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Pearl Jam slows down

Eddie, Jeff and the boys yield enough to find some nirvana

Eddie Vedder hangs from the scaffolding in front of the 30,000 fans attending a free show in Seattle's Magnuson Park on the banks, more or less, of Lake Washington. The sky has been gray, the field muddy and still the kids are alright.

It's September 1992. Flannel-shirted men and women raise fists. A mosh pit the size of a city block throbs. Pearl Jam-back home from its first U.S. tour and a stint on Lollapalooza II, with one of the year's best-selling albums-has arrived. The band closes the show with Neil Young's "Rocking in the Free World" and the crowd goes crazy.

They are, in fact, rocking in the free world.

So it goes. With Vedder leading the charge, supported by a cast that includes bassist Jeff Ament, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready and then-drummer Dave Abbruzzese, it's the apotheosis of alternative culture in a nutshell.

The road from there, for this Seattle-based fivesome, has had its ups and downs, ranging from bad press about everything and anything, to a lost legal battle with Ticketmaster to their re-emergence as one of the world's most popular rock and roll bands. Drummer Abbruzzese meanwhile was replaced by Jack Irons of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

(Due to health reasons, according to an April press release, Irons has been replaced on the current tour by Matt Cameron of Soundgarden, who played with Vedder, Gossard and Ament on Temple of the Dog.)

Still, who knew? Who knew that the song "Alive," the first hit for Pearl Jam, off the band's first album Ten would come to sum up everything they stand for?

REM and U2 may still plugging away-as are the Rolling Stones, for that matter. But for all intents and purposes, the mainstay of '90s rock is Pearl Jam. Lollapalooza? RIP. Kurt? RIP. Soundgarden? RIP. Pearl Jam? Selling out concerts, riding high on the wave of critical accolades for its new album Yield and set to play in Missoula on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the biggest show Montana has ever seen.

The University of Montana has hired 150 students to work the show, with another 550 people providing security and concessions. By early Saturday evening, some 22,000 fans are expected to invade the Garden City. The show starts at 7:30, with Goodness, a Seattle band, opening.

The last time the football stadium was used for a concert was in 1988, when Smokey Robinson came to town-a show that lost big. When Pearl Jam last played in Missoula in 1995, when the band sold out the 7,000-seat Harry Adams Fieldhouse.

As the remaining link to the modern rock explosion, and the ever diminishing Seattle scene, Pearl Jam has been oft imitated but never duplicated. The so-called scrunge sound, an even more radio-ready product than PJ's own stadium-friendly songs, was inescapable just a couple of years ago. Bands as diverse as Hootie and the Blowfish and Stone Temple Pilots both seemed to be aiming to approximate a version of Vedder-lite.

Nonetheless, as has been noted elsewhere, where Nirvana gave voice to the desperate, confused and alienated amongst the generations X and Y, Eddie qualified as a figure of outrage and strength cut along the lines of not a few classic rock heroes. Whether it was hearing Vedder sing "I am still alive" in '92, or raging to the band's aggressive rifts off Vitalogy, its third album, fans found they could identify with the conviction of the song's authors.

And even so, like public figures from Dennis Rodman-a reported friend of the band-to President Clinton, the Jamsters have their detractors.

Folks hate Pearl Jam for what they believe the band represents more than for the aesthetic ramifications of its sound. Even here, in bassist Jeff Ament's hometown, people are torn between love and loathing when it comes to the most famous connection Missoula has to the Seattle scene, and to the most influential musical movement since punk first emerged as a force in the mid '70s.

Prior to the legendary bassist Mike Watt's show a couple of weeks back, I listened as an obvious student of grunge slammed Pearl Jam as he headed for Jay's Upstairs. But having heard Watt, I knew that the man himself not only respected Ament and company, but was rooting for them.

What was the pissant fan talking about, then? The punishing brunt of fame and widespread success.

And nowhere but in pop music and the occasional Hollywood or sports analog can you find such visceral responses to artists. It's not like we know these people, but the overlay of celebrity and pop culture allows each and every one of us to divine profound significance from an industry which essentially forces compromise at almost every turn.

Still, I'd go so far as to suggest that those who are most vocal about any given starship are dealing with much broader issues than whether perhaps the lead singer is a phony, or the musicians have sold out, or who they've taken as lovers.

At bottom, the importance of Pearl Jam derives not so much from its music (which is what the band would have you believe), as their broader cultural significance. What you think of Vedder and the boys stems as much from your associations-when you first heard them, your girl/boyfriend at the time, whether Jeff was friendly to you at Charlie B's that once-as whether the tunes on their latest release elicit some pleasure for you.

This is not to discount the critical thought that some have contributed to the debate over the sounds and lyrics of the world's favorite rock band. Hey, I like Yield for the most part, but I've switched my filter off when it comes to judging celebs. Or tried to at least. My heroes have always been vaguely misanthropic characters cut from a similar cloth as Vedder anyway-and even he has worked hard of late to manifest a sense of humor that might offset the dour portrait we have been presented with.

Witness the dueling coverage offered by the two biggest rock magazines in the nation.

On the cover of Rolling Stone in November 1996, while the band's No Code still rested atop the magazine's "Readers Top Ten," a crew of reporters set about digging dirt on Vedder, painting the singer as a manipulative control freak. Within months, the alt-culture stalwarts at Spin gained access to the singer and his comrades in Poland, where they were touring, and managed to overturn many of the rumors found in Rolling Stone.

RS reported: "On the rare occasions when Vedder does talk to reporters, he uses the opportunity merely to bemoan, endlessly, the burdens of his fame and success."

(The magazine also describes Ament, who is originally from Big Sandy, as one of a group of "journeymen musicians grateful for their success after years of laboring in pre-Pearl Jam obscurity," despite the fact that his band with the late Andrew Wood, Mother Love Bone, was the first Seattle group of the grunge era to sign with a major record label.)

Though some of this report is clearly true, the contrast with Spin's spin is telling. Craig Marks, writing in the early months of 1997, kicks off his story with Vedder telling a joke, and quotes the singer as saying, "We can be a little more normal now." Marks observes that "this quest for normalcy has come to define Pearl Jam's public identity.

"Perhaps the only way to deal with the crush of fame in the hyperaccelerated '90s," Marks writes, "is to tease it, wink at it, blow it a postmodern kiss á la Bono and Michael Stipe. But Pearl Jam are fundamentally incapable."

It's a lack of irony, for sure, which goads many of the band's detractors. Especially when for all PJ's Fugazi-like attitude-eschewing Ticketmaster for alleged monopolistic practices, taking an anti-corporate stance in terms of mainstream media-they haven't managed to differentiate themselves from a hundred other socially-conscious bands who likewise find themselves bathed in obscene amounts of money and constant adulation.

Still, time and again, Pearl Jam lines up behind worthy projects, from the free show so many years ago to thank their fans, to their recent showing at the Free Tibet Concerts at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. just before their trip here. The list goes on and on-and the guys these guys admire? Neil Young, beat poet Jim Carroll, the Who's Pete Townshend, Watt and others, certainly make an impressive list of heroes for guys many heartfelt punks still feel should be labeled sell-outs.

In comments prepared for the current tour-statements made to critic and journalist Dave Marsh at the behest of the record label to cut back on press calls-the band reflects on what its like to be themselves. The talk gives insight to the artistic and professional doubts which come from being in the spotlight for so long, as well as the reason these guys continue to work at generating music for the masses.

According to Ament, "It's a great, killer lifestyle, as far as I'm concerned, to be able to do those sorts of things. It's really dynamic. It's not 12 months out of the year doing the exact thing. It keeps us fresh, and it keeps us excited and... young. Whatever that means."

Vedder adds, "You don't have to do it all at once. That's the whole thing. That's even in the album. It's just saying, look, everybody just slow down a little bit. Initially, I think I was fine with the pace of things, for the most part. But... the exploitation factor of it just gets a little weird.

"Or when people start making jokes, or it's all parody. I would have handled it better if it was a parody of something I didn't take seriously. Maybe that was my problem."

With the legacy of being grunge's sole survivors, the capacity to yield seems to be serving the band well. After five albums, three of which so far have been among the top sellers of the decade, Pearl Jam doesn't seem inclined so much to burn out as to fade away.

Construction crews have been hard at work during the past week building the stage and sound wall for Saturday's concert in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Picture by Lise Thompson.

Pearl Jam from lef to right: Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Matt Cameron and Mike McCready.


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