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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.

Vedder still drives the same 1990 Toyota truck around Seattle that he bought when he was working at a service station in San Diego. When he's asked if he keeps the same clothes and truck to remind himself of his roots--as a way to keep in touch with himself amid the glitter of the rock world--he stares at his cup of tea.

"I don't need to do things like that to remind me of who I am," he says firmly. "But maybe it's good that other people see those things and maybe it sends them a message, that I still am the same person."

Vedder was born Edward Louis Seversen III in Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. His parents were divorced before his second birthday and the youngster grew up thinking his stepfather was his real father. Until he adopted his mother's maiden name, Vedder, after dropping out of high school, he was known as Eddie Mueller, using his stepfather's last name.

It wasn't a happy childhood, he says, but he found a comfort and excitement in music. Though the Who would eventually be his greatest inspiration, the first record that caught Vedder's ear was the Jackson 5's "ABC."

Vedder didn't hear the Who until the family--which includes three younger brothers--moved to San Diego County in the mid-'70s. A baby-sitter brought the "Who's Next" album over one night and he listened to it on his stepfather's earphones.

As things grew tense in his family, he listened more and more to rock. He talked his folks into giving him a guitar for his birthday when he was 12.

By the time he was 15, his mother and stepfather had separated and he was paying his own rent rather than living at home, filled with the bitterness and anger that is expressed in his songs.

Those feelings flare up when he's asked what high school he attended.

"I'd like not to be associated with any of that," Vedder says abruptly. "They didn't treat me well."

Later, Vedder softens his answer.

"Well, maybe it was just that I wasn't going to like anybody because I had to work and I had to explain to my teachers why I wasn't keeping up.

"I'd fall asleep and things in class and they'd lecture me about the reality of their classroom. I said one day, 'You want to see my reality?' I opened up my backpack to where you usually keep your pencils. That's where I kept my bills . . . electric bills, rent . . . That was my reality."

Vedder, who supported himself by working at a Long's Drug Store in Encinitas, eventually dropped out of school.

The anger returns when he's asked about that period.

"I resented everybody around me who drove up in a car that someone provided for them . . . (with) insurance that someone provided for them," he says.

"I'd be underneath some shelf putting price tags on tomato soup and I'd watch them come in. . . . Obnoxious with their (expletive) prom outfits on, buying condoms and being loud about it.

"I'd think, 'Those (expletives).' Maybe I would have been doing that too, if the circumstances were different. . . . Maybe that would have made me more forgiving, but I wasn't very forgiving at all. Everything was just such a (expletive) struggle for years."

Vedder's bitterness pushed him closer to punk rock, because he wanted the harder, more aggressive sound.

With little money or goals, he had begun sinking into a shadowy world that brought out his survival instincts.

"There is a thing that happens when you are not as privileged and you start hanging out with a seedier crowd because you can afford to do the same things," he says. "And all of a sudden the big night out is sitting in somebody's trailer, smoking something or getting hold of something to put up your nose.

"It is real easy to get into the lower depths and get intertwined. But I was always aware of that kind of thing. . . . I didn't want to be put on a leash by any kind of conservative, constrictive parent.

"I didn't want to be in that world, but I also didn't want to be in the web of this other thing. I was getting swallowed up in it, but something made me realize it was time to get away or I was going to be just another loser."

His mother and brothers had already moved back to Chicago, and he decided to join them. After a couple of years there, Vedder returned to San Diego in 1984, accompanied by his girlfriend Beth Liebling, a writer. By this time, he had learned the identity of his real father and had picked up a high school equivalency diploma. He felt it would help him get a better job. Music remained just a hobby, not a career choice for him.

He worked nights as a hotel security guard and spent his days making demo tapes on a home recorder.

Gradually, he got involved in the San Diego music scene, spending a short period in a band called Bad Radio. Though he had been in a couple of garage bands earlier in Encinitas, the transition to a real band was difficult for the shy Vedder. For the first show, he wore a mask--actually, goggles with the lenses painted over--so that he wouldn't have to look at the crowd.

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