Afterwards Charles and I watched a quite different music show from the Vienna Philharmonic concert we’d recorded a week before: Pearl Jam 20, an odd 2011 documentary on the Seattle-based rock band Pearl Jam whose title is a pun on the fact that they’d been together 20 years as a band when the film was made and their first album was called Pearl Jam 10. (Their second album was called Vs. and sometimes the title was expressed as “Two Fives” — i.e., 10 — though in the film the band members refer to the album as “Versus.”) The film was directed by Cameron Crowe, former rock critic turned film director, and he recalled that he had moved to Seattle in the early 1980’s and found the music scene dramatically different than what he’d been used to in L.A., where the bands were fiercely competitive and tried to elbow each other out of potential “discovery” by the music business. In Seattle, unlike in L.A. or New York, Crowe said, the members of various bands were often good friends and helped each other. Crowe seemed to think that was unique in rock scenes, though the history of music is full of city-based “scenes” in which there was a lot of mentoring and mutual support going on: in New Orleans in the first two decades of the 20th century (despite the fabled “cutting contests” in which bands competed on the street, there was also quite a lot of support, as witness the way Louis Armstrong was mentored by King Oliver and Kid Ory), in Liverpool in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s (before the Beatles broke and the rest of the British music biz descended on Liverpool like locusts) and definitely in San Francisco in the mid-1960’s (before he had a record deal himself, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead came to L.A. to participate in the Jefferson Airplane’s sessions for their second — and commercial breakthrough — album, Surrealistic Pillow, and even suggested the title).
Pearl Jam grew out of an earlier band called Mother Love Bone, featuring a charismatic blond singer named Andrew Wood who had a major drug problem — he was coming out of rehab when he joined the band, which the other members should have taken as a warning. Mother Love Bone lasted long enough to make one album (for Mercury, in 1989) before Wood died of a heroin overdose — what I hadn’t known was that he lingered on two days on life support, kept alive just long enough so his family and friends could see him one last time before they pulled the plug, which made a macabre impression on the other two key members of Mother Love Bone, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament. Rather than attempt to continue Mother Love Bone with a replacement singer, Gossard and Ament briefly went their separate ways and Gossard started organizing another band, which Ament joined. They also participated in a side project called Temple of the Dog organized by Chris Cornell, leader of Soundgarden (actually the first of the late-1980’s/early-1990’s bands from Seattle to sign with a major label, though since “alternative” or “grunge” weren’t established as musical categories yet Soundgarden was marketed by their label, A&M, as heavy metal) and Andrew Wood’s former roommate, which Gossard and Ament in their interviews in the film seem to regard as a sort of transition project between Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam. (I bought the Mother Love Bone album on CD in the early 1990’s and was startled and rather disappointed, mainly because Wood’s voice was a typical heavy-metal screech and seemed far less flexible and dramatic than Eddie Vedder’s.) Eddie Vedder, who would become Pearl Jam’s singer, was living in San Diego when the band sent him, along with several other candidates, an instrumental demo tape to which they wanted prospective singers to add a vocal; they seem to have been impressed with him largely because he was the only person they were considering who sang in his own style and did not try to imitate Andrew Wood. They were expecting a long, slow career buildup, years of playing in clubs and touring as bigger artists’ opening acts until they developed an independent following and slowly built up their reputation and their record sales; instead their first album, 10, exploded onto the charts thanks largely to their explosive performances on the 1992 Lollapalooza tour. The story is familiar: an early career peak, a gradual drop-off in record sales — though their concerts consistently drew well (largely, one suspects, to the hair-raising stage act they did; Vedder in particular became known for scaling the stage machinery and then leaping from it into the audience, and throughout those tours the other band members were worried he’d injure, incapacitate or kill himself) until they picked a (losing) battle with the Ticketmaster combine, which had grown from a ticket broker to a giant promoter with exclusive contracts with so many venues it became almost impossible for a rock band, even one at Pearl Jam’s level of commercial success, to do a tour without them.
Some of the most grimly amusing parts of the movie show the mutual incomprehension between Pearl Jam and the people in the U.S. government when they came to Washington, D.C. to testify that Ticketmaster was an antitrust-violating monopoly; in one sequence, one of the people interrogating them asks, “Don’t you have an exclusive recording contract?,” and one of the band members says that’s an irrelevant question — alas, missing the chance to make the obvious point: when Pearl Jam wanted to record, they had several companies offering them contracts and they were able to choose between them, but when they wanted to do live tours in major venues, it was Ticketmaster or nothing (or, as the film depicts, shows in out-of-the-way locations, including an outdoor venue where the show got rained out; perhaps they should have followed Bessie Smith’s example and rented a tent). The show also hit other high and low points of Pearl Jam’s career — including probably the grimmest day in the band’s history, the 2000 rock festival in Roskilde, Denmark, in which nine people were trampled to death and three others severely injured when fans crowded too close to the stage and started stepping on and over each other. (The band members saw what was happening and tried to get the fans to move back, but too late.) Crowe directs this film in a nervy, energetic style that seems to be an attempt to reproduce the energy of Pearl Jam’s music on film, even though he indulges in one of the most annoying habits of music documentary directors: until the very end he never lets us see Pearl Jam perform one single song, start to finish. He does avoid another one of the traps of films like this: he doesn’t include the usual plethora of talking heads going on and on and on about his subject’s importance; besides the members of Pearl Jam themselves, the only person extensively interviewed on camera is Chris Cornell, their longtime associate and friend. Instead there are some quite amusing clips from people commenting on Pearl Jam in the early 1990’s, in the flush times of their success — including a couple of excerpts from the late Andy Rooney’s 60 Minutes commentary on the grunge scene, in which he said he was tired of hearing 20-something girls say they liked bands like Pearl Jam because they agreed with them that life was hopeless, and he’d gladly trade ages with them.
Clashes between the younger generation that likes contemporary music and older people that look askance on it and can’t understand why anyone would want to listen to it have become axiomatic (I’ll never forget reading Bruno Walter’s autobiography Theme and Variations and learning that for a music-loving German teenager in the late 1890’s the generation gap was over Wagner — Walter and his generation loved him, his parents and their generation hated him, though the older Germans generally conceded that Tannhäuser and Lohengrin were great operas and reserved their scorn for everything Wagner wrote after that). One recalls the oddball video issued as part of the complete Buddy Holly boxed set on the European label Purple Chick, a weird appearance by Holly and his band, the Crickets, on a New York local show MC’d by Arlene Francis in a patronizing fashion, telling her viewers that even if they don’t think they like rock ’n’ roll they should listen to it anyway or else they won’t “understand” young people. Pearl Jam 20 scores in ways a more conventional music-doc wouldn’t have — Cameron Crowe’s affection for his subjects and their music is quite obvious — though there are parts of the movie you’d have to be pretty well up on Pearl Jam trivia to understand (the film didn’t make it clear that while Pearl Jam recorded an album backing Neil Young, Mirror Ball, they were not allowed to take credit for it as “Neil Young and Pearl Jam”; instead all the Pearl Jam members were credited merely as individuals, because they and Young were under contract to different record companies) and a more conventional presentation might have made part of the history clearer. Still, as an example of a rock band that has lasted over 20 years with four of the five original members still on board (the only one they’ve rotated was the drummer; like Bruce Springsteen and, for that matter, the Beatles, they had to go through several drummers before they found the right one long-term) and survived a skyrocketing career upswing and the seemingly inevitable fall, Pearl Jam are worth treasuring — especially as a reminder that 20 years ago it was still possible to become sensationally popular in the music business while still writing emotionally sophisticated, impassioned songs about the darker aspects of human existence. Today all that sells are boy bands, dance divas and ultra-materialistic rappers!