Out of all the bands that constituted Seattle’s class of 1991, Pearl Jam stand alone. Somehow they have not only managed to stay together, but have thrived over the past two decades. As the new Cameron Crowe film Pearl Jam Twenty makes abundantly clear, it has not been easy. The group have persevered through battles with their record label, the concert industry, and rock n’ roll’s biggest foe: time. By staying true to their ideals, and developing a deep bond with their fans, Pearl Jam have managed the rare feat of aging gracefully.
That is not to say they have mellowed however. Watching them gleefully tear into “Bu$hleaguer” in front of a hostile crowd is proof of that. This type of rare and unreleased live footage is a major factor in the film. Pearl Jam Twenty is more than simply a celebration of their 20-year anniversary though, for there is a one hell of a story behind this group.
Stone Gossard (guitar) and Jeff Ament (bass) were part of what many consider to be the very first Seattle grunge band, Green River. When they split in 1988 over “creative differences” Gossard and Ament went on to form the unabashedly rock-ist Mother Love Bone. Vocalist Andy Wood was already something of a local legend, treating shows with an audience of two as if it were Madison Square Garden.
MLB caught on quickly. Not only was the music great, but they had a riveting front man in Wood. On the eve of the release of their major label debut Apple, Andy was found dead of a heroin overdose. It was the first time this young community of musicians had to face such tragedy, although it would certainly not be the last.
As a way of working through their grief, Stone and Jeff wrote some music, and informally passed it around. The tape wound its way to Southern California, where a young surfer by the name of Eddie Vedder heard it and was inspired. He was dealing was some things in his life, and wrote lyrics to the tunes. After recording his vocals to the tape, he sent it back to them. The results stunned everyone. Eddie Vedder was immediately invited to Seattle, and he never really left.
With Vedder in place, things began to happen for the band. They played their first gig (as Mookie Blaylock) just six days after his arrival. The first album, titled Ten, was written quickly, and they were soon signed to Epic Records. Ten was released August 27, 1991, and was a moderate seller at first. Then Nirvana’s Nevermind came out September 24, 1991, and all things Seattle exploded. Ten blew up, and suddenly there was a “feud” led by Kurt Cobain questioning Pearl Jam’s authenticity. Fortunately, Kurt and Eddie worked out their differences before Cobain took his own life in 1994. It was an early example of how PJ’s intentions could be misunderstood, even by their peers.
The next big event on Pearl Jam’s horizon had to do with taking on Ticketmaster. The band claims that their role in the case began as simply one of support, and that they did not set out on a David vs. Goliath quest to bring down the company. Still, that is the way the situation was presented by the media, and the group found themselves in a difficult position. To not work with Ticketmaster for two years meant that Pearl Jam were (for all intents and purposes) unable to tour for that period.
Crowe does a great job of capturing a group of genuine friends growing together as part of a band. Where their earlier idealism may have gotten in the way of more practical concerns, it is obvious that they are proud of themselves for trying. They are still a very socially conscious group of people, but this has been focused in the direction of playing benefits for various causes, and quietly donating money to things they believe in.
As a friend of the band since their inception, Cameron Crowe has managed to get some extremely rare footage for the film. There is a great Andy Wood tape for one thing, where he is playing the Central Tavern as if it is the Astrodome. Another highlight has Eddie and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell trading lines on “Hunger Strike” while wrestling onstage. One of the most poignant moments comes during Pearl Jam’s 10th anniversary show, where Eddie sings Andy and Mother Love Bone’s most enduring song, “Crown Of Thorns.” By the end, there is not a dry eye in the house.
There have been a lot of “It was 20 years ago today” retrospectives about grunge and Seattle recently. It’s just the media machine feeding on itself again really. But with Pearl Jam, there actually is a reason to celebrate their longevity. For one thing, they have managed to work together and maintain their dignity for all this time, which in itself is quite an accomplishment.
Pearl Jam Twenty will air nationally on PBS, Friday October 21, 2011. It will then be released to DVD on October 24, 2011.