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Pearl Jam celebrates 20th anniversary with film, book, album
When Eddie Vedder played tapes of Pearl Jam’s first album for his friends in the band Soundgarden in 1991, “you could tell he was super proud of them,” recalls drummer Matt Cameron.
“And we were like, ‘Wow, this is really huge. This is gonna be great,’ ” says Cameron, who wound up joining Pearl Jam himself in 1998. “It felt like something that could be big.”
“Big” is an understatement.
As they celebrate the 20th anniversary of the “Ten” album this year, Pearl Jam’s members are looking back at a career that’s made them one of rock’s iconic bands, sharing rarefied stature with some of its own heroes and influences — and was even dubbed by the Allmusic Guide as “the most popular American rock & roll band of the ’90s.” The quintet has sold more than 60 million albums worldwide and established an enduring radio beachhead with songs such as “Alive,” “Jeremy,” “Black,” “Daughter,” “Corduroy” and “Betterman.”
More than measurable achievements, however, Pearl Jam’s commercial success helped open a mainstream door for alternative rock from its Seattle home base and other territories. The group also championed a rare level of integrity, pioneering real, pre-social media interaction with its fans via its Ten Club and fighting a highly publicized though ultimately losing battle with Ticketmaster during the mid-’90s.
Nevertheless, Pearl Jam cemented a still-intact reputation as a band that genuinely cared about things other than merely selling records.
“I think selling records actually gave us power to f*** with the system a little bit and do things the way we wanted to do them,” says bassist and co-founder Jeff Ament. “The more power we got the more we wanted to do things differently and break out of the mold.
“We were kind of rebellious. We fought a lot, in a good way. We were always ready to do the next thing, even if we weren’t sure what that was. People in the business thought we were crazy at the time because that’s not how they ran their business, but I think we felt like the strength for us, businesswise, was to change and to change the business models in the same way we were changing musically and creatively.”
Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary finds Ament, Cameron, Vedder and guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready looking toward both the past and the future. In March the group issued expanded editions of its second and third albums, 1993’s “vs.” and 1994’s “Vitalogy,” both of which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart when they were originally released. A previously unreleased 1994 live recording from Boston accompanied both reissues.
The official PJ20 celebration, meanwhile, included a Labor Day weekend festival in Wisconsin and the debut of “Pearl Jam Twenty,” a documentary about the band’s history from screenwriter-director Cameron Crowe, at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“Pearl Jam Twenty,” culled from more than 1,200 hours of footage, screens on Tuesday around the country. A “Pearl Jam Twenty” book and film soundtrack, the latter spreading 29 rare and unreleased tracks over two discs, are also coming out, while the movie will air Oct. 21 on PBS affiliates.
“I always felt the story of Pearl Jam was a great story,” Crowe, a longtime Pearl Jam pal who used members of the band as actors in his 1992 film “Singles,” said at a Toronto press conference. “The usual rock story is incredible promise, brilliance maybe, then tragedy cuts it short. ... Pearl Jam is exactly the opposite; It’s tragedy that was surmounted and these guys found joy through survival.”
Gossard — who started Pearl Jam with Ament in 1990 after their previous band, Mother Love Bone, folded following the heroin overdose death of singer Andrew Wood — added that, “I don’t think we would have taken this (film) on had it not been (for) Cameron being open to the task of looking through the footage and seeing if there’s a story to be told. Once we knew that he was involved, we trusted it was going to be OK.”
Digging through the past, Ament notes, “is really good, because there’s so much going on at the time you forget so many things.”
“And when people start pulling out pictures and footage from things, it’s a trip to realize that large aspects of your life are fully documented.” Of course, he adds with a laugh, “that means you can’t re-write history, you know? It’s there. You have to ’fess up to what went on.”
The most dramatic point for Pearl Jam — well-chronicled in “Pearl Jam Twenty” — came during the mid-’90s, when the group was “fighting on all fronts” as manager Kelly Curtis puts it.
Unhappy with the music industry, Pearl Jam refused to release singles and videos and curtailed media interviews starting with “Vitalogy.” Then, outraged by Ticketmaster’s service charges and selling practices, the band helped spur a U.S. Department of Justice investigation and Ament and Gossard testified at a 1994 hearing. The group voted not to work with Ticketmaster on its planned tour that year, but Pearl Jam found few allies for the crusade and the company’s reach was so great that it wound up being able to do only a limited number of dates.
“There’s certain things that we did that certainly failed, or at least form the most basic perception you would say that they didn’t work,” Ament, 48, acknowledges. “But the best thing was that a lot of those fights were very public, and I think it was important for us to educate people. Like on the Ticketmaster thing, a lot of times people assume if they pay $20 for a ticket it all goes in the band’s pockets, which wasn’t the case — and still isn’t.
“If anything, I think some of the things we fought about have gotten worse, but I think people are more educated now as a result of that process we went through. And we learned so much, too. And we were younger, so any chance you had to just kind of f*** with the whole system was probably good. It’s rock ’n’ roll, y’know?”
Now that Pearl Jam has left the major-label world and started its own Monkeywrench imprint, however, Ament says the group has become “a little less harsh” about the business and its former associations in hindsight. “We have a little perspective on maybe where they were coming from and why they were running their businesses the way they did,” he says.
And things have calmed for Pearl Jam since the mid-’90s. Record sales have dipped a bit — though its last four releases still went gold — but the group has indeed worked on its own terms. The group’s instrumentalists backed Neil Young on his 1995 album “Mirror Ball,” and Pearl Jam has issued “official bootleg” recordings of each of its shows since its 2000 European tour, selling more than 3.5 million CDs and downloads. The group has also issued several official live albums, a couple of compilations and five DVD collections in addition to the expanded editions of “Ten,” “vs.” and “Vitalogy.”
The quintet also keeps busy outside of Pearl Jam. This year Vedder released a solo album, “Ukulele Songs,” while Ament started Tres Mts., the latest of several side projects, with McCready helping on live dates. Gossard continues to lead the band Brad, and Cameron is also working with a reunited Soundgarden.
But none of that threatens Pearl Jam, Ament promises, and the 20th anniversary celebration has only bolstered the band’s enthusiasm to do something new. The group, which is now touring Canada, even debuted an untitled acoustic-flavored song at the September festival as well as the rocking “Ole” during a Sept. 8 appearance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”
“We’ve gotten together a few times and we’ve written some demos and everybody’s kind of done demos on their own,” Ament says, “so there’s a group of probably about 20-plus songs that are potential next-album songs. We know there’s so much more that we can do. We still haven’t really delved into keyboards and synthesizers and strings very much, for instance.
“Coming back out of the mode of looking back and digging through boxes and looking for old stuff, I’m ready to make some new music, and I think the other guys are, too. So that’ll be the next big thing for us, most likely.”
“Pearl Jam Twenty” screens at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak. Call 248-263-2111 or visit www.landmarktheatres.com. The film also screens at 7 and 9:45 p.m. at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor. Call 734-668-8463 or visit www.michtheater.org. “Pearl Jam Twenty” airs Oct. 21 as part of the "American Masters" series on PBS.
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