Pearl Jam - Biography
By David Downs
Seattle grunge stars Pearl Jam formed in 1990 when recording veterans Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament collected vocalist Eddie Vedder and drummer Dave Krusen. Their 1991 debut, Ten (Epic), yielded the ferocious singles “Alive” and “Jeremy,” which became anthems of Generation X and launched the underground musicians to worldwide fame, not to mention the attendant misfortune. Guitar-heavy, arena-ready overdriven rock combined with Eddie Vedder’s highly emotional, personal, and charismatic vocals, helped the band sell more than 15 million copies of Ten and its 1992 follow-up, Vs. (Epic). Essentially underground musicians on the wrong side of their beliefs, the rock stars battled their label, their fame, and even ticketing giant Ticketmaster to dubious success before reconciling with their fate. Their grunge sound took a turn towards classic rock on 1994’s Vitalogy (Epic), while the more experimental No Code (Epic) met with less success in 1996. 1998’s Yield (Epic) showed the band embracing their ‘60s and ‘70s roots as their relationship with Neil Young grew. Live on Two Legs (1998 Epic) and Binaural (2000 Epic) preceded the historic release of 72 live albums between 2000 and 2001. These albums were released one a week, culled from live recordings of their tour. Five of the live albums charted at the same time. 2002’s Riot Act (Sony) again clobbered the Modern Rock charts, as did 2006’s Pearl Jam (J), with its Iraq War protest song “World Wide Suicide.” Perhaps one of the most ambivalent successes from the era, the reluctant rock gods have sold more than the 18 million records in America, and they remain an indisputable cultural and political force.
In 1987, bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard split from the influential Seattle band Green River and formed Mother Love Bone. Gossard, a Seattle native, was influenced by Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Hendrix, funk, and rap. Ament, originally from Montana, moved to Seattle with a band before meeting Gossard through Green River. Gossard and Ament joined lead singer Andrew Wood to form Mother Love Bone, which would earn them enough industry attention to get signed. The band almost hit big, but Wood died of a heroin overdose in 1990. Ament and Gossard, along with guitarist and long-time Seattle resident Mike McCready, made a demo that got passed down from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Jack Irons to a relatively unknown San Diego singer named Eddie Vedder.
Vedder was a fan of the emerging Seattle rock scene, but was working day jobs in San Diego. He had moved west from his native Illinois, carrying with him a relatively massive amount of family baggage that would light the emotional fuse of Pearl Jam. Vedder recorded his tortured and inimitable vocals over the three-song demo cassette and mailed it back to Seattle, where the trio was astonished. Inspired by the Ramones, Sonic Youth, David Byrne, and the Pixies, Vedder sounded unhinged and Ament and Gossard liked it. Vedder flew to Washington and went directly from the airport to the studio, where he and Gossard discovered their oppositional personalities. Gossard had a joke for everything, but Vedder was quiet and sincere; the mix worked. The band added drummer Dave Krusen and signed to Epic Records in 1991, largely on the strength of Mother Love Bone’s reputation.
With a committed production ethic, the band plowed into recording their debut LP Ten (1991 Epic). The first track, “Alive,” sets a howling tone, preparing the listener for what follows. The emotion of the vocals stem from the trauma Vedder experienced as a child; his mother lied to him about who his real father was. She did not tell the boy the truth until his biological father was dead. That fury permanently altered the adolescent’s life, a devastating psychic blow that contributed to him dropping out of school and nearly killing himself. It didn’t hurt that the rest of the band was composed of expert musicians who combined the bombastic majesty of Led Zeppelin with the distortion of what would soon be called grunge. The band took the name Pearl Jam from a psychedelic sweet made by Vedder’s great-grandmother, Pearl. Krusen left the band after the sessions for Ten and was first replaced by Matt Chamberlain for the tour, and then by Dave Abbruzzese in the fall. Gossard, Ament, McCready, and Vedder, along with members of Soundgarden, also recorded Temple of the Dog (A&M) under the same name as a tribute to Andrew Wood in 1991.
Ten charted at number two on the Billboard Heatseekers, but didn’t gain a wide audience until Seattle co-superstars Nirvana pried open a warehouse full of mainstream gold. When Pearl Jam began touring, Vedder was initially a shy, inexperienced front man. At one show in Canada, Vedder threw a microphone stand the crowd because they was more interested in drinking than watching the show. Vedder soon came out of his shell and became a regular stage diving, crowd surfing force of nature. He would climb stage scaffolding and fall fifty feet into the crowd. At a show in Denmark, Pearl Jam played before 70,000 people and Vedder went into the crowd as usual. Upon return, security did not recognize him and began beating him, drawing the entire band and manager into the fray. Vedder’s lyrics and journals were also stolen from his dressing room, reportedly by fans, the night before. Fame had turned on the band.
In 1992, Ten hit number two on the Billboard 200 and the band toured ferociously, opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young, and U2. They also headlined Lollapalooza and appeared in Cameron Crowe Seattle-based film Singles. Their music videos for “Alive” and “Jeremy” seared itself into the consciousness of a generation. In 1993, Pearl Jam won four awards for “Jeremy” at the MTV Video Music Awards, at which Vedder told the 50 million-viewer audience that music saved him from committing suicide.
Pearl Jam’s 1993 follow-up album, Vs. (Epic), added depth to their sound but was overshadowed by industry trouble. Pearl Jam, like Nirvana and many bands of the era, loathed fame even as they courted it. Vs. sold a record-setting 1.3 million copies in its first 13 days of release and hit number one on the the Billboard 200. The single “Daughter” even cracked the Top 40 Mainstream chart. However, Pearl Jam feared mainstream overexposure. They did no videos for Vs. and Vedder showed up for photo sessions wearing a mask. He became surly and distant in interviews, reportedly performed drunk, and was arrested for a barroom brawl in 1993. It’s no surprise then that he filled in for Jim Morrison at the The Doors’ 1993 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame reunion. Pearl Jam’s closer alignment with the classic rock of the ‘60s and ‘70s began to take shape during concerts honoring Bob Dylan and Pete Townshend. Pearl Jam had also backed the iconic Neil Young on “Rockin’ in the Free World” at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards. Nirvana would go the other way, becoming more punk and experimental, and even publicly lashing out against that era of rock.
In 1994, Pearl Jam canceled a summer tour amidst a public fight with Ticketmaster. The band claimed that Ticketmaster was inflating prices, and members testified against the ticketing giant before Congress. They took the issue to the United States Department of Justice for unfair business practices, but the case was dropped. “Daughter” climbed even higher on the Top 40, while the band rejected massive venues in favor of smaller arenas.
Pearl Jam’s third album, Vitalogy (1994 Epic), is musically strong and diverse, and signified a new epoch in band operations. It was released on vinyl in 1994, yet still charted in the Top 60 – impossibly high for vinyl at that time. Once released again on CD, the album hit number one on the Bilboard 200. “Betterman” hit number 13 on the Top 40 and “Spin the Black Circle” won a Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy. The group fired drummer Abbruzzese, who disagreed with the band’s stance on Ticketmaster, and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Jack Irons replaced him before they recorded 1996’s No Code (Epic). Their fourth album became another Billboard 200 number one but fell rather quickly, weighed down by its experimentalism. It seemed Pearl Jam’s fans had settled on a sound even if the band had not.
Fewer, smaller tour dates commenced and after several side projects, Pearl Jam released Yield (Epic) in 1998. Yield introduced their first music video since “Jeremy.” The album climbed to number two on the Billboard 200 and the rock stars returned to arenas for the tour, though drummer Jack Irons was replaced by ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron. The concert LP, Live on Two Legs (1998 Epic), followed later that year.
Pearl Jam’s exclusive shows for fan club members and limited-edition Christmas singles are legend. One such limited edition single, their pop cover of the J. Frank Wilson oldie “Last Kiss,” found wide release in 1999 on the compilation No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar Refugees (Epic) and became a Billboard Hot 100 number two. In 2000, their rough rock album Binaural (Epic) again topped the charts, but it was their next move that surprised the industry and made a huge impact on rock history. Their subsequent European and American tours were recorded in full, resulting in 72 double-CD volumes, each featuring a complete concert. The band self-released twenty-five of them in one week, and five of the indie releases cracked the Billboard 200 simultaneously. Pearl Jam had found their groove, even as tragedy struck when nine fans were crushed and killed during a show in Denmark on June 30, 2000. Nine more of their live self-releases charted in 2001, and Vedder and McCready performed with Neil Young at a post-9/11 benefit.
Pearl Jam’s next album, 2002’s Riot Act (Sony), again found the band more experimental and confrontational. Riot Act still managed to clear the top five on the Billboard 200. Some anthologies, side projects, and even a couple of dates opening for the Rolling Stones followed for a band now-firmly in its stride. In 2006, in a symbolic capitulation, the proudly independent band re-signed to a major label. 2006’s Pearl Jam (Sony) again dominated the charts and the anti-Iraq War single “World Wide Suicide” trounced its Modern Rock competition. In 2007, the band’s seven-disc box set continued a trend of lush collector’s items for hard core fans. In 2009, the band unveiled a super deluxe box set re-release of Ten, including a replica of Pearl Jam’s three-song demo cassette with Vedder’s original vocal dubs, copies of Vedder’s composition notebooks, and bonus tracks. Backspacer (Monkeywrench), their ninth studio album, was also released in 2009.
Pearl Jam has as many causes and collaborators as they do hits. They’ve supported Kosovar refugees, ending the death penalty, abortion rights, and Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign. Vedder toured with his then wife Beth Liebling’s band Hovercraft in 1994. Gossard started a record company and McCready had a side project with Layne Staley of Alice in Chains. The band recorded an album with Neil Young, Mirror Ball (Reprise), in 1995, a year after they appeared at Young’s Bridge School Benefit concert. Gossard has a side project Brad and in 2007, Vedder released his first solo album – the soundtrack to film Into the Wild. Vedder and Liebling married in 1994, and then divorced in 2000. He currently has two children with model Jill McCormick. In 2011 the band released a definitve documentary entitled Pearl Jam Twenty, accompanied by a soundtrack of the same name, celebrating the band's 20 year history.