Along with Nirvana, Pearl Jam were initially known for popularizing grunge, the Seattle sound that exploded nationwide in the early Nineties. But the band became an American rock institution by broadening their heavy, Led Zeppelin-influenced sound while maintaining the emotional depth that made their songs so resonant in the first place. Leaping from obscurity to superstardom, the band sold more than 15 million copies of its first two albums, and after a couple of years during which they got mired in high-profile controversies, Pearl Jam recovered and were still filling arenas at the close of the 2000s.
Pearl Jam’s roots in the Seattle scene go deep: In the mid-Eighties, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard were members of the seminal Seattle band Green River, which split in 1987. Half the band formed Mudhoney, while Gossard and Ament joined singer Andrew Wood in Mother Love Bone. One of the earliest Seattle bands to sign with a major label, Mother Love Bone seemed on the verge of breaking big when Wood died of a heroin overdose in 1990. Mercury Records wanted Gossard and Ament (with Bruce Fairweather on guitar and drummer Greg Gilmore) to record with a new singer, but the band declined.
Afterward, Gossard and Ament, along with Seattle veteran Mike McCready, started work on a demo tape in late 1990. They asked former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons to join, giving him a copy of the tape. Irons was involved with his own band, Eleven, but passed the demo on to a singer he knew in San Diego, Eddie Vedder, who immediately wrote lyrics to the songs and mailed back a tape that included his vocals; he was invited up to Seattle and the rest was history.
Concurrently, Gossard, Ament, and McCready, along with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron, recorded Temple of the Dog (Number Five, 1992), a memorial to Wood, in 1990, with Vedder trading verses with Cornell on the rock radio smash “Hunger Strike.”
With the addition of Vedder and drummer Dave Krusen, the new band was complete. They called themselves Mookie Blaylock, in honor of the basketball player, but changed the name to Pearl Jam, purportedly after a psychedelic confection made by Vedder’s half-Native American great-grandmother, Pearl. (Vedder finally admitted the story was bogus in 2006.)
The band did not forget Blaylock: Their debut album, Ten [Number Two, 1992], was named for his uniform number. On the strength of its Mother Love Bone connections and a growing national interest in the Seattle scene, Pearl Jam was signed by Epic Records in early 1991. Krusen left the band after the sessions for Ten; he was replaced by Matt Chamberlain on tour, with Dave Abbruzzese filling the drum chair in the fall of 1991.
The band toured extensively, headlining small halls and opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young and U2. They headlined the 1992 Lollapalooza Tour and opened for Keith Richards on New Year’s Eve 1992. Vedder, Gossard and Ament took time out to play Matt Dillon’s backing band, Citizen Dick, in the 1992 Seattle-based movie Singles. By the end of 1992, Pearl Jam was among the biggest bands in the world. Vedder’s intense, clenched-teeth delivery gave life to his personal travails (“Alive,” “Black”), while songs like “Jeremy” and “Why Go” were easy rallying cries for teenagers seeking music they could call their own.
Although Pearl Jam was originally marketed as an “alternative” band, their connection to classic rock of the Sixties and Seventies soon became apparent. Vedder filled in for Jim Morrison at the Doors reunion for the 1993 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies; he also took part in concerts honoring Bob Dylan and Pete Townshend around this time. The band also backed Neil Young on “Rockin’ in the Free World” at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards and developed an enduring father-son relationship with him.
It was apparent, though, that Vedder was having trouble coping with the demands of stardom: He would show up for photo sessions wearing a mask, and he was surly and uncommunicative in interviews. There were reports that he performed drunk, and in 1993 he was arrested in New Orleans for public drunkenness and disturbing the peace after a barroom brawl. None of this detracted from the band’s popularity — Vs. (Number One, 1993), its second album, sold a record-setting 1.3 million copies in its first 13 days of release.
Rattled to the core by its sudden fame as well as the suicide of Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam canceled its 1994 summer tour when, in a public dispute over service charges against Ticketmaster, they couldn’t keep admission prices as low as they wanted; band members also testified against Ticketmaster before Congress. That fight ultimately ended in retreat for Pearl Jam. The band did not make any videos to promote Vs., which built on the sound of the debut with more nuanced songwriting and acoustic detours (“Daughter,” “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”).
Instead, Pearl Jam went back into the studio and recorded its third album, Vitalogy. The vinyl version was released two weeks before the CD and cassette, debuting on the charts at Number 55 — the first album to appear on Billboard’s album chart solely on the basis of vinyl sales since the proliferation of the CD in the mid-Nineties. Once the CD arrived in stores, Vitalogy, packed with future staples such as “Better Man” and “Corduroy,” zoomed to Number One.
The following year, Pearl Jam backed Young on his Mirror Ball album and released two of its own songs recorded during those sessions as the Merkin Ball EP. The band also appeared for the second time at Young’s Bridge School Benefit concert as part of its increasing involvement in political activism and various charities. Indeed, over the years, Pearl Jam has supported such causes as abortion rights, Kosovar refugees, women’s self-defense, opposition to the death penalty and Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign.
Though Pearl Jam was at the peak of their popularity in the mid-Nineties, they also went through some rocky times. In late 1994, the holder of the drumming seat changed again as Abbruzzese was replaced by Jack Irons. The band’s attempt to experiment with its sound, 1996’s No Code (Number One, 1996), threw many fans for a loop. Despite its initial success, the album dropped out of the Top 20 within two months.
The band retreated to safer ground on Yield (Number Two, 1998), an album of straightforward hard rock that was accompanied by an animated clip for “Do the Evolution,” Pearl Jam’s first music video since Ten‘s “Jeremy.” The band also returned to playing mainstream arenas (many of them selling their tickets through Ticketmaster); Cameron became a permanent addition on drums that summer as well.
Pearl Jam’s members even started to look as if they were finally becoming comfortable with their status as rock stars. This was especially true for Vedder, who showed up unannounced on “The Late Show With David Letterman” to sing “Black,” played small venue shows with Townshend and rocked out obscure covers with a pickup solo band as his whims dictated.
The group had also become strong enough to overcome a tragic accident — nine fans were crushed and suffocated during Pearl Jam’s set at the Roskilde, Denmark, festival on June 30th, 2000. Initially held “morally responsible” by the Danish police, the group was later cleared of all blame. Pearl Jam also began playing exclusive shows for fan-club members, who also receive limited-edition Christmas singles — one of them turning into the surprise pop hit “Last Kiss” (Number Two, 1999) when it got a wider release.
On their first studio release with Cameron, Binaural (Number Two, 2000) was another dose of scruffy rock in an era that found the MTV audience listening to either rap-metal or teen pop. In September, Pearl Jam made history by self-releasing 25 live albums in one week, and by having five of them enter the Billboard 200 simultaneously. Pearl Jam continued to release documents of their 2000 tour, reaching a total of 72 sets by mid-2001. The one triple-CD, 11/6/00: Seattle, Washington, was the most popular, entering the chart at Number 98.
After Vedder and McCready performed with Neil Young at the post-9/11 benefit concert America: A Tribute to Heroes, Pearl Jam returned to the studio for the more experimental Riot Act (Number 5, 2002), which included the Anti-George W. Bush track “Bu$hleaguer.” During the band’s Riot Act tour in 2003, Vedder would perform the song wearing a rubber mask of the president, resulting in more than a fair share of boos from fans who wanted Pearl Jam to just focus on the music.
Pearl Jam announced that year that they would not be renewing their contract with Epic Records after fulfilling it with the long-awaited archival release Lost Dogs (Number 15, 2003) and the retrospective Rearviewmirror: Greatest Hits 1991-2003 (Number 16, 2004). The band then recorded a one-off self-released ingle, “Man of the Hour,” which ran over the end credits of Tim Burton’s 2003 film Big Fish. The band spent much of 2005 on the road, headlining shows and opening a couple of dates for the Rolling Stones. In 2006, Pearl Jam tested the indie waters again with Live at Easy Street, recorded the previous year at Seattle’s Easy Street Records, and sold exclusively to independent record stores.
Though Vedder earlier had announced that Pearl Jam was not interested in signing with another major label, the band did just that in early 2006 when it struck a deal with Clive Davis’ new J Records, part of the same Sony BMG music group that controls Epic. The band’s first release for J was a self-titled album that year which dropped the artiness of the prior two releases in favor of revitalized, melodic rock and roll. The single “World Wide Suicide” became the group’s first Number One Modern Rock single in a decade.
Pearl Jam made good on its DIY ambitions with 2009’s Backspacer, which it self-released in the States with the help of Target. The album scored the band its first chart-topper in 13 years.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jonathan Cohen contributed to this article.