Review: Pearl Jam Twenty (2011)


I was nine years old when I fell in love with Pearl Jam. It was September of 1994, Kurt Cobain was already dead, and grunge was nearing the end of its short-lived mainstream popularity. Within a few years, both Soundgarden and Alice in Chains would have split, and Pearl Jam would be the last of Seattle’s “big four” still standing (at least until the Soundgarden and Alice in Chains reunions of the late 2000s). Not that I had any idea what grunge even was back then. It was the mid-’90s, and all I knew was that I didn’t recognize myself in the Spice Girls or the numerous and interchangeable awful boy bands many kids my age listened to. While my friends listened to Ace of Base and Take That, I played my dad’s Police Greatest Hits album over and over again and wondered whether I’d ever find something that echoed in me the way the guitar solos on the Jimi Hendrix cassette tape a Polish friend had given me for my previous birthday did.

That all changed that September, on a day that, like most days after school, my best friend and I were hanging out in his room (he had a SNES and I didn’t, so we spent a lot of time at his place). “Listen to this,” he said, popping a brand new CD into his old hi-fi set. “This” was Pearl Jam’s Ten, and it was about to change my life. As the deceptively calm intro to “Once” gave way to the first few chords, I felt that something was about to happen, was happening. Then Eddie Vedder growled the first line, and even though I had no idea whatsoever what he was singing about (my English back then was more or less non-existent), I knew one thing for sure: I may have been a nine-year-old French kid growing up in the Paris Chinatown, but this, this was home.

Watching Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty brought back memories of how it felt to be nine and hear Vedder’s voice rising out of those trashy speakers for the first time. To be swept up in the music and feel, if not understand, that something was changing, right there and then. “It was a voice on a tape that blew my mind,” Mike McCready, Peal Jam’s lead guitarist, says at one point, referring to Vedder’s demo tape. “It was kind of, ‘who is this? Is this real?’” Nine-year-old me undoubtedly asked himself that very question, if not consciously. More than fifteen years later, even as I’ve spend thousands upon thousands of hours listening to Pearl Jam, I sometimes get the same surreal feeling. “Wow, our guy sings really fucking good, too,” Stone Gossard remembers thinking upon hearing “Hunger Strike”, the duet Vedder sings with Chris Cornell (then lead singer of Soundgarden) on the Temple of the Dog album, released a few months before Ten. That he does indeed.

Unlike my own memories of Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam Twenty does not begin with Ten, or with Temple of the Dog, but with another band, Mother Love Bone, and with another charismatic and hugely talented singer, Andrew Wood. Crowe retraces the success of Mother Love Bone in the late ’80s Seattle scene and its seemingly unavoidable rise to superstardom, halted only by Wood’s death from a heroin overdose, mere days before the planned release of the band’s first album. Left without a band and with their dreams of success smashed, bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard (previously of seminal grunge band Green River) set out to recruit new musicians and a new lead singer, which would eventually lead to their getting a tape from a shy kid from San Diego.

From there Crowe tells the story of Pearl Jam’s first two decades of existence, from those early days playing in clubs in Seattle to their performing in huge venues all over the world, from their feud with Ticketmaster to the Roskilde tragedy that claimed the lives of nine fans in June of 2000 and nearly broke the band up. Crowe, a self-described “former rock journalist,” is a Pearl Jam fan, and it shows; the film’s tone might put off those most impervious to the band’s music and to grunge in general like, say, Andy Rooney, whose unfortunate comments on 60 Minutes following Cobain’s suicide are partially reproduced here. That would be a shame, because there is much to like here, even for non-fans. Crowe is an accomplished filmmaker and, working with “over 1,200 hours” of footage, he tells the fascinating story of one of the greatest (if not the greatest) American rock bands of the past twenty years. As for fans, they’ll marvel at the incredible footage to which Crowe had access, including videos of some of the band’s earliest shows.

Anyone who’s ever been to a Pearl Jam concert will tell you just how intense those get. When I saw them in Paris (they don’t come to France nearly often enough), they opened with “Corduroy”, a song whose intro slowly builds up until it explodes into an angry guitar riff just as Vedder sings the opening line, “the waiting drove me mad,” lyrics that sounded immensely appropriate. By the third song I couldn’t feel the ground, literally swept off my feet by the crowd as I sang “Animal” at the top of my lungs along with 20,000 people. Pearl Jam Twenty features a similar scene, with Vedder launching into the first line of “Better Man” and immediately stopping as the crowd takes over. “There’s this communal exchange,” Vedder explains. “There’s obviously a line drawn between who’s on stage and who’s in the crowd, but not really.”

Some might therefore be surprised to see images of early shows during which Vedder did not try to communicate with the audience, even tried to hide from them. During one of the band’s first concerts, you can even see Vedder trying to conceal his face behind his long hair as he sings “Alive”. That all changed with one show in Vancouver, in January of 1991. Vedder starts his usual (back then) shy self, but as he’s singing “Breath”, he witnesses security taking out some kid and being unnecessarily rough about it. At first Vedder stands dumbfounded, even forgets to sing a line or two, but then something happens. “You could just see this change come over him,” Gossard recalls. “All of a sudden his voice changed, his attitude changed. It just got really intense.” Watching Vedder angrily shout the chorus to “Breath” at an oblivious security guy standing right off the stage is at once funny and thrilling. This is the anger and intensity you’ll hear on Ten; if it weren’t for that night, perhaps Vedder would never have found his voice and Pearl Jam would never have had the success it did have. As it is, that night must have unleashed something, for soon Vedder would be stage diving and climbing lighting rigs during shows, often scaring his bandmates half to death in the process.

More than just chronicling Pearl Jam’s evolution through the years, Pearl Jam Twenty also offers an often fascinating window into the minds of 40-something rock stars who still play each and every show with the same energy they had when they first started. Every current member of the band provides his own insight and stories, along with Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell. (Cornell hilariously relates how, upon first hearing Mike McCready play guitar, he realized there was something not quite right with him that came out through his music. “I would say that’s 100% accurate,” McCready responds.) For a long time, the band struggled to deal with their own success; Vedder’s advice to his younger self “to be careful” no doubt refers to that overnight success and its consequences, such as the mostly manufactured “feud” between Pearl Jam and Nirvana that finds some very emotional closure here, with footage of Cobain and Vedder dancing backstage at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards while 45-year-old Vedder talks about his relationship with Cobain (“If we’re good now, it’s partly because of him,” Gossard adds). Ament more prosaically says that “shit got fucking crazy,” and McCready remembers how he couldn’t recall having played “Daughter” on Saturday Night Live the next day, and “essentially blacked out on TV.”

Even when they seemed at their most self-destructive, Pearl Jam always acted in accordance with their own artistic beliefs and convictions. “I don’t think this means anything,” Vedder infamously declared when the band received a Grammy in 1996 for “Spin the Black Circle” (the lead single from Vitalogy, which ironically featured many songs dealing with the band’s struggle with success). Years later, Gossard stumbles upon that same Grammy collecting dust in his basement. “You can tell how I feel about the Grammys,” Gossard laughs. “You get an award for art?” Ament adds as he recalls defending Vedder’s declaration to some of his friends. “That’s just ridiculous!” Twenty years after the release of Ten, they still feel just as strongly as they used to about the music and about everything they did, the highs and the lows, the smart choices and the mistakes.

Pearl Jam Twenty closes with a montage of numerous moments of communion between Pearl Jam and their audience set to “Alive”, a song Vedder originally wrote as dark and depressing and which has since become an inspirational anthem for the band and their fans. “We’re all still alive,” Vedder shouts from atop a speaker as McCready delivers an otherworldly solo and another, younger Vedder dives off the stage into the arms of a welcoming audience. This, then like now, in 2011 like in 1994, is Pearl Jam. This, to me, is home.

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