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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.

Eventually he quit the group, feeling that the members weren't serious about things. While he was looking for another band situation, Jack Irons, a friend who was formerly in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, gave him a tape from a Seattle musician who was putting together a new group.

That musician, guitarist Stone Gossard, had been in Mother Love Bone, a highly regarded group whose promise ended when singer Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose in 1990.

After listening to the tape, Vedder went surfing and the music played over and over in his head. In the company of the waves, he began framing lyrics to go with the music.

He raced back home to his recorder, and with the sand still on his feet he sang the words to the song that eventually became "Alive," one of the centerpieces on the first Pearl Jam album.

Though the song, with its screaming chorus of "I'm still alive," has been widely viewed as a statement of youthful self-affirmation, Vedder designed it as the story of a mother being drawn sexually to her teen-age son because she sees traces of her late husband in him.

The experience--which Vedder insists is not autobiographical--damages the son psychologically, turning him into a serial killer (detailed in the song "Once") who is executed in prison ("Footsteps"). It's not hard to see the story as a sort of Generation X update of the confused youth in the Who's "Tommy."

Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament, who had also been in Mother Love Bone, were thrilled by Vedder's contribution and invited him to Seattle. Pearl Jam was born, and within a year the group's first album was No. 1.

At first, there were some reasons to suspect that Vedder and Pearl Jam were rock 'n' roll opportunists. The band--which also includes drummer Dave Abbruzzese and guitarist Mike McCready--was from Seattle and wore grunge clothes, but the music didn't have the revolutionary aura of Nirvana's. It was more radio-friendly and in line with '70s hard rock.

Vedder looked like the star pupil from the Jim Morrison School of Rock Singers as he prowled the stage, rolling his eyes with brooding anxiety and thrashing around as if possessed by some foreign spirit.

All of that endeared the group to mainstream rock radio programmers, many of whom had grown up on '70s and '80s rock and found it hard adjusting to Nirvana and the Seattle grunge sound. The music itself appealed to both the young alternative-rock audience and older, more traditional fans.

If the sound itself was rather conventional, Vedder's voice offered something powerful and real.

Just as Metallica brought brains and viewpoint to the mindless assault of heavy metal, Pearl Jam brought a new, healthier and more relevant perspective to hard-rock, getting rid of the macho posturing and cartoon-show gimmicks.

As fully as the themes of Nirvana songs, Vedder's lyrics reflected the loneliness and confusion of growing up, often with frequent physical and psychological abuse.

As both a performer and writer, Vedder has shown increasing individuality and depth--at times now asserting a spark onstage that suggests the ability to be a major rock voice throughout the '90s.

Vedder sometimes worries that his voice is too "smooth" to convey the raw urgency of the lyrics, but there is a force to his vocals that expresses alienation and pain in a way that becomes surprisingly life-affirming.

In "Jeremy," a song about suicide from the debut album, he declares:

*

Daddy didn't give attention

To the fact that Mommy didn't care.

*

Like Cobain, however, Vedder says he was writing things he had seen and experienced. He wasn't trying to summarize the mood of his generation.

"I am not a good enough writer to have an agenda or come up with a message and try to put it into a song," he says.

"It's more like you write what comes to you. . . . You try to reflect the mood of the songs. Take 'Rearviewmirror' (a song from "Vs." that includes the line, Tried to endure what I could not forgive ).

"We start off with the music and it kind of propels the lyrics. It made me feel like I was in a car, leaving something, a bad situation. There's an emotion there. I remembered all the times I wanted to leave. . . . "

The 4,500-seat Fox Theatre is one of the nation's prized concert halls--a former movie theater that offers acoustics and intimacy absent in the usual basketball arenas. There was enough demand for Pearl Jam tickets to sell out the theater for a week, and scalpers were asking $300 per ticket the night of the show.

Backstage, Vedder is sitting in a deserted basement hallway, holding the Telecaster guitar that he has carried since Encinitas.

"I can't come from where I came from and not appreciate what has happened to the band," he says, his head lowered. "The one thing about going from the audience to the stage in just three years is that you know how it feels to be down there.

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