Stone Gossard can’t quite remember the dude’s name – only that he almost became Pearl Jam‘s singer. “Tyrone? Ian? Liam?” he says, rummaging through a refrigerator in an apartment on the top floor of the band’s warehouse headquarters in Seattle. Downstairs is PJ’s merch and fan-club operation, along with their rehearsal space, museum-quality band memorabilia and indoor batting cage. Bassist Jeff Ament, who’s sitting at a kitchen table, isn’t having much luck with his memory either: “He was kind of a tall, skinny guy,” he says.
With a remixed, bonus-packed reissue of Pearl Jam’s first album, Ten, out on March 24th, the group is in the mood to look back – and at the moment, Gossard, Ament and lead guitarist Mike McCready are trying to dredge up details about one of the few frontmen they considered before Eddie Vedder. Ament is sure of one thing: “If we had chosen that guy, instead of sitting in an apartment above our warehouse now, this would be the apartment the three of us live in,” he says, cracking up his bandmates. “We’d be paying you two grand under the table to do this interview.”
Since its August 1991 release, Ten has sold 9.6 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, more than Nirvana‘s Nevermind. And while Vedder’s bandmates know that none of it would have happened without him, the singer feels equally lucky to have gotten the gig especially after the harrowing recent experience of listening to the cassette demo that started it all. “There was one part in there that’s as hysterical as anything I’ve ever heard,” Vedder says. “I haven’t laughed so hard in years.” He’s referring to his early version of “Once,” which is the goofiest thing he’s ever recorded – the humungous chorus is intact, but the rest wavers between bizarre spoken-word segments and falsetto funk breaks. “I’m fortunate they were able to see beyond that and give me the job.”
But the rest of the three-song tape – a cassette version is included in a superdeluxe edition of the reissue – comes eerily close to the sound of Ten. It all started as riffs written by Gossard, who was determined to start over after the death of Andrew Wood, frontman of Gossard and Ament’s band Mother Love Bone. Fascinated by the Led Zep-influenced Jane’s Addiction, Gossard had a very specific idea of the music he wanted to make. “I like propulsion, I like rhythm,” he says. “I wanted people jumping up and down. It can be kind of like ‘Achilles Last Stand,’ or anything moving toward that heavy, funky, grooving, chaotic thing.”
To record the demo, Gossard recruited the best drummer in town: Soundgarden‘s Matt Cameron – who wouldn’t play again with Pearl Jam until he joined the band in 1998. “I got the sense that Stone had a pretty big picture of what this next musical endeavor would be,” says Cameron.
Former Red Hot Chili Pepper Jack Irons told Gossard and Ament about a singer living in San Diego named Eddie Vedder who was working as a gas-station security guard. They mailed him the tape, labeled “Stone Gossard demos.” “I recorded my vocals in four or five hours,” says Vedder, who wrote most of the lyrics and melodies in his head while surfing. “And it changed our lives in infinite ways, changed everything – it’s almost terrifying to listen to it. It gave me what’s certainly the best life I’ve ever lived – to be able to support my kids, to be able to travel. It was the best five hours I ever spent.”
With Vedder on board, along with drummer Dave Krusen, the band was convinced it had something special – especially as songs like “Black” and “Even Flow” developed. “Someone asked me who this band reminded me of, and I said, ‘U2,'” says Krusen. “Not that the music sounded like them just the overall feeling.”
But when it came time to record Ten, the magic was sometimes hard to find. “We played ‘Even Flow,’ like, a hundred fucking times,” says Ament, who would slam basketballs around the studio when he was frustrated. “I was about to go fucking crazy.” Vedder was already trying to push the band’s music closer to punk – the song most indicative of its future direction is the power-chord blast of “Porch,” which he wrote on his own. “This was my first chance to make a real record, and I was pretty damn focused,” he says. “I was in a new town, so that batch of songs replaced my friends and family.”
At some point in the mixing process, something went wrong: The guitars and drums float inside stadium-size digital reverb that now sounds more Eighties than Nineties. As soon as they began working with producer Brendan O’Brien on their second album, Vs., Ament started begging him to remix Ten. Last year, they finally convinced O’Brien to do it, and the results are impressive: The guitars snap and bite, Vedder’s vocals are rawer and more textured, and Krusen’s crisp, syncopated parts stand out. “Krusen was a real hero,” Vedder says of the drummer, who left the band soon after his work on Ten, heading to rehab for a drinking problem. “He was going through a lot, but he had something really special.”
The members of Pearl Jam are harder on Ten than most of their fans. “From a musical point of view, it still seems kind of unrealized,” says Gossard. “But that just shows I can’t hear it.”
“We were really wanting to figure it out, knowing it was somehow going to get better,” says Vedder. “And we weren’t going to stop trying.”
This story is from the April 2nd, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.