Part 3: 1992: Pearl Jam, the perils of fame, and the trouble with avoiding it

Part 3: 1992: Pearl Jam, the perils of fame, and the trouble with avoiding it

“There’s a lot of bands that get to a certain level, and it just stops. They scrap it. Compare this to, say, The Rolling Stones or The Who, where they just continued on forever and are still playing, or they quit after 20 years. But Talking Heads, or Jane’s Addiction, or The Police, or even Nirvana you could say, got to a point and then that was just it. I was wondering what the difference was between the early bands and these bands…”—Eddie Vedder, in an interview with Craig Marks for Spin, December 1994.

“Show me any guy who ever said he didn’t want to be popular, and I’ll show you a scared guy.”—Jason Lee as Stillwater singer Jeff Bebe in Almost Famous

If you’ve ever spent time around a local music scene, you’re probably familiar with the plot points of Doug Pray’s 1996 documentary Hype! even if you’ve never seen the movie. Hype! ostensibly chronicles how Seattle was affected by the media attention heaped upon the grunge phenomenon in the wake of the world-beating early ’90s success of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains. But while the specifics of this story involve flannel and coffee shops, the general outline applies to any mid-sized American city that’s ever had three or four bands gain a measure of national notoriety while lots of other groups were left behind to gripe endlessly about why the world ended up caring more about them than us. 

While few people outside of Seattle would’ve cared about a movie like Hype! had it not been for the very same media attention the film rails against, Pray steadfastly focuses his attention on the dimmer lights in the city’s musical galaxy—bands like Mono Men, Seaweed, Zipgun, Love Battery, Hovercraft, and Gas Huffer—instead of its big stars. The point of Pray’s film seems pretty obvious: The popularity of grunge didn’t put Seattle music on the map; it ruined Seattle music, because the emphasis suddenly shifted from having fun and creating idiosyncratic records to scoring contracts and making loads of money. Hype! spends a lot of time exploring how the media reduced Seattle to a set of simpleminded stereotypes—lumberjack clothes! dumb-guy guitar riffage!—that didn’t do justice to the city’s spirit of adventurous, non-trendy individuality. 

Unlike other “it” cities in rock history like Liverpool and San Francisco, Seattle never really had a honeymoon period in the spotlight. As Hype! shows, Seattle scenesters weren’t exactly inviting outsiders to come to their land of omnipresent rain and widespread heroin addiction with some flowers in their hair. Grunge seemed to arrive concurrently with grunge’s backlash; even stranger, the bands that stood to benefit the most from being associated with grunge were the ones fueling the backlash. Unlike punk and metal bands, which have typically been proud to declare themselves as such, grunge bands wore their tag with disdain. 

None of the Seattle musicians interviewed in Hype! come across as outwardly bitter, but there is an overall sense of resentment about grunge that sometimes seems justified (a lot of the mainstream media coverage of Seattle was stupid and reductive), but sometimes not, though that comes across in ways that Pray probably didn’t intend. While Hype! is an entertaining movie, it’s hardly revelatory; the bands you’ve never heard of don’t exactly seem unfairly ignored. They sound “local” in a bad way, with lots of scrappy punk-rock energy trying in vain to compensate for shouty, so-so singers and leaden songwriting. Hype! subtly suggests that the right bands were handed tickets to international fame and fortune. 

Among Pray’s most eloquent interview subjects was an Evanston, Illinois native who had only lived in Seattle for a few years, having moved up north in 1990 after working as a musician and a part-time night attendant at a gas station in San Diego for six years. But Eddie Vedder’s limited history in Seattle didn’t make him sound any less regretful about his band Pearl Jam reaping the rewards of rock stardom that so many of the city’s musicians missed out on. “They made a big mistake,” Vedder says ruefully at the movie’s 43-minute mark. “They didn’t go further and find more of the bands that were already here, and had been here even before many of the bands that exploded were. That’s what makes me feel guilty about the success of our band, because it should’ve been spread out to a number of bands.”

When it came to rock stardom, Eddie Vedder was a socialist. But like so many celebrities before and after him, he blamed the media for his problem—which, presumably, was Pearl Jam selling more records than Gas Huffer—when he really should have blamed himself. Pearl Jam broke bigger than anybody else in Seattle because the band’s 1991 debut, Ten, satisfied a social need: It was spectacularly good at making alienated teenagers (i.e. all teenagers) feel less alone whenever they felt misunderstood by the rest of the world (i.e. every waking hour of the day). 

Bursting with intensely personal songs that sound universal by virtue of their oversized, near-operatic emotionalism, Ten was neither subtle nor particularly cool, which helped it communicate better and more profoundly with more people than any other rock record of its time. Along with Metallica’s Black Album and Radiohead’s OK Computer, Pearl Jam’s Ten is easily one of the most influential mainstream rock records of the last 20 years. The power of Ten was so great that it eventually stood apart from Pearl Jam; as Vedder and his increasingly marginalized supporting cast distanced themselves from the record’s gauche chest-thumping by churning out progressively restrained, more “mature,” and less expressive music, Ten was dusted off by other bands and recycled again and again. Today, Pearl Jam is a popular touring band and intermittently successful on the charts; Ten, meanwhile, is still all over modern-rock radio, though only a handful of the songs are actually by Pearl Jam.   

The story of Ten has since passed into rock legend: After the drug-related death of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament were set adrift in a sea of limited career options. Having cast their lot with the highly commercial and solidly career-minded MLB after departing the seminal Seattle band Green River—which also included Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner, who would make the Nirvanas and Pearl Jams of the world envious for their ability to stay eternally cool and hopelessly broke—Ament and Gossard had every right to think that their best shot at stardom had just taken a lethal dose of smack and nodded off forever. 

As he tried to figure out what to do next, Gossard began writing songs and jamming with Seattle guitarist and Stevie Ray Vaughan fan Mike McCready. Soon, Gossard and McCready were in the studio with Ament and a revolving cast of drummers to record five tracks, which were labeled Stone Gossard Demos ’91. The guys needed a full-time singer and a drummer; they approached Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons, but Irons instead passed the tape on to his friend Eddie Vedder. 

Vedder listened to the tape, went out to surf, and then quickly returned to scribble down some lyrics and record vocals over the instrumental tracks. Eventually these demos would become some of Pearl Jam’s best-known songs, including “Alive” and “Once.” When Vedder ventured up to Seattle in October 1990 to officially audition to be the band’s singer, he ended up writing several more songs with his prospective bandmates over the course of a week. Five months later, the newly christened Mookie Blaylock was in the studio recording Ten; four months after that, on Aug. 27, 1991, Ten was released. By May 1992, Ten was a top 10 record, eventually peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard charts and selling nearly 10 million copies. Pearl Jam had become one of the biggest rock groups in the world before the band members had even spent 24 months together. 

I remember hearing the first single from Ten, the vaguely Skynyrd-esque lighter-waving anthem “Alive,” between Bad Company and Styx songs on my town’s top AOR station, “The Rockin’ Apple” WAPL. Vedder later revealed in a Rolling Stone interview that the lyrics to “Alive” were practically straight autobiography, recounting the day his mother told him that the man he thought was his father was, in fact, not his biological parent, and that his real dad had recently passed away. 

To me, the message of “Alive” boiled down to two sounds and three words: “Oh-ahh, uhhh, I’m still alive.” It was a simple yet stirring rallying cry that rang true for a kid stuck living the worst years of his life in the dregs of junior high school. The guy singing this song had obviously endured something nearly as traumatic as the eighth grade, and yet he somehow survived to bellow about how he made it through to the other side more or less intact. You had to be inspired by that. 

In the video, which the band insisted be culled from a not-especially-polished live performance, Pearl Jam looks like a glam band in dress-down mode; in other words, just like Tesla. (Except McCready, who’s decked out in full cowboy-and-blouse Stevie Ray gear.) Like many of the songs on Ten, “Alive” starts out mired in a relatively mellow wallow and gradually builds to a satisfying rage—in this case, a blazing McCready guitar solo that sends “Alive” off in majestic classic-rock fashion.

“Alive” is one of Pearl Jam’s most famous songs, but it didn’t come close to making the kind of atomic impression that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” did. Ten was more of a slow burn; if memory serves, the next single, “Even Flow,” was played on MTV 57 times an hour during the first half of ’92, an impressive feat considering “Even Flow” was a pretty lousy song that made no fucking sense whatsoever. Supposedly “Even Flow” is about homelessness—see the lines about “a pillow made of concrete” and “ceilings few and far between”—but I hated that the chorus didn’t tell you what “even flow” was supposed to be, and the line about thoughts arriving like butterflies sounded like a bad Natalie Merchant lyric. Still, the video for  “Even Flow” succeeded in doing for Pearl Jam what the “Pour Some Sugar On Me” video had done for Def Leppard four summers earlier: It made you wish really hard that Pearl Jam would come somewhere near your town very soon. 

Ten was already in the upper reaches of the Billboard chart by the time Pearl Jam’s third video, “Jeremy,” went into heavy rotation on MTV in August ’92. Watching it now, the “Jeremy” video has lots of cringingly obvious imagery, not the least of which is sad lil’ Jeremy wrapped in the American flag while surrounded by flames. (I’m going to go out a limb and suggest that director Mark Pellington was trying to make a larger point about the tenuous state of American youth in the early ’90s.) But at the time, “Jeremy” was probably the most emotionally overpowering video I’d ever seen. The song itself had also been juiced up for MTV; the most moving part of “Jeremy” is the outro, where Vedder lets out the same epic “whoa!” that Bruce Springsteen should’ve trademarked in 1978 after he released Darkness On The Edge Of Town. The single version of “Jeremy” was remixed to extend Vedder’s climactic “whoa!” for several extra beats, a slight but important change that amped up the song’s dramatic impact. (Vedder’s greatest vocal performances tend to be practically wordless; see Ten’s mush-mouthed closer, “Release,” and the essential “Jeremy” B-side “Yellow Ledbetter,” which fans have been trying to decipher for 18 years.) 

Following the familiar wallow-to-sweeping-crescendo template, “Jeremy” is sung from the perspective of Jeremy’s classmates, a clever songwriting device for a singer who typically identified with the victims in his songs. By siding with the kids who thought Jeremy was a “harmless little fuck,” Vedder made “Jeremy” the ultimate revenge tale for the self-pity set, a classic “you’ll be sorry when I’m dead” song that allowed listeners to feel the vicarious thrill of seeing awful people shamed for bullying Jeremy/you/me. 

“Jeremy” was the capper on 1992’s grunge summer of love, when Pearl Jam crisscrossed the country with Soundgarden and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and spread the alt-rock gospel as Lollapalooza headliners. By late August, Pearl Jam would appear on three albums in the Billboard top 20: the ascendant Ten, hitting the full stride of its popularity a year after it was released; the Chris Cornell-led Andrew Wood tribute Temple Of The Dog, which got new life from the Vedder-assisted “Hunger Strike”; and the era’s very own version of Saturday Night Fever, the Singles soundtrack, a first-rate grunge primer featuring two essential Pearl Jam songs (“State Of Love And Trust” and “Breath”), the best Alice In Chains’ song ever (“Would?”), and excellent contributions from Smashing Pumpkins, Screaming Trees, and Cornell. 

Against director Cameron Crowe’s wishes, Warner Bros. made grunge the promotional hook to sell Singles. While it wasn’t a movie about Seattle music—I’ve never seen it, but I understand that it’s about relationships and how they complete you while showing you the money—Singles was filthy with cameos from local musicians, including Vedder, Ament, and Gossard, who appeared as members of Matt Dillon’s Pearl Jam-esque band Citizen Dick. Vedder melodramatically declared to the Los Angeles Times that he “would go buy a gun” if the studio made too much of the Seattle scene, but he eventually agreed to appear in an MTV special to promote the movie, because Crowe told him Singles wouldn’t be released otherwise. 

Vedder typically wasn’t so accommodating, especially once his status as Pearl Jam’s figurehead gave him the freedom to tell people no. He fought the push from Epic, Pearl Jam’s label, to release Ten’s big romantic ballad, “Black,” as a single because it appeared poised to become the band’s biggest hit yet. (“Black” became one of Pearl Jam’s most popular songs regardless.) “We didn’t write to make hits. But those fragile songs get crushed by the business,” Vedder told Crowe in Rolling Stone; Vedder thought “Black” was so fragile that, in a weird anecdote related by Crowe, he once chastised a group of Pearl Jam fans for singing it when he overheard them on a hiking trip. 

As tempted as I am to roll my eyes at Vedder’s overexposed media rants about media overexposure, he did have reason to worry about Pearl Jam-mania. When school reconvened that fall, Pearl Jam was everywhere; using T-shirts and locker posters as a barometer, they were way more popular than Nirvana. Since I was a Nevermind guy and only lukewarm on Ten—I like it a lot more now, because I’m much younger in spirit at 33 than I was at 14—this offended my sensibilities to the core. On this point I’ll quote an article that appeared on the teen-oriented “Get With It!” page of the Appleton Post-Crescent on Oct. 22, 1993: 

If there was ever a band I got sick of, it was Pearl Jam. I got sick of hearing about how “awesome” they were supposed to be. I got sick of seeing Pearl Jam shirts on the backs of every other kid at my school. And I swore that if MTV played that “Jeremy” one more time, I would grab a gun of my own and point it at the television.

I know what you’re thinking: Why was Robert Christgau writing for teenagers in the middle of Wisconsin? Actually, that was written by me, Steve Hyden, intrepid 16-year-old music scribe. I was reviewing Pearl Jam’s second album, Vs.—a record Pearl Jam solemnly promised not to release any videos for—and attempting to make a contrast between what I saw at the time as the band’s inferior debut and the much better sophomore release. I described Vs. as “amazing” and “electrifying,” with a “delightfully raw and funky” sound and “simply no filler.” I gave the album an A+, which I now know as an A.V. Club writer is a grade that does not exist. 

The grade isn’t the only area where I was wrong when it came to Vs.; listening to it now, there’s “simply” a whole lot of filler, including the eminently skippable likes of “Dissident,” “Blood,” “Rats,” and “Indifference.” Elsewhere, Vedder awkwardly strains for Important Statements on “Glorified G,” which satirizes gun owners so simplistically it makes the NRA seem sympathetic, and the “experimental” funk song “W.M.A.,” a takedown of the white male Americans that composed most of Pearl Jam’s fan base. 

Ten is a record that anyone who’s ever felt young and disaffected can relate to; on Vs., Vedder’s lyrical perspective had broadened, and yet his songs feel narrower. But even if his stabs at saying something meaningful usually fall short, there’s still something admirable about his attempts to leaven bro-friendly rock with bite-sized morsels of social consciousness. Most impressive is Vedder’s empathy with women; on the single “Daughter,” he sings in the first-person about a young girl struggling with child abuse. Vedder does it in a manly baritone so as not to alienate his core audience, but still—a song like “Daughter” would have never come from a meat-and-potatoes rock band of Pearl Jam’s stature a few years earlier. Along with the similarly folkie “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town,” Vedder turned feminine character studies into group-friendly sing-alongs for millions of young men who were otherwise blissfully clueless about the female experience. 

With Vs., Pearl Jam sidestepped the aggressive media push that helped make Ten a success; at that point the band didn’t have to go on Headbangers’ Ball and press the flesh with Riki Rachtman like it did when MTV was just starting to play “Alive.” Vs. sold nearly a million copies in its first week and eventually hit the 7-million mark. Pearl Jam’s third album, 1994’s Vitalogy, was another smash, selling nearly 900,0000 copies during the first week of its release and going on to move 5 million units. But just when Pearl Jam should have been basking in the reflected glow of its incredible popularity, the band seemed precariously perched on the brink of ruin. 

Two things happened between the release of Vs. and Vitalogy that changed Pearl Jam forever. The first was the firing of drummer Dave Abbruzzese, who joined the band right before the release of Ten and played on Vs. and Vitalogy. The commonly cited reason for Abbruzzese’s dismissal was his comfort with being a rock star, which apparently put him in direct conflict with Vedder. This point is central to Kim Neely’s Five Against One: The Pearl Jam Story, the band’s definitive biography by default, which uses Abbruzzese as a primary interview subject. 

My favorite Abbruzzese ax-grinding story from Five Against One involves Pearl Jam’s schoolmarmish reaction to his purchase of a brand-new black Infiniti, which plays out like a low-rent grunge-rock redux of This Is Spinal Tap:

“Check it out,” he said, beaming. “What do you think?”

The others stood in a huddle, silent.

“Huh,” Jeff said finally.

“Well,” said Stone. “That’s rock.

Nobody got in, nobody wanted to see the interior or peek under the hood. Eddie, who’d parted with some of his Ten royalties to pay off the same beat-up truck he’d been driving when he first arrived in Seattle, stood with his arms crossed, eyes flickering distastefully over the Infiniti’s shiny black paint job and chrome wheels.

Whatever, Dave thought. He sat in his new car as they walked away, absent-mindedly juggling the keys that hung from the ignition with one aimless finger. He sat there for a long time after the others had gone home. 

Isn’t that just the saddest story involving a brand-new black Infiniti that you’ve ever heard? Abbruzzese might’ve gotten a raw deal, but his firing appears to have kept Pearl Jam intact, because it more or less put his nemesis in full control of the band. Vedder at the time was an uneasy collection of contradictions bumping into each other under the same furrowed brow. On the one hand, he was a dedicated student of classic rock, participating in tribute concerts to Bob Dylan and Pete Townshend, filling in for Jim Morrison when The Doors were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and initiating a public partnership with Neil Young that began when Pearl Jam invited him to play “Rockin’ In The Free World” at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards. Vedder could always be called on to wax rhapsodic about musical heroes like the Ramones and R.E.M.; along with Bono, he’s been the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame’s most reliable induction speechifier. As much as he was a rock singer, Eddie Vedder was a rock fan, and he clearly believed that the artists that had moved him were important and deserved to be celebrated.

And yet when it came to his own band and the intense connection Pearl Jam’s fans had to his public persona, Vedder’s discomfort frequently boiled over into hostility. And it would only get worse after April 8, 1994, when Kurt Cobain was found dead at his Seattle home with a gaping shotgun wound in his head. Vedder and Cobain weren’t close socially; their relationship appears to have been one-sided, with Vedder playing the adoring admirer and Cobain the ambivalent would-be rival. Cobain openly hated Pearl Jam’s music, but he thought Vedder was a good person, and the two reconciled backstage at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, the same night as Cobain’s infamous confrontation with Axl Rose.

When Vedder learned of Cobain’s death while on tour in Fairfax, Virginia, he reacted as a fan, launching into a violent emotional outburst and tearing apart his hotel room. That night he told the audience gathered for Pearl Jam’s show, “I don’t think any of us would be in this room if it weren’t for Kurt Cobain.” But in subsequent interviews, rather than focus on all the good that came out of Nirvana’s stardom—namely, that it allowed millions of people to discover Cobain’s music, and use it as a skeleton key to discover loads of other artists—Vedder instead pontificated about the burden of being beloved. It didn’t matter that Cobain had been an unhappy person for a long time before he was famous, or that he died while in the grips of a harrowing, seemingly unbeatable heroin addiction. Nope, it was the fame that killed him, pure and simple; Cobain’s demise had made him a martyr for sensitive, camera-shy artists, and Vedder rushed to pound the nails in. 

“You know, all these people… lining up to say that his death was so fucking inevitable… well, if it was inevitable for him, it’s gonna be inevitable for me, too,” Vedder thundered to writer Allan Jones a month after Cobain’s death under the headline “I’m Not Your Fuckin’ Messiah” in Melody Maker. “See, people like him and me, we can’t be real. It’s a contradiction. We can’t be these people who just write these songs. We have to live up to the expectations of a million people.”

Vedder’s classic-rock worship, and his professed disdain of the cult of personality perpetuated by many of the classic-rock artists he loved, formed the twin poles of Vitalogy, Pearl Jam’s messiest, most self-indulgent, and, in many ways, most fascinating album. Many of the songs explicitly critiqued the concept of rock stardom; incongruously, this made Vitalogy Pearl Jam’s most self-absorbed, rock-star-ish album to date. While it was easy for teenagers to imagine that Vedder was singing directly to them on Ten, it was all about Eddie on Vitalogy. The lyrics spell this out with thudding regularity:

  • From “Immortality”: “As privileged as a whore / victims in demand for public show.”
  • From “Corduroy”: “All the things that others want for me / Can’t buy what I want because it’s free.” 
  • From “Pry, To”: “P-r-i-v-a-c-y is priceless to me.”
  • From the album-closing seven-minute sound collage “Stupidmop”: “Do you ever think that you actually would kill yourself? Well, if I thought about it real deep, I believe I would.”

The central song of Vitalogy is the Crazy Horse-aping dirge “Not For You”; as a low, out-of-tune rumble slowly picks up steam, Vedder sings: “Small my table, sits just two / Got so crowded, I can’t make room / Oh, where did they come from, stormed my room / And you dare say it belongs to you / This is not for you.” How you interpret “Not For You” depends on how you define “this” and “you.” In interviews, Vedder claimed “this” was youth and “you” was the media. But when “Not For You” had its national TV debut several months earlier on Saturday Night Live, just eight days after Cobain’s suicide, it was hard not to read the song as a forceful “fuck you” to Pearl Jam’s Johnny-come-lately fans. (For clarity’s sake, Vedder actually screams “fuck you” in the studio version.) 

The message rang through loud and clear: For the millions of kids who had connected with Ten, the hit-or-miss experimentation and willful stand-offishness of Vitalogy would signal the end of Pearl Jam’s “golden period.” While the band’s decline in popularity in the latter half of the ’90s is usually blamed on its long, well-intentioned, but ultimately fruitless battle with Ticketmaster, it was really the release of 1996’s bloodless No Code and its blandly commercial follow-up Yield that caused many fans, including me, to finally walk away from Vedder’s curiously small table. 

Pearl Jam, of course, carried on, and still has an audience large enough to fill arenas all over the world. In 2009, Pearl Jam released its ninth record, Backspacer, via its own label, Monkeywrench Records, negotiating deals with Universal Music Group and various retailers, including Target, to distribute the album. Backspacer ended up being Pearl Jam’s first No. 1 record since No Code, though the first-week sales of 189,000 were far below the band’s (and music industry’s) prime. 

Pearl Jam’s ability to sustain a career for nearly two decades on its own terms is admirable. But this is still a band that hasn’t engaged with mainstream pop culture in many years. In a Rolling Stone poll connected to the release of Backspacer, five of the first 10 songs that readers picked as their favorite Pearl Jam tracks were from Ten. (Two others, “Yellow Ledbetter” and “State Of Love And Trust,” date from the same period.) No song in the top 10 comes from an album released in the last 10 years. 

Pearl Jam isn’t the first veteran rock band to see a decrease in fans as it got older. But it’s the best example of a band deliberately expediting the process. Pearl Jam helped to set a template that all too many alt-rock bands would follow in the ’90s: success, and then retreat. Make people love you, and then disengage. Get to a certain level, and just stop. 

That was Pearl Jam’s right, and the band might not be here today had it not made that choice. Still, the mainstream rock audience could’ve benefited more from the empathy and earnest intentions of Eddie Vedder, just as he had benefited from readily accessible heroes like Pete Townshend when he was a kid. For all his hamfistedness, Vedder offered up valuable lessons about the greatness of Rust Never Sleeps, the wisdom of Howard Zinn, and the concept of male feminism to anyone with access to MTV or a local rock radio station. For three years, Vedder occupied a unique and important place in mainstream rock; that he allowed it to be taken over by people like Scott Stapp isn’t unforgivable, just unfortunate. 

What Happened Next: The rise of alternative might’ve changed the look and feel of rock stardom, but it didn't keep bands from chasing the ever-elusive brass ring. I’ll look at three Chicago acts—Urge Overkill, Smashing Pumpkins, and Liz Phair—and the varying approaches they took to gaining an audience in 1993 and beyond.

More Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation?