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NY Daily News, 8/10/99

Vedder's Not Finished
Pearl Jam leader sees opportunity in next LP release
by David Hinckley

The trouble with leading the most durable, charismatic and intriguing rock band of the '90s is that it makes you a rock star.

"Being a musician feels natural," Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder says in a very rare interview with The News. "I always knew I wanted to do it. The hard part was the rock-star thing. I didn't understand it, I didn't understand the attention. It's like ... there's nothing you can do with it. You lose your privacy. You lose your ability to observe situations without changing them simply by entering."

But Vedder, in town for a benefit with Pete Townshend, isn't complaining. It's more like he's thinking out loud something fans will recognize from Pearl Jam records. He likes to look at all sides of things, and he doesn't always choose just one.

If Vedder usually never talks about his offstage life, he'll casually mention the personal connection he felt during an earlier collaboration with Townshend at a multiple-sclerosis benefit.

"My dad had MS, too," he says. "I didn't get to know my dad. I just bumped into him a couple of times."

If he laments his lost privacy, few rock records of the '90s have sliced open the vein of a lousy childhood like "Ten," the 1992 Pearl Jam album that stayed on the charts for five years and sold 10 million copies.

If he impressed rock fans by saying, "I don't think it means anything" when he accepted Pearl Jam's 1996 Grammy, his remark also made some wonder why the band was onstage accepting it in the first place.

Right now, because PJ's 1998 album "Yield" didn't soar to multi-platinum levels as fast as its four predecessors which collectively sold more than 30 million copies - Vedder is hearing murmurs that Pearl Jam is finished, that maybe they've hit the last crossroads.

Don't expect Vedder to second that notion. Nobody signs a record deal to not sell records, but Pearl Jam's 1998 tour was a raging success, and their next record is already under way.

To Vedder, this is opportunity not crisis.

"Right now, I'm in a good space," he says, sitting on a long couch surrounded by a guitar, a portable CD player, a well-worn composition notebook and a small wine glass into which he neatly places American Spirit cigarette butts. "I'm making music for music's sake, and I have an audience I'm proud of."

Nor is Pearl Jam slipping out of sight. They have a track called "The Whale Song" on the new "Music for Our Mother Ocean" benefit CD that comes out today. And Vedder sings two songs "Heart to Hang Onto" and "Magic Bus" on a Townshend CD that benefits the Maryville school for abused children. That's due out Sept. 21.

Then there's "Last Kiss," a song the band produced just for its fans last year. It exploded into a top-10 national radio smash this summer.

That last development seems to leave Vedder bemused. Here's a guy who moves in high rock-history circles singing with Townshend and Neil Young, joining a Bob Dylan tribute, singing Jim Morrison songs with the surviving Doors and now he's got this huge hit with J. Frank Wilson's campy 1964 melodrama about a girl killed in a car crash.

What can he say?

"Glad people like it."

Truth is, Vedder's a song junkie. Pearl Jam has performed everything from James Taylor to NWA's "F--- the Police," and later this night at the Supper Club, Vedder will join Townshend for seven songs at a WAXQ-hosted Maryville fund-raiser.

"Singing someone else's songs is like keeping your clothes on," he says. "I like it. People don't think it's all coming from you."

He's alluding to the fact his own songs are dissected more closely than a fetal pig in a biology lab. Which he doesn't mind at all. "I like that people analyze my work. I'm happy whenever someone cares enough to go into it that deeply."

In a similar spirit, Pearl Jam to the annoyance of the music industry lets fans tape their shows. Although here, too, the rule isn't absolute.

"We did a one-off in San Diego for about 300 people," says Vedder, "and we asked them not to tape. I just wanted to feel free and open. If I wanted to try a Nick Cave song, I didn't want people hearing it over and over."

Some moments should happen only once.

"It's like the story about the night Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison got together," he says. "People say, 'Oh, I wish they'd made a tape.' Your imagination leads you to all sorts of things, most of them great. But in reality, it was probably a lot of drunken, cheap blues. The idea of it, the romance, is better."

But at the same time, Pearl Jam also plunges regularly into real-world issues. They have played countless benefits for pro-choice groups, Rock the Vote, disabilities organizations and other causes. They challenged the goliath Ticketmaster at considerable expense and inconvenience easing off only when they got no support from the Justice Department and little inside the music biz. They say nice things about pirate radio.

In other words, they parlay the albatross of rock stardom into something more worthwhile.

"If you can energize people who listen to you to look into issues and understand their freedoms," says Vedder, "that's a really positive thing. And as artists, I think you have a responsibility."

Of course, this attitude can also give a guy a reputation for being frighteningly serious. To which Vedder just shrugs.

"You hear this stuff....I don't know. I mean, a lot of it is true. I am pretty serious. I approach music seriously. But it's not like you get to one place and stay there.

"What can you do?" he says. "I gave up trying to control my image a long time ago."

He asks if a visitor has ever heard of Billy Murray, one of the first recording stars. An old vaudevillian who specialized in dramatic readings of songs like "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louie" and "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," Murray had 169 chart hits between 1903 and 1927, including 18 that went to No. 1.

"He was the rock star of his day," says Vedder, "and today, we have no idea who he is. Stardom, it's not here for long. As musicians, all we can do is keep trying to put a few things into the atmosphere."

Editor's note: The original article had a somewhat incorrect band history that we have omitted from this archive for the sake of space.