The clock is ticking away over at Pearl Jam’s official website. Counting down. Something’s about to happen. But what? A new single? An official release date for the much-anticipated follow-up to 2009’s Backspacer? Or are we counting down to one of those desperate scenes where our hero has mere seconds to decide whether it’s the green wire or the blue one that defuses the bomb and saves his gal and a bunch of extras that nobody cares about?
A taste or promise of new music is probably the safer bet. But since when have Pearl Jam been a safe bet? It’s true that they’re the only member of grunge’s big four (also Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden) who have kept their band together without interruption since Seattle’s early ‘90s heyday, but that doesn’t mean their “rearviewmirror” reflects a journey without bumps in the road or unexpected detours. The truth is, Pearl Jam have always kept us guessing.
So, in anticipation of an announcement that the whole world agrees will be about new Pearl Jam music, we thought we’d remind ourselves of several times that the band have surprised us over the years. So, sit back and enjoy. If nothing else, it’ll kill a few minutes of waiting. And, just in case it comes up, it’s the blue wire… no wait, the yellow one. Yeah, good luck.
Mookie Blaylock pop up in Singles as Citizen Dick
In 1992, Cameron Crowe’s little-Seattle-film-that-could wasn’t a blockbuster by any means. The film’s ample popularity resonated from its diamond soundtrack that became a best seller months before Matt Dillon’s Cliff Poncier grumbled about on the silver screen. (FYI: Don’t let the reviews undersell you. It’s a hidden gem of a film. Buy it.) What’s weird, though, is how involved Pearl Jam, still Mookie Blaylock at the time of filming, was to the overall production. They didn’t just offer up two tracks (“Breath”, “State of Love and Trust”), but also consulted with Crowe, loaned out clothing, and played themselves on-screen as the reluctant band members to Poncier’s “pompous, dick-swinging” grunge outfit, Citizen Dick. It wasn’t a total surprise then — after all, they were only rising and it was Seattle — but today it’s funny to see the veterans so young, clueless, and ambivalent. So fucking grunge, am I right? -Michael Roffman
“Jeremy” spoke on MTV
The video for Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” paints a grim picture of a disturbed youth. Director Mark Pellington cuts back and forth between their subject’s upbringing and the band themselves. As the song climaxes and strobe lights bounce off a wailing Vedder, a young boy walks to the front of the classroom and… blackout. The power of suggestion is palpable, as we are shown visuals of Jeremy’s classmates forever frozen in shock, blood spattered across their faces and clothes. Pearl Jam has only appeared in a couple music videos since, but after creating one of the all-time greats, they needn’t have bothered. –Justin Gerber
Eddie’s Pro-Choice Plug during Unplugged
Ah, I remember my first meme like it was yesterday: Lead singer falls off stool, “planks” on stool, mock surfs and twists atop stool, whips out Sharpie, and scrawls a political statement from his bicep to his wrist. Today’s youth might find “Veddering” to be somewhat tame, but it’ll always hold a special place in the hearts of my generation.
Eddie Vedder could have scribbled anything down his arm—maybe a grocery list or “Hi, Mom. Send flannel.”—but during “Porch”, the final song of Pearl Jam’s 1992 MTV Unplugged broadcast, he chose the loaded term “Pro-Choice.” It’s a movement Vedder has remained faithful to over the years, and this televised moment acted as an early indicator that Pearl Jam wasn’t afraid to wade into political waters.
Full disclosure: I was Veddering as I typed this. “No Taxation Without Represen…” (Drat, ran out of arm.) –Matt Melis
They should all be “the cheap seats”
Pearl Jam weren’t just some of the most unlikely rock stars in popular music upon their mainstream breakthrough in the early ’90s; they were also some of the most reluctant to wear the crown. Rather than embrace the fruits of their fame, the band have spent considerable time and energy second-guessing music industry politics and challenging the status quo, sometimes at their own peril. When the band decided to wage war with Ticketmaster by testifying against the ticketing giant as part of a Department of Justice Investigation into the company’s business practices, it was considered tantamount to career suicide. But while the band ultimately lost the war, they gained so much more in the eyes of fans, critics, and their peers in the long run. The Ticketmaster battle was one of the first major steps toward establishing Pearl Jam as not only one of the figurehead bands of the ’90s, but also as a fearless band of principle hellbent on challenging convention at every step. -Ryan Bray
Sitting in for Crazy Horse
I always hated those “what I did over summer vacation” essays. Not only was it a struggle to muster three pages about 10 weeks of watching reruns of “The Wonder Years”, but there was always that one kid who shamed the entire class with an exotic tale, like spelunking in the Philippines. Pearl Jam was that kid. Instead of relaxing after the massive success of Vitalogy, the band acted as surrogate Crazy Horse to Neil Young on 1995’s Mirror Ball. (Talk about a productive use of downtime.) The band admits it was a therapeutic experience following a discombobulating, meteoric rise to rock stardom, and the record also introduced the Godfather of Grunge to a generation of listeners who were soaking up everything associated with Seattle. Young rockers like “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “F*!#kin’ Up” have gone on to become Pearl Jam live staples. -Matt Melis
Squeezing vox from a Stone
I still remember where I was that day. No, not when Kennedy was shot. When I spun No Code for the first time and realized that that wasn’t Eddie Vedder singing on “Mankind”. I turned to my friend on the way home from National Record Mart (remember those?) and said something profound like, “That’s not Eddie Vedder.” (Of course, at the time, I didn’t know Stone Gossard’s voice from Robert Goulet’s.) And there isn’t anything more to this surprising moment than that; there was just something genuinely shocking about removing Vedder from the equation, if only for a song. Nowadays, “Mankind” remains a No Code fave for many fans, and it’s always an endearing moment when the much softer-spoken Gossard shoos Eddie aside and sings it live. Ever hear an arena of people say in unison, “That’s not Eddie Vedder”? -Matt Melis
Pearl Jam killed the video star
Pearl Jam has been known to buck the trends, and not releasing music videos from Vs. all the way through No Code is no exception. But when they opted to return to the form, they did so with an all-out visual assault courtesy of Todd McFarlane (Spawn). The animated video for “Do the Evolution” is a spectacle that starts with our planet’s inception and ends with its potential end. T-Rex eats shark, man kills man, and man enslaves man amidst a light-speed parade of violent imagery both obvious and stocked with subtext. A ferocious combination of song and video. – Justin Gerber
Your drummer, Jack Irons, decides he doesn’t want to tour. You’ve got longtime friend and ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron on your Rolodex. You give Cameron a call. “Hey, Matt. What are you doing this summer?” “Um, nothing.” He learns something like 80 of your songs in 10 days, tours with you, and sticks around for the long haul. That’s how your band lands the best drummer on the planet.
Let me borrow from Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall: “Boy, if life were only like this.” -Matt Melis
“Last Kiss” for Kosovo
This might be a tad misogynistic (never a good preface in any situation, I admit), but Pearl Jam’s cover of J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ “Last Kiss” comes up all too often with female fans and passersby. They either love it to death, or they want to kick it to the curb, the latter option something my fiance would enjoy with zero trepidation. The less histrionic majority in this unspoken battle, however, explains how what was once simply a soundcheck recording, issued as a fan club single for Christmas 1998, became a national sensation on the radio. So much so that Pearl Jam hit the studio, recorded a proper cut, and sent all proceeds to the refugees of the Kosovo War. Quite admirable of them, too, given that it remains their highest-charting single to date. Still a hater? -Michael Roffman
Call it business savvy, call it fan-friendly, or call it plain cool. Simply put, “nobody doesn’t like” Pearl Jam’s “official bootlegs”—except the out-of-business bootleggers. In 2000, Pearl Jam, a longtime proponent of amateur recording at shows, began offering high-quality, well-packaged copies of nearly all of their shows to fans at extremely reasonable rates. It was a perfect fit. Collectors could collect, and concertgoers could relive the show(s) they attended. The series has proven to be so popular that several “official bootlegs” have actually charted around the world. And from a concertgoer’s perspective, you have to appreciate the bonus incentive for the band to never take a night off. It keeps them honest, not that the boys need that help. –Matt Melis
Short-haired Vedder goes grunge GQ
Don’t ask why, but during the Riot Act era, Vedder opted out of his long hair for a style akin to your father’s accountant. (Actually, I think he shaved it earlier and was simply experiencing, ahem, “growing pains.”) Why is this a problem? Well, it’s never ideal for business when one’s rock ‘n’ roll veteran looks like a carbon copy of Double Dare host Marc Summers. Let’s just call the early ’00s one long bad hair day, okay? -Michael Roffman
“Let’s pace ourselves. It’s gonna be a long one,” Eddie Vedder warned the crowd before Pearl Jam began an opening acoustic set on 7/11/03 in Mansfield, MA—actually opening for their own openers, Sleater-Kinney. What constitutes a “long one,” you ask? How about 47 songs in a shade under three and a half hours. Yeah, that’s long—the longest gig in Pearl Jam history—but the band was on a mission. They’d promised to play every song from the tour over the course of three evenings in Mansfield; however, they left the heavy lifting for the final night. We really have no right to be surprised, though, right? I mean, they promised they’d do it. Um, 47 songs… three and a half hours… I have the bootleg, and I still don’t believe they actually pulled this off. –Matt Melis
Hail, Hail to the chief
“Bu$hleaguer” isn’t a good song. In fact, it’s the worst track off Riot Act, but hey, it had its good intentions. Back in 2002 and 2003, though, the greater population of this country was still drinking the GW Kool-Aid, and many performances of the song on the Riot Act Tour elicited a mass of boos and backlash. The peak of this activity occurred at a performance in Denver, where Vedder donned a Bush mask and patrolled around the stage singing, eventually leaving the mask on a nearby microphone stand. As expected, the press had a field day, claimed he “impaled” the head of our idiotic commander-in-chief and that “dozens” walked out. Did they ever think people might have been booing because they wanted to hear “Corduroy” instead? -Michael Roffman
Wanna hear a little guitar?
It’s no secret that Vedder is a fan of the humble ukulele; there’s Binaural’s “Soon Forget”, and he’s often brought out a uke on solo tours and during Pearl Jam encores. But for what amounts to his first true solo album (as a soundtrack, Into the Wild’s deviation from PJ’s earmark sound is explained away in context), the choice to go all soft and beach-y with Ukulele Songs was a strange one. This man who had given us 20 years of noisy grunge now gives us 16 tracks of limiting, gentle four-string strumming? Then again, the modest melodies on the album are more often successful than not. And besides, it’s not like Vedder’s the only rock star who’s got an affinity for the power of ukes. -Ben Kaye
Say Hello 2 Cornell
The surprises never stopped during Pearl Jam’s 20th Anniversary shows at Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley Music Theatre. Trust me. I was there. After a slew of guest vocalists ranging from Julian Casablancas (“Not for You”) to Josh Homme (“In the Moonlight”), a Temple of the Dog reunion was staged. Chris Cornell’s vocals on “Say Hello 2 Heaven” were still 100% on point, and I’m fairly certain everyone in the amphitheater was inflicted with goosebumps as “Hunger Strike” began. After appearing together sparingly over the past 20 years, it was amazing to see the Cornell/Vedder pairing. True titans of their era. – Justin Gerber
Here, Pearl Jam covers Mother Love Bone (“Crown of Thorns”) for the first time ever at their 10th anniversary show in Las Vegas. Vedder once told Cameron Crowe that it was the only Andrew Wood song he’d ever consider singing. There are likely plenty of surprises still to come from Pearl Jam, the next one perhaps coming on Monday. In the meantime, lighters up.