Melody Maker 6/20/92
Eddie Vedder Takes On The World
by the Stud Brothers
Pearl Jam's rise has been as controversial as it has been meteoric. For some, they are a classic American band. For others, they are the unacceptable face of corporate rock. Bollocks to that, say the Stud Brothers, reporting from Seattle, where they found the band and their inspirational singer, Eddie Vedder, preparing to take on the dark forces of right-wing America...
"Fuck, Fuck, Fuck!!!" Eddie Vedder's mad. Very different to yesterday. IT hasn't happened. IT's not happening, and Eddie Vedder's mad.
Eddie's black Toyota pick-up truck screeches to a halt outside our Seattle hotel. As politely as circumstances allow, he asks us to get in. "Get in," he says. We head out onto the freeway and spend the next half-hour tracing figure eights around Seattle, Vedder is self-possessed but quite clearly as lost as we are. Talking non-stop, he moves from subject to subject with bewildering speed and remorseless enthusiasm: the Gulf War, the Space Programme, Seattle's timber industry -- all of it madness, ecological vandalism.
Eddie has something to do. If he can't perform, he must act. The weight of the world on his shoulders seems to make him move faster. He's wired, closer to his stage persona, alternately still and magnetically intense, worringly wild-eyed and messianic. His mind's like a pinball machine. But he always comes back to one thing -- IT, the (non) business of the day. IT was Eddie's baby, and now he says he feels like he's had a miscarriage.
"You know, a lot of work was put into it," he says, his voice a disgusted machine-gun blast. "We knew what we were doing. We knew we could easily deal with however many people turned up, but the Mayor and his people didn't agree. But it wasn't the NUMBER of people that bothered them, it was the TYPE of people -- 30,000 YOUNG people, 30,000 ALTERNATIVE people. They couldn't have been worried about riots, because this was gonna be a coming together of people for a positive reason. If anything, it would've overshadowed the riots. There was nothing negative about it, there were gonna be booths there so that people could register to vote and express their opinion. It was a Rock The Vote thing, you know?"
Rock the Vote, of course, is a loose coalition of musicians and entertainers who are concerned that young people should register to vote before the forthcoming presidential elections. It's a cause Vedder feels passionately about, although he has other things on his mind right now. Like getting us out of this ring-road hell.
He pulls over, takes a puzzled glanced at a crumpled sheet of scribbled directions, smashes the palms of his hands against the steering-wheel, says "Fuck!" and performs his umpteenth U-turn. Momentarily, he's unhappily reminiscent of Layne, Crispin Glover's deranged, crusading anti-hero in Tim Hunter's movie, "River's Edge."
"I tell you, the phone's been ringing all morning round my place!" he says, breathlessly. "It's like a campaign office or something." He pauses, thinks about this, then decides that a qualification is in order. "That's the trouble with all this. It's putting me into a position I'm very uncomfortable with. It's making me like a spokesperson or something." He looks genuinely concerned at the prospect.
"IT" was a gig organized three months ago by Pearl Jam, who were then about to start a major European and American tour to promote their debut album, Ten. The group decided that they'd celebrate their return to Seattle by playing a free concert in a park on the edge of town. The concert was going to be the group's thank you to the local fans, whose support had helped secure them a deal with the music industry giants, Sony.
Three months ago, Pearl Jam were expecting an audience of maybe 5,000 people at the show. A lot has happened in three months, however. Not least, Ten has already gone platinum in America, and the band's career has gone into overdrive. With hindsight, their success was probably inevitable. Ten, led by incendiary guitars, intricate, seductive melodies and Vedder's deep, soulful vocals, revealed a group steeped in American rock mythology. And Vedder -- impassioned, idealistic, and angry -- gave them a razor edge. What few predicted, though, was that things would happen quite so fast. Pearl Jam's rise has been meteoric.
So much so that when they arrived back in Seattle after three months on the road, their little homecoming shindig was showing all the signs of turning into a mini-Woodstock. Van loads of kids were shown on the TV news driving north from San Francisco. Most of Vancouver was coming south. A plane had been charted to bring fans in from Alaska. The city's parks department was now estimating a turn-out of more than 20,000. This was too much for Seattle's mayor, Norm Rice. Twenty thousand kids doing whatever 20,000 kids might do in the wake of Los Angeles riots (and Seattle's own subsequent outbreak of petty vandalism and assault) was enough to freak out the conservative old codger. Three days before the gig was due to take place, Norm and his cronies in the police, fire and parks departments forced the cancellation of the entire show.
When we first meet Eddie, he seems quietly resigned to the fact. He lopes around his management's office in a huge pair of surfing shorts and ungainly Doc Marten boots, smiling and hugging people. But that was yesterday, the calm before the storm. Today, Eddie's fucking mad.
We're in Eddie's Toyota, heading for Gas Works Park, site of the aborted concert. Word of the cancellation came too late to stop many of those already on the road from turning up, and they're already camped in the park. Eddie wants to apologize to them personally. It seems a crazy idea. But it's typically Eddie, typically idealistic.
After many U-turns, "Fuck"'s and slaps of the steering-wheel, we finally arrive. Eddie looks mortified. Gas Works Park stands just across the band from Seattle's pincushion outline. It's so named because, in the center of its green hilly expanse, there sits the huge rusting carcass of a redundant gas works, fenced off now and covered in peace-signs and whismical flowers. Pearl Jam are passionate environmentalists. It's difficult to imagine a more perfect place for them to play. The fact that, today, the normally grey and drizzly Seattle has been blessed with positively Mediterranean sunshine seems to Eddie to add insult to injury. "It would've been so fucking great," he says, shaking his head.
Still... he shrugs and lopes off in the direction of a small group of teenagers (even though he's mad and on the campaign trail, Eddie still lopes). The small group grows into quite a crowd. Eddie addresses them with a few softly-voiced but well-received rhetorical questions like: "How come 100,000 red, white and blue frat boys get to sink Bud and beat up on each other, and we can't hold a peaceful rock concert?" "Right on," say the crowd appreciatively, and then move in for autographs.
Eddie's very good at playing the US and THEM card, probably because he actually sees the world that way. Vedder's background is that of the classic outsider -- broken home (though no one's willing to say quite how badly it was broken), no formal education, dead-end job leading to dead-end job (night poster to security man at a gas station) and nomad. (He zigzagged across the States from San Diego to Seattle.) Eddie could, in fact, be a footnote in a sociologist's Masters thesis. Despite that, Eddie (a classic outsider's name) came good. He used his time off to play the guitar. He wrote songs. He joined Pearl Jam. And in the process, he came to certain sweeping conclusions.
There are the Good Guys -- his people, a vague alliance of alternative types that include specific sub-cultures like skaters, artists, snowboarders, musicians and surfers. These are people whose common goal is to take care of each other and the planet -- all they need to do is to get organised. That's US. And then there's THEM. The Bad Guys -- government henchmen like Mayor Norm and his foot soldiers in the police department, George Bush and the Church, the Pro-Life anti-abortionists and the timber merchant, the henchmen of the faceless, soul-less multinationals. Eddie picks them all out for a particularly vicious bollocking. "See, the conservatives are really well-organized," he says. "They sit at home watching their church channels, they have letter-writing campaigns and they have a fine network going. The conservatives are using democracy in a supremely active fashion. The left-wing are more passive. They believe no one's gonna take their reproductive rights away, or stop them avoiding pregnancy if they can't afford it. But the left can't afford to think like that any more because these 60-year-old fuckers are organizing Pro-Life letter campaigns. Still, they're 60 years old. It's an issue that doesn't concern them anymore. But they're still doing it. The left has a lot to learn from these guys. They need to get organized."
There are some, in Seattle and beyond, who believe that Eddie feels he's the one to organize them, and they are outraged by the idea. "He's beyond Bono," one young punk muttered ruefully, as he watched Eddie dealing with his fans. Certainly Vedder's mastery of a crowd, on and off the stage, is compelling. In this whistle-stop tour of Gas Works Park, he gave the Bad Guys several eloquent hidings and promised, in a principled way of course, to kick some butt. Watching him -- thin, long-haired and followed by fresh-faced youngsters -- you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the presence of a nightmarish, all-singing, all-dancing hybrid of John the Baptist and Robert Kennedy. But if Eddie Vedder does want to be a spokesman and leader for a generation, it's not a conscious want. When we put the Bono comparison to him, he shakes his head. "No, no, I don't wanna be Bono," he insists. "He sang about issues in songs, and suddenly people were turning to him for answers. And he was like 'Oh fuck, I just wanna drink Heineken, you know.' So then he had to go out of his way and say, 'Look, here I am drinking Heineken and smoking cigarettes and being decadent.'"
When we ask him directly if he wants to be some kind of leader figure, he offers us this weird denial. "No, I don't want to be a leader. I don't want to be a politician. But if people call on me, I'll be there." From this we can only conclude that Vedder believes, albeit reluctantly, that he is an instrument rather than instrumental, a cipher through which the great unheard majority will speak with one voice. Or at least he might have to be, sometime in the imminent future. Like tomorrow. Which is either laudable or intensely sinister, and probably a bit of both.
The point, though, is surely that Eddie Vedder is actually (and unusually) putting his ass on the line. He's come to the not-too-difficult conclusion that being the focal point of a top-selling rock band is an immensely powerful position, and one that should be used, not abused. Vedder wants to do good because he should, not simply because he can. It's one thing beefing about music and TV, or going a little further and telling us that cops are all pigs and that the government stinks. It's another thing entirely to stand up, point the finger and name names. That takes a certain amount of guts and can cost you dearly, particularly when you're just a celerity -- as Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Mohammed Ali, Chuck D and yes, Bono, and yes, Sting, have all discovered.
Whether he is doing good of course, whether he's using or abusing his position, depends very much on who you are. If, for instance, you're a laborer in one of Washington State's many timber yards, you probably consider Eddie's attacks on the industry to be more abusive than any rock star's heroin odyssey.
What's certain is that Vedder's driven commitment to a better world makes a nonsense of the notion that Pearl Jam are corporate rockers, a notion most recently touted by Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and based on the premise that Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament (the band's guitarist and bassist) have, since their days in Green River and Mother Love Bone, always and only ever, wanted to be rock stars. If this is so (and there's little hard evidence to suggest it is), then in Vedder the band found a frontman who would propel them to fame, but who has equally succeeded in eclipsing them. As Allan Jones observed in his review of Ten, it's Vedder that "provides Pearl Jam with such a uniquely compelling focus," and it's Vedder who's now fearlessly, perhaps even stupidly, propelling himself headfirst against the big corporations, the Bad Guys, and saying things that offend his record company and even worry his own band. Pearl Jam's drummer, Dave Abbruzzese, remarked that he was worried about anyone who mixed politics with pop. "They always end up with their foot in their mouth," he said. He was referring specifically to Sting. But we wondered if he wasn't also thinking of Eddie.
Back in Eddie's Toyota, and we're driving out to the woods. When Gas Works Park was originally planned three months ago, one of its sideshows was to have been a display of America's finest skateboarding skills. For this, Eddie concieved a huge custom-built ramp, a 15-foot-high upright wooden semi-circle boasting a three-foot vertical drop on either side. Three days ago, when Eddie heard that the gig was cancelled, he decided to have the ramp built anyway -- but on private land well out of the jurisdiction of Mayor Norm.
The site is amazing. The ramp, almost complete, stands in the middle of an emerald-green clearing in a thick forest. All over it and around it are the skaters -- tall, bronzed demi-gods, bare-chested in psychedelic Paisley shorts. "Skaters have this weird cosmic energy," confides Eddie, in a respectful whisper. "When they're catching air (flying off the top of the ramp), it's like when you surf, when you feel the power of the ocean, the rhythm of the waves." Eddie's a surfer. Surfing, he says, is what first awoke in him a concern for the environment.
Eddie's looking considerably happier now. You might even say he's looking elated. This is the kind of thing Eddie gets a buzz off. They may've stopped US rocking the vote, but THEY sure as hell ain't gonna stop US partying on down, skating and listening to some punk rock.
Eddie likes to make things happen. He made himself happen. "It's happening, man" is one of his favorite expressions. "There's nothing negative here," is another. Eddie couldn't make Gas Works Park happen, but he will make this happen. And when this is over something else. Maybe the world.
As Eddie's driving us back into Seattle, we wonder aloud if he won't end up with his foot in his mouth after all. "No way," he says. "The only people who wind up with their foot in their mouth are the people who don't mean it, don't live it. I live this stuff. I did it before the band, and I'll do it after. This is my life..."