Pearl Jam Turns 20: Eddie Vedder and the Band Reflect on Success

Pearl Jam. Danny Clinch

In the first few minutes of the new documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Cameron Crowe, we’re taken back to a near mythical time when Pearl Jam actually wanted to do interviews. In the vintage clip that kicks off Pearl Jam Twenty, guitarist Stone Gossard is asked by a local Seattle journalist why he decided to start a new band out of the ashes of his former group, Mother Love Bone. The guitarist does his best to sound cool and enigmatic, but instead gives an awkward one-sentence answer about wanting to try something fresh, then refers to the band’s new singer. Eddie Vedder looks small and insignificant, despite the fact he's wearing a back bra in leui of a shirt and eye shadow on his otherwise cherubic face. He mumbles something about looking so good that the band couldn’t pass him up and then smiles, revealing a missing front tooth knocked out on stage the night before. Even when Pearl Jam wanted attention, they had no idea what to do with it.

Yet as their debut album Ten turns 20, the Seattle band who spent most their career pulling back from the spotlight are now voluntarily stepping back in to celebrate the milestone with Crowe’s documentary, a two-CD soundtrack and a glossy hardcover book, also called Pearl Jam Twenty. All three projects document the band’s trajectory from Seattle’s vehemently independent post-punk scene to the uncomfortable heights of fame to their current place as one of the most respected and self-sustaining rock bands in generations. “I wouldn’t say we got through it all with finesse, but we got through it,” says Vedder, 46, reflecting on the band’s success and his reticence to embrace it. “Music was your real passion, this thing you held dear even above family. It was this relationship that never betrayed you. Once it became your job—this thing that was highly visible, this thing that became about commerce—that’s when you were holding onto music like it was a palm tree in a hurricane. That was the scariest part, that success would effect your love of music and that love would somehow be taken away.”

As you may have guessed, the anniversary celebration was not the brainchild of Vedder, Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament, guitarist Mike McCready or drummer Matt Cameron. It was instead spearheaded by their long-time manager, Kelly Curtis, who co-produced the film with Crowe. The documentary took over three years to make, and consisted of combing through more than 3,000 hours worth of footage, most of which had never been officially released. It came from an array of sources: fans, media outlets, novice filmmakers, and the band’s T-shirt guy/documentarian. Somewhere on all the videos, film reels, and digital files, Crowe found a narrative that captures the wildly creative, albeit destructive era, that gave rise to Pearl Jam. “Here’s a story about a band where the singer ODs, and it’s at the beginning,” says Crowe, referring to the death of Mother Love Bone’s front man, Andy Wood. It was after his death that Gossard found Eddie through an ad in the paper. “Every great rock story supposedly ends with the tragedy, but their’s begins with it. And that’s the Pearl Jam story. It’s a story about joy as opposed to joy that gets trashed by a lifestyle. It’s about a lifestyle that saves them from the tragedy.”

But there was a time when that lifestyle choice caused them more grief than the fame itself. After the band stopped making videos and giving interviews in the mid-‘90s, Vedder was often viewed as a modern-day Don Quixote, armored up to fight an enemy that didn’t really exist. What was the big problem with being famous anyway, quipped 60 Minutes’ Andy Rooney after Kurt Cobain killed himself. Pearl Jam’s fight to stay out of the spotlight was maligned and criticized by everyone from David Letterman to the Other Biggest Rock Band around. “It’s hard to ignore when Bono is telling you to step back up to the plate,” says Jeff Ament, 48, recalling what the U2 singer said about Pearl Jam in an interview. “You hear the echo of his voice, Be a Big Rock Band! And who doesn’t want to write that big, awesome song?”

Pearl Jam’s internal conflicts may have wreaked havoc with the band, but it’s the stuff great documentaries are made of. In 1991, Vedder and the band are struggling with the artistic criticism being hurled at them by rival Kurt Cobain, and by the next year, Vedder’s filmed slow dancing with a pajama-clad Cobain backstage at the MTV Awards. In what should have been their breakthrough Hollywood moment, the band play a party for Crowe’s 1992 film Singles but end up shouting drunken, anti-corporate screeds at an audience of studio execs instead. “The band’s history is bittersweet no matter what,” says Gossard, 45. “But we hung on out of sheer stubbornness. That’s our commitment to the music and each other. It’s this sort of strange Ouija board of movement. Everybody’s got their hand on the thing, but it’s also got its own momentum.” And Pearl Jam wants to keep things moving.

Stopping for a retrospective moment wasn’t anywhere in the band’s plans, but as Vedder says, their friend Crowe put a lot of work into the film and it’s time Pearl Jam learned to “play nice with others.” The band’s greatest input in this PJ 20 commemorative comes in the book, which tells their story in an impressive array of never-seen before photos, interviews with the band and Pearl Jam ephemera such as backstage passes and lyric sheets. As for the soundtrack, it’s a mix of previously released and unreleased material chosen by Crowe. But none of the band saw Crowe’s film until it was cut and edited, and even then they only had a few small suggestions, most of which went something like this: You think we have enough of the present-day band in there? “Maybe if we weren’t a band anymore and living a different kind of life, looking back wouldn’t feel so dangerous,” says Vedder, who lives outside Seattle with his wife and two daughters. “But knowing that you are still going—it’s like taking your eyes off the road and staring into the rearview mirror the whole time. It’s like you’re going to run off the road and not just crash, but hit somebody in the process.”

“Music was your real passion, this thing you held dear even above family. It was this relationship that never betrayed you,” said Vedder.

There have been benefits to looking back. For one, it’s reminded Vedder of what inspired him in the first place, which has been helpful considering the band is now recording their tenth album with producer Brendan O’Brien. “I realized in the early days I just didn’t edit at all,” says Vedder. “But I think you become a little more cagey with your lyrics when you know more people are going to hear them and make assumptions about you as a person. Realizing that, you want to be a little more opaque. To go back to that initial way of writing, and not be so concerned with creating three-dimensional riddles that people might understand 20 years later. That’s where we have to be grateful for all those people that stuck with us and decided to take those little journeys."

But Pearl Jam’s isn’t the only anniversary out of Seattle this year. Nirvana’s Nevermind also turns 20 this month. Aside from reminding us all of how old we are, the anniversaries highlight what an empowering—and dangerous era—the 1990s were for any rock band who truly believed that integrity and art were all you needed. “I remember distinctly having this dream,” says Vedder of the days surrounding Kurt Cobain’s death. “There was this ladder. It was unsupported and went up into the clouds. At the bottom the rungs were thick, and there were a lot of people scrambling to get on. I ended up on the ladder and it got more narrow and thin as it went up. I was finally on top of the clouds, and in the distance I could see another ladder with Kurt on top of it. I remember waving, and him waving back and then we kind of looked around. It was like there’s nothing up here. No place to pitch a tent. No one can even visit up there. And the air was thin, making it hard to breathe. We looked at each other said fuck it, let’s go back down.”

This is an extended version of the story running in the current issue of NEWSWEEK.