Tuesday, January 20, 2009, and America's new president is to be inaugurated, but you don't have to be among the throngs in the nation's capital to be swept up by the optimism and (?). On Washington state's north-western tip, the Seattle locals wear their jackets open, proudly exposing Obama T-shirts to the unforgiving wind-chill. Rolling news coverage of the ceremony - with its extended aftermath of processions, banquets, and halls - seems to blare from every radio and television screen. And, in a large unmarked warehouse by the Union Pacific railroad tracks in the Grungetown neighborhood, myriad flat-screens dotted about Pearl Jam's center of operations are all tuned into the event; in the stockrooms where employees dispatch orders of t-shirts, posters, and albums. In the group's recreational area, with its skateboarder's half-pipe and full-sized baseball batter's cage; in the upstairs offices where the group's management and publicity companies are based.
The building's main room is two-thirds occupied by scores of shelves storing the groups instruments and touring gear. The walls are hung with Pearl Jam memorabilia, posters, surf-boards painted with portraits of each member (gifts from an Australian (?)), some of the giant (?) letters that spelt out the group's name on the cover of their 1991 debut album, Ten. At one end of this vast hanger, the members of Pearl Jam gather in their rehearsal area, surrounded by amplifiers and instruments. As he tunes up, Stone Gossard's dog (?), (?) contentedly at his feet.
The building is very much the house that Ten built, that album's impressive success -almost 10 million copies sold in the Us alone, earned 12 platinum discs - winning Pearl Jam an enduring creative and financial independence which (along with their political activism and their efforts against music-biz behemoths like Ticketmaster) remains at odds with the erroneous accusations of "corporate rock whore" status that dogged their early years.
"They say that money is the root of all evil," smile Vedder, strapping on a guitar, as he joins his bandmates for a rough bash through a new song. "But we were successful enough to be able to use it positively: it gave us the power to say no".
Today, like an average 226 days of each year, Seattle is overcast. Its very British climate is often cited to explain the city's high suicide rates -in fact, the figure is only slightly above the US average - but the weather certainly aided the local music scene's evolution.
"People stay indoors here a lot of the time," nods Matt Cameron, Pearl Jam's drummer and California native who moved to Seattle in the early 1980's, playing with local groups Skin Yard and Soundgarden. "A lot of the houses in Seattle have basements, and it was totally natural to spend your spare time in your basement with your band, rehearsing and writing songs. We all shared that work ethic, that artistic sensibility."
The Seattle scene of the 80's was famously incestuous, with Green River - fronted by Mark Arm, and featuring guitarist Gossard and future Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament - as the patient zero of the subsequent Grunge epidemic. Working with producer Jack Endino, releasing records on the local Sup Pop label, and fusing sleazy, Stoogeian punk-rock with 70's stadium moves, Green River coined Grunge's trademark moves, though the group wouldn't survive sessions for debut full-length, Rehab Doll. Arm would later allege Ament's love of Aerosmith and Whitesnake's latest albums as the reason for his exit, forming Mudhoney with ex-Green River sideman Steve Turner, who had quit because "Jeff and Stone had started getting ambitious".
At odds with Seattle's "loser" culture, Gossard and Ament hooked up with another of the city's misfits, a man whose hunger for stardom was evident. Andy Wood - aka L'Andrew The Love Child - melded (?) Prince perversions with metallic riffs as frontman of recently-defunct Malfunkshun. Together, they formed Mother Love Bone, whose glammed-up lust-rock sounded like a Pacific North-west echo of Guns N'Roses. With the aid of Kelly Curtis (a former tour manager for local stars Heart who Ament sought out for his connections in the Los Angeles music industry) they provoked Seattle's first - if not last - major label bidding war. But days before the planned March 1990 release of Love Bone's debut album, Apple, Wood died after a heroin overdose. "We were preparing to tour," remembers Curtis. "It was like someone pulled the rug out from under us."
In the void after Wood's death, Chris Cornell, frontman for Soundgarden and Wood's former room-mate, approached Gossard and Ament with some songs he'd written about Andy. With Matt Cameron on drums, they began recording these songs as Temple Of The Dog. Playing lead guitar on the record was Mike McCready, a local whose metal band, Shadow, had foundered after an unsuccessful attempt at cracking the LA scene. Back in Seattle, he gave up on music, cut his hair short, and began reading books by Republican politician Barry Goldwater. "My life just took this weird right-wing turn," he laughs: "I just felt I had to go look for my answers someplace other than music. I was pretty depressed, I think."
It took the blues to lift McCready from his funk. "With the blues, I could play slower, with more feeling. A year or so after returning to Seattle, Stone hears mr jamming along to a Stevie Ray Vaughan record at a friend's, and later I got word he was looking for me."
In the meantime, Gossard had begun working on some new songs and reworked riffs from unfinished Mother Love Bone songs, recording demos with the Temple of the Dog musicians. In California on a press junket with Ament to promote the delayed release of Apple, Gossard met up with friend and former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons, who told them about a young singer he knew in San Diego who might suit these new songs.
A transplant from Evanston, Illinois, Eddie Vedder had moved with his family to California when he was 12. His parents divorced a couple of years later, whereupon he discovered that the man who had raised him was, in fact, his stepfather, and that his biological father was a man he knew as a friend of the family, who had died several years earlier of multiple sclerosis. The revelation was par for the choppy course of Vedder's adolescence, which he likens to "a wind-storm". Music was his only (?), particularly The Who, and their angst-sodden rock opera Quadrophenia. "It was like hurricane conditions, emotionally," he adds. "Those songs were like a solid tree I could hold on to."
Vedder had fronted southern Californian funk-rockers Bad Radio until their split in early 1990, and worked as a security nightwatchman at a petroleum company when Gossard sent him a cassette. "I remember walking around this big empty warehouse with the demo playing, the riffs echoing off the five-gallon oil (?)," he says. "The next morning, I wrote some lyrics, recorded my vocals over the top, and mailed them back. I had no idea it would go anywhere; I thought it was just some words, a little art project."
Vedder's demos transformed the three songs into a mini rock opera, chronicling incest, murder, and suicide, entitled the Mamasan Trilogy. He was invited to Seattle for a week to rehearse and hang out. By the week's end, having added backing vocals to Hunger Strike for the Temple Of The Dog project, Vedder elected to move to Seattle and room with Ament, as the vocalist of the still-unnamed new group.
"It wasn't the easiest transition in the world," says Gossard. "Mother Love Bone was just saturated with double-entendres and fun, and influenced by Kiss and by Queen, who Andy loved. Whereas Ed came from a completely different point of view..."
"Ed was serious, a little reserved," adds Ament. "We'd stay up late having these deep conversations about life, and music, how we'd treat people right, if we ever 'made it'. I trusted in him, and in the changes he brought."
Vedder's darkly emotive lyrics, far removed from the glam and camp of Love Bone, would set the tone for Pearl Jam's (?), anthemic rock. Having bank-rolled their efforts with work on Singles, a (?) being filmed in Seattle by director Cameron Crowe (husband of Heart's Nancy Wilson), the group signed to Epic in early 1991, and released Ten that August. The album cover, featuring the five members of Pearl Jam clasping their hands together towards the (?), was designed by Ament. "It's easy for me to look at the sleeve and feel embarrassed by it now," he smiles, "but the preciousness of that photograph is, at the time, that's how I felt. I wanted to be in a group of fie guys who were in it together. I was in my late 20's, and I felt we'd been given another chance to make some important music. I felt so fucking lucky. I felt our potential was limitless."
When Nirvana's Nevermind, released two weeks after Ten, displaced Michael Jackson from the top of the Billboard albums chart in January 1992, grunge became an international phenomenon, setting the record industry off on an infamous shopping spree, signing any group that vaguely approximated the Seattle sound, or its dress code of ripped jeans and lumberjack plaid. Pearl Jam spent that summer performing second-on-the-bill on the main stage of touring alterna-rock festival Lollapalooza, several rungs (?) tour-mates Soundgarden.
"About halfway through that tour, Ten began to explode," remembers Matt Cameron, then drumming with Soundgarden. "They were on really early in the day, but you'd see hordes of kids swarming towards the main stage to catch Pearl Jam."
It was the video for Jeremy, third single from Ten, that had captured Pearl Jam's new audience, (?) the song's narrative of an abused child who pulls a gun on his teachers and classmates. Given heavy rotation on MTV, as Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit had been before it, it sent sales of Ten rocketing, soon outpacing Nevermind, and prompting the media to erroneously portray the groups as rivals for the grunge crown.
For all they shared in common, the differences between the two groups were stark. Pearl Jam's love for classic rock was unabashed (the epic solo that closed the first single, Alive, announced McCready as an unashamed new guitar god): Kurt Cobain was opening Nirvana shows by mangling The Who's Baba O'Riley, announcing, "I hope I die before I become Pete Townshend." Vedder's lyrics were more straightforward, attempting a connection with his audience that Cobain could never stomach; Vedder, it seemed, was unafraid of appearing uncool in his earnestness.
For these reasons and more, self-confessed music snob Cobain put this imagined rivalry on record, dismissing Pearl Jam as "corporate cock-rock whores" who vaulted onto the grunge bandwagon, a criticism many of the group's detractors would soon echo.
"I think Kurt felt we were stealing Nirvana's thunder," says Vedder now. "Years later, I can relate to that. I don't think we ever did anything consciously to provoke that, but the record company did. We did a signing session in Germany, where our album came with a big sticker describing us as the 'The Seattle Sound'...I was lucky that Kurt and I had some limited conversations together later; I think he understood that, really we were like parallel trains, we were in the same boat."
Vedder, too, was feeling the pressures that were fast suffocating the fragile Cobain. "Something as simple as going to get a coffee would mean getting mobbed," he laughs, "like I was in Backstreet Boys, which is hilarious, because this sure ain't no 'boy band' no more. Then there are the stalkers, fans who have erratic, intense thoughts about you." One such delusional fan, who believed Vedder was 'Jesus' and had fathered her two sons by raping her, almost killed herself ramming her car into the wall of his house. "So then you need a bigger wall outside your house, or 24-hour security, which is expensive. I told the label they had to pay for it all, because I never signed up for this."
Crazed fans weren't Vedder's only cross to bear. "I'd never wanted to be the guy whose picture is on the billboard, in the poster-magazine, on the side of a bus advertising some radio station," he laughs. "I was always, fuck that guy! But then I was that guy, and I realized they don't have to have your permission to, say, put you on the cover of Time magazine. I'd go to little indie shows in basements, where you paid five dollars to see some duo from Olympia play, and people there looked at me like I was the enemy, an intruder. I began to realize, OK, we can't control everything, but let's figure out what we can control. The label would say, 'But if you make more videos and did more promo, you could sell more records.' And I felt, we've sold enough records, how many more do we need to sell?"
Their refusal to allow Epic to release Black, a deeply personal Vedder ballad, as the fourth single from Ten, was the first in a series of flashpoints where the group began to wrest back control of the runaway train that was their career, cutting back on touring and promotion, and releasing no more promo videos until 1998's Do The Evolution.
"I remember (Sony honcho) Tommy Mattola saying, if we didn't release Black as a single, that it would be the biggest mistake I'd ever make as a manager, that my career would be over," says Curtis. "But it was an act of self-preservation, weighing up whether they wanted to be a band for the rest of their lives, or if they wanted to milk it for a year and a half, and then break up, and Eddie die. When Kurt died, I thought it could easily have been Eddie. Eddie was never a heroin addict. But all the other things were there, the depression, and the pressure."
Cobain's suicide came as Pearl Jam were touring their muscular, taut second album, 1993's Vs, the title of which commented on how embattled the group felt. The label's dismay at their refusal to play the game was shared, initially, by some members of Pearl Jam, "I wanted to do more of it," laughs McCready. "I remember thinking, this is our big shot, let's not piss this away, let's enjoy it..." Ultimately, however, Pearl Jam's discovery of the power of saying "No" was, in many ways, the making of them. Their next tour, promoting 1994's Vitalogy, was undertaken without the assistance of Ticketmaster, in protest against surcharges the company added to the group's intentionally low ticket prices. The tour was an expensive nightmare for Pearl Jam, the non-Ticketmaster affiliated venues often inferior and in remote locations, but their integrity and their punk-rock credentials were hard to fault.
Vitalogy balanced their characteristic heart-on-sleeve anthemic quality with a fearless experimental bent; 1996's eye-opening No Code, meanwhile, mixed rockers with psychedelic spirituals, spoken word and country rock, evading multi-platinum status. Vedder likens the situation to climbing balconies and lighting rigs during early shows, launching himself to land 10 feet from where the crowd were gathered to see if they'd move to catch him - "Only this time they didn't." Subsequent albums, however, have located a sizable, loyal fanbase, while their collaboration on Neil Young's 1995 album Mirrorball (?) a stint as Young's backing band, and regular appearances at his Bridge School benefit concerts.
With Matt Cameron installed on the Pearl Jam drum stool since 2000's Binaural, the group have also enjoyed a renaissance as a live act, borne out by their innovative decision to sell official live 'bootlegs' of every show they play. While their touring schedule is nowhere near as exhaustive; out of deference to the members' family commitments, Vedder acknowledges a status akin to a modern-day Greatful Dead, in that their shows are, "as much about the community of fans as the music, we're the campfire for them to sit around, and dance, and drink, and commiserate."
Of the group's future, Vedder is (?). "We have our practice space, our warehouse, and if we just keep working, we can maintain this." he says. "With the industry as it is, we're not going to be seeing the income on record sales, so we have to find other creative ways, while still being responsible to the listeners, making sure what you put out there is good."
Freed of the weight of his earlier stardom, Vedder seems at ease being frontman of Pearl Jam; enjoying it, even. Tonight, with Ament and McCready, he attends the inauguration party (?) Tavern, where he jumps on stage with The Knitters - the roots-rock side project of X's John Doe and (?) (?) - to duet with (?) on a version of X's The New World.
Later, at the bar, he's neither mobbed nor scorned. He smiles, and talks about Pearl Jam's 'mentor', Neil Young. "Like Nirvana had Sonic Youth, we had Neil...He changed our band. He taught us about dignity. When we first met he said, 'Man, I envy you guys, you don't have any baggage.' He meant we'd only recorded one album. But all I wanted was that baggage (laughs), to know what it was like to have released a bunch of albums.
"After Ten, we felt like we'd earned our independence. Our success had already gone beyond any dream we'd had as kids growing up listening to music. We decided to try and protect that, protect that goal that we've reached, to keep it from being some kind of...miserable experience. And to this day, I feel that way," he laughs. "If a rock and roll band can't have fun at their jobs, then what is the fucking point? We've got a responsibility here! To have some kind of fucking good time!"