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COVER STORY : He Didn't Ask for All This : Eddie Vedder always wanted his band Pearl Jam to make music that mattered. He can sometimes feel, as Kurt Cobain did, the pressure of mattering too much to his fans, but he's finding a way to deal with it.

May 01, 1994|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

It's eight days after the suicide of Kurt Cobain was discovered and Eddie Vedder's voice still trembles as he tries to put into words his confusion and sadness.

"When I first found out, I was in a hotel room in Washington, D.C., and I just tore the place to shreds," says the brooding lead singer of Pearl Jam and the artist whose impact on a new generation of rock fans has been most often compared to Cobain's.

"Then I just kind of sat in the rubble, which somehow felt right . . . (it felt) like my world at the moment."

Vedder and Cobain were at the forefront of a new generation of American singer-songwriters whose songs chiefly reflect the alienation and anger of a generation of young people, aged 15 to 25, who feel they have been shortchanged by the American Dream.

Cobain's music was more acclaimed, but Vedder's was more popular. Pearl Jam's "Vs." album has outsold Nirvana's "In Utero" by nearly 4 million copies since they were released last fall.

With Cobain gone, Vedder stands alone--and the heat was immediate. Pearl Jam's record company, Epic, was flooded with requests to talk to the singer and songwriter about Cobain's death and what it meant to rock.

His only public comment came from the stage of a Pearl Jam concert in Fairfax, Va., on the night Cobain's body was found. He told the audience, in part: "Sometimes, whether you like it or not, people elevate you (and) it's real easy to fall . . . "

On the phone the following week from New York, where the band was to appear on "Saturday Night Live," Vedder amplified on the remark and the pressures he and Cobain both faced.

"People think you are this grand person who has all their (expletive) together because you are able to put your feelings into some songs," he says softly.

"They write letters and come to the shows and even to the house, hoping we can fix everything for them. But we can't . . . because we don't have all our (expletive) together either. What they don't understand is that you can't save somebody from drowning if you're treading water yourself."

Both Cobain and Vedder grew up largely on their own--unable to relate to the kids at high school and constantly struggling to find self-worth in troubled home environments. Their link was finding identity and hope in rock 'n' roll.

When they became famous in the early '90s as the two most celebrated figures of the suddenly hot Seattle scene that redefined contemporary rock 'n' roll, they worried about what it meant. They had grown up on alternative rock and punk, viewing the mainstream rock world as corrupt and its stars as mostly poseurs. In a strange twist of emotions, they felt both unworthy of their fame and a bit embarrassed by it.

Kurt Cobain often ridiculed rival Pearl Jam, arguing that it lacked the underground purity of Nirvana--that it was simply an old-line commercial rock band in grunge clothing.

But Cobain, who was 27 when he died, liked Vedder personally, and that made him feel guilty about the put-downs. "I'm not going to do that anymore," he said in a 1992 interview. "It hurts Eddie and he's a good guy."

Besides, the songs of Cobain and Vedder--whatever the different musical textures of their bands--touched a nerve in millions of teen-agers and young twentysomethings, many of whom were victims of broken homes and low self-esteem.

But there are limits to the similarities.

Vedder says he's not an addict, whereas Cobain struggled in recent years with heroin. Vedder has largely sworn off drugs since his teens--not complete abstinence, but nothing on a regular basis, he says. An observer close to the band says flatly, "He doesn't have a drug problem."

The singer often drank from a wine bottle on stage during the early stages of the "Vs." tour last year, but he cut back on that this year, the band observer says, and Vedder now describes his alcohol intake as no more than the average person after a hard day at work.

Another key difference is that Cobain was suspicious of his audience, wondering whether much of it wasn't just into Nirvana's music because it was the cool thing to do. He tended to isolate himself.

But Vedder is something of a missionary, a throwback to Bruce Springsteen or U2's Bono. He remembers the comfort and strength he found as a lonely, troubled teen-ager in the music of the Who's Pete Townshend--and how he imagined Townshend as someone who understood.

Vedder has tried to be that good guy to his fans--sometimes spending hours after a show talking to them or even giving out his home phone number on a radio call-in show so that they can reach him.

But some of the fans are unrelenting. They write him or try to catch up to him on the road, asking for money or help with their problems.

"(Fame) has been a difficult adjustment for everyone in the band, but especially difficult for Eddie because he remembers the time he needed help and there was no one there," says Kelly Curtis, Pearl Jam's manager.

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