Entertainment Weekly Article
What is it with Pearl Jam? The long, strange story of how obsessive fans turned Pearl Jam into the new Grateful Dead.
— Whitney Pastorek, EW
Continuing on our look back, we head to the very first show of the 2005 Canadian tour, the warmup show, actually, at the Gorge in George, WA. Just as we were pulling into park the van, we were greeted by Whitney, who was writing an article for Entertainment Weekly.
She was interested in exploring the fan aspect of Pearl Jam, in sort of a comparison with a modern day Grateful Dead. We all had a good conversation, exchanged contacts and as more and more fan were flocking to the Touring Van, we suddenly realized the type of attention that we were in for in the following 3 weeks.
We were planning to meet up with Whitney at the final show in St John’s, Newfoundland to get a retrospect of the tour but were informed, on the day, that she accidentally booked her flight to Saint John, New Brunswick instead. In the end, she included Tak’s brief journal on the Entertainment Weekly website.
Whitney also interviewed the band separately.
Here is the main article she below.
IT’S A PEARL JAMILY AFFAIR
The long, strange story of how obsessive fans turned Pearl Jam into the new Grateful Dead.
12 May 2006
On a balmy September afternoon at Washington State’s Gorge Amphitheatre, tailgaters mill around on a lawn overlooking the Columbia River. As tonight’s headliner warms up inside the venue, concert bootlegs blast out of cars, and a woman writes “100” on her arm in celebration of the number of times she’s seen the band live. Old friends reunite, Hacky Sacks fly, and the occasional puff of something other than tobacco floats through the air. But despite all appearances, this is not a Grateful Dead show. It’s a Pearl Jam concert. America, meet the Jamily.
Admit it: You sort of thought Pearl Jam broke up. After 1998’s Yield, the onetime alt-rock superstars slowly faded from public view, releasing two lackluster studio discs 2000’s Binaural and 2002’s Riot Act –that sold poorly compared with the band’s early successes. But even as their mainstream profile diminished, Pearl Jam were quietly developing a fanatical cult following. The band now packs arenas for two, sometimes three nights in a row, thanks to thousands of intensely dedicated fans who call themselves the Jamily and travel hundreds of miles to sing along with every word. Sixteen years into their career, Pearl Jam have unexpectedly morphed into a modern Grateful Dead, and it just might be their saving grace. “You don’t really set out for that to happen,” says frontman Eddie Vedder. “But I think it’s kind of the ultimate compliment.”
Pearl Jam’s journey from megastardom to cultdom has been an unusual one–more often it works the other way. Formed from the ashes of grunge forerunners Mother Love Bone in 1990, the band released its first album, Ten, in 1991, and it has since gone 12 times platinum, thanks to hits like “Alive,” “Even Flow,” and “Jeremy.” Multiplatinum follow-ups Vs. (1993) and Vitalogy (1994) solidified their status as rock icons. But the band’s provocative liberal politics and high-profile confrontation with Ticketmaster alienated some of their fans, and Vedder was never really comfortable with fame. By the mid-’90s, Pearl Jam had pretty much stopped promoting themselves, refusing to shoot videos or do most interviews. “We had to take it back,” says guitarist Mike McCready, “because we were all gonna lose our minds.”
Six months after the Gorge show, Vedder is sitting in a rehearsal studio inside Pearl Jam’s Seattle headquarters, a large converted warehouse that’s home to the band’s management, publicity, and merchandising operations. It’s six weeks before the May 2 release of the band’s eighth album, Pearl Jam, and the place is abuzz with tour and CD-release preparations. The album’s first single, the gritty antiwar track “World Wide Suicide,” has hit No. 1 on the rock charts faster than any Pearl Jam song before it, and in his notoriously taciturn way, even Vedder is excited. “It’s great to hear that people like the song, and especially a song with a certain amount of context,” he says. “I don’t think it’s adding to the negativity, and it’s a release because you’ve found a way to process what you’re thinking about every f—ing day.”
This bright, memorabilia-filled building isn’t just Pearl Jam’s home–it’s also the center of the Jamily universe. Right off the warehouse’s common room is the office of the Ten Club (or 10C), the band’s unusually vibrant fan organization. 10C members enjoy all sorts of perks (like an exclusive Christmas single), and they get first crack at the best concert tickets; the result is a remarkably close connection between Pearl Jam and their most passionate fans. If that brings to mind a certain other fan-friendly band, well, that’s not a coincidence. “We were studying the Grateful Dead model,” says the band’s longtime manager, Kelly Curtis. “We just went and hung out in their offices and looked at how they did things. It was so grassroots and so great.” The club was mail-based and somewhat chaotic until 1998, when they hired Tim Bierman (an old friend of bassist Jeff Ament) to oversee the operation, transforming 10C into a Web-fueled powerhouse. While Curtis and Bierman will not disclose the number of current 10C members, they claim it is larger than it’s ever been.
Pearl Jam fans obsessively collect show posters; they dissect set lists on the fan club’s Internet Message Pit; they get together and sometimes even marry each other. Many have separate bank accounts set aside to support their touring habit, and some have time off for Pearl Jam shows written into their contracts at work. They amass scores of concert recordings (in 2000, Pearl Jam started releasing official “bootlegs” of almost all their shows). Most remarkably, the Jamily pays attention to the band’s charitable causes. In an echo of the Grateful Dead’s Rex Foundation, Pearl Jam operates the nonprofit Vitalogy Foundation, and members of the Jamily often set up fund- raisers to support the band’s pet causes (like the Surfrider Foundation).
The faithful were out in force during a brief North American tour last fall. Outside the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, 26-year-old Sarah Moskowitz was hanging out with her fellow 10C members, who had arranged a preshow parking-lot meet-up via the Message Pit. “I know it sounds crazy to love a band this much,” she said. “It touches me.” At the Vancouver show, a 44-year-old fan named Rob Bleetstein was wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt. “I consider myself extremely fortunate that I can have another musical experience like this,” said Bleetstein, who’d seen the Dead 264 times and was on his 77th Pearl Jam show. “Because I have a lot of Deadhead friends who can’t find it anywhere else.”
And while Pearl Jam may not sound like the Dead, their shows have a similar feel–the same intimacy, the same anything-can-happen vibe, the same curfew-challenging running time. “They’re super- loose musicians, and they have a really joyous approach to the show,” says Janet Weiss, the drummer for Sleater-Kinney, one of Pearl Jam’s regular opening bands. “These guys want to have a good time, and they want to share it.”
Just around the corner from Pearl Jam headquarters, guitarist Stone Gossard sits in a dive bar, happily downing a beer after a long meeting with the group’s accountants. He’s talking about the new album, their first for Clive Davis’ J Records after an entire career on Epic. Early buzz has been fantastic. “I think we had more fun this time,” says Gossard of the new CD’s recording. “We took our time. Deciding to start fresh with a new label means having to sort of recommit to each other.”
The last few years on Epic were tough. At first, Pearl Jam loved being out of the limelight, but over time they started to realize they were in danger of becoming irrelevant. Their relationship with Epic grew increasingly strained, and they were feeling neglected and underpromoted. “It gets frustrating when you’re working really hard at something,” says Ament, “and everything you hear is ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re gonna do this,’ and it doesn’t happen.” But with the release of 2004’s greatest-hits album, they completed their Epic deal, and they were free to go elsewhere.
At first glance, J Records–home of Barry Manilow, Kenny G, and several American Idol singers–seems like an odd home for a supposedly antiestablishment band. Why not join forces with an indie, or start their own company? “Infiltration from within?” Vedder half-jokes. Curtis offers a more practical explanation, citing the band’s international distribution needs. Plus, “I didn’t want to be at a place with 50 other rock bands,” he says. “[At J] I could actually learn everyone’s name.” (In a bonus twist, Clive Davis signed the Grateful Dead to Arista in 1976 and worked with them for the rest of the band’s life.)
The final piece of the label puzzle is J Records VP of A&R and marketing Matt Shay, who, like Bierman, is an old friend (he worked with Gossard at the Sony-distributed label Loosegroove in the mid- ’90s). That’s the way Pearl Jam do business: Keep it within the family and, whenever possible, within the warehouse. “There’s a lot of control in this organization,” says former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, who joined Pearl Jam in 1998. “We don’t look outside of our core group for opinions. We’ve all had enough experience in the industry that we now know what not to do.”
That insight seems to be paying off. J is promoting the heck out of the new record, and Pearl Jam suddenly seem like a big deal once again. Last month, they performed on Saturday Night Live for the first time since 1994, and this fall they will play their first European festival shows in six years. They’re also seriously considering making a video (they’ve made only one since “Jeremy” in 1992). “I think we’re saying ‘Let’s open up,'” says Vedder. “And that brings those feelings of ‘Okay, are we ready to handle all this?'”
At the Gorge Amphitheatre, Pearl Jam are nearing the end of tonight’s epic set, which began just before sunset and has lasted three hours into the evening. They hit the opening chord of “Crown of Thorns,” an old Mother Love Bone song that they haul out on special occasions, and the Jamily thrilled to see its band return to the Gorge after a 12-year absence stands at blissful attention.
There have been goose-bump-inducing moments throughout tonight’s set, none more so than during the Vs. track “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” When Vedder gets to the line “I just want to scream…” every voice in the place joins in to bellow “…helloooo!” He often allows the crowd to carry not just words but entire verses. During traditional closer “Yellow Ledbetter,” the houselights come up as everyone sings along.
These intense moments are what the Jamily is all about, and as Pearl Jam plunge back into the mainstream, it’s hard not to wonder what will happen next. When the Grateful Dead scored a pop hit with “Touch of Grey” in the late ’80s, clueless newcomers almost destroyed that fervent scene. Is the Jamily ready to accept fresh faces into its tight-knit group? Most everyone says yes so long as it’s not a bunch of drunk frat boys screaming out requests for “Even Flow.” Sarah Moskowitz even uses a phrase straight out of a Dead- show parking lot: “Share the love.”
For now, Vedder feels pretty much the same way. “It’s kind of like a tree that keeps growing,” he says. “Having the music heard by new people, we’re seeing that as a…healthy prospect.” He stares at the ceiling for a while before continuing with a sly smile. “And you know–we can always chop it down.”
For more on Pearl Jam, go to ew.com/pearljam
A FAN’S NOTES Tim Bierman, head of Pearl Jam’s thriving fan club, weighs in with his faves.
SONG “Always a hard question, but right now ‘Inside Job’ from the new record is dominating.”
Live Song “‘Hail Hail’ from No Code. Kicks my ass. Everyone is doing something different and interesting; it’s blistering.”
COVER “John Lennon’s ‘Gimme Some Truth.’ They can pull it off with such conviction.”
SHOW “Being an old record-store guy, I’d have to say the Easy Street Records in-store in West Seattle [in 2005]. It’s like five blocks from my house.”
ALBUM “Used to be Yield. Now I’m feeling the tides turning to this [new album].”
“We had more fun this time,” says Stone Gossard. “Starting fresh with a new label means having to recommit to each other.””I know it sounds crazy to love a band this much,” says a 26-year-old Pearl Jam fanatic named Sarah Moskowitz (above, far left). “It touches me.”
PHOTO: Photographs by Gary Ashley (Top) Followers gather at a 2005 show at Philly’s Wachovia Center; (bottom) beer, beads, and tie- dyes: members of the Jamily EIGHTEEN PHOTOS: Photographs by Gary Ashley [see caption above.] PHOTO: DANNY CLINCH (From left) Cameron, Ament, Vedder, McCready, and Gossard