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Pearl Jam: 25 Years of ‘Ten’

Born out of loss and grief, Pearl Jam went on to make one of the Nineties’ biggest records. This is the story of ‘Ten’.

In the summer of 1988, the tight-knit Seattle rock community began to notice unfamiliar faces in its midst. Even in ill-lit dive bars such as The Vogue and the Central Tavern, strangers were easy to spot, especially when they lingered alone by the bar at gigs, at a safe remove from boisterous mosh pits. Following local heroes Soundgarden and Screaming Trees signing to popular independent label SST Records, national interest in the Emerald City’s music scene had intensified, but now identifying Hollywood A&R reps at shows became something of a sport for amused insiders.

It was common knowledge that these blow-ins were in town to view only one band. Drawn together from the remnants of Green River, Ten Minute Warning and Malfunkshun, flashy but soulful hard rockers Mother Love Bone had become a ‘buzz’ band in the L.A. music industry since word leaked that Geffen had stumped up $5,000 for the quintet to record a demo. Though the band had travelled to Los Angeles in July ’88 to meet with Geffen President Ed Rosenblatt, they had yet to ink a deal with the company, and amid persistent rumours that A&R executive Tom Zutaut – the man who signed Guns N’ Roses – remained unconvinced of their potential, talent scouts from Atlantic, Island, Capitol, A&M and Polygram sensed an opportunity to stage an eleventh hour coup.

Representatives of no fewer than 15 different labels visited Seattle that summer to schmooze MLB’s flamboyant, charismatic frontman Andrew Wood and bandmates Stone Gossard, Bruce Fairweather, Jeff Ament and Greg Gilmore. At each dinner meeting, the financial inducements laid before the quintet grew more bloated, swelling from $150,000 offers to deals in excess of $400,000 – serious money for young men then washing dishes in restaurants and working in coffee bars to pay the bills. It was, Ament recalls, a “crazy, ridiculous time”. In November ’88, the band put paid to speculation by inking a seven-album deal with Polygram, and as they set to work upon their debut album in California with producer Terry Date, their destiny as rock’s next big thing seemed pre-ordained. That dream was blown apart on March 16th, 1990, when Andrew Wood was found unconscious in the apartment he shared with his girlfriend. The singer had overdosed after shooting up heroin. On March 19th, three days after lapsing into a coma, Wood’s life support system was unplugged. He was 24 years old, and Apple, the album that was set to make him a superstar, was just two weeks from release.

“Andrew was our rock star,” says Ament. “He was Freddie Mercury and David Lee Roth and Gary Numan and Marc Bolan rolled into one, a super-talented, really unique guy.

He walked a funny edge, half taking the piss and half living out his hopes and dreams fronting the band. Andy made us believe that we could do this. And we wanted to be a success with him because he wanted it so much.”

On March 24th, a memorial service was held for the singer at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, with members of Soundgarden and Alice In Chains joining fans, family and the surviving members of Mother Love Bone to pay their respects. A hush fell upon the theatre as Wood’s father David addressed the congregation.

“You guys in the band, well, I bet you feel like you’re sold out,” David Wood said quietly. “But Andy didn’t do this to you. He had everything in the world to live for and he wanted to live for you. I want you guys to go on and be the biggest stars you can be. I want to see you guys on TV. But if you’ve got to get another singer, don’t get a junkie.”

“But that was that,” says Ament today. “It was over.”

Eddie Vedder at the Moore Theatre in Seattle on January 17th, 1992.

With ‘Apple’ still a few weeks off from its delayed release date of July 19th, 1990, Ament insists he didn’t feel betrayed or hurt to discover, second-hand, that his friend and bandmate Stone Gossard was writing new music without him in the summer of 1990.

“I wasn’t 100 per cent sure I wanted to play with Stone again and I don’t think Stone was 100 per cent sure he wanted to play with me,” he recalls.

For the surviving members of Mother Love Bone, the idea of replacing Andrew Wood was never seriously discussed. But while Ament mulled over the possibility of returning to his native Montana to finish the graphic design course he had abandoned seven years earlier, Gossard sought comfort in sound, spending the months following his bandmate’s death recording music in the attic of his own parents’ home in Capitol Hill.

“I’d been writing music for three years and I liked it so I wasn’t just going to stop,” he recalls. “I was so excited by the idea that you could go into your bedroom and start working on something and piece together an arrangement of two or three different parts that kinda worked together, and if you had a singer and some lyrics a few weeks later you’d have a song that didn’t exist before. Still to this day I think that’s the coolest thing in the world. And even after Andy passed away I was just really gung-ho. I didn’t know how it was going to work out or what the possibilities were, but I knew that the process was just driving me. It was cathartic.”

To add meat to the bones of the new material he was sketching out, Gossard sought out a musical collaborator.

“As a guitar player I sucked, except that I could put some riffs together,” he says. “But I knew Mike McCready could play…”

At that point, 24-year-old Florida-born Mike McCready was back in his adopted hometown of Seattle following a frustrating 18-month spell chasing his rock & roll dreams in Los Angeles with his band Shadow. Acquaintances since middle school, he and Gossard had reconnected that February at a house party, and he was happy to receive a call from the guitarist to come over and jam on some new tunes. It was actually McCready who lobbied to include Ament in the project, despite Gossard’s reservations.

“Mike worked in a pizza joint right across the street from where I lived,” says Ament, “and he’d say to me, ‘Hey man, you need to come over and play with us’, and I’d be like [hesitantly], ‘Ah, yeah, maybe…’ But Stone and I got together and we aired our grievances with each other and told each other like, ‘OK, if we’re going to do this together, I think we can help each other out, but I’m not going to be in a band with you again if you start doing this…’, little things that we annoyed each other with in the past. It was great, because it cleared the air and meant we could start afresh.

“In some ways we’re the most unlikely pair of guys to make it through all these different groups, but there’s something about how we work. Like if he has riffs, we have a language where I can help him arrange things, or I can be a bouncing board for ideas. And I have other strengths: I’m an organiser and a managerial kind of guy. And I think we can both swap hats and take the reins. It was like, if we’re going to be in a band together, we need to support each other. And that was the ethos we went into Pearl Jam with.”

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to work with Stone again,” says Ament, “and I don’t think Stone was sure he wanted to work with me.”

In August 1990, the trio placed a call to producer Chris Hanzsek to book time at Reciprocal Recording studio to lay down a tape of instrumental tracks they hoped might entice a singer and drummer to join their ranks. The producer had worked with Gossard and Ament before, when their former outfit Green River used Reciprocal to demo tracks for their 1985 debut EP Come On Down, and he’d enlisted Ament’s organisational skills when compiling Seattle music sampler Deep Six – featuring Green River, Melvins, Soundgarden, Malfunkshun and more – on his own C/Z label the following year.
“When Stone, Jeff and Mike showed up everyone was very business-like and very friendly,” Hanzsek recalls. “They were so organised. Stone was like the chairman, and he came in with a notebook full of notes about what they needed to accomplish.”

Borrowing Matt Cameron from Soundgarden and Chris Friel from Shadow to play drums, Gossard, Ament and McCready committed 12 instrumental tracks to tape over two successive weekends.

“I thought it was pretty excellent,” says Hanzsek. “It seemed to have a bit of soul to it. You could tell that work had gone into it.”

“I remember hearing the first demos and being really impressed by them,” says Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell, who used to room with Andrew Wood. “There really seemed to be a focus to them, and they were songs that were conceived without lyrics or melodies, which I don’t think I had ever done. If I was writing a song without lyrics and without a vocal melody then it would tend to be musically really complicated, because something would have to be in there. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, they’re really open and really inviting to that, to whatever they’ll turn into.’ And I was also impressed with the focus of Stone and Jeff at the time to embark on something creatively like that at such a horrible moment in their lives. That was something that I don’t know if I would have been able to do, to just continue and to make pretty huge strides musically as artists. It was pretty incredible.”

Bridge Studio, London

After editing the tape down to five songs, Gossard and Ament reached out to Michael Goldstone, their former A&R man at PolyGram, to see if he could help with their recruitment process. Specifically, they wanted Goldstone to get the songs to former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons to see if he might consider joining their fledgling group. Their timing, however, was lousy. Irons had just started a new band, Eleven, with his old friend Alain Johannes, his wife was pregnant, and he’d signed up for a three-month tour with Redd Kross, ruling out any consideration of him uprooting to Seattle.

“He was a real gentleman though,” says Gossard. “He listened to the tape and said, ‘It sounds great, and I’d love to do it, but I can’t.’ And I said, ‘Well, if you know any singers, we’re looking for one.’ And he said, ‘In fact, I may know a guy…'”

Irons first met Eddie Vedder in November 1989 at a Joe Strummer gig in San Diego’s Bacchanal club, where Irons was drumming for the former Clash frontman and Vedder was on the local crew. The pair became hiking and surfing buddies, and Irons was aware that the earnest, intense 25-year-old singer was looking for a new gig following the dissolution of his old band Bad Radio.

Vedder listened to the cassette Irons passed on while working a graveyard shift behind the counter of a San Diego petrol station in the early hours of September 13th. Like Chris Cornell, the singer was attracted to the spacious dynamics of the instrumental tracks, and he began sketching out inter-linked lyrics for three of the songs: “Dollar Short” (originally written for Mother Love Bone and performed by that band with Andrew Wood’s lyrics at a gig at Portland’s Satyricon club in August 1989), “Agyptian Crave” and “Troubled Times”. The following day, at his girlfriend Beth’s beach-front house, he recorded his vocals on a four-track tape deck, dubbed the songs over a copy of Merle Haggard’s Best of the ’80s compilation, titled the cassette Momma-Son, created some bespoke artwork and posted it back to Ament. When the bassist opened the envelope he saw three new song titles listed – “Alive”, “Once” and “Footsteps” – and heard a compelling three act mini-opera, encompassing birth, betrayal, incest, murder and imprisonment.

“I listened to it and thought, ‘Man, that’s really good’,” Ament recalls. “And then I listened to it a couple more times, and by the third time I was like, ‘This is the guy I think I’ve wanted to be in a band with my whole life.’ We had a little bit of a phone relationship in that we called each other every day and without really talking about the music on the tape, more about why we loved music and bands that we liked and books that we liked. He’d be like, ‘Oh, you make the posters for the band? I make the posters too!’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, you screen-print T-shirts? I screen-print T-shirts too!’ So it sort of felt like there was a brotherhood before we even met. And then to get the tape and hear that amazing voice… In some ways it felt like it was probably more representative of where I was coming from, more than even Mark [Arm, Green River and later Mudhoney frontman] or Andy [Wood], just personality-wise.”

“My initial impression was, well, he can sing and it sounds cool,” says Gossard. “The only other things that I’d heard were from singers trying to be Andy, who were really into Mother Love Bone, so hearing Eddie was like, ‘Thank God!’ I was like, ‘Low and clear… that’s pretty interesting.’ It was the first thing we heard that worked at all musically. So if you have a guy that sounded pretty good and he was into it, don’t screw around, just start making music. We were pretty quick to go, ‘Let’s just do it.'”

On October 8th, 1990, Eddie Vedder arrived in Seattle to play with Gossard, Ament, McCready and their newly recruited drummer Dave Krusen, who was introduced to the band via a mutual friend. Within an hour of touching down at Sea-Tac airport, the singer was standing in Galleria Potatohead rehearsal space with a microphone in his hand.

“I was really impressed by him,” says Krusen today. “He had such a massive voice, and his work ethic blew me away: he was just constantly thinking about the songs. I remember going back to my friends, telling them how I thought this band was going to be huge. I grew up on Zeppelin, the Stones, the Beatles and the Who and I really felt this was a band that could fit in with those legendary bands.”

“We wrote ‘Release’ and a couple of other songs pretty quickly right when he got there,” says Gossard. “So we were excited. It felt comfortable and it was so different from anything we’d ever done. I think that was the thing that made us the most excited: no-one wanted to go back to make something like Mother Love Bone again. It was time for something different.”

On October 22nd, the newly-bonded band – temporarily called Mookie Blaylock after one of the New Jersey Nets’ point guard’s trading cards slipped inside a demo tape – made their live debut at Seattle’s Off Ramp Cafe, with an eight-song set-list, featuring “Release”, “Alone”, “Alive”, “Once”, “Even Flow”, “Black”, “Breath” and “Just a Girl”. Though a visibly nervous Vedder remained largely rooted to the stage all night, a watching Chris Cornell recalled the show as “the best inaugural show I’ve ever seen in my life”. For his part, Gossard will only admit to feeling “really proud” that the quintet had the guts to step back into the spotlight so quickly, but he notes, “That show added to the idea that Eddie was the right one.”

That evening, Vedder wrote a postcard to his room-mates in San Diego.

“You’re not going to believe it,” he wrote. “I love Seattle. More unbelievable, it loves me. This city and its people totally embraced me. And within that warmth/vibe, I’ve written/played some of the most important music of my life. It’s been a very intense Volume 11 experience. It’s changed me, and somehow I’ve affected the people here too.”

Vedder’s integration into Seattle’s closely-bonded musical community was sealed by his immediate assimilation into a new project Cornell had instigated to honour his late friend Andrew Wood. Originally, Soundgarden/Pearl Jam ‘supergroup’ Temple of the Dog intended to convene to record just two Cornell songs – “Reach Down” and “Say Hello 2 Heaven” – but with ideas flowing between the musicians, that conceit was expanded to record a full album Ament now hails as “a cathartic exercise in us trying to understand our friend’s death”.”‘Even Flow’ might be the best track on the record,” says Ament, “but when I listen to it I think we didn’t get it quite right.”

“Over the course of a week we just knocked this record out, with zero pressure and no expectations and no-one telling anyone else what to play,” says Ament. “I still think it’s one of the most listenable records that I’ve ever played on. Stone would probably say the same thing.”

In early December, as Michael Goldstone finalised a new deal for the band at Epic, Vedder packed his belongings into a case, and moved permanently to Seattle. By the end of January, his new band were making album demos at Seattle’s London Bridge Studio with producer Rick Parashar. On March 11th all involved returned to the studio to begin work on the album in earnest.

ro0516PearlJamC“We had a great experience with Rick [Parashar] with Temple of the Dog, so we just decided to go for it,” says Gossard. “We had just made a $250,000 album for Mother Love Bone so this time we wanted to make a record quickly and as cheaply as we could. We cut it all in one three-week session. But I was very anxious and controlling then, trying to make it all perfect. It turned out good, but we ended up over-thinking it for sure. Up to that point we hadn’t really met a producer that had talked us into being great.”

“Stone was more of a perfectionist than I was,” says Ament. “We must have played ‘Even Flow’ one hundred times in the course of that month. We ended up beating that song to a pulp. ‘Even Flow’ might be the best song on the record, but even when I listen to it today I think, ‘God, we didn’t quite get it.’ We put pressure on ourselves, but I think that comes down to us thinking, ‘Oh my God, we got another chance, we can’t screw this one up.'”

With the sessions at London Bridge wrapped up for just $25,000 – one-tenth of the budget spent on Apple – the quintet felt sufficiently relaxed to accept an invitation from mix engineer Tim Palmer, a “charming, funny, delightful” Englishman who had earned Gossard and Ament’s trust with his work on Mother Love Bone’s debut, to decamp en masse to England to sit in on the mixing process at Ridge Farm studios in Surrey. To the disappointment of all, a combination of mounting personal problems and on-going issues with alcohol abuse would see Dave Krusen exit the set-up ahead of the trip – “They gave me every opportunity in the world,” the drummer admits, “and I regret the shit out of the fact that I screwed it up” – but having negotiated more damaging setbacks in the past, Gossard and Ament temporarily parked that issue.

“We spent way too much money mixing,” admits Gossard, “but we kinda felt like we deserved it. We had been going through so much, and this was a chance to listen to music and have fun. We all gained about 30 pounds out there because all we did was eat biscuits and listen to mixes.”

“I find it quite amusing that when you think of the ‘Seattle Sound’ you think of sweaty, grungy, industrial nightclubs, and yet one of the bigger albums to come out of the Seattle scene was actually mixed in an old, idyllic English farmhouse amongst the rolling hills of Surrey with sheep and cows around,” says Palmer. “But we mixed one single song, ‘Once’, at A&M studios in Hollywood, and they were very happy with the blueprint.

“Mixing the album was a very pleasant experience,” he adds. “Because it was the first album from a new band, there were no great expectations, so we were very much left to work from our gut. And because the record was primarily like a live performance, there was a lot of space for me to be creative, and to have fun with it. With ‘Oceans’, for instance, I felt like I wanted to get a little bit more movement, but being miles away from the nearest music store I didn’t want to sit around waiting for a delivery from London, so I went straight to the Ridge Farm kitchen and grabbed myself a pepper shaker and I used that to add to the rhythm. There was one more thing that I wanted to try, which was like an ambient cowbell, but again, I didn’t have a cowbell, so this time I just took a fire extinguisher off the wall, got a couple of drum sticks and used that. It worked out pretty well, and gave a kind of eerie quality to the song. Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention, and the band were very appreciative of any input that I added.”

Ten was released in the U.S. on August 27th, 1991. Intense, dramatic and dynamic, it leaned upon the influence of Led Zeppelin, the Who and Jimi Hendrix as much as ‘alternative’ rock figureheads (Black Flag, the Stooges, Fugazi), with Vedder’s dark, poetic lyrics giving the album a uniquely brooding, existential edge. Sales were initially sluggish – Ten sold just 25,000 copies in week one – but on the road the songs began to take on a transcendent quality, elevated by a frontman unrecognisable from the shy, sensitive soul who could barely look his new hometown crowd in the eyes just 10 months earlier.

“Ed turned into an animal,” Gossard laughs. “He started losing his mind. We’d have sections of the songs where it was just this chaotic, ritualistic, transporting noise, and Ed would lose himself in that sound, and just go insane. Watching him discover himself as a singer, and watching the crowd being just completely transfixed by him, was amazing.”

“It was stressful,” says Gossard of the success of ‘Ten’. “For me it came from being huge but feeling like you were kinda crap.”

On January 11th, 1992, the day Nirvana’s Nevermind album displaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top of the Billboard 200, Ten crept onto the chart at number 155, while “Alive”, its lead-off single, entered the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart at number 32. By May 5th, Ten was certified platinum for one million copies sold: three weeks later it had climbed into the Billboard Top 10. When MTV put Mark Pellington’s haunting video for “Jeremy” – based on the true story of 15-year-old Texan schoolboy Jeremy Wade Delle, who shot himself in front of his teacher and classmates – into rotation in August, the album gained renewed traction, beginning to sell at a rate out-stripping even Nirvana. Mobbed whenever they appeared in public – “you couldn’t go anywhere without causing a scene,” recalls Ament – the young musicians began to fret as to where their spontaneous, unselfconscious debut album might ultimately lead them. In a bid to slow down their dizzying ascent, Pearl Jam refused to let Epic release the ballad “Black” as a single, and asked for a time-out – no more interviews, no more photo shoots, no more videos. Regardless, the record kept selling, appearing in Billboard’s Top 15 best-selling albums of the year in both 1992 and 1993. When Time magazine chose a photo of Vedder as the cover image of their October 25th, 1993 issue (with the tagline “Angry young rockers like Pearl Jam give voice to the passions and fears of a generation”) their coronation as the biggest new band in rock music was confirmed. It would take a decade for the group to adjust to this new reality.

“It was stressful,” admits Gossard. “For me personally the stress came from being huge but feeling like you were kinda crap. We couldn’t live up to the bands that we thought were the greatest. I don’t ever remember any thoughts like, ‘Wow, we’ve just made the best album ever.’ I just remember thinking that I was looking forward to making our next one.”

“In our entire 25 years of being a band we’ve always been surprised when anything does well,” laughs Ament. “But when opportunities came we were going to make sure we were ready, because we had already witnessed how easily this can all go away. We wanted to ensure we had no regrets at the end of this, but we certainly didn’t expect Ten to be a huge deal. I guess it kinda became one.”

From issue #774, available now. All photographs by Lance Mercer.