return to main page

San Diego Reader 8/3/95

Pearl Jam Dog Paddle
by Paul Williams

"Sanity," my friend the late Frank Herbert wrote, "is the ability to swim."

This is not precisely about music. Rather, it's about a strange swamp our love of music seems to drag us into, the sticky question of our relationship with the rock star. "I wanna die wasted, in a room with Eddie Vedder," sings Steve Poltz of the Rugburns in the persona of the prototypical stoner rock fan, who (hilariously, the Rug's finest song) lives just to hear Zep's Houses of the Holy on eight-track, the way it SHOULD sound.

I wouldn't wanna be a rock star. But never mind. This piece is also about the rock star's relationship with himself. Kurt Cobain's the obvious worse-case scenario in recent memory. (He went quite a bit beyond just, say, publishing a zine called "Kill Rock Stars.") And Eddie Vedder -- another highly visible public figure whose audible self-questioning rivals Kurt's or Hamlet's or, stepping back one brief rock era, Bono's or Michael Stipe's -- is, to my taste (talking about public figure performance here, not MUSICAL performance), along with Jeff Ament and the rest of Pearl Jam collectively, the best case. The fucker's something of a hero to me, actually. No kidding. Let me tell you why.

It's about sanity. "Sanity," my friend the late Frank Herbert wrote (in a novel about life on an atomic submarine), "is the ability to swim."

Swimming, or being sane, is not heroic in itself. But swimming successfully through very dangerous waters (which many others, peers, have failed to navigate), and doing it while holding your (and maybe our) values in your teeth in an attempt to preserve them, is something else. In a world where I see far too few attractive, intelligent, honorable, courageous, and compassionate visible role models, I find it inspiring to catch a glimpse of someone, anyone, struggling to be true to himself in a non-trivial way. Trivial = vanity = wanting to look good.

Pearl Jam probably didn't look good to almost anyone when they canceled their June Sports Arena shows at the last minute, two weeks after their hugely publicized cancellation of the Del Mar Fair performances that the Sports Arena shows were intended to replace.

"Pissed off about Pearl Jam? Call this number." Pieces of paper bearing this message floated down the streets of San Francisco a few days after Vedder left the stage (saying he felt sick) early in Pearl Jam's Golden Gate Park concert Saturday, June 24. He was replaced by Neil Young, and the band played on for two more hours. I wouldn't have been pissed off. But then, I'm a Neil fan. A young (musically hip) friend asked me recently if I like Young's new album, "even though he's playing with that bad band." Hey, it's easy to cop an attitude toward any rock band that's grown hugely popular. And anyway we all have a right to our own musical tastes. Springsteen not only irritated me hugely after a while but seemed to become quite boring, same for U2, and I was an early booster of both artists, and that story (band seems to get too big, we early fans get fed up) has been repeated over and over. Part of the difficulty with the relationship between us (the fans) and them ("rock stars") is that -- encouraged by the critics and our friends and peers, etc., etc. -- we start to feel that our job is to have an opinion about, to be the judges of them.

So yeah, I have an opinion about Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam. The hard part is to get past the reasonable tendency to try to see everything (those cancellations) in terms of the drama of Pearl Jam (Luke Skywalker, well-intended or slightly foolish youthful champion of the people's values) vs. Ticketmaster (Darth Vader, obvious ugly personification of greed and darkness and individual and institutional abuse of power). I of course, like so many others, loved Pearl Jam for having the courage to take on those sons of bitches, for going after a true evil when it genuinely crossed their path and singed them (and their fans) with its fire, despite the obvious risks. Right on! And I have huge admiration for them for other actions consistent with the same sort of values -- they refused to do any videos for their second album despite the fact that surely Sony, banking hugely on a repeat of the windfall income and power that Pearl Jam's first success brought them, was not happy about their decision. (Hey, remember, Neil Young was sued by his record company, not Sony but Geffen, for not turning in the right kind of "Neil Young" album.)

But. On beyond easy (and perhaps accurate) images of darkness and light, there's more to this latest chapter in the central myth of our culture and era. I mean the ongoing rock and roll star saga, Pearl Jam and frontman (singer) Eddie as this month's case in point. I know, it seems like a group isn't helping their fans if they deny them the opportunity to see them live in the name of trying to save them some money. But. Like I said, there's a side to this recent on-and-off Pearl Jam tour cancellation that goes beyond or anyway goes off in a different direction from the familiar hassles with Ticketmaster and its stranglehold on the business and the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and its dumb "security" posturing.

And it's this, far beyond my tremendous appreciation of the courageous stand Pearl Jam has taken (walking it, not just talking it) against Business as Usual in the rockopoly game (don't think Sony was thrilled to have them make a record for another label with not-very-commercial old fart Neil Young), that makes me feel that I have something to learn at the feet of these troubled teachers. Don't wanna die in a room with Eddie Vedder, just wanna offer him and his bandmates my sympathy and support and good wishes and tremendous respect.

What could I possibly learn? Maybe something about how to swim. The San Diego daily paper on June 26 focuses on the "air of confusion" surrounding Pearl Jam's decision to cancel not just the Sports Arena, but (at the time) the rest of its scheduled tour. Since Vedder had gone to the hospital with a severe stomach flu the morning before the San Francisco show and the new cancellation came two days later, it was expected the "reason" for cancellation would be Vedder's health, but Pearl Jam's spokesperson refused to use that reason. That left the press (and fans) looking at the visible local issues. The Sports Arena shows were not being verbally harassed by a publicity-hungry sheriff's department, and they were good examples of the struggle for independence from Ticketmaster, since the Sports Arena sought and received permission to have ticket sales go through a Pearl Jam approved service, despite their supposedly exclusive contract with Ticketmaster. And of course the fans were eager to see the shows. So what happened?

What happened, according to an informative piece by Robert Hilburn in the L.A. Times (6/26) is that the four other members of Pearl Jam met with their manager backstage after Vedder left the stage in San Francisco and went back to his hotel to rest. And decided, during that meeting, to cancel the forthcoming shows because "the pressures of a full-scale tour simply took the joy out of making music" and because they feared "those pressures would ultimately destroy the band if not dealt with."

To get personal for a moment, I read this from the perspective of someone who's recovering from a very serious injury and who has been receiving good advice to the effect that I have to rest and take care of myself instead of going right back to whatever expectations I might have had of myself (work! achieve! make more money!) before the injury. And also from the perspective of someone, who, for example, loved Kurt Cobain's music and hated to lose him, someone who watched Jim Morrison become a pathetic alcoholic, etc., etc., ad infinitum. I have some sense of how difficult it can be to put taking care of yourself or, in the case of a band, each other, ahead of public image and last year's ambitions. And what strikes me is that no matter how you look at it, Pearl Jam as a collective -- including Eddie, even if he wasn't present at this particular moment of consensus-reaching -- managed to avoid the temptation to look at their choices in terms of "what people would think" of them in the context of their hugely publicized struggle with Ticketmaster and the local sheriff here. All of us here have egos, and our egos tend to require us to present things in such a way so it looks like we won the contest, we're the good guys, etc. But Pearl Jam -- although a glance at the stories that ran in San Diego the next couple of days shows that they did have something to lose in terms of short-term public image -- didn't knuckle under. I think it takes a lot of guts to put taking care of yourself and each other in an extreme and (as you perceive it, as your gut tells you) dangerous situation, ahead of being understood by your fans and friends and the public, the media, etc.

This is what I mean by a lesson in how to swim and what I mean by holding your values (like a beloved and needy puppy) in your teeth. There is something more important than looking good, and the tremendous failure of our media-centered culture is that we (look at our presidents and presidential candidates, for example) are constantly looking in the media mirror instead of looking in our hearts. To be understood or perceived as a winner or to be perceived as a racist (if you're Pete Wilson and have decided that the candidate who seems most fed up with blacks and women and immigrants will win the next election) or some other flavor-of-the-moment (including, if you're a rock band, "more-indie-than-thou") is all that matters. Because we're lost in a hall of mirrors. "Who's the fairest one of all?" The media will tell us, does tell us, day after day, thus constantly tempting us to tune in to find out how we and the horses we bet on are doing. They'll also be happy to sell us chances on another horse.

It's enough to give you the stomach flu. Or you could decide, like Cobain, to be the hero who assassinates himself for high crimes and misdemeanors.

There must be some way out of here. Businessmen (Ticketmaster) drink my wine. But let us not talk falsely now.

Personally I think it's a mess. But there are a lot of redeeming factors. Good music, for example. I understand the disappointment of Pearl Jam ticket holders. I remember how it felt when we Dylan fanatics arrived at the Prague Palace of Culture March 10 ready for the first show of the year and suddenly found a sign in Czech saying the show had been postponed to another day. Oh hell. If Pearl Jam were ruled by vanity, they'd have chosen to do anything rather than disappoint the faithful fans (and after all the fuss they'd made about doing this concert and tour the RIGHT way).

But one way the relationship between rock stars (or musicians) and fans has messed itself up traditionally is taking itself too seriously (Neil Young skewered this well in his sardonic anti-anthem "Rockin' in the Free World"). For my money, by suddenly taking the risk of taking care of themselves (Eddie and Jeff, et al., individually, and also the band as a whole, their ability to go on as a unit or family) rather than looking good and proving a point by proclaiming "The tour must go on!" -- for my money, by making this hard choice Pearl Jam delicately indicated a possible "way out of here." I'll probably screw up if I try to put that "way" in words. Something like this: Surrender your pride, love one another, accept uncertainty, try to do what's right as best you can at this moment, whether you'll be understood or not, and await further instructions.

Members of the group have been quoted several times as saying that if their self-inflicted hassles from trying to tour without Ticketmaster prevent them from doing live shows, at least they'll still have the recording studio, which they like. I'm all in favor of live performance as the perfect outlet for (and best way to appreciate) certain artists. But I'm even more in favor of each artist giving themselves and being given by us the freedom to make their own choices. And beyond that, I understand that what they're really saying, more to themselves than to us, is, "Let's not crucify ourselves, if possible, by insisting that what seems important now is absolutely what we must do no matter how terrible the pressure gets." I'm trying to learn to think the same way myself, in relation to my own "tremendously important" projects and ambitions. And in my effort to learn to give myself (and my inner artist) breathing room, I am inspired by what I perceive as Pearl Jam's example, their leadership.

I see them as caring about their art, their freedom, and having compassion for each other. I love, for example, the freedom of just deciding to make an album with Neil Young, under his direction, if that's what he wants too. Not a great business move. But there is more to life. There's a time when it's necessary to protect each other from cracking up utterly from the endless and unconquerable pressure. And there's also a time for just following the muse.

Eddie Vedder is just the most visible member of a group that really hangs together as a group, musically and in their decision-making, their ongoing process of growing up in public -- and the way they seem to respect and listen to and learn from each other is one more thing about Pearl Jam that inspires my admiration. If you count Mirror Ball (hey, it's a damn rewarding record, and so is Vitalogy), they've already made more albums than Neil's old group Buffalo Springfield. Okay, they didn't play San Diego in 1995. But they also haven't blown their brains out or overdosed yet, and considering the pressures, I think those are real accomplishments. So I just wanted to say I'm grateful to anyone who can keep their sanity and keep breathing when they find themselves in this house of mirrors. And don't think it's only the stars who are lost. Secretly we might all be in this mess together.

I play the records and go to the shows because I don't wanna be alone in this room. I don't want to be a rock star. But I'm glad occasionally to find one I can empathize with and respect. And when I met Eddie two years ago at a Jim Carroll show in Pacific Beach, it turned out he's just a fan too. That's something I can relate to.