It's eight days after the suicide of Kurt Cobain was discovered
and Eddie Vedder's voice still trembles as he tries to put into words his confusion
"When I first found out, I was in a hotel room in D.C., and I just tore the place to shreds," says the brooding lead singer of Pearl Jam and the artist whose impact on a new generation of rock fans has been most often compared to Cobain's.
Vedder and Cobain were at the forefront of a new generation of American singer-songwriters whose songs chiefly reflect the alienation and anger of a generation of young people, aged 15 to 25, who feel they have been shortchanged by the American Dream.
Cobain's music was more acclaimed, but Vedder's was more popular. Pearl Jam's Vs. album has outsold Nirvana's In Utero by nearly 4 million copies since they were released last fall.
With Cobain gone, Vedder stands alone -- and the heat was immediate. Pearl Jam's record company, Epic, was flooded with requests to talk to [him] about Cobain's death and what it meant to rock.
His only public comment came from the stage of a Pearl Jam concert in Fairfax, Virginia, on the night Cobain's body was found. He told the audience, in part: "Sometimes, whether you like it or not, people elevate you [and] it's real easy to fall..."
On the phone the following week from New York, where the band was to appear on "Saturday Night Live," Vedder amplified on the remark and the pressures he and Cobain both faced.
"People think you are this grand person who has all their shit together because you are able to put your feelings into some songs," he says softly. "They write letters and come to the show and even to the house, hoping we can fix everything for them. But we can't... because we don't have all our shit together either. What they don't understand is that you can't save somebody from drowning if you're treading water yourself."
The two had grown up on alternative rock and punk, viewing the mainstream rock world as corrupt and its stars as mostly poseurs. In a strange twist of emotions, they felt both unworthy of their fame and a bit embarrassed by it.
Kurt Cobain often ridiculed rival Pearl Jam, arguing that it lacked the underground purity of Nirvana -- that it was simply an old-line commercial rock band in grunge clothing. But Cobain, who was 27 when he died, liked Vedder personally, and that made him feel guilty about the put-downs. "I'm not going to do that anymore," he said in a 1992 interview. "It hurts Eddie and he's a good guy."
Cameron Crowe cast Vedder in a small role in his film "Singles," which was set against the emerging rock scene in Seattle, and later wrote a Rolling Stone cover story on Pearl Jam. "People would come up to me and say, 'Jesus, the pain in that guy... is it real?'"
Crowe met Vedder before Pearl Jam's first album Ten broke into the charts in 1992, and he said Vedder struck him as someone who "feels things tremendously... an open wound, in fact."
"I met him at a barbeque at a friend's house and I sat on the rug with Eddie as things were winding down that night and he just proceeded to unspool," he recalls. "He just started telling stories about all these things that were just crowding his head... and those stories ended up on that first album [Ten]... stuff about his childhood and about people he knew and their problems. What you see is no pose."
The Pearl Jam singer, 29, looks out of place this morning among the businessmen in their suits and ties in the restaurant of an upscale Atlanta hotel, a week before the Cobain suicide. He's wearing the same denim jacket and knee-length pants that he'll wear on stage that night at the Fox Theatre, where both shows sold out instantly. His hair, long and unruly, hangs across his face like a curtain, covering much of the angelic sweetness of a face dominated by the wary intensity of his eyes.
"I'll take some tea if you've got it," Vedder says to the waiter, with the politeness of someone who has worked tables himself and remembers the rudeness of customers. Vedder was speaking to a reporter in his first interview since the September release of the Vs. album.
"I'm worried about the hype thing... that if people start seeing your picture everyplace and hear all about this 'spokesman' stuff, they'll get turned off," he says, explaining why he refused to talk to Time magazine last Fall for a cover story calling him "rock's new demigod."
"I didn't see being on the cover of Time as an accomplishment for the band," he says. "I was afraid it might be a nail in the coffin."
Vedder still drives the same 1990 Toyota truck around Seattle that he bought when he was working at a service station in San Diego. When he's asked if he keeps the same clothes and truck to remind himself of his roots -- as a way to keep in touch with himself amid the glitter of the rock world -- he stares at his cup of tea.
"I don't need to do things like that to remind me of who I am," he says firmly. "But maybe it's good that other people see those things and maybe it sends them a message, that I still am the same person.
Feelings flare up when he's asked what high school he attended. "I'd like not to be associated with any of that," Vedder says abruptly. "They didn't treat me very well." Later, Vedder softens his answers.
"Well, maybe it was just that I wasn't going to like anybody because I had to work and I had to explain to my teachers why I wasn't keeping up.
"I'd fall asleep and things in class and they'd lecture me about the reality of their classroom. I said, 'You want to see my reality?' I opened up my backpack to where you usually keep your pencils. That's where I kept my bills... electric bills, rent... That was my reality."
Vedder, who supported himself by working at a Long's Drug Store in Encinitas, eventually dropped out of school. The anger returns when he is asked about that period.
"I resented everybody around who drove up in a car that someone provided for them... [with] insurance that someone provided for them," he says. "I'd be underneath some shelf putting price tags on tomato soup and I'd watch them come in... obnoxious with their fucking prom outfits on, buying condoms and being loud about it.
I'd think, 'Those fucks.' Maybe I would have been doing that too, if the circumstances were different... Maybe that would have made me more forgiving, but I wasn't very forgiving at all. Everything was just such a fucking struggle for years."
Vedder's bitterness pushed him closer to punk rock, because he wanted the harder, more aggressive sound. With little money or goals, he had begun shrinking into a shadowy world that brought out his survival instincts.
"There is a thing that happens when you are not as privileged and
you start hanging out with a seedier crowd because you can afford to do
the same things," he says. "And all of a sudden the big night out is
sitting in somebody's trailer, smoking something or getting hold of
something to put up to your nose.|
"It is real easy to get into the lower depths and get intertwined. But I was always aware of that kind of thing... I didn't want to be put on a leash by any kind of a conservative, constructive parent.
"I didn't want to be in that world, but I also didn't want to be in the web of this other thing. I was getting swallowed up in it, but something made me realize it was time to get away or I was going to be just another loser."
Gradually, he got involved in the San Diego music scene, spending a short period in a band called Bad Radio. Though he had been in a couple of garage bands earlier in Encinitas, the transition to a real band was difficult for the shy Vedder. For the first show, he wore a mask -- actually, goggles with the lenses painted over -- so that he wouldn't have to look at the crowd.
Eventually he quit the group, feeling that the members weren't serious about things. While he was looking for another band situation, Jack Irons, a friend who was formerly in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, gave him a tape from a Seattle musician who was putting together a new group.
That musician, guitarist Stone Gossard, had been in Mother Love Bone, a highly regarded group whose promise ended when singer Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose in 1990.
After listening to the tape, Vedder went surfing and the music played over and over in his head. In the company of the waves, he began framing lyrics to go with the music. He raced back home to his recorder, and with the sand still on his feet he sang the words to the song that eventually became "Alive," one of the centerpieces on the first Pearl Jam album.
Though the song, with its screaming chorus of "I'm still alive," has been widely viewed as a statement of youthful self-affirmation, Vedder designed it as the story of a mother being drawn sexually to her teenage son because she sees traces of her late husband in him.
The experience -- which Vedder insists is not autobiographical -- damages the son psychologically, turning him into a serial killer (detailed in "Once") who is executed in prison ("Footsteps"). It's not hard to see the story as a sort of Gen X update of the confused youth in The Who's "Tommy."
Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament, who had also been in Mother Love Bone, were thrilled by Vedder's contribution and invited him to Seattle. Pearl Jam was born, and within a year the group's first album was number one.
At first, there were some reasons to suspect that Vedder and Pearl Jam were rock 'n' roll opportunists. The band -- also with Dave Abbruzzese and Mike McCready -- was from Seattle and wore grunge clothes, but their music didn't have the revolutionary aura of Nirvana. It was more radio-friendly and in-line with 70's hard rock.
Vedder looked like the star pupil from the Jim Morrison School of Rock Singers as he prowled the stage, rolling his eyes with brooding anxiety and thrashing around as if possessed by some foreign spirit.
All of that endeared the group to mainstream rock radio programmers, many of whom had grown up on 70's and 80's rock and found it hard adjusting to Nirvana and the Seattle grunge sound. The music itself appealed to both the young alternative rock audience and older, more traditional fans. If the sound itself was rather conventional, Vedder's voice offered something powerful and real.
As fully as the themes of Nirvana songs, Vedder's lyrics reflected the lonliness and confusion of growing up, often with frequent physical and psychological abuse...
As both a performer and writer, Vedder has shown increasing individuality and depth, at times now asserting a spark onstage that suggests the ability to be a major rock voice throughout the 90's.
Vedder sometimes worries that his voice is too "smooth" to convey the raw urgency of the lyrics, but there is a force to his vocals that expresses alienation and pain in a way that becomes surprisingly life-affirming.
Like Cobain, however, Vedder says he was writing things he had seen and experienced. He wasn't trying to summarize the mood of his generation. "I am not a good enough writer to have an agenda or come up with a message and try to put it into a song," he says. "It's more like you write what comes to you... You try to reflect the mood of the songs. Take 'Rearviewmirror', we start off with the music and it kinds of propels the lyrics. It made me feel like I was in a car, leaving something, a bad situation. There's an emotion there. I remembered all the times I wanted to leave..."
The 4500 seat Fox Theatre is one of the nation's prized concert halls -- a former movie theatre that offers the acoustics and intimacy absent in the usual basketball arenas. There was enough demand for Pearl Jam tickets to sell out the theatre for a week, and scalpers were asking $300 per ticket the night of the show.
Backstage, Vedder is sitting in a deserted basement hallway, holding the Telecaster guitar that he has carried since Encinitas. "I can't come from where I came from and not appreciate what has happened to the band," he says, his head lowered. "The one thing about going from the audience to the stage in just three years is that you know how it feels to be down there. I believe in the power of the music. To me, this isn't just a fad, this is a positive thing... We are trying to make it seem real... relate to our lives."
Cameron Crowe believes Vedder will learn from the suicide of Cobain.
"I don't think it is going to send him off the deep end," Crowe said. "I know he had a lot of those feelings, those impulses himself, and I'm just thinking he was able to almost see what would have happened had he taken that jump... and it's not pretty. I think it is going to help strengthen him. I think he'll deal with it properly."
Vedder began dealing publicly with Cobain's death on "Saturday Night Live." He displayed the letter K, for Kurt, on his T-shirt and put his hand on his heart at one point, and ended the band's "Daughter" by singing a bluesy snippet from Neil Young's "My My, Hey Hey."
That's the song that includes the line quoted in Cobain's suicide note: "It's better to burn out than to fade away." But Vedder didn't sing that line. Instead, he sang these Young lyrics:
"Rock and roll can never die
Vedder expects to spend much of his time in coming weeks in his Seattle basement, making music. That's the way he has always been best able to deal with his problems.
"I think that process has already begun," he says finally, a note of resolve in his voice. "Seeing what can happen [to Cobain] makes me realize I've got to work on it... to avoid getting swallowed up too."
Five Horizons has many more articles about Pearl Jam.