The Second Coming of Pearl Jam

A decade after turning their backs on fame, Seattle's grunge survivors are ready for Act Two

By BRIAN HIATTPosted Jun 16, 2006 12:54 PM

Backstage in a Grand Rapids, Michigan, arena, as a pingpong game rages a few feet away, Vedder and I sit on folding chairs, staring at a Macintosh laptop. The power chords of "Life Wasted" -- the album's second single -- pipe through tinny speakers. We're looking at a just-released Pearl Jam music video, the first one they've appeared in since "Jeremy," back in 1992. Vedder watches in pensive silence, tapping his foot to the beat.

The arty video is clearly not a bid for the TRL countdown: It explores the song's themes of death and rebirth by showing lifelike sculptures of the band members being subjected to exotic forms of abuse -- they're set on fire, doused in water, infested by worms and bugs. Tucked amid the oddities are a few sparse shots of Vedder singing and the band playing. As the video fades to black, I ask if it was done with computer graphics. Vedder looks hurt and explains that a multimedia artist, Fernando Apodaca, painstakingly created the images over six months by filming real, physical sculptures. The guys had to take life casts of their heads, and Vedder sacrificed his eyelashes to the uncomfortable process. "The medical journals say they'll be back eventually," he says, showing off his current half-lashed look.

Doing the video required the band to overcome a long-standing aversion to the form. When "Jeremy" won Video of the Year, Vedder felt the prize should have been called "Best Commercial for Your CD." "I think we kind of wanted to get out of that racket," he says, adding with a slight smile, "We were coming from a standpoint like the Native American Indians, who thought if they took your picture, part of your soul got sucked out of you."

During Pearl Jam's early burst of fame, Vedder had reason to believe that more than his soul was at risk. "There were some stalker problems that I've never really gone into," he tells me one afternoon in his suite at Chicago's Four Seasons, smoking one of his American Spirit cigarettes and -- as if to counteract the damage to his voice -- sipping tea. He's dressed in a style best described as Unfrozen Grunge Caveman: plaid shirt, corduroy pants and what may be North America's last pair of Dr. Martens. On his lap is his constant companion, a black Mead notebook -- emblazoned with a mod target-symbol sticker in a nod to his worship of the Who -- where he keeps lyrics in progress.

Vedder's eyes narrow, and he continues, speaking slowly, "Someone who had severe mental problems and chemical imbalances ended up targeting me and thinking that all the songs were written about her and that I was the father of her two children, and that the kids were products of rape, and that I was Jesus and that Jesus rapes." He winces. "Everyone says, 'Fame, blah, blah, blah.' No, no. This is not fame. This is physical threats upon your life." Vedder is vague on the details, but the problem seems to have peaked between 1994 and 1996. He and Beth Liebling (whom he married in 1994 and divorced in 2000) put up new fences around their Seattle house and enlisted twenty-four-hour security, even demanding that Pearl Jam's then-label, Epic Records, help pay for it: "If you want records out of me, you're going to have to help pay for security to protect your guy right now." Still, one day, he reveals, "This woman drove her car at fifty miles per hour into the wall of my house and almost killed herself."

Fear of the stalker -- which he chronicled in the track "Lukin," from 1996's No Code ("I find my wife, I call the cops, this day's work's never done/The last I heard that freak was purchasing a fucking gun") -- made it hard for Vedder to leave the house and contributed to his reputation as an angry recluse. He won't say what happened to the woman, except to note that she's still alive and there are no ongoing legal proceedings against her. "It will always be a problem," he says. Vedder eventually found another place to live, outside Seattle, a place he still won't name.

Around 1996, Vedder decided he'd had enough of fame, enough of hit songs -- in the studio, potential smashes started to sound "life-threatening" to him. The band cut back on interviews. Vedder started to prune the catchiness out of Pearl Jam's music, too -- which may be why some of the band's poppiest songs can be found on its B-sides collection, Lost Dogs. "I felt that with more popularity, we were going to be crushed, our heads were going to pop like grapes," he says.

The deranged stalker was only the most visible symbol of Vedder's ugly experience of celebrity. It's easy to forget just how big Pearl Jam, Nirvana and the amorphous concept of grunge were in the early Nineties. Ten sold more than 12 million copies. Grunge fashion spreads appeared in Vogue, and the band's music dominated pop radio.

Now Pearl Jam are the last band standing from their era, outlasting peers (Soundgarden, whose drummer now plays in Pearl Jam), rivals (Nirvana) and imitators (Creed) alike. Vedder is hesitant to dwell on those strange, early days. "This is the stuff I don't want to talk about, because it's bullshit, and you had to have been there," he tells me, taking a pull from a cigarette. "It was really fucking intense: These were pure feelings coming out from real individuals and were being co-opted quickly by the masses and characterized into a joke. And we weren't a joke."

With no videos and little other promotion, Pearl Jam's second album, Vs., still sold 7 million copies. Their follow-up, Vitalogy, sold 5 million, and No Code barely limped to platinum. Not everyone in the band was thrilled. "When we pulled back, I was like, 'Aw, man,' " McCready says, sitting in a Chicago dressing room. "I was a bit bummed out, because I wanted to keep doing it, keep doing videos. We had this chance, let's take it, you know? Let's not blow it."

But the band members now agree that they did the right thing. "Luckily, it turned out we didn't blow it, because we're still around," adds McCready. "And maybe we had alienated some fans throughout the years, which I feel bad for. But it made us survive as a band." Says Gossard, "In retrospect, it was brilliant -- it was what we had to do. Ed's instincts were totally correct. If we had followed the advice of everyone in the industry or our own egos, we would've gone for it until it went down the drain."

Nirvana's Kurt Cobain was even more troubled by his sudden fame -- and his retreat was even more final. He spent a lot of time dissing Pearl Jam in the press, once memorably accusing the band of pioneering a "corporate, alternative and cock-rock fusion." "I don't think he ever really figured out the band," Vedder says softly, curling into an armchair late one night. "However, I think that if he had survived, I think he would have gotten it. Now, mind me, those are big words, but I really think it's true."

Vedder looks off into the distance. "I miss him," he says. "There are a lot of times when we're passing around a guitar, around a campfire or something, and I just think like he'd be right there with us. I think about him all the time."

Vedder and Cobain famously reconciled, at least temporarily, on September 10th, 1992, at the MTV Video Music Awards. "We slow-danced underneath the stage when Eric Clapton was playing 'Tears in Heaven,' " Vedder says, furrowing his brow. "We were slow-dancing on a gym floor as though it was a seventh-grade dance."

Did you cop a feel?

No, I respected Kurt.

Who led?

That's a good question.That's the thing, no one led.


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