Why Pearl Jam Survived the Death of Grunge

Pearl Jam in Amsterdam, February 1992. Photo: Paul Bergen/Redferns

Nirvana‘s major-label debut, Nevermind, and Pearl Jam‘s first album, Ten, were released a few weeks apart in the late summer/early fall of 1991. The two groups shared a hometown in Seattle, and were both strongly influenced by punk, hardcore and the first wave of American underground rock. Both bands were fronted by striking personalities in Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, whose lyrics spoke directly to teenage listeners in the throes of their first tastes of adulthood. And both Nevermind and Ten eventually sold millions upon millions of copies, reaching a level of ubiquity not equaled in alternative rock ever since.

For the most part, however, the similarities between Nirvana and Pearl Jam ended there. Nirvana were as dark and angry as they were jaded and goofy, while Pearl Jam barely cracked a smile. And even before Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became the single that introduced the “grunge” sound to the free world, there was a simmering rivalry between the two groups, largely instigated by Cobain, who seemed to relish dismissing Pearl Jam’s music as phony at every available opportunity.

We all know how the story ends. Major-label A&R men flocked to Seattle, signing any band that looked good in flannel and could play a few barre chords. Ravaged by drug abuse and unable to handle the crushing pressure of Nirvana’s popularity, Cobain reportedly shot himself to death in April 1994. Pearl Jam quit making videos or giving interviews, and for four years refused to perform in venues under contract to Ticketmaster, losing millions of fans along the way. The two other mega-selling pillars of the Seattle “grunge” scene, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, both disbanded in the next three years. The phenomenon of grunge — a term the Seattle bands always despised anyway — was quickly a thing of the past.

Now, two decades on, newly expanded reissues of Pearl Jam’s post-Ten albums Vs. and Vitalogy offer a fascinating look inside the “grunge”-driven frenzy, and go a long way toward showing how the band managed to survive it, when so many others did not.

Released in late October 1993, Pearl Jam’s sophomore effort was originally titled Five Against One but renamed the only mildly less confrontational Vs. at the last minute. The album bristles with punkish urgency (opener “Go,” the furious “Blood”) while also revealing an emerging emphasis on socially conscious lyrics (“W.M.A.,” “Dissident”) and stories about enduring, or escaping from, toxic situations (“Daughter,” “Rearviewmirror”). Musically, acoustic songs like “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” with made-for-singing-along lyrics like “I just want to scream hello,” proved Pearl Jam could be just as broadly appealing by dialing back the angst and the volume.

And while the key line on the album’s slow-burn closer “Indifference” (“how much difference does it make”) laid plain Vedder’s ambivalence at Pearl Jam’s sudden success, listeners responded with a fervor never before seen at the checkout aisle. Vs. sold a record-setting 950,000 copies in the United States during its first week of release, officially cementing Pearl Jam as the biggest band in the world.

Some in this position would load up their catchiest, most commercial material for the next go-around. Instead, Pearl Jam chose the completely unmelodic “Spin the Black Circle” as the first single from Vitalogy, released barely a year after Vs. If nothing else, perhaps this temporarily diverted attention from songs that would quickly become alternative radio staples (“Corduroy,” “Better Man”). But Vitalogy was still an instant No. 1 on the charts. Elsewhere were the strangest musical experiments of the band’s career, like the wobbly accordion dirge “Bugs” and the bizarre nearly eight-minute noise collage “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me,” almost as if Pearl Jam were daring their listeners to hang on for the ride.

Many of them didn’t, especially when the band started playing places like Toledo, Ohio, and Augusta, Me., rather than major markets where the best venues were under Ticketmaster control. Some fans grew tired of how much work it took to enjoy Pearl Jam’s music, and moved on to second-wave grunge opportunists like Bush and Creed.

But along the way, a funny thing happened. At last out of the Seattle-centric spotlight, Pearl Jam became masters of moderation and simply kept on rocking for a core group of incredibly dedicated faithfuls. Beginning with 1996′s No Code and continuing well into the new decade, the band released a series of idiosyncratic albums that sold reliably and generated a steady stream of rock radio hits. By not burning out their audience with too much, too soon, Pearl Jam slowly sidestepped the fate that had befallen so many of their colleagues.

How did they do it? For one thing, Pearl Jam became a songwriting democracy, with Vedder encouraging his bandmates to bring complete songs to the table. Indeed, drummer Matt Cameron’s “The Fixer” was chosen as the lead-off single for the band’s 2009 album “Backspacer,” and it debuted at a smashing No. 2 on the Billboard Rock Songs chart. Bassist Jeff Ament’s “Nothing as It Seems” was the lead track from the 2000 album “Binaural,” and it peaked at No. 3.

For another, each member delved into side projects and solo work whenever Pearl Jam was on pause, allowing them to return to their main band creatively rejuiced. Not surprisingly, Vedder’s solo score for the 2007 movie Into the Wild garnered the biggest sales and loudest acclaim, including an Oscar nomination.

Pearl Jam also wisely linked themselves with their biggest influences from the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, playing and collaborating with everyone from Neil Young and the Who to the Ramones, X, R.E.M. and the Buzzcocks. Perhaps most importantly, Pearl Jam never took for granted their bond with their audience, rewarding fan club members with the best seats in the house at its marathon concerts and crafting consistently unique set lists for diehards who follow the band around the world, Grateful Dead-style. Slowly but surely, Pearl Jam even learned to have fun, whether covering Van Halen and Thin Lizzy or dressing up like the Village People and Devo for Halloween.

In a flash, 20 years had passed, and Pearl Jam were still standing. This fall, the quintet is allowing itself a rare moment of nostalgia, with a Cameron Crowe-directed documentary as well as a book (which, in full disclosure, I helped write and assemble) chronicling its journey to the present. Pearl Jam has now achieved something its contemporaries never could: two decades of superlative music, made on their own terms.

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