It’s just before midnight, and Eddie Vedder, the diminutive surf punk with the piercing eyes who is lead vocalist and guru in chief for Seattle’s Pearl Jam, is standing on a deserted observation deck atop the Space Needle, the futuristic fifty-six-story tower that dominates the former World’s Fair site at the heart of the city. It’s a cool evening, and Vedder, enjoying the breeze, has been pointing out various sights.
Only a moment ago, the singer abruptly pulled apart two of the horizontal cables that form a safety barrier around the deck and wedged his head through. Now, smiling as he takes in the unobstructed view, he poses a question with distinctly ominous overtones. “Doesn’t it say somewhere,” he asks, “that if your head fits through, your whole body will?”
Vedder seems ready to find out, even as he announces his intent to squeeze through, go out on a steel beam and snatch a light bulb. After some panicky cajoling, he relaxes his stance, but he seems reluctant to abandon his goal entirely.
“Wow,” he says softly, his head still lodged stockade-style between the cables. “This is so awesome.”
Fifteen minutes later, Vedder is on the ground again, and the conversation has turned to safer topics. But as he walks away from the Space Needle, he stops in midsentence.
“I’m totally bummed right now,” he says, looking back wistfully at the towering structure. “That would’ve been such a thrill.”
Vedder isn’t the only member of Pearl Jam who possesses more than his fair share of joie de vivre. All of them – Vedder, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer David Abbruzzese – appear to have been bitten by the same bug. They are given to spontaneous oohs and ahs over the things most people take for granted, and gravitate like magnets toward anything inspiring. They despise small talk, cutting right to the existential chase even if the conversation lasts only five minutes. Spend much time with them and Vedder’s longing to teeter above Seattle without a net seems rational.
“It would’ve been such a great example of what we’re all about,” Vedder says. “That would’ve been exactly what I wanted to say to somebody. Just that life is, like, so much to live, and we don’t know how long we’re gonna be here.
“When you’re out in the desert,” he says, “you can’t believe the amount of stars. We’ve sent mechanisms out there, and they haven’t found anything. They’ve found different colors of sand, and rings and gases, but nobody’s shown me anything that makes me feel secure in what happens afterward. All I really believe in is this fucking moment, like right now. And that, actually, is what the whole album talks about.”
Vedder isn’t kidding. The songs on Ten, Pearl Jam’s debut album, explore the magnificent profundity of everyday reality; they ring with an earthiness and mysticism that convey a dazzling array of emotions. The music – the core of which is the interplay between Gossard’s transcendent chordings and McCready’s delicate lead work – would be heady even without vocals. But Vedder magnifies the intensity. He veers from a ragged tenor to a lullaby croon with enviable ease, often letting fly with moans and gut-wrenching shrieks. His vocal nuances mirror his lyrics, which are startlingly intimate, the mark of a writer who feels everything he sees. Songs like “Once,” “Even Flow” and “Deep” convey a nearly overwhelming sense of empathy for the disenchanted. “Why Go” and “Jeremy” delve into the battered psyche of the neglected child. “Black,” “Porch” and particularly “Release” and “Alive” (the album’s striking first single) impart an almost primal yearning. The most intriguing aspect of the songs is that, despite their often sad subject matter, they are oddly celebratory. Ten is the sort of album that makes you want to stand on a mountain and yell.
“It just turned out that way,” says Vedder. “Everybody in the band was going through this kind of rebirth, and it went from the burdens of being alive to appreciating being alive.”
The band members seem awed at both the depth of their creative wellspring and how effortlessly they came together to tap it. For Gossard and Ament – who were dealt one of life’s cruelest blows in March 1990 with the death of Andrew Wood, their friend and former band mate in Mother Love Bone – the events that led to the formation of Pearl Jam hold even more spiritual significance.
The two separated following the tragedy, playing with other local musicians. But as soon as Gossard sought Ament out again, Pearl Jam fell together with eerie speed. They discovered McCready at a party, wailing away on a borrowed amp, and recruited him, and with Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron on drums, they recorded a loose instrumental tape. One of the first to receive the tape was Eleven drummer Jack Irons (formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Redd Kross), who also happened to be friendly with Vedder.
Vedder, meanwhile, was living in San Diego. He spent his days writing and recording and his evenings working for free as a roadie in local clubs (“Just to be closer to the whole pulse of what was going on”) and paid the rent working the graveyard shift as a security guard. When Irons passed Vedder the instrumental tape, Vedder hadn’t slept for days. He listened to the tape at work that night. The next morning, he went surfing.
“The sleep deprivation came into play,” says Vedder. “You get so sensitive that it feels like every nerve is directly exposed. I started dealing with a few things that I hadn’t dealt with, and I had this music in my head at the same time. It was great music – it was bringing things out of me that hadn’t been brought out. I was literally writing some of these words as I was going up against a wave or paddling.”
By the time he got out of the water, Vedder had written lyrics and vocal melodies for the three songs. He went directly into his house and recorded them over the instrumental tracks. The first song he recorded was “Alive.”
Two weeks later, Vedder was in Seattle. Within five days, he, Gossard, Ament, McCready and drummer Dave Krusen had written eleven songs. On the sixth day, they played a show, and on the seventh they recorded everything they’d written. “It was just a totally magical thing,” says Vedder. “It was the most intense musical experience I’d ever been involved in.”
After a brief run under the name Mookie Blaylock (for the New Jersey Nets guard, whose number, 10, also became the title of their debut), the band members renamed themselves Pearl Jam, after Vedder’s great-grandmother. (“Great-grandpa was an Indian and totally into hallucinogenics and peyote,” says Vedder. “Great-grandma Pearl used to make this hallucinogenic preserve that there’s total stories about. We don’t have the recipe, though.”)
By midsummer of this year, the band was in England, mixing Ten. Krusen departed shortly afterward, and New Bohemians drummer Matt Chamberlain filled in briefly before recommending Abbruzzese, who was playing in a Dallas band called Dr. Tongue. When the others met Abbruzzese, they knew he was the last link. (“It was weird,” says Ament. “We wanted to argue about it a little, but nobody really could.”)
There have been a few rough spots. Vedder, for example, nearly lost it at the band’s record-release party. “We’d just played this amazing show,” he says, “and it was real. Then to go into this, like, disco with Pearl Jam posters everywhere and people shaking your hand – ‘Hey, this is Barney; every time you see your record, Barney put it there.’ That lasted for hours. I had friends who were laughing at me from the corner, and I was like ‘Dude, fuck, you, this isn’t funny.’ To me, it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t what the music was about. That was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my life, and I never want to experience it again.”
Currently, Pearl Jam is on a club tour, and while the band members are excited, they also seem concerned about industry hype cheapening what they are doing. “There’s an energy happening,” says Vedder of the band’s live shows. “When you’re face to face, there’s something happening there that’s really intense. I’d like to keep things really small for a while.”
Abbruzzese sports a tattoo that’s still pink around the edges. Taken from a drawing by Ament that graced the cover of a promotional EP called Alive, it depicts a smiling, shaggy-haired stick figure, his face upturned and his splayed fingers reaching for the sky in joyous, triumphant fashion. “I saw the drawing,” says Abbruzzese, “this symbol of everything that I feel right now. I didn’t want to take out my book and write, ‘Wow, I feel great, I feel alive, I feel totally secure.’ I wanted to remember that second of my life for the rest of my life.”
Perhaps more than anything else, it is Ament’s simple drawing – and the reason Abbruzzese wanted to keep it with him permanently – that sums up how the members of Pearl Jam feel about life in general and about their band.
“I haven’t really had a lot of faith in any sort of God or anything in a long time,” says Ament. “I was always, like, well, if it exists, I’ll know it when I die. But somebody’s definitely been making sure everything’s okay. I know that everything that led up to this, all the stuff that was totally painful at the time, happened for a reason. This is so much better than anything we’ve ever done. I mean, I’ve never been in a situation like this, ever. Somebody’s looking out for us. Because there’s no other way to explain this.”
This story is from the October 31st, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.