In 1991, Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten catapulted the little-known Seattle-based band into superstardom. Then, at the height of their popularity, the band shunned the spotlight, refusing to shoot videos or do interviews. Even as Pearl Jam’s studio albums continued to be critically acclaimed and commercially successful, selling over 60 million albums worldwide, the inner workings of the band—their day-to-day routines, influences, and motivations—remained unknown even to their diehard fans.
Twenty years later, this is their story. Pearl Jam Twenty is a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes anecdotes, rare archival memorabilia, and the band’s personal photos, tour notes, and drawings. Told with wit and insight in the band members’ own words, and assembled by veteran music writer Jonathan Cohen with Mark Wilkerson—and including a foreword by Cameron Crowe along with original interviews with legends and contemporaries like Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Dave Grohl—this intimate work provides an in-depth look at a group of musicians who through defying convention established themselves as “the greatest American rock band ever.”
By 1998, Pearl Jam was the last of the Seattle big four that had included Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains still actively making music. The group had slowly come to terms with not only its celebrity but also the myriad external pressures and delicate interpersonal dynamics that had often made the simple act of creating music seem like a Herculean task.
“It’s evolved,” Eddie Vedder says of the band’s collaborative acumen. “It was actually pretty good right from the beginning, but then there was probably a middle period where we didn’t write so much. The middle records. Maybe the third record, I think I was just writing a bunch of songs on guitar myself. But now it’s, like, a total collective. It’s all five of us in there with our hammers and claws, banging it out.”
Working together like that was no accident, according to Vedder. “I remember there being a stressful conversation, bordering on an argument, based on what was probably typical singer bullshit: ‘If you thought about this stuff in lyrical terms, I think you would write differently. A riff is a riff, but a song is a song. And there’s a big difference there,’” he says. “We had to turn a corner on people relating to whatever they wrote as being a song, and not just a riff. It had to have space. It had to have room to allow another part, which might be potentially an important part. I think for them to do that took a little while. But by Yield, we were doing that. The guys were coming in with a better understanding of space and lyrics. It was a turning point with getting everybody involved in the songwriting, meaning songs versus riffs. I think it was liberating for everybody, like, ‘Oh! I can write songs in this group, too! Great!’”
When Pearl Jam first began assembling material for its fifth album in early 1997, the band members agreed they wanted the tunes to be more accessible than those on the prior album, No Code. But they also had an even more radical idea: to produce the recording sessions themselves, without longtime producer Brendan O’Brien’s assistance.
“I remember getting on a conference call with Eddie, Stone, and Jeff,” O’Brien says. “They said they were going to make the next record a little more listener friendly. But then they said, ‘We want to try it on our own and maybe bring you in at the end to help us finish it and mix it.’ And I said, ‘What? Listen! I helped you on this last record. I went through all of that with you guys to get to this. And now you’re telling me you want to make a more commercial-sounding record without my help? You’re out of your mind!’
“I knew they were rehearsing in Seattle at the time,” he continues. “I said, ‘With your permission, I’m getting on a plane tomorrow morning, and you’re going to tell me why I shouldn’t be helping you make this record. And if that makes sense, I’ll do whatever you want me to do. But you’re going to have to explain to me why this is a good idea, because I don’t think it is.’
“So I got on the plane, infuriated. My wife had to calm me down. I’d done my homework with all the demos. I sat with everybody in the kitchen, and we talked for a couple of hours. The long and short of it was, we just started working, right then and there. I didn’t go home for another couple of weeks.”
The resulting collection, Yield, is the sonic equivalent of the sun bursting through the clouds. Aside from being the group’s most collaborative album to date, particularly with first-time lyrical contributions from Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, it’s also the most cohesive and listener-friendly piece of work Pearl Jam has produced to this point in its career.
Band members attribute that distinction to O’Brien, who was behind the board with Pearl Jam for its fifth album in a row (counting the Neil Young collaboration Mirror Ball). “Working with Brendan, his ear will gravitate toward certain things,” Gossard says. “We’ve got commercial things in us, and we always like songs that are memorable, interesting, and cool.”
“I’m very glad Brendan flew up. I’m glad we didn’t produce Yield ourselves,” observes McCready. “It wouldn’t have sounded as good. It’s always nice to have someone you respect that has equal or better ears than you. I don’t know if we would have had that perspective at the time.”
At the center of Yield are “Wishlist” and “Given to Fly,” which would become two of Pearl Jam’s most popular songs ever.
Set to a C chord with two simple melodic variations, the Vedder-penned “Wishlist” is a catalog of thirteen unfulfilled desires ranging from the universal (“I wish I was a messenger, and all the news was good”) to the uniquely personal (“I wish I was the full moon shining off your Camaro’s hood”). Ultimately, the narrator decides his greatest wish has already come true: “I wish I was as fortunate, as fortunate as me.”
Vedder wrote “Wishlist” after McCready invited him to jam with a mutual friend. “It was just one of those things where he said, ‘I have some studio time; do you want to come down?’ And you know, it looked like a boring Hard Copy that night, so I decided to go in the studio, and that just popped out,” says Vedder, who estimates that the original version was at least eight minutes long. “I listened to the tape and picked out the better wishes.”
Powered by an undulating McCready guitar riff, “Given to Fly” in some ways embodies the band’s topsy-turvy first decade. That it crests into a roof-raising, chill-inducing chorus authoritatively confirmed to listeners that Pearl Jam had made it through the nineties with its sense of purpose and commitment to rock ’n’ roll intact.
Excerpt from PEARL JAM TWENTY by Pearl Jam. Copyright © 2011 by Monkeywrench, Inc. and Pearl Jam LLC. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.