I just wanted tonight to be perfect,” Eddie Vedder told the audience at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, in Hawaii, last month on the opening night of Pearl Jam‘s first world tour in four years. “I’ve been waiting a long, long time.” But as Pearl Jam have learned from their years of battling the music business, nothing ever goes as planned. The night was not perfect: The band was nervous, there were lengthy breaks between songs, Vedder talked as much as he sang, and the concert had to be stopped so a barricade in front of the stage could be reinforced. “First night,” Vedder mumbled in explanation after a sloppy “Jeremy.” “That wasn’t the best version of that song.” In the end, he declared, “All in all, it wasn’t half-bad,” and guitarist Stone Gossard agreed backstage, saying, “It was all right.” After the first night, nobody in the band seemed to be very upset. They just decided to do better the next night.
In their eight years, Pearl Jam have learned that you can’t get uptight about everything; sometimes you have to pick your fights. The problem is that in the music business, there’s a lot to fight: the extra fees tacked onto ticket prices, T-shirts, parking and more; the record company marketing plans that demand videos, interviews, in-store appearances and countless other favors from bands that just want to make music; and the general consolidation of music production and distribution into large, foreign-owned conglomerates publicly traded on Wall Street. Sometimes you just have to swallow your dignity and play music. You have to Yield, as the popular interpretation of Pearl Jam’s fifth album goes, and “stop trying to make a difference,” as Vedder sings on the album’s “No Way.”
In 1994, Pearl Jam were the biggest rock band in the world. So they decided to use their position for good and tried to dismantle Ticketmaster’s monopoly on ticket distribution. Now, in 1998, Ticketmaster continues to reign as a monopoly. And not only are Pearl Jam no longer the biggest rock band in the world but, for fourteen stops of their thirty-three-date tour this summer, the group will be playing at Ticketmaster facilities like the Forum in Los Angeles (a city they haven’t played in six years).
When asked whether all of the band’s work and hard times, which nearly led to a breakup last year, helped to bring about any change, bassist Jeff Ament sighs, “I don’t think so. When you step back and see what our place is in the grand scheme of things, you see the most we can do is communicate with each other and make the best music we can. We’re gonna confront those ticketing issues when they come up but not let them weigh us down.”
So can one band make a difference? Pearl Jam say no. This is clear not only in the Yield lyrics about yielding, but in the album’s many songs about evolution and the relevance of a man’s life in the immensity of the universe – from the sarcastic “Do the Evolution” to the dust-to-dust philosophy of “Push Me, Pull Me.”
“I spent a lot of time in the woods or in the mountains,” Ament says quietly, “and I started to realize I’m not as important as I thought I was when I was twenty-eight.”
What Ament and the rest of the band don’t realize is that although Ticketmaster’s monopoly was never broken up, the group has made a difference in the minds of listeners. Instead of taking Ticketmaster for granted, many fans now associate its name with rip-offs and profiteering – and when fans at the Arts Center are asked whether Pearl Jam played a part, the response is opposite Ament’s. “I think so,” says fan Beth Harmon. “They raised awareness, and that’s the first step. They went up against a giant and lost Round One.”
For Pearl Jam, though, there will be no Round Two. They have decided to focus on music exclusively, by behaving like a good bar band that loves to jam. “I think they’re over the hump and back to being a band again,” says Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis. “I think the band has always tried to do the right thing and walk the line, and that’s a hard thing to do in this corrupt music business. . . . Now they’re doing what everyone else does, which is go out and play.”
And that’s exactly what Pearl Jam accomplish on their second night under the small white tent at the 4,400-capacity Center. Instead of talking and trying to make sure the laid-back audience is having fun, Vedder shuts up and sings. With Neil Young and family, Chris Cornell and wife, and Vedder’s mother and wife watching from the sidelines, the band mixes favorites like “Even Flow,” “Better Man” and “Alive” with songs from No Code and Yield. Guitarists Gossard and Mike McCready play looser and louder than they did at their shows opening for the Rolling Stones last November – though not quite as loose as they did the previous night. The band pays tribute to Young with a heavy, winding version of its collaboration with him, “I Got ID.” It ends “Wishlist” with a new line undoubtedly inspired by Vedder’s day spent surfing: “I wish I was a forty-foot wave breaking on the north shore/I wish I was, I wish I was/I couldn’t ask for more.”
But even if Pearl Jam have learned that they and their music mean little in the big picture, to accept this and live accordingly is something that goes against their human nature. When a fan passes a banner up onstage, the band unfurls it and holds it up: “Save Maalea,” it reads, protesting the development of a local harbor. After congratulating the banner’s creators for writing a message that 4,400 people have just seen, Vedder can’t help but try to change their lives. “Don’t stop there,” he urges. “Keep going. Burn some bulldozers or something. And tell ’em I told you to.”
This story is from the April 2nd, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.