Pearl Jam Comes Alive

Eddie Vedder writes songs on a manual typewriter, carries important papers in a 1940s suitcase, keeps his credit cards in a plastic Batman wallet and wears his beat-up lumberjack boots over a pair of blue argyle socks. He prefers to talk politics rather than Pearl Jam, and has a 21-month-old daughter who likes to sing Daddy's new single, "World Wide Suicide," during play group. "She dances around singing 'Suicide, suicide'," says Vedder, "and I have to wonder what the other parents are thinking."

Such personal tidbits feel like a full-length tell-all memoir when you consider that Pearl Jam has been, and remains, a band that guards its privacy. After the success of their 1991 debut, "Ten," which sold nearly 10 million copies, the Seattle group stopped making videos, shunned endorsements and shied away from almost all self-promotion. And each subsequent album proved less accessible than its predecessor. (Can you name the last two Pearl Jam records?) But despite their refusal to play the game--or because of it--Pearl Jam is still considered one of the last rock bands that matter. "What's threatened by being out there all the time is your sense of normalcy as a human on this planet," says Vedder, 41, sitting in the band's headquarters on the industrial outskirts of Seattle. "You start making decisions based on public perception of who you are. I've seen people who go for it. They are that thing, and they're really good at it. They somehow made the jump still intact. Me? I ran screaming the other way."

You can hear some of that screaming--along with a lot of singing and a little pleasant harmonizing--on Pearl Jam's new self-titled CD. It's their eighth, and their first album with J Records (Alicia Keys, Chris Brown). It's also the most immediate and relevant CD that Pearl Jam has done since 1994's "Vitalogy." But is anyone still listening? So far, yes. Radio is finally playing the band again, the single "World Wide Suicide" hit No. 1 on the Modern Rock chart, and there's a high-decibel buzz around the album, to be released May 2.

As you might expect, the band is both recharged by this second wave of attention and getting uncomfortable. In the giant warehouse--which contains their rehearsal space, the office of the Ten Club fan Web site and countless reels of Pearl Jam recordings--they reluctantly shuffle into a back room for a rare photo shoot. They line up against a stark white wall in silence, like condemned prisoners awaiting the firing squad. You wonder why they want to put themselves through this again when Pearl Jam remains one of the most lucrative live acts around. In a word: politics. "There's a lot of anger and frustration in the atmosphere these days," says Vedder (who smokes way too much to have the voice he still has). "We didn't want to add to the negative noise pollution, but we did want to do something. It's just not the time to be cryptic. I mean, our tax dollars for this war are being funneled through huge corporations--one of which Dick Cheney used to be head of--and there's an even greater disparity between rich or poor in this country. It offends me on a really deep level." He smiles. "Then again, it makes me feel eternally young."

Still, "Pearl Jam" is more than a screed against the Bush administration. It's a compelling rock-and-roll album that still shows the band's classic-rock roots, grunge's punk base and Vedder's political conviction: "There is a sickness, a sickness coming over me/Like watching freedom being sucked straight out to sea." Some of the best moments come when Vedder gives us an image rather than an idea. In "Un-employable," he describes a dented JESUS SAVES ring worn by a working-class guy who punched his metal locker when he got laid off. "Music's at its best when it has a purpose," says Vedder. "In the days of 'Rock Around the Clock' and 'Good Golly, Miss Molly,' the purpose was, like, 'We should be allowed to do this.' We certainly haven't had to go out of our way to find a purpose now."

Not that they ever have, from their 1994 fight against Ticketmaster--in which guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament testified before the Supreme Court in an unsuccessful antitrust investigation --to their participation in the 2004 Vote for Change tour. Pearl Jam formed on the eve of the first gulf war. Vedder, then 24, was living in San Diego. He got ahold of a demo by Gossard, Ament and guitarist Mike McCready, then sent it back with his own vocals on top of their music. Seattle in those days was the place, where such underdog groups as Nirvana and Soundgarden were suddenly being signed to major labels. "There was a cultural element to our scene that had nothing to do with record labels," says drummer Matt Cameron, who played with Soundgarden before joining Pearl Jam in 1998. "It was a groundswell. These people appeared out of nowhere and sold millions and millions of records. It was a natural evolution, and I don't think anything like that has happened in rock since."

But the scene was also self-destructive: rampant heroin use and an overall ethos that held that it was better to burn out than fade away. (Not an unfamiliar notion in rock and roll, but Seattle was deadly serious about it.) Pearl Jam is the only band left standing. "Stone and I made so many mistakes with our earlier band, Mother Love Bone," Ament recalls, "that basically concluded with Andy [Wood, their singer] dying. We were on a major label, and they were saying you gotta spend $300,000 to make a record, gotta have a supermixer mix it. After Andy died, we owed $40,000 to a lawyer and didn't have any money. I thought, If we get another opportunity, this is not how we're gonna do it. Luckily, the first Pearl Jam record blew up, and because the deal was on our terms, they had to let us continue making records that way. It really defined who we became." One thing they became, says Vedder, was apologetic. "Like, 'Sorry we're so popular.' 'Sorry, I like Mudhoney way better than us, too'." They tried to share the wealth by turning their audiences on to other people's music, touring with fringe bands and doing their own radio shows.

Survivor guilt and noblesse oblige aren't such big issues anymore. Pearl Jam's rejection of rock stardom, their increasingly idiosyncratic records and Vedder's emerging role as an advocate for progressive causes have cost them casual fans; their last album sold one tenth of what their debut did. Does this worry Vedder? Guess. "If we can survive and play music and put out records and play live shows, and live our lives as family members, community members and friends--that's the goal. If we're able to do it within this industry, that's even better. It could even be a sign that the industry isn't too polluted."

In other words, it's not about the money--though Vedder's idea of "surviving" may be your idea of filthy rich--and, ultimately, maybe not really about the politics. It's about the music, and few people describe better than Vedder the transcendent--and transitory--joy of artistic inspiration. "I think there's a finite beam when an idea happens," he says, "and if you don't translate it at that moment, it morphs into something less than the vision you had. What made it great gets dulled out. It might still be good, but that great beam of light hitting your brain--that's it. You just do brick-work while you wait for the beam to come."

But leave it to Vedder to see the downside too. "For me, finishing this record was the biggest relief. My brain's like an iPod without earphones--the music's just in there, going, all the time. When the record was done I got to own my brain again. I've got a 21-month-old daughter, and I don't want this little girl growing up with an insane, mad-professor father. As romantic as it seems, I think she deserves better." Pearl Jam sometimes seems bent on renunciation: of fame, of money, and now, apparently, even of inconvenient bouts of inspiration. It's a shame they're so good. Must make life a lot tougher.