything else lately. Between the "official" new songs they played and a number of onstage improvisations so well constructed that they were overqualified as jams, Pearl Jam probably already have more than enough material for a new album.

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Fears about whether the band could maintain any sense of intimacy in larger venues can be laid to rest, if a two-and-a-half-hour blitzkrieg on March 10 at Chicago Stadium is any indication. That the show fell on Ament's birthday and that Chicago is Vedder's hometown might have lent the proceedings additional energy, but the real charm lay in the show's simplicity. The staging was spare – a scattering of candles and jewel-colored lights – and more important, the band kept things informal. Taking requests from the crowd, veering off into impromptu jams and pausing for onstage set-list discussions ("Just make something up," Vedder was heard suggesting at one point), the band expertly walked the fine line between spontaneity and self-indulgence, which is the secret ingredient of any awe-inspiring show. (The spectacle of Gossard leading 13,000 people in "Happy Birthday to You" for Ament – not to mention the onstage food fight the band had with Ament's cake after he blew out the candles – didn't hurt, either.)

That's not to say that Pearl Jam have forever resigned themselves to the Enormodome. After a two-day breather, the band descended upon the New Regal Theater – Chicago's answer to Harlem's Apollo. Of the first three dates on the tour, this was the must-see for old fans. Vedder, nursing a cold, seemed to be having a tough time of it during the first few numbers, but a third of the way into the set, the hoarseness dissipated, and from there on in, the show was a rowdy tour de force, chock-full of rarities ("Yellow Ledbetter," "Footsteps," "Alone") and shot through with electricity. Midway through an encore of "Porch," an exuberant Vedder edged his way out onto a high balcony. Perched high above the crowd, apparently having realized too late that the throng below represented more of a threat than the jump, he paused for an agonizing interval before finally giving himself over to a backward free fall. As expected, the fans below politely caught him, then immediately transformed themselves into a pack of wild dogs. The several minutes that passed before crew members were able to fish Vedder out of the melee were scary, indeed.

For Vedder, the incident was probably worse than scary; it was a harsh reminder – in the middle of a week that otherwise saw the singer growing to accept the position he's in – of the things that he can no longer do. Given that, Pearl Jam couldn't have chosen a more appropriate song with which to bid adieu to Chicago than the spare, achingly beautiful "Angel."

In 1991, around the time Vedder wrote the words to the song, he was under the spell of a book he'd found called The Eloping Angels. Written in the 1800s, it tells of a pair of angels who yearn for the love and intimacy they are unable to attain in heaven. It is a story about longing for things just beyond one's grasp and about the torturous isolation suffered by beings who are set apart from others. Those themes figure prominently in Vedder's lyrics to "Angel." At the time he wrote them, he probably had no idea how eerily they would one day echo his own situation.

To anyone unfamiliar with the song's genesis, the full impact of those lyrics would have been lost. But to watch Vedder on that last night in Chicago, pouring his soul into lines like "I'm not living what was promised, I am close but can't enjoy" was to be absolutely, spine-chillingly certain that for him, the words had just grown a little weightier.

This story is from the May 5th, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 681: May 5, 1994
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