Jonathan Cohen Pens Pearl Jam Biography

Jonathan Cohen co-wrote Pearl Jam Twenty with Mark Ian Wilkerson. Headshot courtesy of Jonathan Cohen. Book cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster. Designs by Kendra Kay Creative.

Jonathan Cohen, BAJ’98, had always been a Pearl Jam fan, so he made it his goal when he got a job at Billboard magazine to interview the band.

“I was a teenager when grunge was kind of popping off and it really resonated with me,” Cohen says.

By the time he was at Billboard, the band wasn’t doing much press, he says, but he began developing a relationship with their managers and, eventually, members of the band themselves. Soon, he was their go-to journalist for any interviews.

Years later, they called him to say that Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary was approaching, and they wanted Cohen to write a book chronicling those two decades.

“Without even hesitating, I said, ‘Yes, sign me up,’” Cohen recalls. “I wasn’t really thinking about how I was physically gonna have time to do it.”

By then, Cohen was the talent booker for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where he was responsible for arranging the U.S. television debuts of top acts like Jhene Aiko; Lorde; and Tyler, The Creator. He began working on the book during filming breaks of the show.

Jonathan Cohen, left, with Eddie Vedder, the lead vocalist of Pearl Jam. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Cohen. 

Pearl Jam Twenty, published in 2011, is the official biography of the band. It includes interviews with the band, behind-the-scenes details, and personal photographs from the band’s early years. Cohen says he was able to use his existing relationship with the band to help tell Pearl Jam’s story.

“I just approached it as a fan who had a sympathetic ear,” Cohen says. “It just was something that kind of was organic between us.”

Our chat with Cohen details his writing process, and how his time at the Indiana Daily Student helped shape his career in music.

Why Pearl Jam? What sets them apart for you?
Jonathan Cohen: They were the first band of my generation that really spoke to things that were important to people my age—whether that was pining over a girl, talking about abortion, talking about human rights, [or] talking about the state of the country through the eyes of teenagers. When you’re that age, hearing those different kinds of viewpoints can make a strong impression. 

Pearl Jam Twenty was released alongside a documentary about the band from director Cameron Crowe. How closely did you work with the film crew?
JC: We were a separate project, but we worked very closely. Cameron had known the band basically since their inception. I was very lucky to benefit from not only interviews that he had already done, but the 10 years of goodwill that he had built up with the band. I could not have asked for a better spirit guide [in Cameron] for what I was doing.

You’ve written about popular music as well as worked in the industry. What keeps you coming back to music?
JC: Just being a fan of all types of music and loving how music can transform you and transport you. It can help you get through difficult times and give you a distraction when you might need one. I’ve never gotten bored with writing about music.

You mentioned that you worked at the IDS as a student at IU. How did that help shape your career?
JC: I can’t overstate how crucial [the IDS] was in turning me into whatever I am now. Every day for four years, I made all the mistakes I needed to make, I learned what to do and what not to do, and I was ready to do it for real after graduation. The importance of it to me was immeasurable.

Pearl Jam Twenty came out more than a decade ago now. What are you working on these days?
JC: I’ve gone completely back to my journalism roots. I’ve been doing a ton of writing for all kinds of different outlets and projects. I’ve done a lot of consumer-based work for publications like Variety. I’m working on another book.

What’s the new book about?
JC: Um, I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say just yet. Suffice to say the book is music-related, so staying close to home in that regard.

Rapid Fire with Jonathan

What is your favorite Pearl Jam track?
JC: Oh, boy. Probably “Present Tense,” which is a song from their album No Code.

Where’s your favorite spot to write?
JC: I’m kind of weird in that I can sort of do it anywhere. A lot of the Pearl Jam book was just written at a coffee shop [called Sit & Wonder] in my neighborhood of Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, N.Y. But I certainly love writing looking out at water or a beach when the opportunity presents itself.

What time of day do you do your writing?
JC: That also doesn’t matter. I write sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes first thing in the morning. If there’s a task at hand, I just sit and do it.

What’s your favorite book to recommend to others?
JC: One is A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, the other is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. For whatever reason, those two books were very impactful for me.

What are you listening to now?
JC: I am absolutely obsessed with a band from Australia called King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. To me, they are the most exciting thing happening in guitar-based rock music right now.

Read an excerpt from Pearl Jam Twenty.

This story is part of our IU alumni author series, Novel Ideas.

Written By
Charles Scudder
Charles Scudder, BAJ '14, is past-president of the IU Student Publications Alumni Association board. He is a freelance writer and editor, and an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University and the University of North Texas.