Toronto 2011: Pearl Jam comes out of its shell
Like a high school reunion or the sight of an aging Michael Jordan, word that Pearl Jam is celebrating its 20th anniversary can elicit an unnerving rhetorical question: Where did all the time go?
Yet here they are, one of the seminal Seattle grunge bands — symbols, not always willingly, of a generation — marking precisely that milestone with a double-disc set of archival recordings, an art book/written history, and a new film, no less.
Though famously press shy, the band allowed rock journalist-turned-director Cameron Crowe — who solidified the fame of Eddie Vedder and the rest of the group when he used several of their songs on the soundtrack to the 1992 movie “Singles” — to put together the documentary “Pearl Jam Twenty.”
“As a writer, before I create anything I often think, ‘What are the obstacles?'” said Crowe. “And this band has had nothing but obstacles.”
The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival over the weekend, is a sonic and video history of the group from its early days to its roller coaster of fame in the mid '90s to its current status as a less prominent, yet oddly happier, act focused on touring.
“Twenty,” which focuses more on the band's music and popularity than the members' personal lives, will play at the ArcLight Hollywood and movie theaters around the country on a one-day national rollout Sept. 20 before a limited engagement at Laemmle's Sunset 5 beginning Sept. 23. It will also air as part of PBS' “American Masters” series on Oct. 21.
Nursing beers Saturday night at a Toronto hotel, the band members were jokey and appeared content, a sharp contrast to their anguished public image of the 1990s when they boycotted Ticketmaster over surcharges and resisted videos and other trappings of successful bands.
“I think pretty much everything in the last 10 years has been really good. We're in a kind of golden-years period. We have families now, and we're just really happy to be playing live,” said Vedder, his trademark low, rumbling voice slow and thoughtful. “Before that it was harder. I'm not saying we're diamond-like, but we were formed by pressure, and it seems like in the last 10 years we've been able to cut the diamond and see the facets.”
Crowe draws from archives of video material shot by people loosely associated with the band. There are local TV clips, haunting concert footage (a 2006 rendition of the ballad “Release Me” stands out), reflective present-day interviews and glimpses of everyday moments that turned into serendipitous events. (Vedder and his bandmates jamming on a bus and coming up with the lyrics and melody that would become their hit “Daughter,” for one.)
Crowe traces Pearl Jam's inception from the late 1980s, when Seattle musicians Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament helped form Mother Love Bone. When that group's singer, Andrew Wood, died of a drug overdose, Gossard and Ament got together with Mike McCready, but they needed a frontman.
Enter Vedder, a then-unknown singer from San Diego, who moved to Seattle to join the band that would become Pearl Jam; Gossard and Ament learned of him, the movie shows, after he sent them a cassette that had his phone number written on it.
The events that followed are the stuff of rock legend. In summer 1991 the group released “Ten,” a watershed collection of rough but melodic songs about subjects including fatherlessness and bullying that sold nearly 10 million copies. In 1993 came “Vs.,” which went platinum seven times over.
At the time, Pearl Jam had plenty of company, with similar-sounding acts such as Alice in Chains, Nirvana and Soundgarden all charting. Yet those other bands withered away as the '90s wore on, in several cases because of substance-abuse issues, the deaths of members or other tragedies, leaving Pearl Jam a kind of last band standing.
“As an outsider looking in, I was always impressed by how they made decisions,” said Matt Cameron, a former Soundgarden drummer who joined Pearl Jam in 1998. “A lot of groups get to a place of success and they let other people make the decisions for them. And Pearl Jam never did.”
It was a lack of conventional music-business thinking that, by design or not, seemed to work out, Gossard said. “If you asked 10 managers, ‘Do you agree with what Pearl Jam is doing?' I don't think you'd get one of them to support it,” he said.
Chief among those decisions was the fight against Ticketmaster. After the band became irritated with so-called convenience charges they believed were unfair to fans, Pearl Jam refused to play any venue for which Ticketmaster sold tickets, and even testified about the company's business practices before Congress. The band members' stance led them to play only minor venues and even stop touring, though they were at the height of their popularity.
“The Ticketmaster episode left them as the lone wolf out there,” Crowe said. “But that worked out too. Who would have known it was a way to gather a whole new generation of fans who would know them for taking a stand?”
Pearl Jam would come to take more stands, particularly Vedder, who in the last decade became known for strident comments against the Iraq war and President George W. Bush. The band was also vocal in its support of the so-called West Memphis Three, a trio of Arkansas teenagers convicted of murder who recently were freed after questions arose about the case.
But asked to name the band's gravest crucible, Vedder replied without hesitation: “Roskilde. I think everyone in this room would say that,” he said, referencing the festival in Denmark where in 2000 nine fans were killed during a riotous Pearl Jam performance; the police initially sought to hold
the band members accountable, but later exonerated them.
Less dramatic but still trying, said Vedder and his bandmates, was the mainstream popularity. Although to outsiders such a statement may seem whiny or ungrateful, the reality, they contend, is more complicated — struggling to live up to expectations, even as they faced charges of selling out from hard-core fans.
Pearl Jam, which last released an album in 2009 (the New Wave-influenced “Backspacer”), is now on a small tour — after the handful of Canadian dates, it will head to South America. The band's members are happy to continue working as they enter its third decade. But the reflection may only go so far.
“I know it's an anniversary and so we're supposed to be not only looking back but looking ahead to where the next five or 10 years are going to take us,” Vedder said, then with a small smile, added, “But we don't have to do that right now, so let's not.”
--Steven Zeitchik in Toronto
Photo: From right: Matt Cameron, Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Cameron Crowe, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times