Pearl Jam: The Second Coming

A decade after turning their backs on fame, Seattle's grunge survivors are ready for Act Two

eddie vedder 1003
Nick Stevens/Retna
Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'
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"Hey, Eddie!" It's after midnight on Cleveland's sleepy waterfront, and Eddie Vedder – carrying a worn suitcase and wearing a thin corduroy jacket – is walking in his hunched posture toward the Ritz-Carlton hotel. He hears someone shout his name, and turns.

A mean-eyed young Republican steps from the shadows, barking, "Bush 2008! Bush 2008! Bush 2008! Jeb's running!" Then the guy grins at Vedder – who was one of the headliners of 2004's pro-Kerry Vote for Change Tour – gives him a sarcastic thumbs-up sign and prepares to watch the dour, volatile lead singer of Pearl Jam freak out.

Vedder stares for a moment. Then he just shrugs, mumbles, "OK, man," and heads inside. The heckler looks crushed. Riding in the hotel's elevator, Vedder laughs, showing dimples beneath his Jim Morrison-ish beard. "If he was trying to wind me up, it didn't work," he says in his whispery baritone. "Maybe he was just a big Gavin Rossdale fan?"

A few years back, Vedder might have melted down at the provocation. That was the Vedder who accepted a Grammy with the gracious words "I don't think it means anything"; the one who once yelled, "Just leave me alone!" at a young fan in front of a reporter. But this Eddie Vedder is forty-one years old. And in the ten years or so since you last saw him scowling on Alternative Nation, dude developed a sense of humor. Falling in love with a new girlfriend, fashion model Jill McCormick, and siring a two-year-old daughter, Olivia - who shares his intense blue-gray eyes – didn't hurt. And there are other, deeper reasons for his newfound inner peace, as he'll tell me much later that night. Says Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, "Ed's in a better space than I've ever seen him."

The same could be said of Pearl Jam – despite, or maybe because of, the fact that they spent much of the past, decade deliberately tearing apart their own fame. They skipped music videos and TV appearances; launched a doomed, self-defeating battle against Ticketmaster; and released a series of largely introspective, idiosyncratic albums, beginning with 1996's No Code. They toured incessantly and became one of rock's great arena acts, attracting a fanatical, Grateful Dead-like cult following with marathon, true-believer shows in the vanishing spirit of Bruce Springsteen, the Who and U2. But to non-fans, the band seemed to all but disappear. It never broke up - though lead guitarist Mike McCready admits, "We came close a few times."

Now, Pearl Jam are in the process of reclaiming their long-abandoned place at rock's forefront. "They're fresh, they're hungry and they're loaded for bear," says BMG chief Clive Davis, who recently signed them to the second major-label deal of their career. In May, they released Pearl Jam, an album bristling with anti-Bush, punk-rock energy. It is, by universal acclaim, their best work since 1994's Vitalogy - and the first one since their debut, 1991's Ten, to demand attention with unabashed anthems. "I feel like we've been handing in our work on time, and we've been getting A's and B's, but we haven't really raised our hand and spoken out in class," says Vedder. "This record is us speaking out in class."

So far the world is listening: Pearl Jam has spent a month in the Top Twenty, and the first single, the anti-war, Ramones-meet-the Who blast "World Wide Suicide," was a hit, reintroducing the band to radio. The band members are showing a newfound willingness to promote themselves – appearing on Saturday Night Live and Letterman – in part because they want their political voice heard. "It seems like a critical time to participate in our democracy," says Vedder. "I think we're representatives of America. We certainly have as much clout as, well, Rush Limbaugh. So if he's gonna fuckin' blow hot air, using his platform, then we should be doing the same."

Hanging out with the Members of Pearl Jam – as I did for five days in May during the first leg of their U.S. tour – is like reconnecting with old friends from high school: You haven't seen them in years, but you're somehow surprised to find that they've had the audacity to change while you weren't watching.

In contrast to their time-warped image – humorless, paranoid, constantly on the verge of implosion – the band members seem cheerful and relaxed at the tour dates I spend with them. Like most musicians that have been around one another for years, they don't spend much time together, aside from work. "We give each other space, because when you're traveling all the time, you're just stuck in each other's face," says drummer Matt Cameron.

But these guys get along, and they're comfortable enough to welcome an outsider who insists on watching their sound checks and trailing them as they walk on – and offstage. They often exchange fist-bumps right before each show – and by the second night, McCready gives me one, too.

Readers Poll: The Best Pearl Jam Songs of All Time

Vedder sees the band as an example of a functioning democracy. "There's some clout in having stayed together for fifteen-plus years that says to people, 'It's not easy, but it can be done,' " he tells me in Cleveland. But Pearl Jam are also a dictatorship: Even Gossard – who put the band together and came up with the music for most of its early hits – has surrendered to the will of the guy he sometimes calls "Ed Ved." "At some point, Ed realized he was the central figure in the band," Gossard says. With his short hair and wire-rimmed glasses, he looks like he works at a dot-com. "If I was able to sing and create the kind of energy Eddie's able to create, I'm sure I would want the same ability to say, 'This doesn't feel right to me.' I think he could do a lot of different stuff, but he chooses Pearl Jam as the vehicle he likes. It's amazing to be part of that."

B

ackstage in a Grand Rapids, Michigan, arena, as a pingpong game rages a few feet away, Vedder and I sit on folding chairs, staring at a Macintosh laptop. The power chords of "Life Wasted" – the album's second single - pipe through tinny speakers. We're looking at a just-released Pearl Jam music video, the first one they've appeared in since "Jeremy," back in 1992. Vedder watches in pensive silence, tapping his foot to the beat.

The arty video is clearly not a bid for the TRL countdown: It explores the song's themes of death and rebirth by showing life-like sculptures of the band members being subjected to exotic forms of abuse – they're set on fire, doused in water, infested by worms and bugs. Tucked amid the oddities are a few sparse shots of Vedder singing and the band playing. As the video fades to black, I ask if it was done with computer graphics. Vedder looks hurt and explains that a multimedia artist, Fernando Apodaca, painstakingly created the images over six months by filming real, physical sculptures. The guys had to take life casts of their heads, and Vedder sacrificed his eyelashes to the uncomfortable process. "The medical journals say they'll be back eventually," he says, showing off his current half-lashed look.

Doing the video required the band to overcome a long-standing aversion to the form. When "Jeremy" won Video of the Year, Vedder felt the prize should have been called "Best Commercial for Your CD." "I think we kind of wanted to get out of that racket," he says, adding with a slight smile, "We were coming from a standpoint like the Native American Indians, who thought if they took your picture, part of your soul got sucked out of you."

D

uring Pearl Jam's Early Burst of fame, Vedder had reason to believe that more than his soul was at risk. "There were some stalker problems that I've never really gone into," he tells me one afternoon in his suite at Chicago's Four Seasons, smoking one of his American Spirit cigarettes and – as if to counteract the damage to his voice-sipping tea. He's dressed in a style best described as Unfrozen Grunge Caveman: plaid shirt, corduroy pants and what may be North America's last pair of Dr. Martens. On his lap is his constant companion, a black Mead notebook – emblazoned with a mod target-symbol sticker in a nod to his worship of the Who – where he keeps lyrics in progress.

Vedder's eyes narrow, and he continues, Liebling (whom he married in 1994 and divorced in 2000) put up new fences around their Seattle house and enlisted twenty-four-hour security, even demanding that Pearl Jam's then-label, Epic Records, help pay for it: "If you want records out of me, you're going to have to help pay for security to protect your guy right now." Still, one day, he reveals, "This woman drove her car at fifty miles per hour into the wall of my house and almost killed herself."

Fear of the stalker – which he chronicled in the track "Lukin," from 1996's No Code ("I find my wife, I call the cops, this day's work's never done/The last I heard that freak was purchasing a fucking gun") – made it hard for Vedder to leave the house and contributed to his reputation as an angry recluse. He won't say what happened to the woman, except to note that she's still alive and there are no ongoing legal proceedings against her. "It will always be a problem," he says. Vedder eventually found another place to live, outside Seattle, a place he still won't name.

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."

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.

One night, Vedder and Springsteen – who famously worked out his own father issues in his music – stood on a Manhattan rooftop, drinking tequila. "We were talking politics, and then got into family politics, of which we'd experienced a great deal and had a lot in common. It was a pretty intense conversation," Vedder says, haltingly. "He exposed me to some truths that he'd processed in a healthy way, that for me were still in a diseaselike state. He helped me cure some things I had been living with for a long time."

That night, Vedder told Springsteen how he used to play "Independence Day" and how his music had affected him. "You helped me as a voice coming from a piece of vinyl," he told him. "Now you helped to put it away by being a human being in front of me."

Not long after the conversation with Springsteen, Vedder attended the wedding of one of his brothers. There, he came face to face with his stepfather for the first time since the Eighties. "When I finally had to meet that guy again, Bruce was the one who got me in the right space to handle it," he says. "I have three younger brothers – if it affected them that I didn't have a relationship with this guy, that was enough reason to forgive and resolve things. I didn't want them to be torn between the two of us."

We move on to another tough subject: the 2000 breakup of Vedder's marriage to Beth Liebling, whom he had dated since he was a teenager. He won't explain the split, but he does say that he was devastated. The divorce happened around the same time as the biggest tragedy of Pearl Jam's career: Nine young fans were crushed to death on June 30th that year during a set at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark. "You can imagine what kind of fetal position I was in," he says. "I just remember thinking that there was no way out. I was listening to The Who by Numbers and there's a line in 'Slip Kid' – 'There's no easy way to be free.' I was thinking, 'I couldn't agree with you more.' "

Then Vedder met Jill McCormick. She was a model, a profession that Vedder had savaged in the Vitalogy track "Satan's Bed": "Such fine examples, skinny little bitch/Model, role model, roll some models in blood/Get some flesh to stick, so they look like us." He laughs when I ask if he apologized for those lyrics. "Look, the person I fell in love with, that happened to be her job. There were a couple days where it was like, 'Wow, this seems contradictory.' It had to pass a harder test than falling in love with just anyone. And it did.

But before the new relationship, while Vedder was still despairing over Roskilde and his divorce, the band went on with a tour. Sonic Youth opened, and Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon's then-six-year-old child, Coco, came along. "Coco gave me drawings, we played pingpong. Coco reminded me to open up my world, kept me from being the bitter asshole I had every right to be. I thought after Roskilde, 'OK, this is my chance, I can be that asshole forever.' Coco led me to the light.

"And now I have one of my own." He shows me some adorable pictures of Olivia Vedder, born on June 11th, 2004. It's nearly five o'clock in the morning. Vedder shakes his head and looks me in the eyes. "Roger Daltrey has this thing he always says: 'Be lucky.' It took me a few years to reach it – but I took his advice."

This story is from the June 29th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1003: June 29, 2006