The CD for Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy, released on December 6, 1994, opened with an almost jazz-like bit of cacophony. Soon though, a jagged guitar riff and frantic drumbeat kick-off “Last Exit” with Eddie Vedder yelling, “Lives opened and trashed/’Look ma, watch me crash’/No time to question why’d nothing last/Grasp and hold on/old tight and fast!”
By rights, Pearl Jam should have imploded in 1994. Three years after they debuted with the multi-platinum Ten, there were huge fractures in the band: singer Eddie Vedder was replacing guitarist Stone Gossard as the band’s leader. Relations between Vedder and drummer Dave Abbruzzese soured (this would be Abbruzzese’s final album with Pearl Jam). Guitarist Mike McCready was beginning to really struggle with substance abuse. The band lost its highly publicized battle with Ticketmaster. And of course, they, as well as the entire rock scene, were dealing with the suicide of Kurt Cobain on April 5 of that year.
As producer Brendan O’Brien told Spin, “Vitalogy was a little strained.” He added, “I’m being polite–there was some imploding going on.”
Vedder was clearly uncomfortable with his fame. Although he’d made up with Cobain (who called Pearl Jam “corporate, alternative and cock-rock fusion” in a interview with Musician magazine), before his death, the Nirvana frontman still threw thinly veiled insults at Pearl Jam, telling Rolling Stone in early 1994 that “They’re a safe rock band. They’re a pleasant rock band that everyone likes.”
Vedder loved punk rock and surely wanted the band to be a bit less safe and pleasant, hence the jagged ode to vinyl “Spin The Black Circle” the Tom Waits-ish “Bugs” and the experimental jam “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me” (also known as “Stupid Mop”). But he still wrote and sang some major anthems that “everybody” (including rock radio) seemed to like: “Not For You,” “Better Man” and “Corduroy” are still highlights of Pearl Jam’s arena concerts, twenty-five years later. But “Not For You” was kind of a middle finger to mainstream rock fans who discovered the band through MTV or radio and didn’t know or care about punk rock and underground music (there were serious shades of Cobain’s infamous Rolling Stone cover where he wore the “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” t-shirt). On “Corduroy,” Vedder howled, “I don’t want to take what you can give/I would rather starve than eat your bread.”
Having sold tens of millions of records already, he was never in danger of starving; that success allowed him (and the band) to turn down bread. From this point forward, the band would call their own shots. But that came with consequences. As Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan said about the early ’90s rock scene in an interview with Guitar World a few years later, “Essentially, we simply could not handle the transition out of the clubs. The idea of world fame was just too overwhelming. If we had been more supportive of each other, we might’ve saved ourselves by building a stronger musical community. That’s how people like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan survived and ended up becoming legends. They managed to find some support and community in the music. They didn’t sit there and moan about their situation, they just took the artistic freedom they were offered and put it to good use. We were handed the same opportunity, and what did we do? We rejected it, outright. The next thing you know, the kids are saying, ‘Gee, maybe this music isn’t as cool as I thought it was. The bands themselves don’t even seem to like it.’ And they moved on.”
And it’s true: after Vitalogy, Pearl Jam never had another multiplatinum album. But they were no longer interested in being at the center of the zeitgeist. Inspired by the Grateful Dead’s business model, they decided early on to focus on longevity instead of worrying too much about hit singles (although they’ve certainly enjoyed quite a handful over the years, including “Do The Evolution,” “Wishlist” and “Last Kiss”).
In 1995, Pearl Jam spend time with Neil Young — Vedder’s idol — as they served time as his backing band on the Mirror Ball album (the sessions also yielded songs from Pearl Jam’s Merken Ball EP). Vedder also signed up to play guitar for indie-punk legend Mike Watt on his first solo tour (Dave Grohl was the drummer in the band; it was on this tour that he debuted the Foo Fighters, before they’d even released a record). They toured the country in vans and stayed in small hotels. As Grohl told Spin, “I think that for Eddie, at that point, a lot of things had been knocked out of perspective. That tour brought a lot of it back together. We were playing three sets a night for 12 days in a row, with a ten-hour drive every night.”
On some level, Vedder might have gotten a brief glimpse into his possible futures with these experiences: even if he loved both artists equally, Young’s lifestyle probably seemed more attractive, even if Vedder wouldn’t be quick to admit that. Vedder would become friends to other heroes who neither burned out, nor faded away — Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen, members of the Rolling Stones — and maybe that helped him to figure out that being in a huge band didn’t equal selling out.
These days they frequently bring the punk and indie rock bands who inspired them on tour: over the years, X, the Buzzcocks, Bad Religion and Social Distortion have opened for them. This summer, the Pixies will do some dates with them. They also frequently take out up-and-coming artists and expose them to bigger audiences: Ben Harper, the Black Keys, and My Morning Jacket have all warmed up for Pearl Jam and this summer they have Idles on the bill at some of their shows.
Nearly three decades after they started, they are still selling out arenas and stadiums, and the four founding members — Vedder, Gossard, McCready and bassist Jeff Ament — seem to have come to an understanding with each other and have figured out how to stop worrying about their fame, and to use it for good. And maybe even have fun with it. But it took Vitalogy to get them there. They’ll probably never made such a tumultuous album, but they don’t have to.