Pearl Jam Does the Evolution

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

The sudden roar of the crowd is so explosive that the walls of the old Allstate Arena seem to shake as hometown hero Eddie Vedder walks on stage with the rest of Pearl Jam.

As he heads to the microphone, the 35-year-old singer--who spent much of his childhood in nearby Evanston, Ill.--stops to tack a sheet of paper on a piece of stage equipment so that the audience can see lettering, which reads, "Let Ralph Debate."

Except for this timely campaign endorsement, the scene is reminiscent of the near hysteria that began building around Vedder and Pearl Jam a decade ago. Even this night's opening song, "Release," is from the rock quintet's debut album.

The fact that the energy level is still so high is remarkable for a band that will officially mark its 10th anniversary with a concert Sunday at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas.

Album sales may have fallen off for Pearl Jam over the years, but its connection with a sizable, hard-core audience is still strong enough to make it an arena-level attraction. And the band's confidence and passion onstage, as evidenced by this Chicago show, both appear to be at high points.

Hundreds of fans from Southern California are expected to go to Las Vegas for the anniversary show, which is followed by a series of Southland appearances starting Tuesday at the Greek Theatre.

Rather than be lulled into complacency by their early success, Pearl Jam has become an increasingly soulful unit over the last 10 years, and their material has gained character and depth--especially in an extraordinary series of albums stretching from 1994's "Vitalogy" to 1998's "Yield."

It also helps on this tour that the group members themselves, after years of uncertainty and struggle, are having such a good time.

At one point during the encore, Vedder jumps down from the stage so that he can mingle with fans in the front rows. He even passes his wine bottle to the crowd and lets them sip from it.

"I'm enjoying myself now as much as I ever have, which is a great thing to be able to say after all this time," guitarist and band co-founder Stone Gossard said earlier in the day in his hotel room. "We all realize after all we've gone through just how special it is to be in the band. That's something that strikes me every night when we go on stage."

To mark Pearl Jam's 10th anniversary, Calendar Weekend asked each member of the group to reflect on some key moments in the band's history--including the Ticketmaster controversy and the tragedy in June when nine fans were accidentally trampled to death during a Pearl Jam set at a festival in Denmark.

The Beginning

Pearl Jam grew out of the ashes of Mother Love Bone, a Seattle band whose future was shattered when singer Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose in March 1990, just months before the band's first album was released by PolyGram.

In putting together a new band that fall, guitarist Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament approached drummer Jack Irons, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but he declined to join. He did, however, recommend a singer living in San Diego named Eddie Vedder.

Following up, Gossard and Ament sent Vedder an instrumental demo tape of some songs they had been working on. Vedder wrote some lyrics to the songs and added his vocals to the tracks.

Ament and Gossard were so excited by the tape Vedder sent back that they urged him to fly to Seattle, where they went into a rehearsal studio with him and the other original member, guitarist Mike McCready.

"It was the music that excited me, but also the commitment of the musicians," Vedder recalls of those early rehearsals. "This was the first time I had worked with musicians who were this talented and this driven. The music also sounded like something you hadn't heard before--something that was our own."

The band played its first public performance on Oct. 22--which is the anniversary marked by the Las Vegas show--and they released their first album, "Ten," late the following year.

The collection's phenomenal success--more than 10 million sales in the U.S.--helped spark a revolution in rock by opening a commercial door for a brigade of Seattle bands, including Nirvana and Soundgarden, that were lumped under the grunge label.

By expressing youthful uncertainties and doubts in ways both fearless and honest, grunge bands were a striking alternative to the calculation and pandering of the glam-rock and metal acts that were dominating the charts at the time.

Reflects Ament: "It's hard to get a grasp of why something sells 10 million records, but I think it may have had something to do with the rawness of the emotion. Stone and I had lost a real good friend and bandmate in Andy, and we didn't even know if we wanted to keep making music. I almost felt like Andy's death was a sign for me to do something else. I also think Ed, judging by the lyrics, had also gone through some hard times and that he suddenly found an arena where he could express things that may have been there for a while. For a variety of reasons, the music just came pouring out of us."

Adds Vedder: "I think you have to listen to the music in the context of the stuff that was monopolizing the airways at the time our first album came out. Maybe most of the stuff that was around was kind of superfluous to most people. I think they may have found some stories in our music that were more human, more relevant to what was going on in the world."

The Difficult Years

Vedder--like Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide in 1994--struggled with low self-esteem as a teenager and was unprepared for sudden stardom. He was uncomfortable as a mainstream hero and, with his bandmates, rebelled against much of the traditional record industry marketing of their music.

To many, the reluctant stardom attitude of the grunge bands was simply a pose.

When Pearl Jam stopped making promotional videos and rarely did interviews, some claimed the band was just trying to build mystique. When Pearl Jam attacked Ticketmaster, the giant ticket broker, over what the band felt were excessive service fees, the group was accused of grandstanding.

The common industry prediction: Pearl Jam would start playing by the old marketing rules as soon as album sales started to drop.

But time has proven Pearl Jam to be a band of its word.

Sales of its albums have dropped from the peak of "Ten" to well under 1 million for its latest collection, "Binaural."

Still, the group refuses to do videos, keeps interviews to a minimum and only agreed to work again with Ticketmaster after failing in a lengthy attempt to get the U.S. Department of Justice to declare the company a monopoly.

Looking back, Gossard says: "I'm proud of the fact that we have shown that you don't have to go for every marketing device--that you can just make the music you want and find an audience that cares about it."

The Ticketmaster Dispute

No one in the band regrets the Ticketmaster battle, which ended when the Justice Department pulled the plug in 1995 on its yearlong antitrust probe because it found that new competition was entering the ticket industry and that there was inadequate evidence to proceed. But there is disagreement over whether the fight contributed to a downturn in popularity because fans got tired of not being able to see the group live.

Matt Cameron, who became the fourth Pearl Jam drummer in 1998, was still with Soundgarden while the Ticketmaster fight went down in the mid-'90s, but he feels the prolonged struggle may have hurt the group's commercial momentum.

"I thought the intention was really good," he says. "They were trying to fight the good fight, but I think it came back to bite them. Most of bands at that level kind of had to go through Ticketmaster if they were going to tour."

Gossard disagrees. "I don't believe that Ticketmaster was a big factor in [slowing the band's commercial momentum]," he says. "I think we would have lost commercial steam regardless because no band can maintain the kind of success we had indefinitely. There's a point when some people stick with you, but others move on to something else for whatever reason. I just think that point for us was around the time of Ticketmaster, and so people pointed to that. But I don't look back and go, 'I wish we hadn't done that.' I think we did what was right."

But the experience left Ament disillusioned about the government.

"I was always a kind of a naive kid--at least until that period," he says. "When Stone and I went to Washington [to testify before a House subcommittee], I really thought we were going go have some impact. But somehow it didn't feel like they took [the issue] seriously. They seemed like they were more interested in getting autographs for their children."

Vedder just shrugs when the Ticketmaster fight is mentioned.

"The whole experience enables me to go out and support Ralph Nader and know what it's like to be on the losing end of one of these battles," he says. "But I think we would do it again even if we knew what would happen. The reason for our [low profile] during that period wasn't just Ticketmaster, but also the fact we were scaling back in other ways . . . trying to hold on to our sanity."

The Darkest Time

The band went through plenty of dark times, but they pale alongside the nine deaths at the Roskilde Music Festival.

"The enormity of what happened will never leave my psyche," Cameron says somberly. "I think what was the most kind of damaging for me was just to have that happen at an event where people had come together to celebrate and have a good time. We had to deal with it together while we were still in Denmark. We talked to this grief counselor the next day. When the crew and the band got back to Seattle, everyone had access to counseling."

For Ament, the deaths reminded him of the time he learned that Motor Love Bone's Andrew Wood had died.

"It's just like a carpet getting pulled out from under you," Ament says of the festival tragedy. "You are on your back [emotionally], and you are wondering if you can even get up. I was just dancing on that carpet, smiling at all my friends and having a great time, and all of a sudden something tragic happens."

Vedder says he spent weeks trying to rally against the depression. "Every time you started to get out of it, you'd fall right back into it. I was asked to write something for the funeral of one of the victims . . . and it was the hardest thing I've ever done."

The band says it feels comfortable with the safety level at its own concerts because of the care taken by its security team. But, they all vowed, Pearl Jam will never play another festival where safety arrangements are handled by outsiders.

The Future

It's way too early to talk about a 20th anniversary, all five band members agree, but no one seems to think it an impossible goal.

"The danger for a band that goes into its second decade is the temptation to start recycling yourself, but we've always been conscious of that," says McCready. "We have insisted on moving forward and trying new things. That's what makes me think there is a lot of life still in the band."

Besides music, the band is also excited about exploring new ways to use the Internet in getting its music to its fans--a freedom that they may soon have because they owe only one more album to Sony's Epic Records under their current contract.

The band's recent action in releasing 25 live albums underscores the group's interest in using the Internet. Though the albums are also available in retail stores under an arrangement with Epic, the album series was originally intended just for sale on the Internet, where the two-disc packages are only $10.98 through the group's fan club Web site.

"The Internet is the obvious place for them because it makes them available to hard-core fans at $10 a pop," says Ament. "But it turned into a bigger deal because we have a relationship with Sony and they said we have to let retail stores have a shot at the albums or it would compromise Sony's relationship with retail, and the whole thing got very complex. We never intended for all the albums to be mass-marketed."

About the band's contractual status with Sony, Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis says: "I expect to still be in some sort of business with Sony, but it's not going to be a traditional deal. Maybe we'll own the masters to our albums and just let the record company distribute everything."

The Legacy

Everyone in the band had a difficult time with this question because they thought it made the group sound self-important to be talking about legacy.

When pressed about legacy, however, Vedder spoke about an age-old goal in rock: music as inspiration.

"I think at some point along the way we began feeling we wanted to give people something to believe in because we all had bands that gave that to us when we needed something to believe in.

"That was the big challenge for us after the first record and the response to it. The goal immediately became how do we continue to be musicians and grow and survive in view of all this. . . . The answers weren't always easy, but I think we found a way."

BE THERE

Pearl Jam, with Supergrass, Tuesday at the Greek Theatre, 2700 Vermont Canyon Road, 7:30 p.m. Sold out. (213) 480-3232. Also Wednesday at the San Diego Sports Arena, 3500 Sports Arena Blvd., San Diego, 7:30 p.m. $28. (619) 224-4176; Oct. 28 at Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion, 2575 Glen Helen Parkway, Devore, 7:30 p.m. $26 and $30. (909) 886-8742.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°