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October 2005 Spin Interview with Eddie Vedder

Oct 2005 Spin Magazine

Interview: Eddie Vedder by Will Hermes

Reflecting on Seattle's dangerous heyday and Pearl Jam's legacy, the grunge icon comes clean

So what are you doing in Los Angeles?

I'm at Johnny Ramone's house, my wife and I stay in touch with [his wife] Linda as much as we can [since he died in September 2004]. Johnny had a little pool house, and he set it up so I could visit and stay there. I remember reading that Frank Sinatra did that for Sammy Davis, Jr. So I felt proud to, y'know, be Johnny's Sammy. [Laughs]

When did you meet?

The Ramones agreed to open for us...I don't remember, maybe '94, '95? We met then, and I had no idea it would happen, but we became best friends. I loved him like crazy.

I would guess that on certain politcal topics you might not have seen eye to eye. Did you have spirited discussions?

Yeah. I feel like I could've gone on Bill O'Reilly at any time because I was prepared. I knew the Republican playbook pretty well. He'd push me to prove my opinion-- that was the thing about John. He'd ask you a question like "Which Cheap Trick song is better: 'Surrender' or 'Dream Police'?" And so you think, okay, that's just a question, like "What do you feel?" But it wasn't about that. It was "Statistically speaking, considering the bridge and the chorus, which is the better song?" There was a Johnny Ramone logic to it, and he would tell you if you were right or wrong. In that way, he was a real teacher, especially about old music, bands he grew up with. It's strange. For some reason, I probably wound up talking to him more than any other friend.

What were you doing in 1985?

I think I had just moved from Chicago to San Diego. I was probably working midnight-shift security at a hotel-- which allows you plenty of reading and writing time.

Were you in a band at that point?

That was a period when I was recording myself a lot on a four-track, trying to develop songwriting and production skills. I lived in an apartment, so I couldn't really play drums. I used drum machines and banged on chairs.

Was there a San Diego scene that you wanted to be a part of?

There wasn't a lot going on. I think San Diego suffered from being too close to Los Angeles; people wanted to put a band together and then raise money to get a limo for some guy from L.A. to come down and see them play. But there was a little club call the Bacchanal in a strip mall. They got national act, and if I somehow got a chance to help lift equipment and roll in gear, I'd get to see the show for free; then I'd run off to my midnight-shift job after. I saw Chuck Berry, Ramons, A Flock of Seagulls, Youssou N'Doubt, Tracy Chapman. I'd get to see how people acted, too-- the musicians who had an attitude and the ones who were just happy to playing. I think Lenny Kravitz was probably the only person play clubs who had his own masseuse.

Did you know that when you went up to Seattle, you were about to become part of a "scene"?

It was interesting, because you read about the San Francisco bands-- Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Big Brother-- or the music coming out of Britain in the mid- to late '60s, like the Who, the Kink,s and Yardbirds, and it was like "Wow, that was a scene ! Tuesdays at the Marquee. What that would've been like. I wish I'd have been there." I used to think about it all the time. But it was just something you read about. And then you live in Seattle, you've been up there for a year, and you see how people are responding to it. It felt like the real thing. I was a transplant, so I didn't see the beginning, but I was like, "This is incredible." It was really exciting. Of course, the next thing you know it just got terrifying. It really felt dangerous.

Dangerous how?

Like fucking life threatening. It sounds bizarre, I know. I can talk about it now. When I talked about it then...I look back and it seemed like, "Fuck that asshole, complaining about having one of the best jobs in the world." But things got...tricky. It felt like you were gonna lose your best friend or your best girl or youself; like something had to give. I don't know, I can't explain. The speed at which it all happened, it was a lot to nagivate. It did feel like a dangerous situation. And it may seem ridiculous to think of it in those terms, but then you look at Kurt and a few other, however people navigated this extreme version of reality, there was danger involved. It was serious.

I've always looked at it as the second coming of American punk, the one where bands managed to get paid.

My understanding from talking to people like Johnny and Marky [Ramone] is that the first punks were all waiting to reap some spoils from it. But it never really took off. The Ramones never took over the radio like they should have. But they were huge in Brazil--I went down there with them once on a tour, and there were, like, thousands of people mobbing their hotel. That's what the world should've been like. I think the Seattle stuff, because of the timing and commerce involved, things like Lollapalooza, it was accepted by the masses. And it wasn't crap. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails--it wasn't crap. It was good music being sold to the masses. Something to be proud of.

How did Kurt Cobain's death affect you?

I think a lot about if he was still around. How we might be sitting by the water in Seattle, by a campfire or something, talking. It could've been. We were running on parallel trains. But even if I'd been on his track, I wasn't in his car, so I don't know exactly what was going on and if that situation could've been saved. Mainly, I just think: What a damn shame.

Did it make you think differently about what you were doing?

At the time, after the immediate shock and sadness passed, I remember thinking maybe it was a gutsy move. I think anyone can imagine that--someone taking a stand, for better or worse. That's how I saw it at the time. Now I don't see it like that at all. Part of the equation has to be his health, whatever chemicals he was chained to, just like with Layne Staley [of Alice in Chains] or Stefanie Sargent [of 7 Year Bitch]. It's just a crying shame.

How old are you now?

I don't feel as old as I am, that's for sure. Time goes quick. And I started off feeling older-- working midnight shifts makes you older, every year ages you two. So by that math, although I was 25 when I joined the band, I was really 33 then, which would make me 48 now. But I'm really just 40.

You've cultivated friendships with a number of old-school rockers. Did you get any tips about longevity from guys like Neil Young or Pete Townsend?

With Neil, we spent time making that Mirror Ball record, spent time Bridge School [for children with speech and physical impairments, cofounded by Young's wife, Pegi], and we'd take walks with him out at his place . He didn't explain what we should be doing, but we got to see where he was then and appreciate where we were. We were about to make our second record and worried about it, and he said "You guys are lucky; you don't have all the baggage. You can write what you want." He was envying us! Which made us realize, c'mon, don't fucking panic. This is really good. And if there's anyone whose shoes you'd wanna wish yourself into, in terms of longevity, songwriting, experimentation with sound, whatever, it'd be him. And there's Ian MacKaye and Fugazi. What he does and they do is different from what we do. But the fact that he respects the way we've kind, to use his line, "navigated the empty field"--that's from a new record he put out called The Evens; a two-piece thing, incredible--is important. For him, it's about the purity of the experience, the potential music has to reach people and communicate. It doesn't matter the size of the communion, y'know? Thirty, 40, 150 people. It's so powerful. So for me, and many others, even kids who aren't in bands, he's been a shining energy, a good force.

You were involved in a lot of anti-Bush efforts. Did the 2004 election alter your belief in the role music can play in politics and social change?

We raised money for and tried to honestly motivate people and disseminate information and get out the vote, and that was positive. But looking back, maybe that's not the way. I'd rather charge a few dollars more for tickets, and without saying a damn thing, take that money and use it in that town for someone who needs it rather than trying to convince someone to be active or not. I think that what happened recently with this Live 8 concert is a futerisit model for how music can change the world. We were asked, and it would've been great to be a part of it. But we just don't have it in us to play festival-seating shows after the Denmark thing [nine audience members were crushed to death during Pearl Jam's set at the Roskilde festival in 2000]. Putting pressure on world leaders before a G8 summit meeting, appealing to their sense of legacy, and their pledge of 50 billion dollars--I mean, you couldn't raise that much money. I was incredibly impressed. That's the future, I think.

What are you proudest of Pearl Jam accomplishing?

Probably that we're still playing and communicating and making what we consider to be more interesting music than we ever have. And that, through communicating, we can withstand harsh criticism of each other. That happens a lot, especially when you're recording, which is what we have been for the past few months.

What do you think your legacy will be?

I don't think we've focused enough for there to be a legacy. We are a group with five individuals, and we have different things that are important to us. We've helped women's clinics that were gonna be shut down and helped get skate parks built. We should've thought more about it. [Laughs] I would hope good records would be part of it-- records people will be able to listen to in future years and get something out of. You talk to certain people, musicians, or younger guys, and they respect how went about things, and that's nice.

I hear you've been trying to quit smoking. How's that going?

This is my first nonsmoking interview. It's been tough. [Laughs] I started smoking after the Kurt thing--I kinda thought I'd do the same thing, just slowly, y'know? Now I don't feel like doing that at all. Johnny Ramone was young; he was about to turn 56. At one point, you see a number like that and you think, "I don't have to worry; I've got plenty of time." Then you get to a certain age and you think, "Well, maybe I don't have as much time as I thought."

 --Will Hermes

[Typed up by PearlJamIsLife1 from Haven]

2004 - 2006 Shhh! Please study quietly...!   

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