It's Getting Vedder (Man!!)
by John Robinson
Stalkers! The millenium! We've managed to coax the reclusive EDDIE VEDDER and bandmate JEFF AMENT out of hiding and it's not just the music they're talking about.
Since the whole stalking thing kicked off, the whole spokesman for a generation thing, the whole someone trying to kill you because they love you too much thing ... all that old business, Eddie's been keeping himself pretty much to himself. His shutters closed. His hat down over his eyes.
He's been out, mine. In fact, he was in a room just down the road from this one in Seattle's Four Seasons Hotel just the other week: a social Guinness with Ron Wood from The Rolling Stones, as you would. Then there was the Stereolab gig the other week, and he was at that one for ages, because Eddie quite likes a bit of Mouse On Mars, and they were supporting. But he knows the nutters are still out there somewhere, so he's learned a few tricks.
"Really, it's the ability to run," he murmurs, oh-so-very-slowly. "Someone drops something really heavy on you, and then you just say something like (pulls 'forced grin' face), 'Yes! I'd really love an omelette!' and run."
He stops and pauses, the first of this afternoon's very long pauses before deciding: "And it's not because they don't like the music. If that was the case, I could almost understand it. But whatever reputation I might have, my reaction is still, 'This is the most f---ed thing', that it's absolute insanity to have to worry about your state of well-being, that someone might take your life. It seems a ridiculous situation to be in."
Eddie Vedder has had what he calls 'episodes,' and likes to keep a low profile to keep them at bay. He goes out, but only to one or two big shows a month. He still goes to basketball games, but he goes to them in low-key disguise. He occasionally spends periods of up to three or four days in isolation in his house, as a kind of cleansing process, so that when he comes out again, "the sky, that maybe you took for granted before, seems a little bluer." What Eddie Vedder does is keep his eyes open, but his head down.
His reputation has helped. He hates the stardom that has brought him wealth. He bites the hand that feeds him. He is depressed, morose and unstable.
"Everyone knows about that, don't they?"
"I don't mind 'morose' and I don't mind 'unstable,' but the thing I resent is 'unappreciative' — I always wanted to play music. But I don't mind the rest of it," he chuckles, "because it meant people left me alone."
Alone. To think about larger issues. The world outside, outside.
What you see first is apparently a hat that smokes heavily. Perched on a Windsor chair in his hotel suite, his legs tucked under him, Eddie Vedder passes tea with no milk under the shadow cast by the brim of his bushman's hat, where it disappears with a small slurp, in between puffs on a cigarette. Given a cultivated hauteur by the mushrooming cloud of blue smoke, the impression he gives off is of Transatlantic Man on cultural business. What he is not, is simply rock. To his right, however, is Jeff Ament, the bass player in Pearl Jam, and he is wearing a baseball cap back-to-front. Though it is December, Jeff is wearing the obligatory Big Shorts. Jeff, you see, is simply rock.
And they sit uncomfortably and talk guardedly, part of a band that has been assailed by problems but struggled to make a difference. They are returned with what you might call muted triumph: they have a new single, 'Given To Fly,' and an album, 'Yield,' that extends again their brief from the caustic grunge of 'Vitalogy' and the mellowed cushion-rock of 'No Code,' but they do not return with jubilation, rather with the mixture of reluctance and overbearing duty you associate with trench warfare. They know what happens when you put your head over the top for too long.
The band has been burned too many times before. The only real survivors from a Seattle scene that dissolved into death and drug addiction, vilified in the aftermath of Kurt Cobain's suicide by Courtney Love, portrayed frequently as whining lackeys of the corporate machine, Pearl Jam have nonetheless striven to be a rigidly principled organisation. They feuded (albeit unsuccessfully) with the huge Ticketmaster corporation in a campaign for fairer ticket prices. Released their 'Vitalogy' album on vinyl a week before its CD release in a good-spirited, if Luddite, punk rock gesture. Performed at benefits for the Pro-Choice organisation and on behalf of surfers seeking cleaner oceans. Known by their actions rather than by their words, Pearl Jam are a band loathe to fuel the publicity machine that takes their lives from out of their control, and hateful of being misconstrued. They have become the Hermits Of Rock.
"We've had the luxury of writing our own job description," says Eddie, "and that description has basically been cut down to just one line: make music. And after that, I just don't think we're as enthusiastic. It's hard to get inspired by all the other stuff like awards shows and being interviewed every day. Some of the experiences can be great ... but selling yourself every day like you're part of some travelling medicine show — we have the luxury of not having to do that. It's preserved our sanity, that's for sure."
Are you not angry about what's been written about you in the past, then?
"I'm not really angered by anything that trivial," Eddie sneers. "I direct my thoughts onto much larger issues, none of which are really to do with music. But if you do happen to bump into anything that bothered you in the past, like if I'm cleaning out the drawers, it's interesting. I keep the negative articles because they're funnier. And as I've learned about these larger issues, that other stuff gets so small to the point where it doesn't even exist at all."
There follows some extravagant stretching of arms. What this curious exercise is aiming to determine is the size of Pearl Jam in relation to these unspecified 'larger issues.'
Their point is recontextualisation. Thrown immediately to huge fame after their debut album 'Ten' and the subsequent 'Vs' album, and then stung by the machinations of the industry and the operations of fame that provoked 'Vitalogy,' Pearl Jam have not only physically withdrawn but simultaneously begun to follow more obscure creative paths. 'Yield' is almost homely in its simplicity, untouched by the need for grand statement, and has been made by a band in thrall simply to music rather than weighed down by responsibility. The arm gestures cease. With a vaguely spiritual calm, Pearl Jam, it is decided, are pretty small.
"It's not important to me to kind of outdo Donald Trump, or the guy that owns Blockbuster," says Jeff. "People going out there and stamping their ego over everything. All we can try and do is make our community more ... harmonious."
"You can put a Band-Aid on a few things," continues Eddie, "like we've done stuff for the Pro-Choice campaign over here, so you do come out of your cocoon, but you couldn't do that stuff and have your own life be shit. You can't tell people to recycle and be a conspicuous consumer at home."
The idea of a cocoon, though, makes fame sound all bad. Was there never a time when you thought it was all going to be brilliant?
"Things started pretty quickly after our first record," Eddie explains. "We couldn't have imagined ... it kind of throws you for a loop, and when you realise what's happening you start to try and control it. Like, 'I don't wanna go down this path,' or, 'Maybe this ain't so cool.'
"It'd be good if you could put it on at weekends or something, like you needed a table in a restaurant, you could put on your fame suit and walk in. That'd be great, but it's not like that. For every positive, there's a negative. And if the positives get really big," says Eddie dolefully, "then the negatives get really big in proportion."
The disenchantment grew with every industry handshake and every misinterpreted word. There's a song by The Who to which Eddie refers, and it's called 'How Many Friends Have I Really Got?,' where Pete Townshend sits in a bar and wonders whether people like him for who he is, or because he's the guitarist in The Who, and this, he feels, is what it was like: that at the heart of the business in which he was involved there was only arrogance and money and long-term career projections.
Because what they feel is just the music, man, and there is an earnestness and a singlemindedness about this attitude that inspires total respect. At one point, Jeff Ament leans forward and confides, "The music we make is much bigger than any one of us." Nobody laughs.
From this lack of ironic detachment, a reputation — stormings-out, ungratefulness — has been built. Still grateful for the opportunity to make music, Pearl Jam simply withdrew from having an interest in everything that got in its way or annoyed them about its interpretation. Born out of an instinct for self-preservation and huge personal resourcefulness, they have huddled against the blast of the media hurricane rather than be swept along by its force.
The reputation, though, still speaks of arrogance, when their chief strength is humility, while around their work — let us not forget, angsty, periodically tortured — there is an air of the bogus. With their Seattle contemporaries, Layne Staley of Alice In Chains and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, commuting between rehab and heroin addiction, and Kurt Cobain dead in the face of compromised ideals, Pearl Jam's continued stability either speaks of inner fortitude or informs on men acting the roles of tortured individuals. Was it luck that got them through?
"I wish it was luck to which I could attribute getting through some of those periods," says Eddie, slowly.
"Some of that stuff I understand, and some I don't. Life is ..."
"I hate to say that I can relate to the needle, that I could condone it. I can't condone it, because it becomes a little harder to understand when you have someone who could follow much more positive paths to get through; like drink juice or do yoga. They actually have the options to create any life that they want. And they can even quit, and never play music again or play music in their homes for themselves or for their friends. Learn to basketweave ..."
Long, long pause.
"... underwater, or anything, and then it becomes harder to understand why people choose the paths they do. It's hard to have sympathy.
"I have to admit, Kurt was the exception, because I did feel sympathetic to his situation, because it was a little more intense than the other two. But I think there was more to that than meets the eye in that situation, and I'm not going to refer any more to it. But I just don't relate that much to those things, and I feel it's inherently dishonest.
"You know, it's weird to meet someone and to have a conversation with them and to find out afterwards that they weren't even ... there or something. It makes you feel like you've been lied to."
Did you never think you might go that way?
"I was spending a lot of time alone," says Eddie. "I just wasn't exposed to that kind of stuff. It's not glamorous. It's not something I'm intrigued by and I'm thankful for that. I like a good smoke, whatever, it's just a little more balanced. But I have options, and none of those options are going to threaten my control over my life. I'm very excited by the idea of being able to play music and live at the same time."
Does your ongoing solidarity not make you bogus, then?
"It's a romantic, albeit tragic ending to a very dramatic story," Eddie says with Zen-like detachment. "It's hard to listen to songs, be they Jeff Buckley or whoever, or read a writer's last book knowing it was the last thing they wrote. But what would be bogus ... there's still issues raised in our songs, examining society, but it seems to me there's a positive way to come out of it, rather than just screaming, 'Fuck you! Fuck you!' And if we were doing that because it was the musical style we started off in, then that would be bogus.
"We've evolved, our thoughts have matured. Being negative and saying, 'This is a problem, this is a problem ... '
"Krist Novoselic, actually, we've had long conversations about local political issues, and it was so negative, we said, 'Man, we've got to really try hard to bring positives to the table next time.'"
Not unlike a hippy, Eddie recalls their resolution.
"We said, 'We've got to find the start. We've got to find the seed.'"
The other day, a friend of Eddie's asked him what the title of the new Pearl Jam album was going to be. Eddie told him, and the friend said, 'Wow, in two albums you've gone from 'Vs' to 'Yield'! He hadn't thought about it like that previously, but the more he mulled it over, the more Eddie thought it made sense: the cover shot of a long deserted road with an anomalous 'Yield' sign standing by its side when really there's nothing in sight to give way to. The word's other meaning is 'harvest.' What 'Yield' was coming to represent was the concrete foundation of the group: the notion that here were the fruits of their philosophy of letting business take care of itself. The sound of a group making its way along the path of least resistance.
The record, like the group, sits in a kind of isolation, away from the main drag, and the calm you find in one is reflected in the other. Filled with loosely religious imagery — there's plenty of climbing towards the light — there's an abiding sense of spirituality and relaxation, as there was in their work with Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. There's even a song called 'In Hiding' which seems to account for Eddie's own reclusive tendencies. But this is not the case.
"I had a lot of stories," he begins, "and one was about trying to find (American novelist) JD Salinger's house. But then I thought, 'Why not make it about trying to find God's house?' Like if he was a recluse or something: you find his house, open his mailbox, and find it's full of junk mail."
Clearly deep in thought, it appears we have stumbled into the arena where Eddie contemplates the 'larger issues.' Is this prevailing mood of calm, then, down to some kind of spiritual awakening? Has he got religion?
"No, I've been thinking more about ..."
A contemplative drag on his cigarette.
"I've been reading a lot ..."
"I don't mind touching on spirituality in the songs," he says finally, "but going it conversationally ... especially when it's going to be published ... I'm not able to just quote off, so I'm going to take the Fifth."
Ah. Then ...
"It's an individual thing: I've been open to some interesting theories, and I don't really consider it ... the word 'religion' has such bad connotations for me, that it's been responsible for wars, and it shouldn't be that way at all, it's just the way the meaning of the word has evolved to me. I have to wonder what we did on this planet before religion."
Still mindful of his territory, Eddie stalks around his intellectual property, a thick layer of verbiage his perimeter fence. Slowly, he lets us in.
"But I don't mind talking about this. You can look back, and this is in the record, and all you can see is the arrogance of man: that we see our history as being the last 20,000 years, and we're about to celebrate the year 2000 which is going to be this momentous, drunk occasion, which means we're going to wake up on the first day of the new millennium with an incredible hangover. It's analogous to what we're doing ourselves. If we wake up the next morning and purify ourselves as one might after a really deep binge, remains to be seen.
"I think the number 2000 means precisely Jack shit," he continues, "but if there's some kind of reflection because of it, then great. Man has been around for three million years, and where did religion come in? I don't really think religion is worth commenting on. I think there's something much bigger going on.
"And that," says Eddie with some finality, "is what I've been thinking about."
One day, Eddie was sitting in his house, just sitting down in front of the television, watching some lightweight sitcom, the shutters closed, when he heard something on the TV that made him freak out. He's not paying much attention, and then suddenly there it was: "Blah blah blah blah EDDIE VEDDER blah blah blah." And suddenly it dawns on him that normality of any kind in his life is impossible.
"It was like some sort of Pink Floyd acid trip," he remembers, horrified. "Like The Wall or something — you're watching TV and it starts talking to you. When you can't avoid yourself like that, that's when it becomes impossible to attain the myth that it's not happening to you."
Before even the stalkers or the namechecks in The Brady Bunch Movie ("That girl? She's harder to get into than a Pearl Jam concert."), it had been a change that Eddie had been able to see coming. Something to do with the way Pearl Jam played. When they first started out, he recalls, when Pearl Jam played he would do anything to get the crowd's attention, the pace was relentless, no discourse with the crowd, no time to let the applause die down.
"Maybe to make up for the attention I didn't get as a child," he recalls, "or to recreate the attention I did get. I'd throw a bottle or a mike stand, jump on you, anything ...
"But then about a year later the meaning of a concert to me became, like, 'Wow, what if there was silence between the songs?' Then if I did say anything, then maybe the crowd could hear it. Like Michael Stipe tells me that he goes to a Tori Amos show and people are moshing. It's like, 'Uh, OK, next'. Because that seems to be a misunderstanding or a retardation for that kind of thing to happen. And I like what Beck said, y'know: 'Well, we've kind of done the moshing thing, now we're heading up to the next millennium, maybe it's time to tighten up our moves a little.' I was at home, raising my fist going, 'Right on!'"
And then a dilemma that Eddie is all too aware of presents itself. He doesn't want simply to rock, to be a good-time member of a god-time band, but to extend his and Pearl Jam's range, to say something. It's just that this is the very thing that brings on misunderstandings, the stalkers, and keeps his windows locked at night. There's a song on the new album called 'No Way' containing the refrain, 'I'm not trying to make a difference. No way' — that's his problem in a nutshell. He wants to be different, but doesn't want the responsibility for it.
"I'm probably asking for cake, and wanting to eat it," he decides. "I'm amazed that people, especially with the first record, that anyone could relate to anything that was in there, it was a surprise then, and a surprise now. I would hate people to think that I had some kind of demographic study delivered to my door, and I saw what the issues of today were, to make sure I can write a song.
"I don't mean to be a cop-out," he continues, "but I do think that music can be all things to all people, but not me personally Like Stone (Gossard, PJ guitarist) wrote a lyric here and there, and it might be kind of nice, when a stalker comes to my door, to maybe ..."
A small twinkle appears in Eddie Vedder's eye as he gathers his cigarettes and gets up to go and meet his friends. A solution of a kind to his hermit lifestyle may be just around the corner.
"... give them his address."
He walks down the hotel corridor, his burden a little lighter. Somewhere in Seattle, Stone Gossard sighs and bolts his door.