George, July 2000
REBELS WITHOUT A PAUSE
Promote Nader? Register Voters? Fight Greed? Pearl Jam Wants To Do The Right Thing In This Presidential Election Year-But Can't Quite Figure Out What That Might Be.
By Rob Tannenbaum
Transcribed by Cory Chapin
On an April afternoon, New York's Mercer Hotel is a hive of casual glamour. Courtney Love slumps in a corner sofa, smoking cigarettes and drinking cappuccino with friends, while U-571 actor Mathew McConaughey, clad in leather, struts through the lobby and into a limousine. Upstairs, the biggest American rock band of the 90's is sitting in a $2,000 suite, contemplating politics and passivity. Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, guitarist Stone Gossard, and bassist Jeff Ament are wrestling with a conundrum.
In August, they begin a three-month, 40-city tour tied to a new album, Binaural. Pearl Jam has decreed that there will be voter-registration tables situated around the arenas during each show. The gesture has led to a dilemma. During the tour, PJ will play to about a million unusually loyal fans, most of whom are 18 to 40 years old-Democratic consultant James Carville's dream demographic. They eagerly read Pearl Jam articles, Web sites, or Usenet groups. Through the years, Pearl Jam has generously supported a number of liberal causes. Because this tour coincides with a presidential election, they are tempted to encourage fans to support a specific candidate. But they aren't sure political sponsorship is a rock band's job.
"I don't think we're gonna explain to them how to vote," Vedder says at first. "I mean, there was one show we did, an anti-Jesse Helms rally where we did tell 'em how to vote," he adds with a laugh. "That was a no-brainer."
A few minutes later, Vedder starts to change his mind. Recently, he's become smitten with one of the presidential candidates. Not, however, one of the two candidates with a chance to win.
"I heard Ralph Nader speak the other night, and I wish I could borrow his brain for this interview," Vedder says. "He was talking about how there's not a two-party system, that it's a one-party system, and it's all under the corporate umbrella. I couldn't agree with him more."
He continues to rhapsodize about Nader, but just when he seems about to endorse the Green Party leader, he stops short. Maybe it's because the band's other idealistic crusades have ended in defeat. Several years ago, for example, Pearl Jam declared war on Ticketmaster, the entertainment behemoth that controls ticket sales through exclusive contracts with most large arenas-which, as Nader might point out, hardly constitutes a free market economy. Pearl Jam tried to tour without Ticketmaster and failed painfully. This time, most of the group's summer tour tickets will be sold through their archenemy. "We're ready to concede. We have to use them," says guitarist Gossard resignedly.
For Vedder, Gossard, and Ament-plus guitarist Mike McCready and drummer Matt Cameron-idealism and cynicism are in constant conflict. They'll happily sponsor voter registration, hoping young voters will support liberal politicians. But for the most part, they don't like Al Gore, and the one candidate they admire, Nader, has no chance of winning. They understand the impulse to change the world (as Crosby, Stills & Nash sang), but also the desire to rock 'n' roll all night (as Kiss sang). "If we started talking about politics onstage, people would laugh," says Gossard with a shrug. "They want to hear [our hits]."
The opposing urges of social activism and resignation can't be reconciled. So sometimes Pearl Jam's members are philanthropists. Sometimes they're martyrs. And sometimes they're just a rock band.
Some art is manifestly political, like Bob Dylan's protest songs or Michael Moore's anti-corporate films. But if entertainment weren't inherently political, even when its message is oblique, the politicians-especially conservatives-wouldn't be so frightened by it. "Culture," Pat Buchanan once observed, "is the Ho Chi Minh Trail to power."
In many homes where parents are absent or uninterested, bands function as moral surrogates, instructing kids on values. As Vedder explains, a songwriter can chronicle social problems like a reporter, but with a greater emotional urgency. Vedder often sings about freedom and individualism and writes sympathetic portraits of troubled women. His lyrics have denounced violent cops ("W.M.A"), guns ("Glorified G"), and organized religion ("Do the Evolution"). Two dramatic songs from Pearl Jam's 1991 debut-"Jeremy," in which an abused schoolkid takes bloody revenge on his tormentors, and "Alive," about parental deceit and Oedipal drama-quickly made the band famous. "Troubled souls unite," Vedder declared. And a young generation raised on sitcoms, Ritalin, and divorce responded avidly.
Vedder had a nearly allergic reaction to fame. He's complained about stardom (sample quote: "I'm just not that happy a person"), bad-mouthed MTV, and when Pearl Jam and Nirvana made Seattle-rock famous, refused to talk to Time magazine for a cover story. Even now, plenty of people see him as Angry Eddie, a whiny grouch, the Cassandra of grunge. "I don't mind that," Vedder says merrily, "The fact that we're perceived as humorless pricks allows me to go into a bar, sit in the corner, and not have everyone come say hello. There's a nice force field that goes along with that."
Last November, while Pearl Jam was in a Seattle studio recording Binaural, their hometown was overturned by protesters enraged by the World Trade Organization meetings. "I was so extremely impressed to see that protest was still viable," Vedder says. While watching the mayhem, he finished writing "Grievance," a Binaural song that mocks affluence and consumption, regards computers as tools of government surveillance, and includes a characteristic PJ image, in which nonconformism is punished with violence. "I pledge my grievance to the flag," Vedder sings. He hopes the song will encourage protest to bloom.
Vedder talks haltingly and avoids direct eye-contact. Like a lot of high-school dropouts who read avidly, he seems uneasy expressing knowledge. To explain his opinions, he invokes books he admires-Howard Zinn's anti-capitalist analyses of American history, and Visions, Michio Kaku's alarmist view of the future of science. Despite his reputation as a sanctimonious brooder, he frequently cracks dry jokes, and even smiles broadly enough to display rarely seen dimples.
For all the impact of Pearl Jam's songs, Vedder says "our politics may be more in our actions than in our music." At a time when many bands unabashedly align with beer companies or clothing designers, PJ is widely admired for its relatively anti-corporate values. The band refuses corporate sponsorships, and has made only a few music videos, eschewing the support of the almighty MTV. Their failed jihad against Ticketmaster cost them an estimated $30 million in revenue, and their criminal complaint with the Justice Department-alleging that Ticketmaster held a monopoly in the $1 billion concert industry-got them only a House investigation that was quickly squashed by high-powered corporate lawyers and pols.
"It was awesome," says Vedder, with a loud laugh. "It was great to find out what it's like to be crushed by a huge corporate superpower." He now calls the defeat "a template for how [politics] works. When you put that template onto an issue like the environment or taking jobs out of the country, then it becomes really frightening." No wonder Vedder is so attracted to Ralph Nader's anti-capitalist message.
In one way, Pearl Jam is very much like any other Seattle-based corporation run by young millionaires: They give away lots of money. Since 1992, the band has donated more than $2.2 million to causes ranging from the environment and Native Americans to education and abortion rights. They have also played benefits for the homeless, AIDS, and Tibetan freedom. Last year, they helped raise $6.7 million for Kosovo relief by donating all the royalties from the album No Boundaries, containing the hit single "Last Kiss." Recently, publicist Nicole Vandenberg, who coordinates PJ's political activities, helped them establish a charitable foundation, which hopes to give away $500,000 every two years.
Considering the disparate backgrounds of its members, it's little surprise that Pearl Jam turned out to be a political paradox. "Punk rock," says Jeff Ament, 37, "introduced me to politics, in a lot of ways." Ament grew up a "redneck" all-state basketball star in Big Sandy, a tiny town in northern Montana. Ament's dad was a farmer and an insurance salesman, not to mention the town barber and its mayor. "He was very pro-Nixon," Ament says, "Until I was 16, my dad was my hero."
Ament's view of his father changed-as did his political views-when he began to hear the dissident opinions of hardcore leftist punk groups like the Dead Kennedys, Millions of Dead Cops, and Crass. After graduating from the liberal University of Montana, he "had a brutal seven or eight years" of conflicts with his father. The two have since made peace; the muscular bassist now focuses his disgust on Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), a champion of gun ownership Ament calls "one of the biggest idiots in politics."
Guitarist Stone Gossard, 33, embodies Pearl Jam's skeptical side. Unlike Ament, he was raised in privileged circumstances, the son of a prominent Seattle lawyer. His Democratic parents sent him to an alternative, multicultural high school, where history lessons included prolonged discussions of the United States' involvement in political assassinations. Now Gossard espouses realpolitik, which values compromise as a necessity and recognizes the triumph of power as an inevitability.
Yet today, Gossard disparages the Marxist advocacy of PJ's younger Sony Music labelmate Rage Against the Machine, the hard-rock socialists whose didactic rants have topped the charts. "As you get older," Gossard reflects, "you start to see the complexity of issues, and you go, 'I don't want to hear you talk about, you know, corporate fuckin' whatchamacallit when you're on the Sony tit, and you're making videos.'" Rage Against the Machine, Gossard alleges, denounce politicians for their immorality, but are hardly upright themselves, which makes their songs "sound sort of hypocritical."
With Eddie Vedder, the path from his politics back to his upbringing is clear and direct. "I had a complicated family history," he says softly, and punctuates the understatement with an ironic smile. He was born Edward Louis Severson III, but his father divorced his mother before he was two. She remarried and never told Eddie about his real father-instead, she raised him in the San Diego suburbs as Eddie Mueller, the surname of her second husband. Eddie occasionally saw Severson, but believed he was merely a "family friend."
Eddie hated his stepfather, and in the past has called him an "evil, evil" man. When Eddie was in high school, his mother revealed the family secret and announced that Eddie's real father had died when the boy was 13, an incident alluded to in the Pearl Jam song "Alive" ("While you were sittin' home alone at age 13/Your real daddy was dyin', sorry you didn't see him"). When he learned the truth, Eddie dropped Mueller in favor of his mother's maiden name, Vedder.
Vedder's denunciation of his stepfather and his thematic fascination with the abuses of power, including child abuse, raise the question: Was he an abused child? "No," he says with a cautious pause. "I probably had a very normal upbringing that had some discipline in it that maybe wasn't necessarily appropriate." That's not a very clear answer-it's neither an affirmation nor a denial. Did his stepdad hit him? "I'm not gonna say no," Vedder replies. But out of love for his mother, who raised four sons, "I'd rather not talk about it."
Given this history, it's not surprising that Vedder-who's been married for six years to Beth Liebling but has no children-still finds struggles against power and authority compelling. Ticketmaster, the police, China, and the two-party system are all monolithic enemies that cause Angry Eddie to re-emerge. "I do get riled up in an adolescent manner," Vedder admits, laughing at himself.
Partly because of their anti-commercial attitude, Pearl Jam's sales have declined; their last two studio records-1996's No Code and 1998's Yield-sold around 2 million copies each, far below the 7 million sales averaged by their first three albums. And they don't plan to film a video for Binaural. "Unless we can get Nader to do one," quips Ament.
On, Binaural, in the apocalyptic song "Insignificance," Vedder explores the conflict between their generation's opposing instincts of protest and passisivity. In "Insignificance," as falling bombs bring death to a small American town, the doomed gather in a bar, dancing while a protest song plays harmlessly on the jukebox. The oblique moral, Vedder says, is the ineffectiveness of political struggle -- a theme Pete Townshend, expressed in the Who's rock classic "Won't Get Fooled Again."
"You can only do so much," Vedder says. "Y'know, do your laundry, tip the waiter, talk to the homeless, be part of the community, love your friends. And that's about it. No real reason to try too hard at any of this." And yet Pearl Jam does try. "Yep," Vedder shrugs. "The girl can't help it."
So Vedder daydreams about giving Nader's campaign a boost. Is it possible that the band could help him capture 5 percent of the presidential vote, and qualify his Green Party for millions in federal campaign matching funds?
Stone Gossard doesn't think so. "Do you know how many votes [Pearl Jam's support] would effectively change?" he scoffs. "You might get 5,000 people to kind of look at it, and 1,000 people [to vote for Nader]. American politics will always be a two-party race."
Here is Vedder's conflict: Although he's reluctant to anoint himself a political advocate, he regrets the country's apathy. He declares a responsibility to "at least dabble in" sponsoring political change. But he knows promoting a candidate onstage might alienate his fans and perhaps his bandmates. He imagines addressing a bored fan at a concert. "'If you fucking voted, I wouldn't have to be talking about this. If you fucking educated yourself, instead of listening to inane rock music -- I'm not talking about ours, I'm talking about the other bands -- we wouldn't have to bring this up.'"
So why not go out on a limb and tell fans about Nader? "You know what? I think we will," says Vedder. "It sounds like a great idea." Eddie Vedder has made up his mind. He's endorsed Ralph Nader. "And in a perfect world," he adds with a chuckle, "Howard Zinn could be vice president."