Rock and roll has been around long enough for us to see that it’s as susceptible to the cyclical movement of fashion as any other element of pop culture. Discomania evolved into the recent disinterment of bell-bottoms and eight-track tapes and the nostalgic Dazed and Confused. Now scary TV ads for the “Totally 80s” CD compilation herald the next wave. The circular motion of rock has created other, subtler ripples in the roiling stream of popular music, and caught in one of the eddies is, coincidentally, a boy named Eddie.
Pity Eddie Vedder. After shepherding his band Pearl Jam up to the rarefied air of superstardom, he’s become the teen dream of rock and roll. In the process, Eddie and Pearl Jam have helped the unlikely musical hybrid called grunge grow to the point that, like rap in the last decade, its signifiers have been appropriated by car commercials and mall clothing stores. The kids love Eddie. He wears his street clothes onstage, he writes lyrics that reflect their own self-absorption, he moshes in the pit at his own shows. Eddie’s long hair and troubled-cherub face might whisper “glamour boy,” but it’s somehow clear that his flannels and ragged jeans really come from the Salvation Army, that his entourage doesn’t include a hairdresser, that his angst is real–not some cynical ploy designed to snare disfranchised teens. Eddie is not just another manufactured image; he’s a star, the latest in a noble tradition of sexy young rock gods. So why are so many people giving Eddie a hard time?
Critics have always slagged Pearl Jam for being pretentious and unimaginative, and there’s no question that Eddie’s tortured-young-artist shenanigans do tend to get a little out of hand. (He withholds certain lyrics from CD packaging because they’re too painful to write down.) But pretentious front men are everywhere in rock, and being one usually isn’t grounds for excommunication–look at Michael Stipe, for Christ’s sake. The real source of all this Pearl Jam bashing is the conflict that’s made its way from the xeroxed pages of fanzines, through Spin and Musician, all the way to Time magazine. Pearl Jam’s transgression, their crime, is that they have somehow betrayed their roots.
Pearl Jam is the product of a star-crossed union. On one side of the family is a much-maligned species that thrives in huge arenas, living on the spoils of multiplatinum record sales. This parent is stadium rock, the apotheosis of mainstream success. It’s Freddy Mercury prancing in a leotard, Alice Cooper beheading himself onstage, the Grateful Dead selling out 30,000 seats five nights in a row. It’s the Jacksons’ Victory Tour, a Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar duel, Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge.” Next Thursday, it’s Pearl Jam at the Chicago Stadium. At its heart is the rock star, the great and glowing centerpiece of the entire genre. Usually male, always sexy, the rock star epitomizes the superhuman aura of stadium rock. He can be a rampaging viking like Robert Plant, a faux steelworker like Bruce Springsteen, or a mincing satyr like Steven Tyler; it really doesn’t matter, as long as it plays in Peoria.
On the other side is the essentially American take on British punk rock that mutated in the 1980s into a bewildering array of subgenres. Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll, the house organ for the stubbornly underground movement I’ll call, for lack of a less-square term, punk, exhaustively chronicled this diaspora.
It’s generally accepted that 70s-style punk, which developed largely as the negation of Pearl Jam’s other parent, was invented by the Ramones. This boneheaded New York four-piece, whose dress code specified leather jackets and torn jeans and T-shirts, turned innocent three-chord pop into raw, earsplitting, yet always tuneful guitar rock. In the mid-70s the English entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren recruited four no-talents who hung around his Soho boutique, married the Ramone’s brutal yet tuneful sound to a highly codified fashion sense, and invented the Sex Pistols. Abrasive, obscene, and oddly lovable, the Sex Pistols–the Monkees of the 70s–played music that was even more earsplitting than the Ramones’, but a string of hit singles attests to the pop sensibilities that lurked beneath the chaos.
Punk ignited intense feelings of frustration in Britain, where economic, political, and cultural stagnation had created a generation of amateur anarchists who hated equally the queen, the person, and Queen, the band. Punk especially hated rock stars, hated the calculation and artifice and self-indulgence–ironic, considering the career of Johnny Rotten.
In the U.S. most kids wanted no part of punk’s conspicuous nonconformity and iconoclastic fervor. There were no punk McDonald’s ads, no punk racks at the Gap. Stadium rock held sway: Dark Side of the Moon, the stoner 70s tour de force by Pink Floyd (the anti-Pistols), managed to stay on the charts for over a decade. Fans of the Allman Brothers and Jethro Tull stalked the land, abusing and ridiculing the few–and highly visible–punk kids they encountered. This pressure created a strong sense of identity in American punk fans, and soon being a punk meant belonging to a scattered but ferociously loyal community.
Before long, the elaborate mohawks and pierced cheeks that identified early devotees were phased out in favor of Ramones-style jeans, leather jackets, and T-shirts (another fashion circle closing). The split into a bewildering mosaic of subgenres and subsubgenres–hardcore, grindcore, thrash, skatepunk, and so on–each vigorously claiming uniqueness and superiority, continued during the 80s. Among the styles that emerged in this decade was one that was associated in particular with Seattle’s independent Sub Pop label; this brand of punk was slower, more tuneful, and less politicized lyrically than most. Sub Pop’s first famous band, Mudhoney, played songs that lurched through a forest of guitar-heavy influences, from the MC5 to Black Sabbath to Television. Mudhoney weren’t the first ones to toss their hair around and wear hand-me-downs, but their galloping drums and guitars, low-budget production values, and unhinged arrangements established the grunge sound long before anyone called it that. Typically the bands on Sub Pop and the other independent labels that sprang up like mushrooms in the 80s were loud and unpolished and proud of it; primitivism was the whole point. Most would have a hard time actually playing any one of Pearl Jam’s hits from beginning to end (not that any would want to). That’s where the other parent comes in.
Pearl Jam have what is derisively referred to by punk musicians as “chops”: a truly embarrassing accusation when you’re one-half garage band. They can kick up a storm of noise and confusion, but they maintain a concentration of energy in the direction of the song–melody, straightforward arrangements–that punk generally doesn’t bother with. They’ve spent some time with Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin records, and it sounds as if they’ve passed up more than one keg party to stay home and practice scales. In Pearl Jam, punk and Pink Floyd have come all the way around and bumped into each other. Pearl Jam combines the Ramones’ aesthetics and punk’s alienated-teen lyricism with the melodramatic solos and pumped-up technical muscle of stadium rock. They’ve glued together the two most powerful, and profitable, trends in latter-day rock and roll. Now, you would think, everybody’s happy.
But everybody is not happy. A clamor coming from the back of the arena bears an eerie similarity to the noise that helped create punk in the first place. Eddie, as the new model rock star, is in a ticklish position: he’s a rock star who owes his existence to a movement that denies the importance of rock stars entirely, one that defines itself by the rejection of the concept. Eddie can expect to catch shit for merely doing what he is supposed to do, what all good rock stars are supposed to do: be famous and self-absorbed and rich.
And it’s not only Eddie that violates the bylaws of punk. “Black,” from Ten, Pearl Jam’s multiplatinum 1991 debut album, is nothing but a power ballad, a type of heavy-metal pop song that begins quiet and pensive, usually with just an acoustic guitar and a lonely, emotion-choked voice, then builds with dramatic surges of volume and crashing cymbals to a histrionic climax. Hating power ballads is the national pastime of punk, and “Black” is all the evidence many people need to dismiss Pearl Jam entirely. But “Black” is a hate power ballad, maybe even a punk power ballad. That may be a peak of excitement at the end, but it’s a peak of despondent excitement. The song is a wail of despair, Eddie’s lyrics carried along by a glacial pace and a doom-laden chord progression:
Now my bitter hands cradle broken glass
Of what was everything
Now the beaches have all been washed in black
A love gone bad turned my world to black
Tattooed all I see, all I am
All I’ll ever be
I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life
I know you’ll be a star
In somebody else’s sky
Why can’t it be mine?
The last word, “mine,” is stretched waaay out then ends in a howling scream. Punk singers never stretch notes out this far, even when they’re screaming, but Eddie does it anyway. This is Pearl Jam at its most stadiumesque.
Pearl Jam aren’t always as ponderous as their more popular songs suggest. Both Ten and their latest release, Vs., begin with ferocious, headlong songs, kind of like Mudhoney with chops. But their blow-out hit was “Jeremy,” an angsty mid-tempo song about a kid who goes berserk at school. Ten also produced “Alive,” another anthemic power ballad (a little spryer than “Black”). It figures that the songs that sound the most mainstream have gotten all the airplay, a tradition that is continuing with radio’s obsession with two slow tunes from Vs., “Daughter” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” Judging from their huge hits, as many people have been, Pearl Jam’s formula has congealed–a slow build-up of volume and momentum accompanied by Eddie’s husky, semiarticulate singing and often inscrutable lyrics, winding up four minutes later with guitars soloing out of control, drums hammering away like artillery, and Eddie either being passed around the crowd like a beach ball or hanging by one hand from a lighting truss 30 feet above the stage.
It’s pretty exciting stuff, grunge’s answer to flash pots and giant mechanized monsters: instead of impressing friends with tales of Iron Maiden’s huge exploding skull, Pearl Jam fans tell breathless stories of Eddie’s freefall from the edge of the balcony to the waiting, trusted arms of the mosh pit. Stage diving and mosh pits have been signal elements of punk since 1978 or so–with Pearl Jam, only the scale has changed. It may be stadium-sized, but when Eddie flies face-first into the pit, he’s acting like a punk.
This would all be no problem if Pearl Jam were the product of one stadium-sized parent. Unfortunately punk is a jealous god, patently unimpressed by grandstanding, smoking monsters, and, especially, huge takes at the gate. Money, which has been raining down on Pearl Jam like so many Eddies from the balcony, is so uncool as far as punk is concerned that even giving it away won’t help. It’s like a social disease: once it gets on you, you’ve got it for good. The D.C. band Fugazi, a real punk band, never asks more than five dollars per ticket, even when they could charge much more. Paradoxically, this gimmick has probably done more to help the band pay the rent than runaway ticket-price gouging ever could. But it’s a part of the punk ethic that Pearl Jam is violating every night.
Of course, Pearl Jam’s not the first superstar grunge band to come down the pike. Nirvana wear the same flannel shirts and torn jeans, tread the same angsty lyrical ground, and have a similarly heavy melodic sound. They are also making at least as much money as Pearl Jam. But Nirvana have a lot more in common with their punk relatives, while Pearl Jam tend to take after their noisy stadium-rock uncles. Crucial differences between the two bands let Nirvana get away with more stardom than Pearl Jam ever will. One big difference is that while Eddie just sings, Kurt sings and plays guitar. This might sound trivial, but in a genre like grunge a front man who is singing at the same time he’s churning out fistfuls of feedback is a lot easier to defend than one who is playing air guitar while the real musicians kick out the jams behind him. Also, Pearl Jam sound picky and overrehearsed compared to Nirvana, who sound drunk and slightly out of tune.
Nirvana’s appealing disarray reinforces the perception that they’re less commercial than Pearl Jam, that they are purposefully rejecting the mainstream rock sound. They hate bands like Aerosmith. They don’t care if they’re popular or not. But there’s a paradox at the heart of punk, and therefore of grunge. There isn’t a band on earth that doesn’t want to be as famous as Pearl Jam. That’s why people join bands. There are punk fans, as well as certain rich and famous producers, who would have you believe that the only good musician is a failed one, but there’s nothing wrong with fame per se. The problem is that a genre that has always claimed to stand outside the mainstream must now acknowledge its first mainstream superstars. Fans who prized their exclusive grip on a band they thought didn’t want to be famous are turning resentful at the reality that yes, they do want to be famous. The fans are facing the heartbreaking possibility that grunge is just another look, another sound, another trend, no more impervious to infestation by the dreaded rock star than rap or heavy metal. What makes Eddie such an embarrassment to these people is not Eddie’s fault. He’s just doing his job.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ebet Roberts.