Pearl Jam on fame, death and the birth of grunge

In the summer of 1992, Pearl Jam arrived as the new superstars of American rock. Their debut album Ten had sold a million copies in the US alone. And following a triumphant performance in London on June 6 – supporting The Cult at an open-air show in Finsbury Park – Pearl Jam would return to America to appear on the second Lollapolooza tour alongside the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ice Cube, Ministry and fellow Seattle grunge stars Soundgarden.

A few days before the Finsbury Park gig, the video for Pearl Jam’s single Jeremy was shot in London. On the video set, Classic Rock writer Paul Elliott interviewed three members of the band – singer Eddie Vedder and guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready. They spoke about their newfound success, the pressures of fame, the Seattle rock scene and their roots in 70s rock, the tragic death of Gossard’s former bandmate Andrew Wood – the first notable casualty of the grunge era – and first, the story behind the song that was destined to become a classic…

Jeremy is a powerful song with a dark lyric. What inspired it?

Eddie Vedder: It’s a good story. A kid blew his brains out in front of his English class. That probably happens once a week in America. It’s a byproduct of America’s fascination – or rather, perversion – with guns.

Stone Gossard: Childhood is such a critical time of a person’s development, the critical time. Many of the things that happen to you as a child resurface – they can hold you back in life. Parental neglect and abuse is the source of many problems that the Earth has today. Some of the inspiration for Jeremy came from a Texan newspaper article, but some of the elements are out of Eddie’s own experience.

Does that apply to a lot of Pearl Jam songs?

Vedder: Well, as a writer, you don’t just think about yourself. I observe a lot of what goes on around me. I always have ever since I was a toddler. I even tried to write songs back then.

Were you a happy child, Eddie?

Vedder: I was a pretty weird kid, I guess. Probably because there was other shit going on in the house that I didn’t want to deal with, I’d lock myself in the bathroom. The first song I ever wrote was written in that bathroom. I remember locking myself in there so I could think, and writing words with arrows over some of them where you’d go up if you were singing.

So writing was your outlet?

Vedder: It was a form of escape. Although if I mention personal things in a song it’s not escaping anymore, it’s a way of dealing with some of that stuff.

Are you comfortable talking about this in interviews?

Vedder: It can be therapeutic.

Let’s talk about Seattle. Right now, it’s the epicentre of American rock, with bands such as yours and Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains all selling millions of records.

Gossard: Seattle was once an undeveloped area as far as the music business goes. There was a healthy punk scene with people playing just for fun and everything could develop at a slow pace. There wasn’t a rush to get signed. Soundgarden and Mudhoney became great bands because they had a chance to develop naturally. They weren’t thinking about major tours. They just wanted to put a record out on this little label called Sub Pop, because that would be the coolest thing that could happen. Now, priorities have changed.

One band from the Seattle area, Melvins, have said that no “tight-knit music scene” exists in Seattle. Is that how you see it?

Gossard: We totally get along with Soundgarden. They’re friends of ours. Our managers work out of the same office, and so do Alice In Chains. So yeah, you could call that a ‘scene’, but those bands that are now relocating to Seattle are fooling themselves. In the long run it will be a knock against them, because people are already thinking, how many good bands can come from one place?

You can’t have seen much of Seattle lately – you’ve been on tour ever since Ten was released.

Gossard: We’ve been on the road a long time, every day a new city. You know Wanted Dead Or Alive? That’s us!

Mike McCready: Except, we’ve probably only seen about a quarter of a million faces, and maybe rocked about a third of those!

You enjoy a little Bon Jovi, then?

McCready: Actually, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora were going to come and see our show in Vancouver. We talked to the promoter and she said, ‘Be careful, they’ll just drink all the beer in your dressing room while you’re on stage!’. But they never showed up. So we had the beer.

What did you do the last time you had some downtime at home?

Gossard: I went to a 70s rock club in Seattle called Rock Candy. I heard those old Journey songs, Anyway You Want It and Feeling That Way. They’re such classic radio hits. We tried playing them for a laugh, but those songs are pretty difficult to play! We don’t do them very well. When Eddie tries to sing in Steve Perry’s register, it’s sort of strange.

So you’re just old-school rock fans at heart?

McCready: I started playing guitar because of Kiss. I was eleven. I had the Kiss lunch box, everything. They were the biggest band in the world!

Gossard: I didn’t discover Kiss until the other guys in my band started listening to them again in 83. When I was a kid I was out of touch. I had hippie friends – we were into Led Zeppelin.

What about you, Eddie? You’ve said that when you have time off at home, you spend most of it surfing.

Vedder: When you talk about surfing, people think of sun and sand and girls, but it’s not really like that. At eight in the morning it’s foggy and cold. You drag yourself into the ocean and you can’t even see the waves through the fog. It’s not very glamorous, but those are the best waves. The still water is like glass – you feel like you’re breaking the plain for the first time as you’re paddling out.

It sounds very peaceful.

Vedder: It’s a good time to think. Time alone is when you really connect with yourself. Some people connect with others. That’s how their philosophies work. But I’m still trying to get in touch with myself. I’ve held my breath and swum as deep as I could down into myself, and then had to come up for air, or because the pressure got too intense, my head felt like it was imploding. But I know I can go deeper. It’s just a matter of holding my breath longer. I want to hit the bottom of myself before I go hang out with a million other people.

Have you always enjoyed solitude?

Vedder: Always. I used to work night shifts. I worked midnight to eight in the morning, and between two and six it was pretty much just you, and you get some thinking done. You could give yourself a kind of cranial enema.

What do you do to relax when you’re on tour?

Vedder: I go to see movies. When I was in Germany recently I saw the new Woody Allen movie, Alice. It was dubbed in German, and the girl at the door told me there were no subtitles, but I was anxious to see it.

Did you understand what was going on?

Vedder: I missed a few lines but I pretty much have the plot. I knew what was funny from the audience response. Woody’s German voice was interesting – it wasn’t as high as his. Can you get awards for best voiceover? That was a hell of a role (laughs).

Woody Allen once said: “If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss Bank.” Are you with him on that?

Vedder: Most religions don’t seem real. I never really trusted them. It sounds very righteous saying this, but whether I know religion or not, this music comes from an honest place, and when you play for people and they sing along, when that reaction happens, that feels religious right there.

Every generation needs a spokesperson. Is that you?

Vedder: I’m just one guy with honest opinions. I don’t want to be any big spokesperson. An American magazine was getting letters saying: ‘Eddie Vedder for President’. That’s scary.

Scary enough to make you hold back?

Vedder: There are a lot of things I feel strongly about and I’ll probably go public about some of them. I haven’t said anything publicly about pornography, although I feel it’s demeaning to women. I don’t think you can argue with that. American women are also in jeopardy of losing their right to abortion. I’m not going to sit and talk about all these things in the press and dilute my opinion, but I’ve always been this way. Five years ago, when I was in tiny bands, I was organizing benefits, making little strides. I haven’t changed.

Does rock music have the power to change things?

Vedder: Bring any censorship argument to me, because I’ll fight it to the death! It’s bullshit what’s happening in America now. In Seattle, Washington, home of the ‘controversial Seattle rock scene’, with bands like The Dwarves and Tad and their ‘interesting’ lyrics and artwork, they just passed a law, Bill 2556, saying you have to be 18 to buy certain records. There’s going to be little kids standing outside stores asking adults to buy these records for them. The censors don’t listen to or understand this music, and with this Bill they won’t even allow a proper display of the records in the stores, so it won’t sell so well, and the band might not even get to make another record. That’s how it’s going to change art, and we have to stand up against that.

What is your reaction to this?

Vedder: In the mood I’m in right now, I’m definitely going to say ‘fuck’ more than a few times on the next record. I got a song that goes, ‘Drop the leash, drop the leash! Get out of my fucking face!’ That’s the chorus [the song, Leash, is on the 1993 album Vs].

So the second album is already taking shape?

McCready: I’m so excited about the next album. I’m tired of this album. I like it, but we’re more of a band now, we have more ideas and we play off each other a lot better.

Gossard: We want to mix it up as much as we can with the next record. Do things we’ve never done before. We want it to be drier and grittier – dry the way The Black Crowes album [The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion] is. Just using the dynamics of the instruments. The first record was almost our sophomore record – we had no time at all to make it.

Stone, how long was it between the death of Andrew Wood – the singer in your precious band Mother Love Bone – and the formation of Pearl Jam with Eddie?

Gossard: It was probably only three months after Andy’s death that we made some demos. It was really a quick process. Plus, we were working on the Temple Of The Dog thing too.

You made the Temple Of The Dog album as a tribute to Andrew, with members of Pearl Jam and Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron of Soundgarden. But you were working on the Pearl Jam album at the same time?

Gossard: Yeah. We’d practice with Eddie on Pearl Jam demos, then d stuff with Chris and Matt, then with Eddie again.

It sounds confusing.

Gossard: It was as inspiring as hell!

What was Andrew Wood really like?

Gossard: He was a very amusing guy, constantly putting on a show. He’s absolutely one of my favourite lyricists of all time. Any word Andy liked, he’d work into a lyric in some strange way. And if he could have been anybody, he would have loved to have been Freddie Mercury.

Having died so young, at 25, Andrew Wood has become a kind of mythic figure.

Gossard: Andy was misunderstood in a lot of ways. And in the same way, Mother Love Bone has been totally glamourized. Everybody probably thinks we were a better live band that we actually were.

Is Pearl Jam in a sense the fulfilment of what you and Andy set out to achieve with Mother Love Bone?

Gossard: For Pearl Jam I wanted a singer as much the opposite of Andy as I could find. And people think you only get one shot at finding a great singer. But fuck that – I don’t buy that theory.

Paul Elliott

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2005, Paul Elliott has worked for leading music titles since 1985, including Sounds, Kerrang!, MOJO and Q. He is the author of several books including the first biography of Guns N’ Roses and the autobiography of bodyguard-to-the-stars Danny Francis. He has written liner notes for classic album reissues by artists such as Def Leppard, Thin Lizzy and Kiss, and currently works as content editor for Total Guitar. He lives in Bath - of which David Coverdale recently said: “How very Roman of you!”