The houselights in Grand Rapids' Van Andel Arena burst on like a sudden dawn as Gossard kicks into the winding riff of "Alive." Vedder assumes a familiar pose, clutching his mike stand with both hands as if it's in danger of flying off the stage, and begins to sing, "Son, she said, have I got a little story for you . . . "
"Alive" is, with a few alterations, Vedder's story. When he was seventeen years old, his mother told him that Peter Mueller, the man he knew as his father – a man he hated – was not his father at all. His real dad was his mother's first husband, Ed Severson, a sometime lounge musician who had died several years before of multiple sclerosis. Vedder, who has used his mother's maiden name since the revelation, was four months old when his mother and Severson were divorced; he grew up knowing him only as a family friend.
In one departure from reality, the narrator of "Alive" hints at an incestuous relationship with his mother (check out the verse that begins, "Oh, she walks slowly, across a young man's room"). "There was no incest in my situation," says Vedder. "But people who knew my dad – women – would come over and stare at me when I was a teenager like you wouldn't believe. They were looking at me because I have his face and he'd been dead for ten years at least. So they can't take their eyes off me. And I probably caught my mom – you know, she'd just stare at me."
Vedder started singing when he was six – he used to be able to hit all of Michael Jackson's high notes on old Jackson 5 records. "When my voice changed, I was like, 'Wow, all of the sudden I sound like James Taylor,' " Vedder remembers. He's since heard a tape of his real dad singing Gordon Lightfoot songs; the style is more polished, but Vedder hears something familiar in the voice.
Onstage in Grand Rapids, Vedder looks out at thousands of fist-pumping fans and adds a line to "Alive" not in the recorded version: "We're all, we're all still alive!" He finishes with a spoken aside as the band blasts behind him: "Let me tell you, it ain't easy."
Eddie Vedder is trying to get me drunk. We're in his hotel suite after the Cleveland show. He pops open a Bud with his lighter and hands it to me – before I'm done with it, he'll try to hand me another one. Vedder has already chugged a bottle of red wine onstage, as usual, so he drinks more slowly now, nursing a Coors.
"I've actually tried to play a few shows without drinking," he says of his wine habit later that night. "But you know how bartenders sneak a drink in here and there, but the busboys can't? I felt more like the bus-boy - that I was just working." Vedder used to smoke pot with some frequency, but he hasn't touched it since his daughter's birth. He also had "an Ecstasy phase" at some point and even tried recording some techno. "I was listening to all this stuff on Ecstasy.
But I was wondering, 'Are they writing it on Ecstasy?' I decided that the pure way to do it is to actually take Ecstasy, and then write Ecstasy music," he says, laughing. "That didn't work out. But I enjoyed the Ecstasy."
Backstage before the show in Cleveland, he asks me, "Are you ready to stay up late?" I was ready. Vedder decides to put on mood music and disappears into his bedroom. After a pause, the sounds of the Strokes' new album fill the room. "Now obviously I have a lot more random stuff than the Strokes, but this is what's handy," he apologizes.
For someone who spent years ducking the media, Vedder is a hell of an interview – engaging and verbose. When he gets deep into an anecdote, his low, resonant voice is nearly hypnotic. As we begin, he drafts a soap dish into service as an ashtray and lights the first of many American Spirits.
I ask him about "Life Wasted," on which he sings, "I have faced it, a life wasted/I'm never going back again." He closes his eyes as he talks about how attending a friend's funeral can help you "realize what a gift this is, to be alive. When you leave that funeral, that drive is as important as any single stretch of road you'll travel on. You've got a renewed appreciation for life. And I think that feeling can last through the day, through the week, but then things start getting back to normal and you start taking this living and breathing and eating thing for granted. I think that song is there to remind you, 'This is that feeling.' "
Vedder had a specific friend in mind when he wrote the song: "The truth is – I'm a little sensitive and this is a close, personal relationship. I'll just say it. Fuck it. Right up front. Half the record is based on the loss of the guy who turned out to be the best friend I ever had on the planet. And that was Johnny Ramone." Suddenly, the fast tempos and chunky power-chords that dominate Pearl Jam make a lot more sense.
It was an odd friendship: The Ramones guitarist, who died on September 15th, 2004 – a month or so before Pearl Jam began recording sessions for the new album – was a hard-core Republican and, by most accounts, not the warmest guy in the world. "We used to laugh that I made him a nicer human being and that he made me more of an asshole," Vedder says. Vedder, along with Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, Vincent Gallo and Rob Zombie, spent hours at Ramone's house, where he would play them music (on a jukebox, not a guitar) and show film clips of acts from Gene Vincent to the Dead Boys. "We were the students of Johnny Ramone, and forever bonded," Vedder says. "Never have I experienced a loss of someone I talked to with such frequency, in such depth, with such intimacy."
But it was yet another of Vedder's famous friends who would help him resolve the central drama of his life. Vedder's mother was in the middle of a painful divorce from Mueller when she told Eddie, then seventeen, the truth about his parentage. Vedder and Mueller were already at odds – at one point, he has alleged, his stepfather pushed him down a flight of stairs. (Mueller has denied it.) As a kid, Vedder tells me, he used to cope with his pain over that relationship by going to a park with his guitar and singing a song by one of his heroes, Bruce Springsteen – "Independence Day," the tale of a father and son parting ways: "There was just no way this house could hold the two of us." On 2004's Vote for Change Tour, Vedder finally became close with Springsteen.
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