Rock bands are like families on the Tolstoyan model. The happy ones are exactly the same (perhaps because they're nonexistent?) while the unhappy ones are each uniquely fitted to their own miseries. v About no contemporary has this been more true than Pearl Jam, whose every successful step seemed accompanied by a moan of anguish, to such an extent that by 1995 the band seemed to have whittled down its options to simply making records. The group's followers could have been forgiven for thinking that it no longer existed as a band, except in the spectral sense of Steely Dan.
Yet there was Pearl Jam in November 1997, with a new album in the can, playing four nights in San Francisco opening for the Rolling Stones and preparing to conduct its first full-scale American tour in a coon's age.
What happened? Somehow this band survived the kind of crisis that usually ensures a breakup-a crisis that not only engulfed them but swirled through the city of Seattle during the grunge rush of the early Nineties. As singer and principal writer Eddie Vedder said, "It wasn't just a Pearl Jam crisis. It was the whole city. Nirvana was even in front of us as far as taking it head-on."
To the world outside the band, in the months after Pearl Jam's first three albums-Ten (1992) Vs (1993), and Vitalogy (1994)-each sold between five and ten million copies, the situation seemed even more volatile. There was no Pearl Jam album in 1995; instead, they made Mirror Ball with Neil Young, an act of homage for them and a battery-charge for him. Then, when they tried to tour on their own, Vedder contracted the most famous case of food poisoning since George Bush puked on the Japanese prime minister, and had to cancel a 50,000-seat concert in San Francisco after less than twenty minutes onstage; Young filled in and got booed. In the wake of that episode, a U.S. tour was canceled. Pearl Jam toured Europe as Young's backup group. The band's fourth album, No Code (1996) sold fewer than two million copies. There was no effort to do a U.S. tour; it was hard to believe that the band still had any interest in doing one.
There was a temptation to see the crisis-more precisely, the series of crises-as stemming mainly from Vedder, whose voice and onstage persona dominated the band's image. But it wasn't just Vedder, although as the band's charismatic frontman, lyricist, and main spokesperson, he articulated grievances most often.
In a situation stressed both by internal relationship problems and an attempt to control the virtually uncontrollable perils of fame, any one of three things can happen: The band's leader can take over and turn the project into some kind of solo act-the Alice Cooper model. Or the band can break up and begin the arduous process of finding out whether any of them has it in him for a solo career-the Beatles model. Or the band can deny the problem and soldier on-the Who model. None of these approaches is conducive to creativity, and only the latter will give a group longevity.
Pearl Jam, it would seem, has cut a new path. It has come through the crisis, found out some things about itself as well as about the nature of success, and decided to see what might be made of continuing its career. "I think the only way we could get to the place where we could all go home and then not do anything for a little while and then have a little bit of excitement about getting together and writing songs was to say, 'We can't tour anymore. We can't do any interviews. We can't make five videos for this record,'" says Ament. "That's all the stuff that just tries you. It's a lot of sitting around and waiting around, and just being frustrated, and maybe putting the creative control in other people's hands, and maybe feeling like you're not being represented the way you want to be. The way that things happened for us and the way that initially everybody wanted a piece of us, I think we had to say no a lot. And that probably did come across as [us] being control freaks.
"I feel like we went through the fire a little bit and ended up coming out and realizing . . . especially after we stopped doing press and stopped doing videos and things started to settle down a little bit in terms of everyone feeling like, 'God, we're not doing that stuff, and everything's still fine! We can still make records. We might not be selling as many records, but everything seems fine,'" says Gossard. "Going through that kind of allowed us to then sort out a lot of our own personal issues and then get to the bottom of what may be some of our fights."
Jack Irons, who replaced original drummer Dave Abbruzesse, is a year or so older than the rest of the band. He's got the most critical distance on what happened, since the height of their fame came before he joined and he's not from Seattle. (A former member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he still lives in California.) Irons also has perhaps the most professional perspective in the group-and the most adult, since he's the only one who has kids. "This band wanted to be together," he insists. "They actually like each other, and it was just the circumstances that were kind of closing in. With time and good intent, that sort of goes away. You've still got to deal with it, but it doesn't have the same power anymore."
All the other bandmembers say essentially the same thing. Vedder sums it up: "At some point, we realized that the one small circle of people who would understand what each of us might have been going through on an individual level, even moreso than the other people we had closest relationships to, the only people we could really communicate to about the situation that we were in, were the other guys [in the band]. They were the only ones."
What's different, he thinks, is that the band has found a new relationship to the world outside itself. "I just thought that you didn't have to be so extreme, that you could still play, that when you made a record you didn't have to tour the whole world and then take another year off because you've spent a year and a half with these people and you can't stand another minute, you know, with the guitar player's voice in your ear, or ordering food or something-these little things. Look, all I want to do is play music. Now I have an opportunity. I want to keep going. I'm gonna be playing music for a long time. I'd like to keep offering it to people. I don't need to offer it on this superhuge, megahype level. There are some rewards [from that approach], but not really important ones. And there are sacrifices." For example, the band seems to have taken a series of fairly conscious decisions to downsize its popularity. This was the consequence of a sequence of changes that began with a change in the band: the addition of Jack Irons. Jeff Ament talks in detail about how Irons' playing opened up Pearl Jam's sound: "It's made me rethink a lot about how I play, because he approaches the drums from such a soulful place. He never has a shortage of beats: He'll play some crazy groove, and everybody will fall in.
"For me, a couple of the songs I didn't play on at all-which are 'No Way' and 'Evolution'-are two of my favorite songs on this record. Three or four years ago, I don't know if I could have said that. I think I'd have been kind of bummed that I wasn't part of the song, or wasn't at least playing bass or doing something on the song. At that point, it seems like it's interesting to sit down and learn a bass line that Stone wrote. It's great to listen to something purely being a fan of the people I play with, to sit back and have a pure perspective and just say, 'Wow, that's a great song.' It's not because I played on it; there's nothing to do with my ego in this. It's just about listening to it as a song and as a fan. I think there's been a lot of growth in this record in that way-just giving up things to other people and letting other people do things."
The trick in all that is that it never sounds forced. It sounds like five guys who understand each other so well that they can use whatever irritants remain in their lives and relationships as fuel for their fire. For thirty years, bands have been trying to figure out how to live with success. Pearl Jam might not have discovered the definitive answer, but they've found one that works for them: Not quite so much success, but a lot more communication. At least that's what it sounds like when Vedder says they've found "a real manageable something that allows us to have lives and really enjoy the fact that we get to be a band and release records and play live.
"It really did happen," he muses. "We really did turn a corner. Now it's just movin' on and bein' a band and just doin' what we do. We've kind of established what we do, and we're not gonna defend what we do. If someone doesn't like it, fuck off. I don't really have time to hear it. I'm doin' something pretty good with my life, and I challenge them to do the same."
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