Abbruzzese stays behind, nursing a sore wrist. (He occasionally suffers from carpal-tunnel syndrome, which causes numbness in three of his fingers.) “To me, when I was younger and I heard about a band selling a million records, I thought the band would get together and jump up and down for at least a minute,” he says with a wide-open East Texas laugh, “and just go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it.’ But it doesn’t happen that way [in this band]. Me, I flip out. I jump up and down by myself.”
For Abbruzzese, who co-wrote the album’s opening track, “Go,” it’s sometimes hard to watch his band mates deal with success. “There’s a lot of intensity over decisions,” he says cheerfully. “And I think it’s great. But every once in a while, I wish everyone would just let it go. Make a bad decision!” He looks out at the same green forest Vedder had raged at earlier. “Look at this place! It’s paradise.”
Sitting in a downtown-Seattle coffee shop a few weeks later, Stone Gossard analyzes the combustible nature of his band. “I think we’re doing fine,” he says in the clipped rhythm of an athlete. “I think we made a great record. Nobody’s out buying limos and thinking they’re the most amazing thing on earth. There’s a natural balance in the band where we need each other. Everybody sees things from their own angle, and all those angles are the archetypes of the things you need to really cover your ass. It’s what makes a band to me.”
And he has heard the criticism of Pearl Jam’s success. “If somebody wants to say, ‘You guys used to be my favorite band, but you got too big’ – to me, the problem with getting too big is not, innately, you get too big and all of a sudden you stop playing good music,” Gossard says. “The problem is, when you get too big, you stop doing the things you used to do. Just being big doesn’t mean you can’t go in your basement and write a good song. I think people are capable of being a lot bigger on that rad big scale.” He laughs. “A lot more people are capable of being big out there that just don’t give themselves a chance.”
At first, the songs on the new album, Pearl Jam, came in a burst. The initial week of recording at the Site had produced “Rats,” “Blood,” “Go” and a slow, potent version of their previously unrecorded stage favorite, “Leash.” Then the band hit a wall. Vedder disappeared into San Francisco, often sleeping in his truck to preserve his fighting spirit. Hiking, he’d even picked up poison ivy. “He needed to get in the space of his songs,” says Ament. “Soon we were back on track.”
Pearl Jam is the band’s turf statement, a personal declaration of the importance of music over idolatry. But the burden of Pearl Jam’s popularity has fallen most solidly on Vedder, who spent much of his off-season wondering about the effects of being in such a high-profile band. Vedder had – uncharacteristically – even gotten into a barroom fight defending the band. (In a Waits-like voice, he offers a snippet of an unrecorded song that he has written about it: “Gave myself a black eye/To show off just how I was feeling.”) And one night, while sitting out on a deserted coastal sand bluff, contemplating life after the death of a friend, guitarist Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch, he heard strange voices coming from the hill behind him. They were singing “Black,” the fragile song that to Vedder had come to symbolize the overcommercialization of the band. He’d fought to keep it from getting overplayed, didn’t want a video made of the song. Vedder hiked out of the bushes to ask the surprised hikers not to sing the song. Months later, he still remembers their odd and concerned looks as they faced the angst-filled author of the song.
“I had a hard time getting away,” Vedder says now with a laugh. But as Ament says, the struggle is everything. “The push and pull,” he says, “is what makes our band.”
“Let’s do ‘Black,’ says Gossard.
It’s rehearsal time back in Seattle, June 1993. Later in the summer, Pearl Jam will do a brief “fun” tour of Europe, opening shows for Neil Young and U2, and the band has rented out the downtown Moore Theater for practice. Half-seriously, Gossard asks that the stage lights of the empty theater be darkened. (They are.) He begins strumming the simple chords that open this anguished song to a former lover. Then, hands in pockets, Vedder eases into the words. He gives himself, wrenchingly, to a thousand empty seats. When it’s over, there is a buzz in the air. The band is clearly energized.
Soon Pearl Jam are racing with a new riff by Gossard. Abbruzzese tries a few different feels, locks in on one with Ament. Then McCready adds a spitfire lead. Like McCready himself, his playing is quietly expressive, marked by sudden explosions. Now Vedder joins in, trying random lyrics (“When it comes to modern times/You’re standing in line”). His omnipresent yellow-tweed suitcase, the one filled with journals and lyrics and masks and tapes, is open and spread out onstage. He selects phrases and thoughts as the band blazes behind him. Before long, they’ve honed loose versions of two new songs.