Pearl Jam: The Second Coming

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Around 1996, Vedder decided he'd had enough of fame, enough of hit songs – in the studio, potential smashes started to sound "life-threatening" to him. The band cut back on interviews. Vedder started to prune the catchiness out of Pearl Jam's music, too – which may be why some of the band's poppiest songs can be found on its B-sides collection, Lost Dogs. "I felt that with more popularity, we were going to be crushed, our heads were going to pop like grapes," he says.

The deranged stalker was only the most visible symbol of Vedder's ugly experience of celebrity. It's easy to forget just how big Pearl Jam, Nirvana and the amorphous concept of grunge were in the early Nineties. Ten sold more than 12 million copies. Grunge fashion spreads appeared in Vogue, and the band's music dominated pop radio.

Now Pearl Jam are the last band standing from their era, outlasting peers (Soundgarden, whose drummer now plays in Pearl Jam), rivals (Nirvana) and imitators (Creed) alike. Vedder is hesitant to dwell on those strange, early days. "This is the stuff I don't want to talk about, because it's bullshit, and you had to have been there," he tells me, taking a pull from a cigarette. "It was really fucking intense: These were pure feelings coming out from real individuals and were being co-opted quickly by the masses and characterized into a joke. And we weren't a joke."

With no videos and little other promotion, Pearl Jam's second album, Vs., still sold 7 million copies. Their follow-up, Vitalogy, sold 5 million, and No Code barely limped to platinum. Not everyone in the band was thrilled. "When we pulled back, I was like, 'Aw, man,' " McCready says, sitting in a Chicago dressing room. "I was a bit bummed out, because I wanted to keep doing it, keep doing videos. We had this chance, let's take it, you know? Let's not blow it."

But the band members now agree that they did the right thing. "Luckily, it turned out we didn't blow it, because we're still around," adds McCready. "And maybe we had alienated some fans throughout the years, which I feel bad for. But it made us survive as a band." Says Gossard, "In retrospect, it was brilliant – it was what we had to do. Ed's instincts were totally correct. If we had followed the advice of everyone in the industry or our own egos, we would've gone for it until it went down the drain."

Nirvana's Kurt Cobain was even more troubled by his sudden fame – and his retreat was even more final. He spent a lot of time dissing Pearl Jam in the press, once memorably accusing the band of pioneering a "corporate, alternative and cock-rock fusion." "I don't think he ever really figured out the band," Vedder says softly, curling into an armchair late one night. "However, I think that if he had survived, I think he would have gotten it. Now, mind me, those are big words, but I really think it's true."

Vedder looks off into the distance. "I miss him," he says. "There are a lot of times when we're passing around a guitar, around a campfire or something, and I just think like he'd be right there with us. I think about him all the time."

Vedder and Cobain famously reconciled, at least temporarily, on September 10th, 1992, at the MTV Video Music Awards. "We slow-danced underneath the stage when Eric Clapton was playing 'Tears in Heaven,' " Vedder says, furrowing his brow. "We were slow-dancing on a gym floor as though it was a seventh-grade dance."

Did you cop a feel? 
No, I respected Kurt?
Who led?     

That's a good question. That's the thing, no one led.

Mike McCready Stares Through his orange-framed glasses at the high glass-and-metal ceiling of Cleveland's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, where several graffiti-covered cars hang like two-ton mobiles. They're leftover props from U2's Zoo TV Tour. "We opened for U2 on that tour in Europe," McCready says. "The crowds hated us!" It's Saturday afternoon, and we're on line to buy tickets.

McCready, whose fluid, bluesy solos provide some of that Cobain-despised "cock rock," is a sweet-natured recovering alcoholic who used to run onstage naked. In his hard-partying days, his bandmates treated him like a younger brother, but his role has steadily expanded: McCready wrote the epic new song "Inside Job," and for the first time, Vedder sings his lyrics.

After entering the main exhibition hall, we find ourselves, without warning, facing a large display case devoted to the Seattle scene of the Nineties. Inside, among other artifacts, are the remnants of a smashed Stratocaster – a plaque identifies it as having belonged to one Mike McCready. "I had no idea this was here," he says, looking a little dazed.

Within seconds, he becomes an unwilling part of the exhibit as fans line up to take pictures. Meanwhile, a taped narrator offers a history of the scene; we're informed that Andrew Wood, the flamboyant singer of the glam-influenced Seattle band Mother Love Bone, died on March 19th, 1990, of an overdose.

A security guard yells at us for taking pictures. On the way out, McCready picks up where the narrator left off, recalling his first jams with former Love Bone guitarist Gossard, shortly after Wood's death. It hardly seemed like Hall of Fame material at the time. "It was just Stone and I in his parents' house," he says. "He had these riffs. We were working on 'Alive' and 'Even Flow' and 'Black,' just the two of us, for a long time."

Gossard had sought out McCready after seeing him jam to Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Couldn't Stand the Weather" at a party. McCready, in turn, encouraged his new bandmate to reunite with Mother Love Bone bassist Jeff Ament. Ament, a guileless skater kid from rural Montana, had formed an unlikely friendship with Gossard in the band Green River. The group, which also included future Mudhoney leader Mark Arm, blurred the lines between punk and metal – Gossard was a Van Halen fan, while Ament preferred Black Flag. Together the band helped create the heavy, murky sound that came to be known as grunge.

Two nights earlier, at a Chicago steak-house, Ament, who is still a skater – and still dresses like one, in a black T-shirt that displays a goat's head inside a pentagram - settles into a leather booth. As we begin dinner, Ament traces the breakup of Green River to an opening stint for Jane's Addiction in L.A.: Gossard and Ament were awed by Perry Farrell's bombastic, tribal rock, while Arm – who went on to define the grunge sound with the defiantly indie Mudhoney – was disgusted by what he saw as arena pretension. "When we saw Jane's Addiction, we were like, 'That's what we want to fucking do,' " says Ament.

After Wood's death, Gossard wanted to start a "darker" band. Eventually, he entered a demo studio with McCready, Ament and the best drummer in town, the hard-hitting Matt Cameron. There they laid down instrumental versions of songs such as "Even Flow" and "Alive." The tape found its way to a San Diego surfer and gas-station attendant named Eddie Vedder – he had recently split with his band, Bad Radio.

Legend has it that Vedder wrote the lyrics to the songs in one burst, while surfing. That particular story, he tells me in his Chicago hotel room, is "100 percent true." But he concedes that another oft-told tale is less accurate: that the name Pearl Jam came from Vedder's great-grandmother Pearl, who, he used to claim, was married to an American Indian and was in the habit of making preserves spiked with various hallucinogenics. His great-grandma really was named Pearl. The rest is, indeed, "total bullshit."

Told of Vedder's admission, Ament and McCready seem relieved. They cough up the true – if less romantic – tale behind the band's name. Brainstorming in a Seattle restaurant to come up with something, anything, to replace their original name, Mookie Blaylock (inspired by the NBA star), Ament came up with "pearl." The band didn't settle on the second half of its name until a 1991 trip to New York to sign a deal with Epic Records. Gossard, Vedder and Ament drove out to see Neil Young play Nassau Coliseum. "He played, like, nine songs over three hours. Every song was like a fifteen-or twenty-minute jam," says Ament. "So that's how 'jam' got added on to the name. Or at least that's how I remember it."

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