The Chicago Tribune 7/9/95
Rebels With a Cause
By Greg Kot
Other bands talk about revolution; Pearl Jam is actually leading one.
DENVER -- At the Red Rocks amphitheater in the mountains, the view is spectacular, the glow of city lights in the distance a minor manmade blemish on the hem of a star-lit blanket. But there's no stargazing of any kind going on backstage, as one of the biggest rock bands in the world sends 9,000 satisfied customers off into the night and then retreats into a cocoon of subdued conversation more befitting a church social.
Forget groupies, cocaine and champagne -- the cliches of free-flowing rock debauchery do not apply in the Pearl Jam camp. Before the show, the most risque thing going on is a low-stakes game of dice involving a handful of roadies, guitarist Stone Gossard and manager Kelly Curtis. Afterward, the only illegal activity is a pirate radio broadcast deejayed by singer Eddie Vedder.
It's Vedder's way of chilling out from two ferocious hours on stage, his voice hoarse and scratchy from the dehydrating effects of the Rocky Mountain altitude. Now he is face to face with a Wesley Willis record in the back of banged-up gray van, firing musical contraband from twin turntables into the night: first there's the sound of Willis pole-axing his poetry with noise-rock guitar, then the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten butchering Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner," followed by Sonic Youth, Denise LaSalle and hard-core rapper Paris.
A glass of red wine at his side, Vedder seems unusually upbeat; it's only the second show of the band's first North American tour in more than a year, and it feels good to be playing music again.
"If it's not fun this time, then it can't be," he says, extending a hand to greet me. He is small, slender, fragile and freckled, the clothes perpetually rumpled, the brow inevitably furrowed. The voice is a low rumble that sometimes becomes simply a mumble, but he is firm and direct and makes eye contact when he wants to be heard.
"I really want people to know about that Soldier Field show [on Tuesday] that it's not gonna be this big thing. It's gonna be about music," he says. We agree to chat again the next day, this time for a more involved discussion about the band's efforts to mount a major tour outside the parameters of the mainstream concert industry.
"See you back at the hotel," I say.
"Oh, I'm not going back to the hotel," Vedder says, smiling. "Tonight I'm sleeping out here."
The next day at Red Rocks, Vedder and the band have set themselves the task of overhauling the sound and symmetry of what had seemed like a perfectly acceptable show. They introduce more songs and rearrange others, an ambitious undertaking for a major rock tour still in its infancy. The singer passes a note to me that says the interview is off, for now: "... a little too much work for me to do right at the moment -- I want to get this beast moving and off the ground if possible..."
Three days later, the beast collapses. Vedder exits a San Francisco concert after only six songs, hours after checking himself into an emergency ward vomiting from the stomach flu. "I just went through the worst 24 hours of my life," Vedder tells the audience before leaving. At least half the 55,000 ticketholders file out in disappointment even though the remaining members of Pearl Jam -- bassist Jeff Ament, drummer Jack Irons and guitarists Gossard and Mike McCready -- continue playing with guest Neil Young. Some boo during the encore when Ament apologizes for Vedder's absence.
That night, the band calls a meeting and cancels the remainder of its 15-date tour, including the night in Soldier Field. In a press release, Pearl Jam blames "the business problems and controversies surrounding the band's attempt to schedule an alternative tour." Then two days later, without explanation, it reinstates the Soldier Field date, as well as two shows this weekend in Milwaukee.
Those three concerts are the only North American shows on Pearl Jam's calendar for the remainder of the year, an absurd circumstance for a band that, with nearly 20 million domestic record sales in the 90's, could easily plug into the limousine-and-champagne circuit reserved for the world's biggest rock acts.
Instead, Pearl Jam went to war against the money machine. It filed a complaint last year with the Justice Department about Ticketmaster's service fees, then hired another, lower-cost ticket agency to sell tickets on its tour and began working with venues that did not have exclusive contracts with Ticketmaster. In some cities, this has meant scheduling concerts at parks and fairgrounds, which opened up a Pandora's box of logistical security and sanitation difficulties. Two performances were canceled at a San Diego fairground when the local sheriff's department warned of potential safety problems.
The strain on the band led to one public-relations gaffe after another. Manager Kelly Curtis suggested before the tour even began that the band might have to consider working with Ticketmaster at some point, only to issue a retraction a few days later.
"I've learned my lesson," Curtis said backstage at Red Rocks, and then joked, "I'm beginning to think we're the only band that's spontaneous."
Or just plain chaotic. No major band in recent rock history has seemed so determined not to play by the rules. Although bands like the Stones and Guns N' Roses flaunt outlaw reputations, it's just self-destructive shtick, a.k.a. "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."
Pearl Jam's revolt is informed by generosity and almost naive idealism; the band is staking its future on a battle to reform the entertainment ticketing industry that, it is hoped, would make concerts more affordable and accessible. It may sound quaint, and it's certainly a gesture out of step with these cynical times. But, above all, it's brave. Other bands have paid lip service to this goal, but none has followed Pearl Jam's lead.
This from a band that was once reviled as major-label opportunists in the suddenly hot Seattle grunge scene four years ago, a corporate imitation of a punk-rock band. Within months of its rise, however Pearl Jam was frustrating the marketing strategists at its record label by declining to make videos, release singles or grant interviews. Now it is bypassing the mainstream touring industry so that it can keep ticket prices in line.
In rock, there has long been a chasm between singing about rebellion and actually leading one. But in the summer of '95, one unlikely band is closing that gap.
I had it all onceThe last man to join Pearl Jam (in 1990, at the behest of founding members Ament and Gossard), Eddie Vedder has emerged as the band's spiritual leader, its troubled conscience, its reluctant star. When Vedder compares himself to Sisyphus, as he does on the liner notes of the band's 1994 album, Vitalogy, he comes off as almost insufferably self-absorbed. But Vedder is fiercely protective of his relationship with music.
I gave it back
-- Eddie Vedder, from "Peace and Love"
Vedder, who grew up in Evanston and, later, San Diego, struggled to pay rent and keep up in school after he left home as a teenager. His sole comfort was music, particularly The Who's coming-of-age rock-opera Quadrophenia; Vedder once told an interviewer, "I should be sending [The Who's] Pete Townshend cards for Father's Day."
Vedder hasn't given many quotes since; he has submitted to perhaps a half-dozen interviews in recent years. But if elusive, he is not distant; he is wary, but not dismissive.
In September 1991, Vedder responded to a review in the Tribune of his then- unknown band's first album, Ten, by calling the reviewer and talking for an hour. He told of his modest expectations for Ten. He would be happy to sell 40,000 copies, he said (he turned out to be off by 8 million), and he couldn't wait to possibly play a club such as the 1,100-capacity Metro. "These are sacred places, churches of music."
"I don't take it for granted to be able to express myself in music," he said. "To be given a stage to do it from, that's an awesome responsibility."
That higher sense of purpose informs everything Pearl Jam has done, sometimes to the music's detriment. Pearl Jam albums are sincere yet humorless, passionate yet sometimes overwrought, deeply personal yet sometimes self- important. An us-against-the-world rage defined the withering hard rock of Vs. (1993), while Vitalogy (1994) often played like a survival guide. Both elaborated on themes established on Ten, with its cast of traumatized characters. All three albums are flawed, but they burn with sincerity and purpose. Musically, the band has shucked the '70s cliches that weighed down Ten in favor of more concise melodies and harder grooves.
At its best, the music is like the embrace of a battered friend. At Red Rocks, the howling torment of "Alive," from the first album, becomes the sole Bon Jovi moment, an arena-rock celebration almost in spite of itself.
It is one of the few constants on two very different nights of music. On the first, the opening aggression is stoked by Gossard's savage rhythm guitar and McCready's terse, twisted leads. Vedder is a far more contained performer, still vibrating as he lifts himself to his toes and leans into the microphone, but no longer the leaping, bodyslamming, rafters-climbing dervish of the 1991-92 tours. As the show progresses, the guitarists stretch songs out and play with ebb-and-flow rhythms before closing with the stripped-down meditation of "Porch."
The next night, the band picks up this thread by huddling in chairs around Vedder, who plays guitar while singing a radically reworked "Jeremy" and a snippet of Nick Cave's "Ship Song" as part of a six-song mini-"Unplugged" segment. It sets a more contemplative mood, which is not broken until Vedder addresses the crowd during the encore.
"The last few shows, our band has been trying to get its [expletive] together," he says, leaning heavily on the microphone stand. Then, in near darkness, he and the band offer a version of "Indifference" that is stunning in its understated conviction.
"I'll keep taking punches until their will grows tired, I will stare the sun down until my eyes go blind," Vedder sings with eyes closed. "I won't change direction and I won't change my mind...
"How much difference does it make?"
Or, was the last year worth it? There was defiance in the voice, but also a shiver of loneliness.