USA Today, 10/8/99
Townshend joins Pearl Jam generation
By Edna Gundersen
Two decades constitute an eternity in pop culture, but you won't find much of a g-g-generation gap between Pete Townshend and Eddie Vedder.
The Who's guitarist/songwriter, 54, and Pearl Jam's singer/lyricist, 34, hail from opposite ends of the rock 'n' roll timetable, yet they coexist harmoniously on the new Pete Townshend Live, a benefit album recorded in Chicago in 1997 and 1998.
On the set's bonus second disc, Vedder, billed only as "Special Guest" on the cover, joins Townshend for "Heart to Hang Onto" and the classic "Magic Bus". The project's catalyst was an ill-fated performance in Chicago during Townshend's 1993 Psychoderelict Tour.
"After 11 years of not drinking, I decided to have a bottle of vodka before going on the stage," he says. "I made a terrible mess of it, and I wanted to go back and put things right."
Townshend returned to headline two benefits that raised $600,000 for Chicago's Maryville Academy, a residential facility for physically, sexually and emotionally abused children. All artist royalties from Live go to the home. During Townshend's first return, Vedder invited him to a Chicago Bulls game and volunteered to sing at the concert. Their duets were unrehearsed.
"It's a good thing I listened to those records hundreds of times in my youth," Vedder says. "I've known these songs since I was 17, and they still resonate."
He was particularly moved doing "Heart to Hang Onto," a tune from Townshend's 1977 collaboration with Faces bassist Ronnie Lane, who died of multiple sclerosis in 1997.
"When Pete introduced the song, he mentioned that Ronnie had just passed away that week," Vedder says. "I hadn't heard about it yet, and I remember thinking, that was the same disease my father was afflicted with."
Townshend and Vedder were mutual fans before they met in 1993. (Townshend says his manager had received calls from Pearl Jam's camp regarding Vedder's interest in doing a stage version of Quadrophenia. Vedder says Townshend's camp made the overture.) When the pair linked up after one of Townshend's shows, conversation turned to angst, not art.
"Eddie was in great distress," Townshend says. "He was worried that he had become a huge celebrity and couldn't sit in audiences unmolested to watch his favorite artists anymore. So he came to an old sage for advice."
Vedder recalls, "I was in a terrible space. I enjoyed the show incredibly, but I was ready to fall apart mentally. We just kind of stared at each other for the first two minutes.
"Pete really helped me with a couple things. I had a friend in a bad situation that I didn't understand. In 45 minutes, Pete dispensed information I couldn't have gotten anywhere else. I just appreciate his wisdom and experience."
Pegged youth-culture ambassadors of their respective generations, Townshend and Vedder share a fondness for early rock and a disdain for much of what crowds today's charts. Amid a glut of boy bands, Pearl Jam's bittersweet remake of "Last Kiss," a 1964 hit by J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers, conquered radio this year. Originally a free Christmas single for fan club members, the track soared after cropping up on the No Boundaries benefit album.
"I was happy that a song could cut through the normal mechanics of the industry and find a kind of democratic success, just when you didn't think it was possible," Vedder says.
Decrying rock's waning powers in the '90s, Townshend says, "It's been sublimated. Rock was only significant when it grew out of the early '60s with a brutal edge. It was important because it demanded that you listen."
Vedder is optimistic that rock can recover its glory. "Things go in cycles, and people listening to vacuous pop these days, if they do love music, will mature and find better stuff."
Maturity has altered Townshend's approach to "My Generation" and other Who anthems fueled by adolescent fury. "Now I act my way into them," he says. "When you sing songs rooted in self-pity or victimization, it's never comfortable. But somebody had to sing them. Those early songs were about stuff you go through with your parents, teachers and the establishment, and you feel those things acutely. I never acted back then. Now I put myself into a frame of mind and say I need to do this song justice."
The tactic surprises Vedder, who was awed by Townshend's revival of Quadrophenia two years ago.
"I didn't see him as an actor at all, because he wrote it. These are works from the past, but it's still him doing it, the guy who went through it at the time. It's almost more exciting to see that he survived and lived another lifetime on top of that. It's inspiring."
Note: The USA Today article has a sidebar regarding the Who and Woodstock, which has no Pearl Jam relevance and therefore is not included here.