Pearl Jam stays true to its Seattle roots
The group's 20th anniversary is a good time to give a nod to the city of Seattle, the sixth member of the band. It is the soil in which Pearl Jam took seed and grew into a formidable oak, branching off into side projects, philanthropic causes and political movements.
ON THE DAY in 1995 that the Seattle Mariners made it to the American League playoffs, Easy Street Records store owner Matt Vaughn was out of town.
Knowing there was only one employee at the store to handle the rush for tickets, Vaughn called in to see how things were going.
"Uh, yeah, hello. Easy Street," said the voice on the other end.
"Who is this?" Vaughn asked.
"This is Eddie."
As in Vedder. As in the lead singer of the Seattle powerhouse Pearl Jam. As in the guy whose band had sold three multiplatinum records in the past five years.
It wasn't a complete shock to have him in the store. Vedder, who has a house tucked along the water in West Seattle, was at Easy Street pretty regularly. But jump up behind the counter? "You sure you know what you're doing?" Vaughn asked.
"Don't worry," Vedder told him. "This cash register is the same as the one I ran at the gas station."
Same story, but Vedder remembers standing in line with a heavy armful of about 50 vinyl records, watching the cashier take phone calls and deal with the people in line.
"He wasn't about to check anybody out, and I knew his spiel, so I got up there," Vedder recalls.
He remembers a phone call from someone saying he had a friend in line, a guy in a wheelchair he needed to talk to. Vedder went out and found the man, stopped traffic to get him around the crowd to the front of the line, and held the phone to his ear while he spoke to his friend.
"The next woman in line came in and says, 'I saw what you just did,' and I'm thinking she would say something nice," Vedder remembers. "But she says, 'What makes him different from any of the rest of us? I'm going to tell your manager.'
"I said, 'Please do, I'll tell you my name.' And I told her she would probably never see me working there again."
That's true. But Easy Street is still one of the few places where Vedder can be like any other music fan rooting through the bins.
Vaughn recalls doing the books one night in the early '90s and stopping at a sales receipt for $1,200 with Vedder's signature across the bottom. A day or two later, another receipt, this one for $700. Vedder again.
"He was just nerding out," says Vaughn. "This was a place he felt comfortable in, and that's what a good record store can do. You lose yourself."
That's great for anyone, but when you're the frontman for one of the biggest rock bands in the world, it means everything. Thirty million records sold in the United States and 60 million worldwide, and you can still walk down California Avenue like everybody else.
This year, Pearl Jam will celebrate its 20th anniversary — a milestone already anticipated in the Pearl Jam community, but just starting to crack the public consciousness. The main event will take place over Labor Day weekend, when fans will flock to East Troy, Wisc., for PJ20: a festival of shows by Pearl Jam and a dozen other artists, including The Strokes, John Doe and Mudhoney.
September will see the release of "Pearl Jam Twenty," a documentary directed by longtime friend Cameron Crowe, an accompanying soundtrack and a book of the same name chronicling Pearl Jam's path to rock stardom.
But the anniversary seems time, too, to give a nod to the city of Seattle.
It's the sixth member of the band. The soil in which Pearl Jam took seed and grew into a formidable oak, branching off into side projects, philanthropic causes and political movements as well as movie and television soundtracks.
It's also a place of family — birth and otherwise — that has supported Pearl Jam in making rock history, all the while keeping a home where they can just be who they've always been.
"LET'S SEE, which door is it?"
Lead guitarist Mike McCready is inching his BMW down an alley between Bell and Blanchard streets in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood, looking for the portal through which the members of Pearl Jam first passed — before the arenas and stadiums, the fancy hotels, the private planes.
Not many buildings have a pretty backside, but this one is particularly homely. You can barely make out the door under the scars and scrawls of graffiti.
"There!" McCready says. "It was a metal foundry. Galleria Potato Head. And from there, we'd go to Mama's (Mexican Kitchen) and get burritos."
So this is where it started. This is where Pearl Jam — they were Mookie Blaylock then — had their first rehearsal in 1990.
McCready, rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament had already been playing together for a while when Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer and friend Jack Irons recommended a San Diego singer named Eddie Vedder.
They sent Vedder a tape of three songs, and he sent back a demo of himself singing what would become "Alive," "Once" and "Footsteps."
Gossard and Ament told Vedder, who was working as a security guard at a La Jolla hotel, to come up to Seattle for a week.
"I don't want to mess around at all," Vedder told Ament at the airport. "Let's go to work."
Gossard, who grew up in Seattle, and Ament, who came here in 1982 from Montana, had found each other and some success, securing record contracts for their bands Green River and Mother Love Bone.
McCready, who also grew up here, had been playing with brothers Rick and Chris Friel since meeting in middle school over a mutual love of KISS. (Rick Friel was carrying a KISS lunchbox on the bus to Madrona Elementary School.)
"The day I met Rick was the day that changed my life," McCready says.
They formed a band called Shadow and rehearsed at the Friels' house, played in the school lunchroom on Fridays, birthday parties, even the old Skate King.
Sharon Friel and her husband, Dick, converted their family room into a band room for their sons and friends.
Rehearsals were so loud that a petition circulated in the neighborhood, Sharon Friel says. But she didn't care.
"I treated this as if they were playing soccer," Friel says. "They had 100 percent of our support, but I wanted to know where they were and who was popping in, because there are a lot of stories about rock-and-roll bands."
Amazing now, to think of who was "popping in": Duff McKagan, who would go on to play bass for the Los Angeles band Guns and Roses, Velvet Revolver and now Loaded. Gossard, then attending the Northwest School, came over to the Friel house at one point. He would later tap McCready to join him and Ament in what would become Pearl Jam.
Sharon Friel thinks Seattle is a perfect place to grow musicians; the long, wet winters make time for rehearsing and creating, and there are plenty of places to play.
"There is a culture here," she says, "that respects these kids."
"There wasn't this scholastic, academic approach to music," Gossard recalls. "It was make it up, and it can be great in its imperfections."
So by the time Vedder arrived in 1990, all the other players had been in other bands, struggling to find that sweet spot where talent and vision and personalities gel.
That day in the Belltown basement, McCready couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"When I heard Ed's voice on the demo, I thought, 'Is this guy real?' And at our first rehearsal with Ed, I knew something was great."
Vedder finally felt like he could belong to something. Seattle was a town where bands helped each other, where people recommended musicians to others and got each other on the bill.
"If there was anything going on in San Diego with real merit, I wasn't part of that circle," Vedder says. "We tried to support each other, but it was too close to L.A., too close to where people felt that they had to pay to play and there was some brass ring to pull you out of that morass of no visible support for each other."
Vedder remembers listening to The Who and other British bands when he was growing up, and poring over the history and timelines of the British Invasion.
"I used to think, 'If only I had lived then.' But by 1992 or something, there was a moment when I felt like, 'Wow, I am actually part of something, there is something happening here, and it's spreading like wildfire.
"And I don't know if it is a good or bad thing.' "
KERRI HARROP knew things had changed one day in 1991 when she was watching a Sonics game on TV. The camera set on a familiar face in a trademark hat: Her friend Jeff Ament, a huge Sonics fan, a former barista at Raison d'Etre Café and now the bassist for Pearl Jam. He was sitting courtside.
"I thought, 'Good for you, man,' " Harrop says now. "Good for you."
Seattle in the early '90s was a crazy time. The world had turned its ear to the Northwest, which hadn't gotten a lot of attention beyond The Kingsmen's 1963 hit, "Louie, Louie," and the rise and fall of Jimi Hendrix.
In the documentary "Hype," music producer Steve Fisk recalls how hard it was to get a band to even play Seattle. San Francisco was as far north as most bands would go.
So people made their own music, formed bands as easily as people now form book clubs.
When things exploded and their friend Eddie was on the cover of Time magazine in October 1992, the community pulled in a little closer to itself. That's key to why Pearl Jam has stayed together, and successful. Most of the people who surrounded them then surround them now.
Says Harrop, a club and band promoter and DJ who goes by the moniker Cherry Canoe, "You were young and highly impressionable and in the middle of a media storm, a cultural revolution."
She was working at SubPop Records, which was hanging onto its band, Nirvana, like it was a cellar door in a hurricane.
The kids were running over the city. Booths at the Dahlia Lounge and other hot spots were filled with longhair, black-booted patrons. The clubs were jammed with outsiders looking to cash in on what someone — was it Mark Arm of Mudhoney? SubPop Records founder Jonathan Poneman? — had dubbed "grunge."
All of a sudden, says Harrop, "Soundgarden was big, Nirvana was huge, PJ was huge, Screaming Trees had a hit."
It hadn't been that long since Harrop had gone to the OK Hotel in Pioneer Square with her friend Shawn Smith, who would go on to form Satchel, and now Pigeonhed and Brad. He told her they were going to see "Stoney's new band."
Vedder spent a good part of the night with both hands clasped to the mic, barely looking up.
"I remember thinking, 'This singer better loosen up a bit,' " Harrop recalls.
Within a few months, Vedder was swinging from the balcony and crowd-surfing at the Moore Theatre — and cameras were recording it all for the "Even Flow" video.
Gossard remembers opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and noticing the crowds growing, the attention holding.
Of course, they had Sony BMG behind them, throwing coal into the marketing and promotion locomotive. Gossard had gotten a small taste of that when Mother Love Bone signed with PolyGram a few years back. But this was different.
And this was stressful.
"I don't think I was loving every second of it. I remember feeling a little bit insecure, mostly, about whether we were really good enough to deserve it."
Vedder was just hoping to survive.
"There was a quick time when you felt like you were in the eye of the hurricane, with this calm around you. And without even knowing, you were in Dorothy's house, being spun to the heavens, and never knowing how you're going to land this thing."
ON A WEDNESDAY afternoon in late April, Harrop and SubPop executive Megan Jasper have come to Pearl Jam's South Seattle warehouse to sit in on Sirius XM's Pearl Jam Radio session with Tim Bierman, who manages the band's Ten Club fan club.
Longtime Pearl Jam publicist Nicole Vandenberg is working just beyond the door, half-listening to Harrop and Jasper's tarty banter, aware that in another room, Pearl Jam is rehearsing its next album, which it will record in Los Angeles over the following weeks. It's easy to recognize drummer Matt Cameron's signature slams and sweeps over the drum kit, Ament's curvaceous bass. It sounds good.
Vandenberg offers Harrop and Jasper a tour of the warehouse, which, considering the womens' long history with the band, could very possibly include popping in on rehearsal.
Any chance of tagging along?
"Not today," Vandenberg says.
Pearl Jam is big enough now to have people control who gets into their business.
And make no mistake: It is a business that, this year, is running full throttle.
Vedder has embarked on a 20-date tour in support of his second solo CD, "Ukelele Songs," which was released in May. On the same day, the band released "Water on the Road," a live-concert DVD made during Vedder's 2008 solo tour in support of his soundtrack to "Into the Wild."
There's the Labor Day weekend event; hotels for miles around have been booked for months.
In September, there is the documentary, the CD and the anniversary book. It's all a lot of work, but Pearl Jam is doing it in no small part because they like each other. They're family, living and working in the same town where it all started.
"We're quite pleased that it's become our lot in life," says Vedder. "Where we go, we have no idea . . . If you look in the rearview mirror too long, you're probably going to hit something. I'm trying to keep my eyes on the road."
It helps that the streets are so familiar.
McCready, who now lives on Lake Washington with his wife, Ashley O'Connor, and their two children, has no plans to leave Seattle. He remains close with his parents, and the Friels, who lost their patriarch last year. McCready hosts an annual benefit concert for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America's Northwest Chapter.
To explain why they stay, O'Connor recalls a Christmastime five years ago when McCready went to the Leschi Market. He came back with cookies that some schoolkids were selling to raise money for the people of Darfur. That kind of social consciousness wasn't part of their lives in California at all, he told her, but here, the schoolkids were tuned in — and taking action.
"It felt to us like this city has a soul to it, a community," O'Connor says. "It wasn't just about what you have and how you look.
"We built a life here, and it makes sense."
Gossard lives just down the street.
"A lot of places turn my head," he says. "But I also think that wherever you're from, you have a unique understanding of that place, a loyalty to the place."
That has played a key part in their loyalty to each other and their success.
Easy Street's Vaughn recalls serving as DJ at Vedder's wedding to Jill McCormick last year in Hawaii.
Matt Cameron approached and asked Vaughn to play Chic's "Good Times."
"It's the only way I am going to get Stone on the dance floor," Cameron told him.
Vaughn found the song and watched something that still makes him smile.
"Through the haze, I see these five guys, their arms in the air like on the 'Ten' album, just having the time of their lives," he says. "Just so happy for their brother."
Not everyone gets to be a rock star. So when you're able to navigate all that entails — sobriety, career moves, relationships, changes in artistic vision, in interests — it means something.
So, too, does the place where it all started — and still holds together.
"That is the mark of a life well-lived," Harrop says. "Pearl Jam found each other and made that a cornerstone of their lives."
Nicole Brodeur is a Seattle Times columnist. Steve Ringman is a Times staff photographer.
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