This article originally appeared here in the Buffalo News. One of the best articles on one of my favourite bands that I've ever seen.
Pondering Pearl Jam
A few weeks back, Pearl Jam marked its 20th anniversary as a band with a two-day festival in East Troy, Wisc.
What did this occasion signify, beyond a two-day pass to party for the thousands who filled the Alpine Valley Music Theatre that weekend? Nothing short of a victory for the conception of rock ’n’ roll as a communal entity, one that can simultaneously encapsulate and enrich the lives of both musicians and their fans.
That’s a tall order, one that most bands of Pearl Jam’s generation — or any other generation, for that matter — didn’t even bother attempting to fill. The fact that this five-piece ensemble — birthed in Seattle, cast ashore on the tidal wave of grunge and left all but alone as much of its peer group died, fell asleep, rusted or simply faded away — not only attempted to do so, but succeeded with integrity intact, is a decisive win for popular music.
It’s also a victory for my own generation, the one the demographic study groups called “Generation X” in hopes that they could market overpriced flannel shirts and imitation Doc Martens to us at the same time they kept the doors of economic prosperity shut tight and double-locked. We weren’t really supposed to make it in any enduring, meaningful way. The choice was sell out and get cynical, or accept working in a coffee shop for the rest of our lives.
Pearl Jam made it. But it didn’t succeed in the way we are conventionally taught to interpret success. The band endured because it turned its back on the very materialist, and overtly American, notion that more is always better, bigger always best. By insisting that the ability to control the framework through which its art was presented was more important than money, Pearl Jam wrested rock ’n’ roll back from the corporate forces that were attempting to ruin it through cynical commodification.
No, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready and Matt Cameron didn’t save rock ’n’ roll. Rampant corporatization did its work, and what it couldn’t handle itself, a scourge of drug abuse took care of. Many of the brightest stars of the era—Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley — fell to heroin. And then came a plague of groups like Creed, cookie-cutter imitations of the Seattle sound that offered a dumbed-down and soulless version of “grunge” for mass consumption. Before you knew it, that vibrant blend of punk, hard rock and folk that defined that Pacific Northwest musical movement had given way to rap-metal, Limp Bizkit and a thirst for fame-over-substance among musicians that turned the clock back to the pre-Beatles years.
While all of this was going on, Pearl Jam turned from “grunge poster boys” into the finest and most consequential American rock band extant. Which is why, at Alpine Valley in August, the assembled hadn’t come to celebrate some misguided notion of ’90s nostalgia, but rather, to commune with a band at the peak of its collective power, to embrace a tribe of musicians who had transcended their immediate milieu through willful determination.
How did they do it? Well, whether they meant to or not, the guys in PJ followed the blueprint established by the Grateful Dead a few generations earlier. Just like Seattle, the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco was overrun by suits looking to cash in on “hippie bands” on one hand and people who confused “expanding their consciousness” with drug addiction on the other. The Dead decided to drop out, focus on the music, build a community based on live performances, stay true to themselves, become better musicians and writers, and go their own way. Sound familiar?
Pearl Jam did pretty much the same, shunning interviews, refusing to do videos and taking on a host of causes its members deemed worthy. In frontman Vedder, PJ could have had a major sex symbol, a rock ’n’ roll Johnny Depp. Vedder found the idea horrifying and refused to play the game, insisting that Pearl Jam was a band and himself simply a fifth of that band. This was a bad business decision. It was also the right one. For once, someone had refused to take the bait, for once someone had the audacity to suggest that more money and fame and all that they entailed were not the goal. It was the music, and the protection of what that music represented, that mattered.
Next week, “Pearl Jam Twenty,” a documentary film by writer, director and longtime band friend Cameron Crowe, will be released in conjunction with a book of the same name (Simon & Schuster). Just as this is happening, Pearl Jam performs a pair of dates at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto (Sunday and Monday) and a single show in Hamilton (Thursday), the band’s only area appearances this year. No need to worry if you can’t make it, though. Pearl Jam will be back. And the band never blows off Buffalo.
In “Pearl Jam Twenty,” the book — it’s a must-have for fans, be assured — Vedder sums up the unshakeable ethos that defines Pearl Jam as a singular entity on the modern music landscape.
“We set out to make music to satisfy ourselves. . . . Something we would never have imagined is that people have made friendships, shared ideas, and shared their humanity with each other through the music. . . . That’s all outside of us. All we did was play music, you know? The fact that it’s happened is semi-overwhelming and humbling, but it’s great to know it’s there. It’s a big thing.”