Spin Magazine 12/94
Let's Get Lost
by Craig Marks
Eddie Vedder hoped that Pearl Jam's first record would sell 40,000 copies. He was off by about eight million. In an exclusive interview, Craig Marks finds Vedder struggling to make peace with his real-life problems and his larger-than-life persona. Photographs by Lance Mercer.
"I feel like throwing my sleeping bag into the truck and just driving." As dusk settles on the Saturday evening before Halloween, Eddie Vedder is on the phone from Seattle. Four weeks have elapsed since we first began plotting this interview, during which time I felt as if I'd been strapped into the passenger seat of Vedder's personal roller coaster. Our telephone conversations and written correspondence have revealed an intricate tangle of moods and values, desires and fears, protective coatings and naked vulnerabilities. Like you and me, Vedder, an ex-surfer from San Diego on the verge of turning 30, is struggling to understand himself, his family, and his universe. Unlike you and me, he's doing it in front of millions.
In one letter, Vedder suggested that we conduct our interview through overnight mail: "How many licks does it take to reach the middle? Let us see. Back and forth... Ask what you'd like[!]. I will respond immediately. We can rally correspondence coast to coast." Weeks later: "I don't like talking to journalists in general, but that is a symptom of what happens with our conversations later... They are printed, sold, judged. I can't participate in that... I just don't feel right sending this stuff off." Flashes of playful humor -- a signature that reads "Edward Lizardhands," a pair of Polaroids of his messy home with MUST scrawled on one, CLEAN on the other, the unbearably mod photos he sent to accompany this story -- get offset by his sad revelation that his cordless phone is being tapped into by some jerk with a shortwave radio. And well-deserved optimism about Pearl Jam's future -- "Things are going in a good direction," he says, "I think the future could be much brighter" -- is undercut by the pressure of living up to the band's staggering commercial track record. "What if our new record doesn't sell a million copies the first week?" he asks. "Are people going to be let down? Say it peaks at a half million or something. People are going to panic, say we've got to do some videos, we've got to get this band on the road. I mean, it's just music, what does it matter?"
On this particular Saturday, however, Vedder sounds ragged, defeated. A recent bleak encounter with some folks who were close to him long before Jeremy ever spoke in class has left him battered, painfully aware of the price he's paid for a fame that has robbed him of trust, privacy, and sometimes hope. And what frustrates Vedder most is knowing how hard he's worked to keep this genie in its bottle.
This may not always take shape in Pearl Jam's music -- a radio-friendly amalgam of '70s hard rock and the more masculine territories staked out by punk and hardcore -- but more in the inspirational way the band has conducted itself outside the studio. Pearl Jam's refusal to ante up a video in support of its second record, Vs. -- a practice the band will continue with its new album, Vitalogy -- was such a profoundly anticommercial gesture that it remains virtually peerless. Without a clip, Vs. has sold in excess of five million copies; one industry observer guessed that figure would be double if they'd ceded one to MTV. This grand "fuck you," in an age when bands and labels go to embarrassing lengths to cozy up to MTV, served as both a powerful show of Pearl Jam's popularity and a last-gasp attempt by Vedder (who just recently married his longtime girlfriend, Beth Liebling) to keep his life his own.
Couple that with the now-famous complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice over the alleged monopoly exercised by Ticketmaster, wherein Pearl Jam claimed the agency used its influence with promoters to boycott the band's planned low-priced summer tour (results of a hearing are still pending). Others, from R.E.M. to Garth Brooks, hopped aboard to lend support, but it was Pearl Jam's neck on the chopping block.
These two opponents -- MTV and Ticketmaster -- are far from pushovers, and one shouldn't misinterpret Pearl Jam's virtue as grandstanding. Not since Bruce Springsteen rode out to case the promised land has rock 'n' roll been led by such an unabashed believer in its essential goodness. Vedder's painful upbringing has been well chronicled: he grew up with a stepfather who he believed to be his real dad; when he finally learned the truth, his real dad had already passed away. Vedder is quick to confess that his so-called life was saved by the sanctity of Pete Townshend's windmilling power chords. He only wants to return the favor. "We don't want to exclude anybody from the experience," says Vedder of the band's fight to lower ticket prices. "The experience of a father taking his son to the concert even though he works at a gas station... or even being able to afford a T-shirt. What music can do to your life, what one night of live music, if all the elements are in place, how it can affect your life. It might make this kid pick up a guitar. Who knows what it will do."
Family -- the idea of family -- is sacred to Vedder, and those ties that bind form the lifeblood of Vitalogy, Pearl Jam's third and best record to date. Themes of betrayal and responsibility may not break any new lyrical ground for Vedder ("It's funny how my daily troubles don't seem to have changed," he says with a laugh), but there is a sense that on Vitalogy, Vedder's residual anger has been tempered by a wary compassion. On the album's somber bookends, "Nothingman" and "Better Man," Vedder, over plaintive strums and hushed keyboard, scribes the sad scenes of failed love and empty dreams like a would-be Raymond Carver. Tellingly, it's the male characters in both these songs who betray their partners' trust; Vedder's sympathy rests with the women trapped by their lovers' selfish ways.
Vitalogy is not all tender mercies; alongside the aggro workouts of "Tremor Christ" and "Last Exit" and the defiant antifame crunch of "Corduroy," there are moments of surreal levity ("Bugs"), Replacements-like garage rot ("Spin the Black Circle"), and goofy paranoia ("Pry, To") that many would have thought impossible for the intense Vedder. Though it is tempting to brand these slighter cuts as throwaways, they suggest a band in a pitched battle not to take itself, and its position, too seriously.
"I thought about this last night," Vedder says. "I saw this soul singer who told me how people come up to him and say how they have fallen in love to his music, and that they romanced to his music. It was a very nice thing. I thought, what a huge relief to have someone tell you that rather than 'I was going to commit suicide until I heard your song,' or 'We played your music at my friend's funeral.' Fame is so different for different people."
SPIN: What's been the hardest thing to swallow about your success?
EDDIE VEDDER: All this stuff about popularity and public recognition, I can deal with it theoretically. I can wade my way through it, give myself lessons, and soak up others' advice. Again, theoretically. But when I hang out with people that I have missed, and that I've been friends with before, that I'm looking forward to sharing moments with like we used to have, when I get in the middle of the group, it feels like I'm a child being eaten by dingoes. Like people taking bites and pulling and grabbing this way and that. They're taking pictures... just doing weird things. The time I spent with these people, it wasn't enough or something. I'm in conflict, because I just feel like I've tried doing everything that I could.
SPIN: It's not appreciated, or it doesn't seem to matter?
VEDDER: I don't even know why I try. It's just all adding up in such great proportion that mathematically I'm at a disadvantage. I can't seem to get over it right now. I feel like I just don't even know why I should keep trying.
SPIN: Do you struggle with these doubts often?
VEDDER: Not to this extreme. It's really caught up with me in the last week or two. I feel like, you know, you go out of your way, but everyone is so fucking cynical that you can't even do something good without someone thinking that you've got another play on it. No one seems to know how to deal with honesty anymore. They see someone being honest and they think there's got to be a hidden agenda there. And it's really fucking it up for some of us who are coming clean. I'm just totally vulnerable. I'm way too fucking soft for this whole business, this whole trip. I don't have any shell. There's a contradiction there, because that's probably why I can write songs that mean something to someone and express some of these things that other people can't necessarily express.
SPIN: Do you feel that you're sort of a sacrifice?
VEDDER: Well, they tell me how I do it for them and stuff, but at the same time, I'm supposed to have this shell to deal with everyone saying, well, that's a bunch of crap or something. I feel like I'm such an easy target. Not even the band, but me personally. I guess a lot of people that I don't hear about, they say positive things, and they have positive feelings toward what we do or what I do. But it's so simple for anybody -- a writer, a journalist, anybody in a local Seattle paper -- to set me up. It's so easy for them to say about another band, "Well, they're no Pearl Jam," or "They're never going to get a teenybopper crowd, because they don't have the looks like Pearl Jam." I don't understand what that has to do with me.
SPIN: Are these people who are passing judgment on you strangers, or your friends and family?
VEDDER: Well, I don't think anyone can understand what it's like. It's just so strange, it just seems like there are all these people out there that would love to be my friend or something, yet I don't really have any. Because I don't know who to relate to. I don't know how people relate to me. I don't feel like people relate to me as a normal human.
SPIN: How does the rest of the band relate to you?
VEDDER: They're unsure about what goes on in my head. I think they -- and they're correct when they do this -- think that, well, we're in the band together, but it's different for you. You know, I can be around somebody from a band like Mudhoney, or I think about a band like Gas Huffer or a band like the Fastbacks, and I feel like, why aren't they reaping the benefits of success? They've played in bands and have recorded music for a much longer period than we have. I thought that the first record would sell maybe 40,000 copies, and then we'd get to make another one. I was really hoping that it would sell 40,000 copies.
SPIN: So there's no way someone could prepare himself for this level of fame.
VEDDER: Not unless you were always living high on the hog, or you were raised in a situation where you were upper class, and you had a better car than anybody at school. If you had been raised up like that, then I'm sure you would get into this position and feel like, hey, I'm one of the elite and this is just more proof of it. If you come from the humble beginnings that I did, it just doesn't seem to make any sense.
SPIN: It sounds as if you feel guilty over what has taken place.
VEDDER: Well, that's just one facet, one cut on the diamond of which there's a myriad of negative emotions that I seem to be dealing with. I'm really having a difficult time sifting out any positives. I don't know if that's because it's a bad time emotionally or what. I don't know.
SPIN: Would you consider yourself to be somebody who has always had serious mood swings?
VEDDER: Without a doubt. I mean, if they weren't mood swings, it was just because I stayed down for so long. The only thing that was actually positive in the old days was getting to see a band that I liked. That would just swing me back up for a day or two.
SPIN: Do you feel a sense of betrayal, because rock 'n' roll, which was once the prime source of happiness in your life, is now a source of misery?
VEDDER: Yeah, and I can't ask for anyone to understand that, because they never will. They'll never figure out why I'm not the most privileged person to have money. Money does absolutely nothing for you, because it only goes so far. Mind you, I'm now in a house instead of a $400-a-month apartment.
SPIN: But I've seen those snapshots of your home, and it's not exactly the Hearst Castle.
VEDDER: No, and I've thought about, well, maybe that's what would make me happier, if I built, like, a castle to live in. Last night, we were taking some pictures at the house for SPIN, and when Lance [Mercer, the photographer] left, there were people hiding behind the car trying to check out the scene. But I'm not going to move. It's my house. What am I going to do to escape that kind of thing? I'm a target.
SPIN: Would you say that over the past couple of years you've gotten more used to this feeling?
VEDDER: I don't think that I'll ever get used to it. If I were to, then I'd be a totally different person, and I'd be living as the celebrity that everyone thinks I am.
SPIN: Do you think it's tougher dealing with the pressures of stardom nowadays than it used to be?
VEDDER: Well, I heard a Talking Heads song today, and I was thinking about what a masterful songwriter David Byrne is and was, but more importantly how the band interacted, and how they seemed to grow over a period of the first five records. And I started thinking about how lately there's a lot of bands that get to a certain level, and it just stops. They scrap it. Compare this to, say, The Rolling Stones or The Who, where they just continued on forever and are still playing, or they quit after 20 years. But Talking Heads, or Jane's Addiction, or The Police, or even Nirvana you could say, got to a point and then that was just it. I was wondering what the difference was between the early bands and these bands. Maybe that's like the line from "Last Exit" [from Vitalogy] where it says, "no time to question why nothing lasts." I don't know if it's that there's a hundred magazines on the shelf compared to two, or that there's now a whole TV channel devoted to exposure. I don't know what it is that makes people not want to continue.
SPIN: Are you concerned that your band's music is going to fall prey to all the outside stress?
VEDDER: The only thing that worries me musically is that everything we put out is so under the microscope that it ends up seeping into the songs, and suddenly the music is bombastic just to be able to resist or survive the inspection. There are things on Vitalogy that are definitely not typical, so I'm trying to battle against that. There's two ways: You either give the people what they want, or you become cynical and that protects you.
SPIN: If those are the only two ways, which way did you go on this record?
VEDDER: Well, we didn't. I'm not good at either. We're still just being brutally honest and giving it our best. I'd like to say I don't care what anybody thinks, and that I don't play this music to have it be liked. But I certainly don't put it out so everyone can tear it up, either. Actually, I don't know why I put it out. In the old days, it was a dream to maybe not have to work the midnight shift, and somehow pay your rent by getting a check for your art. And, believe me, the first check I got from a publishing company was an emotional moment for me, because it was given to me for something that came out of my head.
SPIN: Has it gotten to the point yet for you where it did for Kurt Cobain, when he talked about being onstage and feeling as if he was faking it?
VEDDER: I had talked to someone at length from two to six in the morning about that same exact dilemma, like two days before Kurt's suicide. When I found out about it, I felt like calling that person and just saying, "Do you see? Do you see what it does? Do you see?" Because for some reason these complaints from artists are belittled. Somehow they're not taken seriously. Even when you're being honest, they're thinking, well, maybe he's tired, or he just wants to go home, or he's calling in sick. I think that's a huge danger. If you go out and play three shows, it's great. If you play sixty, somewhere along the line you're going to become an actor, or you're going to have to put yourself on autopilot just to survive it. That pisses me off because it's my fault, because of the songs; in order to sing them, they have to be felt. And I don't feel right singing them and not getting in the space of the song. If I was Whitney Houston or somebody, and I could just sing these melodies and hit these notes and sing songs that someone else wrote, I wouldn't have these problems.
SPIN: But when you're actually onstage and the band clicks in, are you able to block out all that interference?
VEDDER: A lot of times, music is like a wave, so once it starts, you get caught up in it. And if the sound on the stage is good, I can get lost in whatever we're doing, and I'm fine. But I know for sure, right before you go on or as you're pulling into a town, it starts getting heightened. I'm getting notes backstage from people who are left out in the cold, that couldn't afford the $150 that the scalpers were charging, and how could we be playing if they can't get in.
SPIN: It sounds as if you're an enabler: you take far too much responsiblity upon yourself to ensure that everyone connected to you is happy or well taken care of.
VEDDER: This could be the cause of everything. I'm worried about everybody else, and I'm absolutely just a fucking mess myself. I think I was like this from the beginning. And it's just gotten worse and worse and worse. And now I'm the enabler for a million people. I don't feel like I can survive it right now.
SPIN: Did you feel that caretaking burden when you were younger?
VEDDER: I grew up with three younger brothers, and I felt a responsibility for them. And then I found out that I can't just give them a life, that they have to have some kind of initiative of their own. All of a sudden I was like a parent, saying, "I'll give you a thousand bucks a month, but after three months we should really see some progress here, send me your grades." Giving away money is a complicated thing. And I didn't want to be their parent. As far as my mom goes, she's done a lot. After she divorced herself from an evil, evil father -- not my real dad, but the guy I thought was my real dad -- she went back to school and got her degree and ran a women's home for kids that didn't have fathers. Once the band got going, though, the only problem we had was that her identity became that of being my mom, and she forgot that she was special for everything she had achieved on her own. These evil radio programmers in Chicago, where she lives, they actually got her on the radio last year. They said, "Oh, we'll get a car to pick you up," and she said, "No problem, I'll drive down." You know, it sounds like fun or something. And next thing you know there was a radio contest -- when you hear Eddie's mom on the radio saying, "Pearl Jam is awesome" or something, you know, something totally sickening, you can call in and win tickets to the show. Obviously, this caused a huge rift between us.
SPIN: Was she just naive?
VEDDER: Totally. And at the time I felt like there was ego involved on her side. Like, why would you do this? Why is this important to your personal makeup? And I think we've gotten through some of that, we're dealing with that. We're in a cool-down period. She just wants everything to be back to normal. I'd love to be able to simplify things. It just seems like it's just getting more complicated every day.
SPIN: Do you think this is perhaps similar to what Kurt was feeling?
VEDDER: I have a hard time saying, because I don't know exactly what was going through his head at that moment or those two weeks or that month or that year. But I definitely have my own set of difficulties, of which I think there are many parallels. And I totally understand. When it happened, I was in a hotel room and somebody told me, and I just couldn't believe he did it, I couldn't believe he took the step. But I didn't think it was wrong, I just couldn't believe he did it. And I still can't. After it happened, I wrote him a letter and asked, "What's on the other side? And is there room for me?"
SPIN: Are you able to recognize the differences between his plight and your own?
VEDDER: Well, he also dealt with... here I am sober trying to deal with these issues. And I always used to think that he and Courtney had things way more together than Beth and I did. Now I'm not so sure. I probably took some of that from stuff I saw in the media. They were able to deal with it a little better, kind of make it interesting, take good pictures. They seemed really strong.
Also, our management seems to be much more understanding of the pressures, even when they still put them on us. I think that Kurt was really treated like shit, and made to feel like a worthless individual, because maybe he didn't want to headline a big festival tour or whatever. If you're involved in that kind of thing, believe me, you see firsthand how it's very political. You've got one big band that's playing, but then you've got another band that's either on the same label or from the same management company, and so you're actually supporting a lot of other people's dreams of wealth. But you don't want to do that. All you want to do is play music, and you've got all the wealth you need. There's just tremendous pressure.
I've heard Courtney say that Kurt felt Nirvana was the most hated band in the world, that everyone thought it sucked.
That's exactly how I feel right now, which is just weird. Sometimes -- I don't sit around and think about it all the time by any means -- I wish that Kurt and I had been able to, like, sit in the basement a few nights and just play stupid songs together, and relate to some of this. That might've helped us to understand each other, that he wasn't the only one, or that I wasn't the only one. We kind of knew that in the back of our heads, but we certainly never... I mean, we had a conversation on the phone, but we didn't really address that. Courtney told me later that he was so excited about a song he'd written with Pat Smear about beans. And that was exactly where I was coming from at the time. I don't want anything to do with this larger-than-life bullshit.
SPIN: Are some of the goofier songs on Vitalogy, like "Bugs," where you play the accordion, attempts to debunk that way of thinking?
VEDDER: I don't think you can really say that, because that would mean the guys and I would have sat down and discussed it. Before I went in the studio, I was walking around some little thrift shop, I found an accordion. And I went in with the accordion and played something, and then spoke some gibberish over the top. I remember laughing and saying, "That's the first single."
SPIN: But if you had found that accordion three years ago, do you think that "Bugs" would have ended up on Ten?
VEDDER: Three years ago, this was so new to us. I think that it's almost confidence that enables us to record "Bugs" or confidence in our listeners that they can open up to something like that. Back then I had my mind on the business at hand, and I probably wouldn't have felt so free to take up two hours of studio time working on Eddie's wank-off accordion piece. For a long time after recording it, I was playing it for friends saying it was the best thing we'd ever done. [laughs] We just decided to do something that was fun to listen to and wasn't bombastic and wasn't everything that the band had become.
SPIN: Does Vitalogy sound good to you right now?
VEDDER: Yeah, I can definitely listen to every song on the record and get something out of it. "Nothingman" was written in an hour, and so I like listening to that 'cause it just happened and somehow captured a mood there, at least for me in the vocal. Any time I can nail down a song, a thought, in a half hour, that feels really good. We recorded "Tremor Christ" in a very short period, one night in New Orleans, and I remember what that night was like. I can see how the lights were turned down low. I can see the room. And so I like listening to that. I wrote "Better Man" before I could drink -- legally -- on a four-track in my old apartment.
SPIN: Most of the tracks you mention are the ones that are less bombastic. Does that indicate a desire to do something on your own to help alleviate some of the pressure that comes down on the band?
VEDDER: I do stuff like that all the time, but no one ever hears it. So the only image people have of me is anthem singer, rock star.
You know, Ian [MacKaye, of Fugazi] came to our show in D.C., and he liked it. Just the fact that he came... that was actually the day that we found out about Kurt, and I was just spinning. I was lost and didn't know if we should play, or if we should just go home, or if we should attend the services. I still have some regrets about that, even though in the end it was probably better that we played the last two weeks of the tour. I decided I would play those next two weeks and then I'd never have to play again.
But Ian came and he said he really enjoyed that it was stripped-down, and that all we did was go up and play these songs.
SPIN: Why did this surprise you so much?
VEDDER: I seem to have so little faith in what we do for some reason. I think what it is, is that I can relate all too well with these people who look up and trash our band, who say, "U2 sucks, and this sucks, and I used to listen to their early stuff but they suck now 'cause everybody else likes them, and because there's a bunch of geeks running around wearing their T-shirts," and "I used to think they meant something, and now they don't." I understand the mentality. But it's just an awful feeling to be the one that is targeted.
I get pissed off if I see someone's picture everywhere: on the cover of this, on the back of that, in ads, in sound bites on TV. I start to hate that person, whether I've heard their music or not. And so I've really tried to hold back from doing that stuff. I think that's what pissed me off about Time magazine, when I didn't have to agree to be on their cover in order for them to put me on it. I felt like, fuck, I'm gonna be that guy I hate whether I want to or not. And pretty soon, I'm gonna be an icon that can just be joked about. I'm too sensitive to that kind of stuff. I did my best to hold us back from becoming that, at least after witnessing what happened on the first record. I thought for the second record we were pretty mellow. We took ourselves off TV. But I still feel like we're that band that everybody hates.
SPIN: Maybe some of that's over, though. A lot of the heat you took was due to the whole grunge label, and the impression that you were somehow imposters.
VEDDER: And which I felt guilty of. 'Cause to me, grunge is the guitar sound, and I don't think we were that at all. I just felt bad, I felt like there are grunge bands out there, or what I define as that, doing tremendous things, and that we were ushered in with that as our laminate to get backstage, and we didn't deserve it.
SPIN: And that's what people got bitter or vindictive about.
VEDDER: And I'm right there with them.
SPIN: But grunge is going to be like "New Romantic" soon, a musical phrase that's no longer part of the lexicon. In which case your band can begin to get taken on its own merit, and not as part of any movement. The whole thing got so...
SPIN: And everyone got sick of it.
VEDDER: And how could you not when there are pictures of Liz Smith in Vanity Fair in grungewear. And my $10 corduroy jacket was going for $400 from Chanel or whoever.
SPIN: Don't you think it's possible that phase has passed?
VEDDER: That would be a positive thing for me to fold up and put in my back pocket, and I'd be an asshole for letting it overcome me. That's my other thing, it's like, "Fuck, what an idiot. He's let all this affect him."
SPIN: I like to think that I'm just gonna relax and do something like go to a record store and pick up Maximum Rock'n'Roll.
VEDDER: That'll cheer you up. [Laughs] Yeah, to them I'm the Antichrist. I think when Jello [Biafra] got his leg broken and beat up by those punkers in San Francisco -- they were calling him a sellout and kicking him in the head -- I think that was almost liberating. I said, "I don't give a fuck anymore. If they're fucking kicking Jello, how can I worry about what anybody thinks? How can I expect to still have someone's respect on that end?" That guy lost his empire, his future, battling that censorship thing [over the H.R. Geiger poster for Frankenchrist]. He ran for mayor. You couldn't write a movie script with a more ethical antihero. And yet here he is getting the shit kicked out of him.
SPIN: Maybe it comes back down to that easy target thing. Dave Grohl wrote a song that I've got a copy of, and the chorus talks about "I'm alone / I'm an easy target." I don't know what he's thinking about there, but the chorus always plays in my head.
VEDDER: I'm not very good at protecting myself. That's one of the problems here. I'm either gonna learn how, or what'll actually happen is that I won't put myself out there, certainly not in these kinds of forums. I feel pretty safe letting it out in the music, but not in the media. There are people who want to be validated through the press, and through public opinion. I don't feel that way at all.
SPIN: Why, then, did you decide to go through with this interview?
VEDDER: You know what? I felt it was a real honor that people said we were their favorite band. People should know that it meant a lot to me.
SPIN: You were also voted most overrated band.
VEDDER: Well, I totally agree with that. [laughs] If a ballot had my name on it, then you would've seen it exactly that way. I wouldn't have put us as the best band, but I certainly would have put us as the most overrated.
SPIN: What music are you inspired by these days?
VEDDER: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The Frogs. Daniel Johnston, who cannot be mistrusted. I basically don't want to hear anyone tell me any lies. I spent my life living with fucking lies, and I don't want to believe in somebody's music and find out it's a fucking lie. Who else? Crunt. Kat [Bjelland, of Crunt and Babes in Toyland]. Believe when she sings. Ian's brother Alec, the words he wrote when he recorded with a band called Faith. Everything Ian and Guy [Picciotto, of Fugazi] have written. Michael Stipe on a song called "The Wrong Child." He's singing from someone else's perspective, but it's real. I've heard Pete Townshend demos of songs he never released, perhaps because of their honesty, perhaps he didn't want to hurt his wife's feelings.