POP MUSIC : All Revved Up (As Usual) : Eddie Vedder’s got a few thoughts on writing songs, getting married, lightening up, hunkering down, what’s wrong with the music business and a new ‘Vitalogy.’
Eddie Vedder pauses during an interview when asked if “Immortality,” a song on the new Pearl Jam album about deep depression, was inspired by the suicide last April of Kurt Cobain.
It’s hard to tell whether Vedder is surprised by the question or is simply sighing at its inevitability.
Vedder is the rock artist most closely compared to Cobain. Both have been hailed as key figures in a new generation of songwriters who reflect the alienation and anger among many young people today.
And “Immortality,” featured on the new “Vitalogy” album, includes lines that certainly sound as if they were inspired by Cobain’s death--there is even a reference to a cigar box on the floor, such as the one found next to Cobain’s body in Seattle.
“No,” Vedder finally says. “Immortality,” he explains, was a look at his own delicate state of mind written in the days before Cobain’s death. The cigar box is simply where Vedder often keeps his tapes.
But the album isn’t just about rock star trials. ( See review, this page .) Vedder, 29, also writes about the tensions of relationships and the exploitation of youth culture.
To get away from his own rock world pressures, Vedder has largely stayed out of the spotlight for nearly seven months, during which he married his longtime girlfriend, writer Beth Liebling.
On the eve of the release Tuesday of the vinyl edition of “Vitalogy” (the CD and cassette versions won’t be in stores until Dec. 6), Vedder spoke from his home in Seattle about his new songs, the continuing pressures and--surprise--some upbeat moments.
Question: What about “Immortality”? With lines like “Cannot find the comfort in this world” and “Some die just to live,” everyone is going to assume it’s about Kurt.
Answer: No, that was written when we were on tour in Atlanta. It’s not about Kurt. Nothing on the album was written directly about Kurt, and I don’t feel like talking about him, because it (might be seen) as exploitation.
But I think there might be some things in the lyrics that you could read into and maybe will answer some questions or help you understand the pressures on someone who is on a parallel train. . . .
Q: Let’s just talk about you, then. How were you feeling in the months before and after Kurt’s death--when you were complaining about the pressures? It’s hard for a lot of people to understand what is so difficult about being famous.
A: I understand that. It is a tremendous privilege to be able to play music for a bunch of people. It’s a great feeling, very humbling. But as far as putting up with the rest . . . the media and the way they exploit and scoop out your chest without leaving anything behind. . . . Have we not witnessed that in the O.J. Simpson (case)?
I was in Greece with Beth when that happened, and I felt like renting billboards all over the United States saying, “Have you people lost your (expletive) mind?” Everybody was kind of fascinated seeing people run down the street with their signs, but I was sick. I don’t want any part of the whole celebrity trip.
Q: But you also complain about the business side of rock. What’s so hard about dealing with that?
A: Someone wrote a letter (in a magazine) the other day about “Eddie (It’s So Hard to Be a Rock Star) Vedder.” Well, I just want to clarify. It’s not hard to be a rock star. If you want to go around (expletive) women and cleaning a bunch of teen-agers of all their dough because they like your band and charge them up the ying for T-shirts and concert tickets, that’s easy. That’s playing the game.
What’s hard is trying to stop playing the game . . . to try to treat people fairly and with respect. If someone bumps into me on the street, it could be worth something to them. Someone might want to buy their story. Or if they bump into me hard enough, they can claim I hit them and they can sue me. You just feel that after a while you become a commodity rather than a person. It interferes with your life and the music.
Q: In some of your songs, like “Immortality,” you seem to be speaking directly to the listener, where in others you seem to be taking the role of a character. Do you feel more comfortable in either style?
A: There are times, like “Better Man,” where you are creating a fictional character--the way James Taylor does in, say, “Mill Worker,” and working within the framework of someone else’s head. . . . That’s really fulfilling because you feel like you are writing a story. Then there are other songs, like “Not for You,” where there’s no doubt about where it’s coming from. It’s straight from inside you, and that is fulfilling too, because it is therapeutic.
Q: “Not for You” seems a pivotal song on the album. What about the line “All that’s sacred comes from youth”?
A: I believe that is true--that there is something sacred about youth, and the song is about how youth is being sold and exploited. I think I felt like I had become part of that too. Maybe that’s why sometimes I have a hard time with the TV end of music and much of the media and the magazines.
When I pick up a magazine, I just count how many pages of ads before the first article starts. You go one, two . . . up to 15 to 20 or more. And then in the back you have phone-sex ads. So I’ve pretty much had it. I don’t want to be the traveling medicine show where we go out and do the song and dance and someone else drops the back of the wagon and starts selling crap. I don’t want to use our music to sell anything--or anyone else use it.
Q: Isn’t “Not for You” also directed at the music industry?
A: There are a lot of middlemen, somewhere between the band and the audience. I know you need some people to help facilitate things for a live show, and I’m not saying I don’t appreciate these people, but . . . .
In the last 10 or 15 years, there have been a lot of changes in music, and somehow the percentages being charged (by the concert industry) got out of hand.
We also don’t want to be part of all the marketing tools or whatever, but believe me, we have been. (That happened) on the first album and that’s probably even why we are where we are now, but it was hell and I feel awful about it and I’m not going to do it anymore.
Q: “Nothingman” is about a troubled relationship. Was that written before or after your marriage?
A: I wrote it before. I might bring something I know from the relationship to “Nothingman,” but I’m thinking about someone else going through it, someone who(expletive) up. I didn’t (expletive) up. The idea is about if you love someone and they love you, don’t (expletive) up . . . ‘cause you are left with less than nothing.
Q: What about your own relationship?
A: Relationships can be tough. There are times--I end up putting a lot of time into this music thing. I don’t sleep at night. I think I’m probably a very difficult person to deal with. Things never seem to settle down and be normal, and I think Beth has to deal with a lot. I don’t want to get into our personal relations. But at times there is tension. . . . We are all selfish at heart, I guess. But I just know that without her, I’d be a kite without a string--a nothing man.
Q: Is “Corduroy” also about a relationship?
A: It is about a relationship but not between two people. It’s more one person’s relationship with a million people. In fact, that song’s almost a little too obvious for me. That’s why instead of a lyric sheet we put in an X-ray of my teeth from last January and they are all in very bad shape--which was analogous to my head at the time.
Q: When people hear some of these songs, they probably think you sit in a dark room all day. Aren’t there good days?
A: Sure, I have good days. I had a good time last night. The Frogs (an alternative rock band) were here and we were up till 5 in the morning. Everyone had wigs and masks on and were all switching instruments. I also feel good about the way our music is going.
Q: So there are good times?
A: Sure, and I’ve heard Chris and Dave (Novoselic and Grohl of Nirvana)--I hope they don’t mind me repeating this--but I’ve heard them tell a number of people about all the happy times he had.
A: Right. I’m sure that there were moments when he was happy--that everything wasn’t depressing in his life. . . . But it just seems like the negative somehow sticks with us, where the good seems to just kind of bounce off. You feel it for a second, and then it’s gone.
I was trying to analyze it myself the other day--I should learn how to deal with it. Someday I will. It’s just that music was the thing that always helped me, and now a lot of the problems seem tied to the music--and that’s why it turns your world upside down. You feel like you want to protect the music and yourself, and there’s a lot of things that are attacking both.