COVER STORY : He Didn't Ask for All This : Eddie Vedder always wanted his band Pearl Jam to make music that mattered. He can sometimes feel, as Kurt Cobain did, the pressure of mattering too much to his fans, but he's finding a way to deal with it.

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

It's eight days after the suicide of Kurt Cobain was discovered and Eddie Vedder's voice still trembles as he tries to put into words his confusion and sadness.

"When I first found out, I was in a hotel room in Washington, D.C., and I just tore the place to shreds," says the brooding lead singer of Pearl Jam and the artist whose impact on a new generation of rock fans has been most often compared to Cobain's.

"Then I just kind of sat in the rubble, which somehow felt right . . . (it felt) like my world at the moment."

Vedder and Cobain were at the forefront of a new generation of American singer-songwriters whose songs chiefly reflect the alienation and anger of a generation of young people, aged 15 to 25, who feel they have been shortchanged by the American Dream.

Cobain's music was more acclaimed, but Vedder's was more popular. Pearl Jam's "Vs." album has outsold Nirvana's "In Utero" by nearly 4 million copies since they were released last fall.

With Cobain gone, Vedder stands alone--and the heat was immediate. Pearl Jam's record company, Epic, was flooded with requests to talk to the singer and songwriter about Cobain's death and what it meant to rock.

His only public comment came from the stage of a Pearl Jam concert in Fairfax, Va., on the night Cobain's body was found. He told the audience, in part: "Sometimes, whether you like it or not, people elevate you (and) it's real easy to fall . . . "

On the phone the following week from New York, where the band was to appear on "Saturday Night Live," Vedder amplified on the remark and the pressures he and Cobain both faced.

"People think you are this grand person who has all their (expletive) together because you are able to put your feelings into some songs," he says softly.

"They write letters and come to the shows and even to the house, hoping we can fix everything for them. But we can't . . . because we don't have all our (expletive) together either. What they don't understand is that you can't save somebody from drowning if you're treading water yourself."

Both Cobain and Vedder grew up largely on their own--unable to relate to the kids at high school and constantly struggling to find self-worth in troubled home environments. Their link was finding identity and hope in rock 'n' roll.

When they became famous in the early '90s as the two most celebrated figures of the suddenly hot Seattle scene that redefined contemporary rock 'n' roll, they worried about what it meant. They had grown up on alternative rock and punk, viewing the mainstream rock world as corrupt and its stars as mostly poseurs. In a strange twist of emotions, they felt both unworthy of their fame and a bit embarrassed by it.

Kurt Cobain often ridiculed rival Pearl Jam, arguing that it lacked the underground purity of Nirvana--that it was simply an old-line commercial rock band in grunge clothing.

But Cobain, who was 27 when he died, liked Vedder personally, and that made him feel guilty about the put-downs. "I'm not going to do that anymore," he said in a 1992 interview. "It hurts Eddie and he's a good guy."

Besides, the songs of Cobain and Vedder--whatever the different musical textures of their bands--touched a nerve in millions of teen-agers and young twentysomethings, many of whom were victims of broken homes and low self-esteem.

But there are limits to the similarities.

Vedder says he's not an addict, whereas Cobain struggled in recent years with heroin. Vedder has largely sworn off drugs since his teens--not complete abstinence, but nothing on a regular basis, he says. An observer close to the band says flatly, "He doesn't have a drug problem."

The singer often drank from a wine bottle on stage during the early stages of the "Vs." tour last year, but he cut back on that this year, the band observer says, and Vedder now describes his alcohol intake as no more than the average person after a hard day at work.

Another key difference is that Cobain was suspicious of his audience, wondering whether much of it wasn't just into Nirvana's music because it was the cool thing to do. He tended to isolate himself.

But Vedder is something of a missionary, a throwback to Bruce Springsteen or U2's Bono. He remembers the comfort and strength he found as a lonely, troubled teen-ager in the music of the Who's Pete Townshend--and how he imagined Townshend as someone who understood.

Vedder has tried to be that good guy to his fans--sometimes spending hours after a show talking to them or even giving out his home phone number on a radio call-in show so that they can reach him.

But some of the fans are unrelenting. They write him or try to catch up to him on the road, asking for money or help with their problems.

"(Fame) has been a difficult adjustment for everyone in the band, but especially difficult for Eddie because he remembers the time he needed help and there was no one there," says Kelly Curtis, Pearl Jam's manager.

"There'll be fans standing outside the arena screaming and he's nice to 95 people, but he finally has to leave and the 96th person says, 'You're an (expletive).' It bothers him. He feels he has let someone down."

Curtis, a 17-year veteran of the rock scene, says Vedder lets off some of the pressure by just disappearing after tours, sometimes for weeks at a time.

Is he still tempted to run away?

"I believe he thinks about that every day."

Vedder is far from the first rock star to worry about the burdens of being a "spokesman."

Bob Dylan and John Lennon--the two most acclaimed rock spokesmen from the '60s--both complained about the pressures of being looked to by fans for answers to their problems.

The deaths of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin have also been blamed in part on the pressures of being rock idols. In the '80s, Springsteen and Bono cited the disorienting effect of being viewed as spokesmen, though they adjusted to the weight.

Kurt Cobain didn't adjust.

In his suicide note, the leader of Nirvana spoke about a loss of enthusiasm for music and for life--and the accompanying guilt he felt some nights because he was faking the enthusiasm on stage.

"I understand what Kurt was talking about," Vedder said, speaking from New York. "You just can't do it if you can't be real. I had that same conversation with someone the other day . . . about how much fans expect."

He also acknowledges times in his own life when he wondered whether life was worth living.

"When I was around 15 or 16, those kind of thoughts came as often as mealtime, you know," he said. "I felt all alone . . . I was all alone--except for music.

"Then things got better. I got a job and I looked back on those times and wondered how I could ever have felt that way. I thought about all the music and all the experiences I would have missed if I had acted on those feelings. . . . "

Vedder paused.

When he resumed speaking, his voice had little of the authority it does on stage or on record. He sounded tentative--as if confused over just how much of himself to reveal.

"But you know," he said, "there have been times over the last couple of years when those feelings came back. . . . "

It's hard for those who haven't been touched by the music of Nirvana or Pearl Jam to understand the pressures felt by Cobain and Vedder.

When Andy Rooney said in a heartless "60 Minutes" commentary that he finds it hard to feel sympathy for Cobain or his mourning fans, he may unfortunately be speaking for many adults who suspect that the talk of troubled childhood and reluctant stardom is just rock posturing.

Cameron Crowe, the rock-journalist-turned-film-director, cast Vedder in a small role in his film "Singles," which was set against the emerging rock scene in Seattle, and later wrote a Rolling Stone cover story on Pearl Jam.

"People would come up to me and say, 'Jesus, the pain in that guy . . . Is it real?' "

Crowe met Vedder before Pearl Jam's first album, "Ten," broke into the charts in 1992, and he said Vedder struck him as someone who "feels things tremendously . . . an open wound, in fact."

"I met him at a barbecue at a friend's house and I sat on the rug with Eddie as things were winding down that night and he just proceeded to unspool," he recalls.

"He just started telling stories about all these things that were just crowding his head . . . and those stories ended up on that first album. . . . Stuff about his childhood and about people he knew and their problems. What you see is no pose."

The Pearl Jam singer, 29, looks out of place this morning among the businessmen in their suits and ties in the restaurant of an upscale Atlanta hotel, a week before the Cobain suicide.

He's wearing the same denim jacket and knee-length pants that he'll wear on stage that night at the Fox Theatre, where both shows sold out instantly. His hair, long and unruly, hangs across his face like a curtain, covering much of the angelic sweetness of a face dominated by the wary intensity of his eyes.

"I'll take some tea if you've got it," Vedder says to the waiter, with the politeness of someone who has worked tables himself and remembers the rudeness of customers.

Vedder was speaking to a reporter in his first interview since the September release of the group's "Vs." album.

"I'm worried about the hype thing . . . that if people start seeing your picture everyplace and hear all about this 'spokesman' stuff, they'll get turned off," he says, explaining why he refused to talk to Time magazine last fall for a cover story calling him "rock's new demigod."

"I didn't see being on the cover of Time as an accomplishment for the band," he says. "I was afraid it might be a nail in the coffin."

Vedder still drives the same 1990 Toyota truck around Seattle that he bought when he was working at a service station in San Diego. When he's asked if he keeps the same clothes and truck to remind himself of his roots--as a way to keep in touch with himself amid the glitter of the rock world--he stares at his cup of tea.

"I don't need to do things like that to remind me of who I am," he says firmly. "But maybe it's good that other people see those things and maybe it sends them a message, that I still am the same person."

Vedder was born Edward Louis Seversen III in Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. His parents were divorced before his second birthday and the youngster grew up thinking his stepfather was his real father. Until he adopted his mother's maiden name, Vedder, after dropping out of high school, he was known as Eddie Mueller, using his stepfather's last name.

It wasn't a happy childhood, he says, but he found a comfort and excitement in music. Though the Who would eventually be his greatest inspiration, the first record that caught Vedder's ear was the Jackson 5's "ABC."

Vedder didn't hear the Who until the family--which includes three younger brothers--moved to San Diego County in the mid-'70s. A baby-sitter brought the "Who's Next" album over one night and he listened to it on his stepfather's earphones.

As things grew tense in his family, he listened more and more to rock. He talked his folks into giving him a guitar for his birthday when he was 12.

By the time he was 15, his mother and stepfather had separated and he was paying his own rent rather than living at home, filled with the bitterness and anger that is expressed in his songs.

Those feelings flare up when he's asked what high school he attended.

"I'd like not to be associated with any of that," Vedder says abruptly. "They didn't treat me well."

Later, Vedder softens his answer.

"Well, maybe it was just that I wasn't going to like anybody because I had to work and I had to explain to my teachers why I wasn't keeping up.

"I'd fall asleep and things in class and they'd lecture me about the reality of their classroom. I said one day, 'You want to see my reality?' I opened up my backpack to where you usually keep your pencils. That's where I kept my bills . . . electric bills, rent . . . That was my reality."

Vedder, who supported himself by working at a Long's Drug Store in Encinitas, eventually dropped out of school.

The anger returns when he's asked about that period.

"I resented everybody around me who drove up in a car that someone provided for them . . . (with) insurance that someone provided for them," he says.

"I'd be underneath some shelf putting price tags on tomato soup and I'd watch them come in. . . . Obnoxious with their (expletive) prom outfits on, buying condoms and being loud about it.

"I'd think, 'Those (expletives).' Maybe I would have been doing that too, if the circumstances were different. . . . Maybe that would have made me more forgiving, but I wasn't very forgiving at all. Everything was just such a (expletive) struggle for years."

Vedder's bitterness pushed him closer to punk rock, because he wanted the harder, more aggressive sound.

With little money or goals, he had begun sinking into a shadowy world that brought out his survival instincts.

"There is a thing that happens when you are not as privileged and you start hanging out with a seedier crowd because you can afford to do the same things," he says. "And all of a sudden the big night out is sitting in somebody's trailer, smoking something or getting hold of something to put up your nose.

"It is real easy to get into the lower depths and get intertwined. But I was always aware of that kind of thing. . . . I didn't want to be put on a leash by any kind of conservative, constrictive parent.

"I didn't want to be in that world, but I also didn't want to be in the web of this other thing. I was getting swallowed up in it, but something made me realize it was time to get away or I was going to be just another loser."

His mother and brothers had already moved back to Chicago, and he decided to join them. After a couple of years there, Vedder returned to San Diego in 1984, accompanied by his girlfriend Beth Liebling, a writer. By this time, he had learned the identity of his real father and had picked up a high school equivalency diploma. He felt it would help him get a better job. Music remained just a hobby, not a career choice for him.

He worked nights as a hotel security guard and spent his days making demo tapes on a home recorder.

Gradually, he got involved in the San Diego music scene, spending a short period in a band called Bad Radio. Though he had been in a couple of garage bands earlier in Encinitas, the transition to a real band was difficult for the shy Vedder. For the first show, he wore a mask--actually, goggles with the lenses painted over--so that he wouldn't have to look at the crowd.

Eventually he quit the group, feeling that the members weren't serious about things. While he was looking for another band situation, Jack Irons, a friend who was formerly in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, gave him a tape from a Seattle musician who was putting together a new group.

That musician, guitarist Stone Gossard, had been in Mother Love Bone, a highly regarded group whose promise ended when singer Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose in 1990.

After listening to the tape, Vedder went surfing and the music played over and over in his head. In the company of the waves, he began framing lyrics to go with the music.

He raced back home to his recorder, and with the sand still on his feet he sang the words to the song that eventually became "Alive," one of the centerpieces on the first Pearl Jam album.

Though the song, with its screaming chorus of "I'm still alive," has been widely viewed as a statement of youthful self-affirmation, Vedder designed it as the story of a mother being drawn sexually to her teen-age son because she sees traces of her late husband in him.

The experience--which Vedder insists is not autobiographical--damages the son psychologically, turning him into a serial killer (detailed in the song "Once") who is executed in prison ("Footsteps"). It's not hard to see the story as a sort of Generation X update of the confused youth in the Who's "Tommy."

Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament, who had also been in Mother Love Bone, were thrilled by Vedder's contribution and invited him to Seattle. Pearl Jam was born, and within a year the group's first album was No. 1.

At first, there were some reasons to suspect that Vedder and Pearl Jam were rock 'n' roll opportunists. The band--which also includes drummer Dave Abbruzzese and guitarist Mike McCready--was from Seattle and wore grunge clothes, but the music didn't have the revolutionary aura of Nirvana's. It was more radio-friendly and in line with '70s hard rock.

Vedder looked like the star pupil from the Jim Morrison School of Rock Singers as he prowled the stage, rolling his eyes with brooding anxiety and thrashing around as if possessed by some foreign spirit.

All of that endeared the group to mainstream rock radio programmers, many of whom had grown up on '70s and '80s rock and found it hard adjusting to Nirvana and the Seattle grunge sound. The music itself appealed to both the young alternative-rock audience and older, more traditional fans.

If the sound itself was rather conventional, Vedder's voice offered something powerful and real.

Just as Metallica brought brains and viewpoint to the mindless assault of heavy metal, Pearl Jam brought a new, healthier and more relevant perspective to hard-rock, getting rid of the macho posturing and cartoon-show gimmicks.

As fully as the themes of Nirvana songs, Vedder's lyrics reflected the loneliness and confusion of growing up, often with frequent physical and psychological abuse.

As both a performer and writer, Vedder has shown increasing individuality and depth--at times now asserting a spark onstage that suggests the ability to be a major rock voice throughout the '90s.

Vedder sometimes worries that his voice is too "smooth" to convey the raw urgency of the lyrics, but there is a force to his vocals that expresses alienation and pain in a way that becomes surprisingly life-affirming.

In "Jeremy," a song about suicide from the debut album, he declares:

*

Daddy didn't give attention

To the fact that Mommy didn't care.

*

Like Cobain, however, Vedder says he was writing things he had seen and experienced. He wasn't trying to summarize the mood of his generation.

"I am not a good enough writer to have an agenda or come up with a message and try to put it into a song," he says.

"It's more like you write what comes to you. . . . You try to reflect the mood of the songs. Take 'Rearviewmirror' (a song from "Vs." that includes the line, Tried to endure what I could not forgive ).

"We start off with the music and it kind of propels the lyrics. It made me feel like I was in a car, leaving something, a bad situation. There's an emotion there. I remembered all the times I wanted to leave. . . . "

The 4,500-seat Fox Theatre is one of the nation's prized concert halls--a former movie theater that offers acoustics and intimacy absent in the usual basketball arenas. There was enough demand for Pearl Jam tickets to sell out the theater for a week, and scalpers were asking $300 per ticket the night of the show.

Backstage, Vedder is sitting in a deserted basement hallway, holding the Telecaster guitar that he has carried since Encinitas.

"I can't come from where I came from and not appreciate what has happened to the band," he says, his head lowered. "The one thing about going from the audience to the stage in just three years is that you know how it feels to be down there.

"I believe in the power of the music. To me, this isn't just a fad. This is a positive thing. We went from an era when rock 'n' roll meant wearing a bustier as a woman and these spandex things and guys trying to portray someone that wasn't realistic. We are trying to make it seem real . . . relate to our lives."

Pearl Jam was supposed to begin its U.S. summer tour in July, vowing to keep tickets (including service fee) under $20--a dramatic step away from escalating prices.

But the dates have been postponed for at least two months, in part because the death of Cobain "knocked the wind out of the band," said manager Kelly Curtis.

Vedder doubts whether the band will tour the rest of the year--at least in the United States.

Cameron Crowe believes Vedder will learn from the suicide of Cobain.

"I don't think it is going to send him off the deep end," Crowe said. "I know he had a lot of those feelings, those impulses himself, and I'm just thinking he was able to almost see what would have happened had he taken that jump . . . and it's not pretty. I think it is going to help strengthen him. I think he'll deal with it properly."

Vedder began dealing publicly with Cobain's death on the "Saturday Night Live" show.

He displayed the letter K, for Kurt, on his T-shirt and put his hand on his heart at one point, and ended the band's "Daughter" by singing a bluesy snippet from Neil Young's "My My, Hey Hey."

That's the song that includes the line quoted in Cobain's suicide note: "It's better to burn out than to fade away.' "

But Vedder didn't sing that line.

Instead, he sang these Young lyrics:

*

Rock and roll can never die

There's more to the picture than meets the eye

*

Asked why he omitted the "burn out" line, he said, "I guess I could have turned it around and asked, 'Is it better to burn out?' but it wasn't something I had planned out. I was just following my emotions at the time. The other lines just meant more to me."

Vedder expects to spend much of his time in coming weeks in his Seattle basement, making music. That's the way he has always been best able to deal with his problems.

"I think that process has already begun," he says finally, a note of resolve in his voice. "Seeing what can happen (to Cobain) makes me realize I've got to work on it . . . to avoid getting swallowed up too."

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