"Hey, Eddie!" It's after midnight on Cleveland's sleepy waterfront, and Eddie Vedder -- carrying a worn suitcase and wearing a thin corduroy jacket -- is walking in his hunched posture toward the Ritz-Carlton hotel. He hears someone shout his name, and turns.
A mean-eyed young Republican steps from the shadows, barking, "Bush 2008! Bush 2008! Bush 2008! Jeb's running!" Then the guy grins at Vedder -- who was one of the headliners of 2004's pro-Kerry Vote for Change Tour -- gives him a sarcastic thumbs-up sign and prepares to watch the dour, volatile lead singer of Pearl Jam freak out.
Vedder stares for a moment. Then he just shrugs, mumbles, "OK, man," and heads inside. The heckler looks crushed. Riding in the hotel's elevator, Vedder laughs, showing dimples beneath his Jim Morrison-ish beard. "If he was trying to wind me up, it didn't work," he says in his whispery baritone. "Maybe he was just a big Gavin Rossdale fan?"
A few years back, Vedder might have melted down at the provocation. That was the Vedder who accepted a Grammy with the gracious words "I don't think it means anything"; the one who once yelled, "Just leave me alone!" at a young fan in front of a reporter. But this Eddie Vedder is forty-one years old. And in the ten years or so since you last saw him scowling on "Alternative Nation," dude developed a sense of humor. Falling in love with a new girlfriend, fashion model Jill McCormick, and siring a two-year-old daughter, Olivia -- who shares his intense blue-gray eyes -- didn't hurt. And there are other, deeper reasons for his newfound inner peace, as he'll tell me much later that night. Says Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, "Ed's in a better space than I've ever seen him."
The same could be said of Pearl Jam -- despite, or maybe because of, the fact that they spent much of the past decade deliberately tearing apart their own fame. They skipped music videos and TV appearances; launched a doomed, self-defeating battle against Ticketmaster; and released a series of largely introspective, idiosyncratic albums, beginning with 1996's No Code. They toured incessantly and became one of rock's great arena acts, attracting a fanatical, Grateful Dead-like cult following with marathon, true-believer shows in the vanishing spirit of Bruce Springsteen, the Who and U2. But to non-fans, the band seemed to all but disappear. It never broke up -- though lead guitarist Mike McCready admits, "We came close a few times."
Now, Pearl Jam are in the process of reclaiming their long-abandoned place at rock's forefront. "They're fresh, they're hungry and they're loaded for bear," says BMG chief Clive Davis, who recently signed them to the second major-label deal of their career. In May, they released Pearl Jam, an album bristling with anti-Bush, punk-rock energy. It is, by universal acclaim, their best work since 1994's Vitalogy -- and the first one since their debut, 1991's Ten, to demand attention with unabashed anthems. "I feel like we've been handing in our work on time, and we've been getting A's and B's, but we haven't really raised our hand and spoken out in class," says Vedder. "This record is us speaking out in class."
So far the world is listening: Pearl Jam has spent a month in the Top Twenty, and the first single, the anti-war, Ramones-meet-the- Who blast "World Wide Suicide," was a hit, reintroducing the band to radio. The band members are showing a newfound willingness to promote themselves -- appearing on Saturday Night Live and Letterman -- in part because they want their political voice heard. "It seems like a critical time to participate in our democracy," says Vedder. "I think we're representatives of America. We certainly have as much clout as, well, Rush Limbaugh. So if he's gonna fuckin' blow hot air, using his platform, then we should be doing the same."
Hanging out with the members of Pearl Jam -- as I did for five days in May during the first leg of their U.S. tour -- is like reconnecting with old friends from high school: You haven't seen them in years, but you're somehow surprised to find that they've had the audacity to change while you weren't watching.
In contrast to their time-warped image -- humorless, paranoid, constantly on the verge of implosion -- the band members seem cheerful and relaxed at the tour dates I spend with them. Like most musicians that have been around one another for years, they don't spend much time together, aside from work. "We give each other space, because when you're traveling all the time, you're just stuck in each other's face," says drummer Matt Cameron.
But these guys get along, and they're comfortable enough to welcome an outsider who insists on watching their sound checks and trailing them as they walk on- and offstage. They often exchange fist-bumps right before each show -- and by the second night, McCready gives me one, too.
Vedder sees the band as an example of a functioning democracy. "There's some clout in having stayed together for fifteen-plus years that says to people, 'It's not easy, but it can be done,' " he tells me in Cleveland. But Pearl Jam are also a dictatorship: Even Gossard -- who put the band together and came up with the music for most of its early hits -- has surrendered to the will of the guy he sometimes calls "Ed Ved." "At some point, Ed realized he was the central figure in the band," Gossard says. With his short hair and wire-rimmed glasses, he looks like he works at a dot-com. "If I was able to sing and create the kind of energy Eddie's able to create, I'm sure I would want the same ability to say, 'This doesn't feel right to me.' I think he could do a lot of different stuff, but he chooses Pearl Jam as the vehicle he likes. It's amazing to be part of that."