“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:


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.