It's nearly impossible to overstate Pearl Jam's impact on mainstream culture in the early '90s. After the overnight success of the Seattle-based rockers' debut album, "Ten," they were anointed, perhaps unwillingly, as one of the founding faces of "grunge" along with their hometown rivals, Nirvana.
As tragedy and changing musical tastes have rendered that era to merely a moment in rock history, Pearl Jam has outlasted both their peers and imitators to forge a surprisingly sustained career and a devoted global fan base.
Music critic Steven Hyden tracks the group's resilient journey in his book, "Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation." It's a personal approach and valuable critical companion that does a great job of contextualizing the band's various life cycles.
Pearl Jam's genesis
Hyden told Wisconsin Public Radio's "BETA" that every Pearl Jam bio has to begin with the band's notorious origin story. He likens it to how every Batman film must show you the fate of Thomas and Martha Wayne.
"I was talking about the 'momma-son' tape, which is a famous demo tape that was sent to Eddie Vedder, and it included some of the earliest Pearl Jam songs. And that was basically his entrée into the band," Hyden said.
The story goes that after the death of Mother Love Bone frontman, Andrew Wood, his reeling bandmates Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament put three of their songs on a demo tape in search of a new band. This tape found its way to Eddie Vedder, a struggling singer who was working the graveyard shift at a San Diego music club as a roadie.
Eddie's childhood hero was Pete Townsend of The Who. Inspired by The Who's penchant for concept albums, Vedder devised his own mini-rock opera.
His lyrics for the demos formed a trilogy and his powerful voice swayed Ament and Gossard to invite him up to Seattle.
The result altered rock history. The songs were "Once," "Alive" and "Footsteps."
"When those songs were performed together, they tell a story. Early on when Pearl Jam would perform those songs in sequence, Eddie Vedder at one point jokingly refers to it as like their Nutcracker Suite. I think he was trying not to appear pretentious," Hyden said.
Hits and consequences
"Once" and "Alive" were huge factors in the success of "Ten," helping it go platinum 13 times over. The other major factor was the heavy rotation of the music video for the band's hit song, "Jeremy" on MTV.
Hyden said that this video was groundbreaking at the time for its dark and chilling story. It also gained a level of infamy for a curious choice from MTV that has had tragic consequences.
"It's interesting seeing it now because it's easy to roll your eyes at it a little bit. It's very earnest and it's very over-the-top. But at the time, you watch that that video, and they're showing kids pledge allegiance to the flag in a classroom. And then they intercut it with the kids doing the Nazi salute. And it just opened up the world in a much bigger way," Hyden said.
The video was based on a real-life incident of a young man who committed suicide in front of his Texas classmates. MTV censored the video, but left the ending of a horrified class covered in blood. The result was confusion on what actually occurred and was used as a rallying image by future school shooters.
"I guess the idea was that they didn't want to show a teenager taking their own life. But in doing that, they arguably made it worse. Actually, not even arguably. They did make it worse," Hyden said.
Pearl Jam retreated from making further music videos to support their songs. They wouldn't need to. Their sophomore album "Vs" continued the band's stratospheric rise going platinum seven times. Futhermore, the success of "Ten" and of Nirvana inspired record companies to promote a series of "grunge" acts in the imitation of Pearl Jam to cash in on the moment. Hyden said that one of the things that separated Pearl Jam from these other acts was Vedder's ability to write songs that center women and underdog characters.
Atypical alt-rock tropes
One of the lasting songs from "Vs" is the ballad, "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In A Small Town," and it takes the point of view of an aging working-class woman. Hyden said that even though grunge was, for the most part, pretty progressive, that it was still heavily male-dominated and focused.
"This is 1993 that the album comes out, which is really the time when alternative rock is reaching critical mass," Hyden said. "And part of the appeal of alternative rock — and I think 'Vs' specifically — is that it is a confrontational album."
"I think it really does show that (Eddie) wasn't going to just repeat the standard rock-and-roll tropes. You know, most guys in his position would have been singing about scoring women on the road or getting drunk or living the rock and roll lifestyle. And here's this guy singing about an older woman working in a store and reflecting on her life. I mean, that's a pretty profound thing."
Vedder and Pearl Jam actively rebelled against their fame. Their next release, "Vitalogy" featured several experimental songs, and the lyrics on several tracks reflected Vedder's growing discomfort with celebrity.
"It's an album that sold 6 million copies in America and yet you have some truly demented songs on that record," Hyden said. "But then you also have incredibly commercial songs like 'Better Man' and 'Nothing Man' and 'Corduroy.' I think that's what's so fascinating about it. They really walk a tightrope between accessibility and chaos on that record."
Taking on giants
The chaos would continue on the tour for "Vitalogy." Fed up with Ticketmaster's practice of price gouging fans with excessive fees, Pearl Jam would take on the corporate giant. They vowed to only play venues that wouldn't use Ticketmaster as an overture to their fans and hoped other big acts would follow. The feud played out much differently.
"They were really criticized for going after Ticketmaster because it really made seeing Pearl Jam live inconvenient at the time. And I think for a lot of fans, they were just frustrated by that," Hyden said.
"This was like one of the only bands that didn't just talk about being anti-establishment. They took a substantive step to try to change the system, and they were on their own, and they got crushed," Hyden continues. "We can see now that things have just gotten way worse since then. So, at the very least, I would like to think that when people look back on that, that they admire the attempt."
Hyden felt like that tour was a pivotal year for the band.
He pinpointed a Red Rocks performance in the summer of 1995, saying that the concert was noted for being fairly clumsy at the outset as the band experimented with a new format. Hyden said that this motivation to throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks was new to their live performances and a bellwether of their next phase as a live band.
It's also the only time they played a song called "Falling Down." Hyden said that with a little work, the song would've been another surefire radio hit.
"For whatever reason, they opted not to do that. So, we just have this one recording," he said. "To me, that just felt like a metaphor in a way for what I think Pearl Jam became, which was not this big radio band, not this big band on MTV, but a band that makes its reputation night after night. A band that goes from city to city and tries to play an honest, spontaneous show that's unique to that moment."
It turns out leaning into becoming a live band would be integral to their longevity. As other bands from the era succumbed to tragedy or break-ups or changing musical tastes like nu metal, Pearl Jam retained a devoted following for their live shows.
In its early years, the band was always known for its ferocity and energy on stage. Now, it was following the blueprint of Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead where the live show became the destination. Pearl Jam was no longer touring in support of a new album. In fact, in the late aughts through today, the band's album releases have been incredibly scarce and are often given little fanfare.
But Pearl Jam wouldn't totally escape tragedy. While playing the Roskilde festival in Denmark on a rainy day in 2000, nine fans were tragically killed when the audience rushed the stage to hear them play. Hyden said that the way Pearl Jam handled this situation was both in character and character building at the same time.
"It seems like whenever that the anniversary of that concert comes up, Pearl Jam always acknowledges that. They always talk about the victims. I feel like a lot of artists would maybe try to sweep this under the rug," Hyden said.
"I think Pearl Jam has always been pretty straight on in confronting grief and trauma in a way that seems very healthy. And I think it's helped to sustain them over the long haul," he said.
In 2017, Pearl Jam was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Hyden noted that this is a seminal moment for Generation X, but ponders how new generations will regard Pearl Jam.
"I think the jury is still out yet on what their relevance will be," he said. "To younger listeners, is this going to be a band like The Who or Bruce Springsteen that younger generations feel almost obligated to listen to because they're so important to music history? Or are they going to be looked at as like a '90s band? I don't know the answer to that question."