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Sunday, December 5, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Most Popular Band In The World -- After Screaming Their Way To The Top Of The Rock World, Pearl Jam And A Silent Eddie Vedder Are Headed Home To Seattle

Damn that Eddie Vedder!

Just when it's time to write the big story about Pearl Jam, on the eve of the band's homecoming shows Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the Arena, he clams up. The other guys in the band aren't talking either, and their excuse is that Vedder is the band spokesman.

Vedder has always had mixed feelings about the media, but after his recent arrest in New Orleans, for public drunkenness and disturbing the peace in a pre-dawn barroom brawl, he has been especially wary.

The fight, which also involved Vedder's friend Jack McDowell of the Chicago White Sox, who was knocked out by a bouncer, raised concerns about Vedder, who is rarely seen without a wine bottle these days. On the current tour, he has been drinking throughout the shows, usually sharing his expensive French Bordeaux wines with the first few rows.

Some of the other band members have expressed concern about his drinking, because he used to hardly touch alcohol, even beer. It seems the pressures of fame are getting to him.

The Time magazine cover may have had something to do with it. Although he tried to ignore it - he refused to be interviewed or photographed for the Oct. 25 story - there is no doubt it bugged him. At the surprise Off Ramp show in Seattle that launched the tour last month, he referred to the article with an expletive and said he used the cover, with his picture on it, for toilet paper.

Like Kurt Cobain before him, Vedder was not ready for the huge popularity that has engulfed his band. At this moment, Pearl Jam is the most popular rock group in the world. Its second album, "Vs.," is at the top of the charts.

The album set a first-week sales record, with almost a million copies sold, and it's still going strong. Although it was released only six weeks ago, it will be the biggest-selling album of 1993. Thanks to Christmas-gift buying, and gift-certificate purchases and album exchanges after Christmas, it could rack up 10 million copies sold before the new year. It's nearly halfway there already.

The same brooding sensitivity and emotional volatility that mark Vedder's personality are what make Pearl Jam's music so compelling. Although the foundational riffs of guitarist Stone Gossard (the starting point of most Pearl Jam songs), the searing guitar solos of Mike McCready, the intense percussion of drummer Dave Abbruzzese and the unbridled energy of bassist Jeff Ament are all essential to Pearl Jam's sound, it's Vedder's lyrics that set it apart.

From the anguished cries of "Alive," the first song they did together, to the hard-rocking workouts on "Vs.," Vedder has bared his tortured soul, and become the spokesman for a generation.

Millions of rock fans around the world respond to his songs about hurting, misunderstood and abused children, unhealthy relationships, urban violence and decay, racism, overpopulation, and adolescents' diminished expectations for the future. These issues are couched in human terms in his songs, as seen through an individual affected by them. Rather than rantings, they're stories, vignettes that speak of larger concerns.

Pearl Jam came on the scene so quickly two years ago that at first the songs weren't immediately identified with Vedder's own life. In his early interviews, he didn't give any clues that many of the songs were actually about his difficult childhood.

It was only after the spotlight on the band focused on him that he began to reveal some of the origins of his songwriting. A Rolling Stone cover story last month by Cameron Crowe, a close friend of the band and its manager Kelly Curtis, and director of "Singles," the grunge romance in which Vedder, Gossard and Ament had minor roles, was Vedder's most revealing interview. Even other band members learned things about him they never knew.

"Alive" was widely perceived at first as a life-affirming cry inspired by the heroin-overdose death of Andrew Wood, lead singer of Mother Love Bone, the Pearl Jam predecessor that also included Gossard and Ament.

But Vedder revealed to Crowe that it's actually based on his own experience of being told, as a teenager, that his real father - whom he had known as a family friend - had died some years before. Because Vedder had a bad relationship with his stepfather, the fact that he never got to know his real father was devastating to him.

Crowe also got Vedder to talk about his general sense of anxiety. Vedder was revealed as a restless soul with so much pent-up nervous energy that he hardly ever sleeps. He worries about everything, from cruelty to animals to the negative effects of pornography. He is hard to be around sometimes, both he and his bandmates say, because of his intensity.

All that psychic energy explodes on stage, as Vedder plays out his emotions to throngs that thrive on it. He connects with audiences in a primal way, with the kind of communication that turns the concert experience into an epiphany. He reminds me of Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant and Bob Marley in their youthful prime. Like them, he touches you on a deep emotional level, through the power of his words and his dramatic, revealing, personal delivery.

Grew up in Chicago

A year ago he was largely a mystery but now we know a lot about Eddie Vedder. He was born Eddie Mueller in suburban Evanston, Ill., in December 1964, and grew up in Chicago, where his mother and stepfather ran an orphanage.

After dropping out of high school, he moved out of the house, adopted his mother's maiden name, and went to work as a waiter in Chicago. He met his girlfriend, writer Beth Liebling, there at a neighboring restaurant, where she was a waitress. They later moved to San Diego, where he worked nights at a refinery pumping gas for trucks, and spent his days surfing. Before going to work at midnight, he used to hang out at clubs and was a fixture on the San Diego scene. He was in a couple of bands that never went anywhere.

The birth of Pearl Jam

His connection with Pearl Jam is the stuff of legend. Seeking to form a new band after the demise of Mother Love Bone following the death of Wood, Gossard sent a tape of some instrumental riffing to his friend Jack Irons, formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, in Los Angeles to see if he might write some lyrics for the music. Busy with other projects, he passed on the tape to his friend Vedder, who used to go to L.A. on weekends to play basketball with Irons.

After listening to the tape several times, and thinking about it as he surfed, Vedder composed a mini-opera of three songs - "Alive," "Once" and "Footsteps" - using Ament's music. He designed the tape package to look like a real album, calling it "Mamasan," and sent it back to Gossard. After one listen, Gossard called Ament and said he had found a lead singer.

After a long phone conversation with Gossard, Vedder hopped a plane to Seattle. He went directly to Gossard and Ament's practice space and began working with them. McCready and original drummer Dave Krusen joined them, and a band was born. They called it Mookie Blaylock, after the NBA basketball star.

Quickly made impression

Soon after arriving, Vedder joined Gossard, Ament and McCready, along with Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron of Soundgarden, in the recording of "Temple of the Dog," a tribute album to Wood. His co-lead vocal with Cornell on "Hunger Strike" was testimony that there was bold new talent on the Seattle scene.

Newly renamed Pearl Jam, after Blaylock informed the band he had copyrighted his own name for promotional purposes, the band released its first album, "Ten," in 1991. It contained "Alive" and "Once," as well as a graphic song about a troubled boy, "Jeremy," that immediately caught the attention of radio programmers. Helped by a dramatic video that became a staple of MTV, "Jeremy" became a hit and sales of "Ten" soared. The band has been on a rocket-ride of a career ever since.

The Arena shows this week will be followed by another key performance here next week, when the band will join with Nirvana to film a New Year's Eve special for MTV. That meeting of the two Seattle powerhouses - who used to be enemies - should be spectacular, because each will try to outdo the other. And the broadcast will usher in a new year for what is likely to be THE band of the 1990s - Pearl Jam.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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