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Five Against The World Biography Of Pearl Jam Essay, Research Paper
Five Against the World
There are two Eddie Vedders. One is quiet, shy, barely audible when he speaks. Loving and loved in return. The other is tortured, a bitter realist, a man capable of pointing out injustice and waging that war on the homefront, inside himself. On a warm and windy late-spring day in the San Rafael, Calif., it’s easy to see which Eddie Vedder is shooting baskets outside the Site, the recording studio where Pearl Jam are finishing their second album. It is tortured Eddie, the one with the deep crease between his eyebrows.
“Your shot, calls Jeff Ament, the group’s bassist. He bounces the ball to Vedder, who takes a long outside jumper. It rattles into the basket and rolls away. By the time Ament retrieves the ball, Vedder has already disappeared into the studio. His mind is on a new song, “Rearviewmirror.” This is the last day of recording at the Site, and the track’s fate hangs in the balance. It’s a song about suicide . . . but it’s too “catchy.”
The choice of the studio seemed perfect back in February, when the band decided to record the new album here. This idyllic studio compound in the hills of outside San Francisco offered privacy and focus. Keith Richards had recorded here; his thank-you note to the studio framed on the living room wall. This is gorgeous country, where locals look out at the expansive green horizon and say things like “George Lucas owns everything to the left.” This is where Pearl Jam would face the challenge of following up “Ten,” one of the most successful debut albums in rock. There was only one problem.
“I f—ing hate it here,” says Vedder, standing in the cool blur room where he is about to sing. “I’ve had a hard time.” He places the lyric sheet in a stand between two turquoise-green guitars. “How do you make a rock record here? Maybe the old rockers, maybe they love this. Maybe they need the comfort and the relaxation. Maybe they need it to make dinner music.”
Frustrated, Vedder shakes his head. He pulls at his black T-shirt, uncomfortable in his own skin. A long moment passes. Finally, producer Brendan O’Brien speaks over the intercom. “Ready to give it a shot?”
“Sure,” Vedder says quietly, turning his back for the vocal. He slips on the headphones, and for a long time the only sound in the room is his tapping foot.
“Took a drive today,” he sings. “Time to emancipate/I guess it was the beatings/Made me wise . . .” He holds a shaking hand to his head. “But I’m not about to give thanks or apologize.”
Now listening carefully, his weight shifts from foot to foot. He growls and begins spitting on the floor. “Divided by fear . . .” Louder now. “Forced to endure/What I could not forgive . . .” He’s bellowing now, eyes shut. “Saw things . . .” The room is filled with his anger. “Clearer . . . once you were in my . . .” Eight feet away, a snare leaning against the wall starts to shake. “Rearview . . . mirrorrrrr!”
In another part of the building, Ament, the band’s resident artist, prepares for a group meeting about the new album cover. For months, the unwritten rule had been “Don’t talk about it.” Just make the record. Forget about the pressures on the other side of the hill. But now decisions must be made, and the band slowly gathers in the kitchen to look at Ament’s ideas.
“I’ve been thinking about windows,” Ament says, fighting nerves, passing his artwork ideas to the other members. Ament’s distinctive hand-scripted style adorns all the group’s T-shirts and record releases. On the table before them is a complex collection of his photos and sketches.
“Cool,” says Vedder softly, just returned from the studio and still hunched from the emotional vocal. Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, the band’s guitarists, study the ideas with growing enthusiasm. Buoyed, Ament continues. He likes the idea of contradiction. Conflicting images. The five members kick the concept around until it sticks. Contradiction. There is a lull that follows a winning idea.
“So are we talking about ‘Daughter’ as the first single?” drummer Dave Abbruzzese asks casually.
Suddenly, all air leaves the room. The other four member dog pile on Abbruzzese. What single? One meeting at a time! What do you mean, single? Abbruzzese shrugs. Perhaps it’s still a little too soon to mention the unmentionable. Soon, the subject returns to album-cover art. Abbruzzese suggests adding a battered and bolted New York City window to the artwork. The idea is instantly accepted and the meeting ends on an exuberant note. The band disappears to play softball while Brendan O’Brien finishes the mix of “Rearviewmirror.”
Abbruzzese stays behind, nursing s sore wrist. (He occasionally suffers from carpal-tunnel syndrome, which causes numbness in three of his fingers.) “To me, when I was younger and I heard about a band selling a million records, I thought the band would get together and jump up and down for at least a minute,” he says with a wide-open East Texas laugh, “and just go ‘Wow, I can’t believe it.’ But it doesn’t happen that way [in this band]. Me, I flip out. I jump up and down by myself.”
For Abbruzzese, who co-wrote the album’s opening track, “Go,” it’s sometimes hard to watch his bandmates deal with success. “There’s a lot of intensity over decisions,” he says cheerfully. “And I think it’s great. But every once in a while, I wish everyone would just let it go. Make a bad decision!” He looks out at the same green forest Vedder had raged at earlier. “Look at this place! It’s paradise.”
Sitting in a downtown-Seattle coffee shop a few weeks later, Stone Gossard analyzes the combustible nature of his band. “I think we’re doing fine,” he says in the clipped rhythm of an athlete. “I think we made a great record. Nobody’s out buying limos and thinking they’re not the most amazing thing on earth. There’s a natural balance in the band where we need each other. Everybody sees things from their own angle, and all those angles are the archetypes of the things you need to really cover your ass. It’s what makes a band to me.”
And he has heard the criticism of Pearl Jam’s success. “If somebody wants to say, “You guys used to be my favorite band but you got too big’ – to me, the problem with getting too big is not, innately, you get too big and all of a sudden you stop playing good music,” Gossard says. “The problem is, when you get big, you stop doing the thing you used to do. Just being big doesn’t mean you can’t go in your basement and write a good song. I think people are capable of being a lot bigger on that rad big scale.” He laughs. “A lot more people are capable of being big out there that just don’t give themselves a chance.”
At first, the songs on the new album, “Pearl Jam,” came in a burst. The initial week of recording at the Site had produced “Rats,” “Blood,” “Go” and a slow, potent version of their previously unrecorded stage favorite, “Leash.” Then the band hit a wall. Vedder disappeared into San Francisco, often sleeping in his truck to preserve his fighting spirit. Hiking, he’d even picked up poison ivy. “He needed to get in the space of his songs,” says Ament. “Soon we were back on track.”
“Pearl Jam” is the band’s turf statement, a personal declaration of the importance of music over idolatry. But the burden of Pearl Jam’s popularity has fallen most solidly on Vedder, who spent much of his off-season wondering about the effects of being in such a high-profile band. Vedder had – uncharacteristically – even gotten into a barroom fight defending the band. (In a Waits-like voice, he offers a snippet of an unrecorded song that he has written about it: “Gave myself a black eye/To show off just how I was feeling.”) And one night, while sitting out on a deserted coastal sand bluff, contemplating life after the death of a friend, guitarist Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch, he heard strange voices coming from the hill behind him. They were singing “Black,” the fragile song that to Vedder had come to symbolize the overcommercialization of the band, He’d fought to keep it from getting overplayed, didn’t want a video made of the song. Vedder hiked out to the bushes to ask the surprised hikers not to sing the song. Moths later, he still remembers their odd and concerned faces as they faced the angst-filled author of the song.
“I had a hard time getting away, ” Vedder says now with a laugh. But as Ament says, the struggle is everything. “The push and pull,” he says, “is what makes our band.”
“Let’s do ‘Black,’ ” says Gossard.
It’s rehearsal time back in Seattle, June 1993. Later in the summer, Pearl Jam will do a brief “fun” tour of Europe, opening shows for Neil Young and U2, and the band has rented out the downtown Moore Theater for practice. Half-seriously, Gossard asks that the stage lights of the empty theater be darkened. (They are.) He begins strumming the simple chords that open this anguished song to a former lover. Then, hands in pockets, Vedder eases into the words. He gives himself, wrenchingly, to a thousand empty seats. When it’s over, there is a buzz in the air. The band is clearly energized.
Soon Pearl Jam are racing with a new riff by Gossard. Abbruzzese tries a few different feels, locks in on one with Ament. Then McCready adds a spitfire lead. Like McCready himself, his playing is quietly expressive, marked by sudden explosions. Now Vedder joins in, trying random lyrics (”When it comes to modern times/You’re standing in line”). His omnipresent yellow-tweed suitcase, the one filled with journals and lyrics and masks and tapes, is open and spread out onstage. He selects phrases and thoughts as the band blazes behind him. Before long, they’ve honed loose versions of two new songs.
At the heart of Pearl Jam is the relationship between Gossard and Vedder. “I consider us to be very different people,” says Gossard, whose razor-edged wit is far different from Vedder’s deadpan irony. “Almost polarized in a lot of ways. I mean, name any given issue, and we’ll take opposite sides of it. We give each other the total different end of the spectrum so we can always somehow find the middle. My goal, what I really want to achieve, is not to need him. Because he is needed by so many people who don’t really understand him.”
Later, Vedder grabs a pitcher of beer at a bar next door, the Nitelite, and unwinds from the rehearsal. He reflects on singing “Black” for the first time in months. “There are certain songs that come from emotion,” he says. “It’s got nothing to do with melody or timing or even words; it has to do with the emotion behind the song. You can’t put out 50 percent. You have to sing them from a feeling. Like ‘Alive’ and ‘Jeremy’ to this day – and ‘Black’ Those songs, they tear me up.”
Ament is sitting next to him. The two have not been out together socially since the 1992 Lollapalooza tour. They share the easy camaraderie of music lovers. “My relationship with the band,” Vedder says, “began as a love affair on the phone with Jeff.” Soon the two musicians are recalling the early history of Pearl Jam, the scuffling days of only two and a half years ago.
It had all begun with an unassuming tape marked “Stone Gossard Demos 91.” The guitar-god magazines have only recently discovered it, but most Pearl Jam songs began life as a Gossard riff. One of his early favorites was a song called “Dollar Short,” an unfinished track that he’d started working on back when he and bassist Ament were in Mother Love Bone. Love Bone was the promising Seattle hard-rock band they’d formed after the break-up of their previous group, grunge pioneers Green River. When Love Bone singer/songwriter Andrew Wood died in 1990 of a tragic heroin overdose, Ament – the Montana-born son of a barber – downshifted, playing around town with a group called the War babies and returning to his other love, graphic arts. Gossard – a Seattle native whose father is a lawyer – barely put down his guitar, playing constantly, moving away from the trippy atmospherics of Love Bone and toward a hard-edged groove. Part of the new blueprint was “Dollar Short.”
Eventually Gossard called in McCready, an explosive lead guitarist who had been so bummed out by the breakup of his own Seattle band, Shadow, that he’d started turning into a Republican – literally. He’d cut his hair, was working in a video store and was reading a book by archconservative Barry Goldwater. “I was becoming a staunch conservative,” McCready says, “because I was so depressed.” Gossard saw him more as his new secret weapon for the band he wanted to form. “Whatever you’re playing,” says Gossard, ” ‘Cready comes in and lights the fuse.”
As the Seattle sound started to gather momentum around them – Nirvana were about to enter the major-label arena, Sub Pop Records was flourishing – Gossard and McCready jammed in the attic of Gossard’s parents’ house. That room had already been the musical hothouse for Green River and Mother Love Bone. When Ament joined the Gossard-McCready jams, inspiration struck again. “I knew we had a band,” McCready says, “When we started playing that song ‘Dollar Short.’ ”
Dave Krusen joined the band later, playing on “Ten,” but soon left to deal with some domestic problems. He was replaced by Abbruzzese, who had been playing in a funk band and co-hosting a radio show, “Music We Like,” in Houston. At first, Abbruzzese was tentative about playing rock full time; after two shows, he’d tattooed Ament’s stick-figure Pearl Jam logo on his shoulder.
Today, listening to Gossard’s original ‘91 demos is not unlike hearing “Ten” without the vocals – powerful but incomplete. The missing piece, it turned out, was in San Diego. Originally from Evanston, Ill., Vedder – better known on the San Diego music scene as “the guy who never slept” – had brought a Midwestern work ethic to the sunny beach community. Working at hyperspeed, laboring days at a petroleum company to finance his budding career as a singer and songwriter, Vedder had befriended Jack Irons, formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Irons passed along Gossard’s tape.
The demo tape from Seattle contained five instrumentals, Vedder remembers, but there was something about that one song, the one with that great bridge, that was triggering things that Vedder had kept long contained. It all came to a head one morning in the fog as he was surfing, the morning “Dollar Short” became a song called “Alive.”
Vedder raced back to the Mission Beach apartment of his longtime girlfriend, Beth Liebling. Working from yellow Post-it pads lifted from his job, Vedder taped himself singing over three of the instrumentals. Together, the three songs told a story, as Vedder recalls today, “based on things that had happened, and some I imagined.” The “mini opera” tape was carefully designed by Vedder, the graphics Xeroxed at work and the package entitled “Mamasan.”
Sitting in his apartment in Seattle, Ament listened to the tape three times and picked up a phone. “Stone,” he said, “you better get over here.”
By the time Vedder had arrived in Seattle, he’d already written “Black.” All he’d requested in his earlier, lengthy phone conversations was not to waste time. He wanted to come straight from the airport – right to their rehearsal room – and make music. And that is what happened. The first song they played together was “Alive.” Within a week, they were a fully functioning band. And Vedder’s creative floodgates were wide open. Most of his songs, from “Why Go” to “Oceans,” were real stories about people he knew. Some of them contained riddles, private messages to himself or friends. Even the lyrics printed on “Ten” are only partial, but it’s hard to dispute the pain in his delivery of such aching lines as “Daddy didn’t give attention/To the fact that Mommy didn’t care.”
“I don’t know where all those songs came from,” says Ament. “I know a little about his childhood. I know he loved [the Who's] ‘Quadrophenia’ . . . I guess I don’t know many details.”
“Alive” set the tone for everything that would follow. The first song on “Ten” was also the first song to bring attention to the band. It was clearly Vedder’s creative breakthrough, and the band’s initial video celebrated a cathartic live performance of the song. In an early “Los Angeles Times” review, writer Chris Williams had even compared the song to the Who’s “My Generation.” Today, “Alive” is a Gen X rallying cry, but tonight, sitting in the Nitelite, Vedder reveals the true meaning of the song.
“Everybody writes about it like it’s a life-affirmation thing – I’m really glad about that,” he says with a rueful laugh. “It’s a great interpretation. “But ‘Alive’ is . . . it’s torture. Which is why it’s f—ed up for me. Why I should probably learn how to sing another way. It would be easier. It’s . . . it’s too much.”
Vedder continues: “The story of the song is that a mother is with a father, and the father dies. It’s an intense thing because the son looks just like the father. The son grows up to be the father, the person that she lost. His father’s dead, and now this confusion, his mother, his love, how does he love her, how does she love him? In fact, the mother, even though she marries somebody else, there’s no one she’s ever loved more than the father. You know how it is, first loves and stuff? And the guy dies. How could you ever get him back? But the son. He looks exactly like him. It’s uncanny. So she wants him. The son is oblivious to it all. He doesn’t know what the f— is going on. He’ still dealing, he’s still growing up. He’s still dealing with love, he’s still dealing with the death of his father. All he knows is ‘I’m still alive’ – those three words, that’s totally out of burden.”
Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” blasts on the jukebox as Vedder continues. “Now the second verse is ‘Oh, she walks slowly into a young man’s room . . . I can remember to this very day . . . the look . . . the look.’ And I don’t say anything else. And because I’m saying, ‘The look, the look,’ everyone thinks it goes with ‘on her face.’ It’s not on her face. The look is between her legs. Where do you go with that? That’s where you came from.”
“But ‘I’m still alive.’ I’m the lover that’s still alive. And the whole conversation about ‘You’re still alive she said.’ And his doubts: ‘Do I deserve to be? Is that the question?’ Because he’s f—ed up forever! So now he doesn’t know how to deal with it, so what does he do, he goes out killing people – that was [the song] ‘Once.’ He becomes a serial killer. And ‘Footsteps,’ the final song of the trilogy [it was released as a U.K. B side to 'Jeremy'], that’s when he gets executed. That’s what happens. The Green River killer . . . and in San Diego, there was another prostitute killer down there. Somehow I related to that. I think that happens more than we know. It’s a modern way of dealing with a bad life.”
Then he smiles as he says, “I’m just glad I became a songwriter.”
Sitting next to Vedder, Ament listens like a fascinated brother. Perhaps he is remembering the first impressions Vedder made upon arriving in Seattle. Friends from his early days up north recall a different from today, a desperately shy surfer, a guy with a lot of heart and little irony. One friend even called him “Holy Eddie.” “He was genuinely quiet and loving Eddie when we first met him,” says Ament. In the band’s earliest shows, Vedder had been so self-effacing, he barely looked up. “And at a certain point, he changed.”
An early turning point came at a club called Harpo’s, in Victoria, British Columbia. It was Pearl Jam’s maiden tour, their first appearance away from a nurturing audience of Seattle friends. But this Canadian crowd was far more interested in getting drunk. In midset, Vedder decided to challenge the jaded audience, to wake them up. Unscrewing the 12-pound steel base of the microphone stand, Vedder sent it flying over their heads, like a lethal Frisbee. The steel disk crashed into the wall of the back of the bar.
They woke up.
Vedder would never fully be the same. Gossard credits the influence of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, who had asked Vedder to sing on his tribute to Andrew Wood, “Temple of the Dog.” Cornell had already transformed himself in an intense way,” Gossard says. “Eddie looked to him as a guide to help us through that time.
Vedder soon developed a new stage habit. He began climbing the stage scaffolding or the wings of the theaters the band was playing, falling into the hands of an often worshipful crowd. “I think the first time I got really worried, we were in Texas,” recalls McCready. “Eddie climbed up on the girder, about 50 feet in the air. Nobody knew where he was. And all of a sudden you look up – some guy had a flashlight on him – and it was like ‘F—!’ He’s up there clinging to a girder. I’m thinking, ‘This guy is insane, but I’m so totally pumped.’ ”
“That whole thing almost turned into a circus event,” adds Ament. “People weren’t looking in his eyes when he was doing that. I think they were looking at the f—ing freak, you know. The guy who was dumb enough to put his life on the line. Evel Knievel. But if you looked at his eyes, man, there was an intensity to what he was doing. That was his belief in himself. He was saying, ‘This isn’t just “rock” to me.’ ”
The band returned from a European tour and taped a stirring edition of “Unplugged.” There was a particularly galvanizing, unforgettable moment at the end of “Black.” “We belong . . . together . . . together,” Vedder sang. It was simple, a guy sitting on a stool, ripping his heart out, drowning emotionally, right there in front of you. After, “Unplugged,” letters to the band’s Ten Club almost doubled, many were about “Black,: and they began in an eerily similar fashion: “I was recently considering suicide, and then I heard your music . . ..”
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