By Allan Jones
Three weeks ago at the Paramount Theatre in New York, Pearl Jam played what might be their last show for the foreseeable future. Allan Jones was at the concert and in this exclusive interview talks to Eddie Vedder about the death of Kurt Cobain, the pressures of unwanted celebrity and how meaning too much to too many people can tear you apart.
“You know,” Eddie says, his voice trembling, hoarse, no more than a whisper, “I always thought I’d go first.” Neither of us says anything for a long time after this. It gets so quiet between us I can hear my heart beating, an insignificant pulse. Eddie stares at the floor, looking for secrets in stone. The silence is unnerving. “I don’t know why I thought that,” he says finally. “It just seemed like I would. I mean, I didn’t know him on a daily basis — far from it. But, in a way, I don’t even feel right being here without him. It’s so difficult to really believe he’s gone. I still talk about him like he’s still here, you know. I can’t figure it out. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“I remember when he got sick in Rome — I didn’t realise then that it was actually a suicide attempt — I was in Seattle. I went out to grab something to eat and I saw the headlines. That he was in a coma. I just freaked out, man. I went home and made some phone calls, tried to find out what the fuck was going on. Then I started pacing the house and started to cry.
“I just kept saying, ‘Don’t go, man, just don’t fuckin’ go….just don’t go.’ I kept thinking, ‘If he goes, I’m fucked.’ ” Where were you when you heard that he’d killed himself? “I was in a hotel room in Washington, DC. A hotel room that I decimated.” His voice trails off again, into a troubled, haunted silence. We sit there like this for a while, time slipping away, neither of us in a hurry to say anything.
It’s hot in here. I’m very tired and starting to lose a bit of focus when Eddie sends a chair spinning across the dressing room into the wall, which it hits with an almighty fucking crash that brings me back to my senses with a startled jolt.
“Fuck it fuckin’ all,” he hisses with a terrible vehemence, and I don’t know where he’s going now. “You know, all these people man,” he says, ” all lining up to say that his death was so fucking inevitable… well, if it was inevitable for him, it’s gonna be inevitable for me, too, if this continues.”
“That’s why this could be our last show in fuckin’ for ever as far as I’m concerned. Kurt’s death has changed everything. I don’t know if I can do it any more.
“See, people like him and me, we can’t be real. It’s a contradiction. We can’t be these people who just write these real songs. We have to live up to the expectations of a million people. And we can’t do that. And then there’s a cynical fuckin’ media on top of that. Fuck that, fuck ’em. All along the line, they question your fuckin’ honesty. No matter what you say, no matter what you do, they think it’s an angle. They think it’s all a fuckin’ game. Because that’s all they’re used to. That’s what they think it is, a fuckin’ game. They don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. And when someone comes along who’s trying to be real, they don’t know the fuckin’ difference.
“So if you say, “No, I’m not playing your fuckin’ game, I want out… I’m not doing this, I’m not doing that…, they still think you’re part of it. They just can’t accept that you don’t want to be part of it, that you were never part of it. They just think it’s an angle. Some kind of fuckin’ angle. And that makes it so hard for somebody who’s just trying to be honest. So fuck it.”
Eddie stops for breath, and you can feel tiredness and something approaching hysteria coming off him in waves. You’re actually beginning to wonder if he hasn’t talked himself out when he gets a second wind.
“And another thing,” he suddenly shouts, and I flinch. “We never talked about this but it’s like you were saying although we were very different people, there was probably a lot we had in common. We had similar backgrounds, yeah, things that happened with our families and shit… I think that’s something that comes out in what we wrote in our songs, definitely. It is kinda similar sometimes. But what makes it more similar is the way people responded to what we wrote and sang about, the intense identification.”
“And I think it was maybe a shock to both of us that so many people were going through the same things. I mean, they understood so completely what we were talking about. And this was shit we thought only he and I were ever gonna have to deal with. Because we kinda wrote these songs for ourselves really. Then all of a sudden, there’s all these other people who connect with them and you’re suddenly the spokesman for a fuckin’ generation. Can you imagine that!” he shouts.
“A… spokesman… for a… generation,” he goes on, and you’re not sure whether he thinks this is sad, terrible or too funny for words. “I tell you, man,” he says, calmer now, but only just, “when our first record came out, I was shocked how many people related to some of that stuff. Something like ‘Alive’, so many people dealt with death through that song. Like people dealt with the death of love through ‘Black’ and so many people dealt with suicide through ‘Jeremy’. The kind of letters that got through to me about those songs, some of them were just frightening.
“It’s just so fuckin’ weird. You write about this shit, and you’re suddenly the spokesman for a fuckin’ generation,” he laughs, and it’s a bitter, scary laugh, nothing funny about it at all. “Think about it, man,” he says. “Any generation that would pick Kurt or me as its spokesman — that must be a pretty fucked up generation, don’t you think? I mean, that generation must be really fucked up, man, really fuckin’ fucked up…..”
We are backstage at the Paramount Theatre, sitting in a bleak little dressing room somewhere in the vast ugliness of the Madison Square Garden sport and entertainment complex. In a couple of hours, Pearl Jam will be playing the last show of the current leg of their American tour. Nine days earlier, Kurt Cobain had been found in Seattle with his head blown off.
“I don’t know how we’ve got through this last week,” Eddie says, dragging a rickety metal chair across this whitewashed cell. We could be patients in an institution, waiting for some kind of unpleasant treatment. “It’s been so fuckin’ hard, man,” he says wearily. “So hard. For a number of reasons, I didn’t want to continue this tour, Kurt’s death being one. But we decided to pull together, make it through this last week and then forget it for a while.”
His voice is full of dust and gravel, worn out, almost gone. It’s a four-in-the-morning-whisky-and-cigarette growl. And listening to him, you can feel his mood twitching uncertainly between fatigue and violence. He seems at once tired beyond words and ready for some kind of action, a physical declaration that despite the burden of his grief and bewilderment at the events of these last few days and the impact they’ve had on his own precarious sense of himself, he has not yet given up the fight.
And watching Eddie’s moods shift and lurch, from painful introspection to explosive outbursts of livid impatient anger, it’s like watching thunder taking brooding shape in summer skies. One minute, he’s talking in a hushed, faltering whisper, the next he’s shouting, ranting, swearing. One minute he’s hunched in his chair, small, crouched, turning in on himself, withdrawn, increasingly remote, the next, his fuse has blown and things are flying across the dressing room. To describe his current mood as volatile would be a masterly understatement.
You were expecting something like this, of course. Almost as soon as you’d begun to take in the appalling news of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, you started thinking about Eddie and how he might be coping. They were meant to be enemies, arch-rivals; this was the convenient drama, the two biggest new stars in American rock in irreconcilable conflict. But you had met Eddie a year ago in London and genuinely believed he was beyond such pettiness, even though you couldn’t speak for Kurt, who might well have meant every sour and ugly thing he ever said about Pearl Jam. Kurt, you felt, could be pretty unforgiving.
“There was a lot of stuff that got said, but none of it really matters,” Eddie says now, thinking about it.” And I like to think he may have had second thoughts about some of the things he said, you know… I mean there’s a person we both knew, who told me that Kurt asked about me a lot, like picked their brains about me, this person who knew us both. And I thought that was cool. That made me feel good, you know. Because so much bullshit was getting written about us. And we talked, we talked a couple of times. And this one time, he told me flat-out, just delivered me a whole paragraph on the respect he had for what I did, and he realised it was pure.”
“This,” he suddenly remembers, “was at the MTV Awards. ‘Tears of Heaven’ was playing in the background, we were slow dancing. I remember going out surfing the next morning and remembering how good that moment felt and thinking, ‘Fuck, man, if only we hadn’t been so afraid of each other…’ Because we were going though so much of the same shit. If only we’d talked, maybe we could have helped each other.”
Last December, MM in fact tried to bring Eddie and Kurt together. We had a mother of a Christmas cover in mind. It started off as a bit of a whim. Imagine our surprise, then, when the people we were talking to reported back that despite any previously announced animosity first Eddie then Kurt agreed, only for them to have a further misunderstanding over a Time magazine cover story that now seems too trivial to go into in more detail.
At the time, Pearl Jam and Nirvana were lined up to play an MTV spectacular, to be filmed at Pier 48 in Seattle for international broadcast on New Year’s Eve. The Breeders and Cypress Hill were also on the bill and it was meant to be a public reconciliation between Pearl Jam and Nirvana after their long-standing feud.
The day before the concert, Pearl Jam announced they were pulling out. The official reason was that Eddie’s voice was shot, that he was exhausted. Talking backstage to MM photographer Steve Gullick, Stone Gossard, who’d turned up at Pier 48 to jam with Cypress Hill, described Eddie as being “extremely ill.”
There were some people, inevitably, who doubted this. “I was really fuckin’ ill, man,” Eddie says now. “And that’s the truth. We’d just finished a tour, then we played three more shows in Seattle and I was barely hanging in there. The pressures were intense. They had people lined up in wheelchairs for me to meet and all kinds of shit. And it takes so much out of you, stuff like that, there’s nothing left.”
“But I got through that, and then you know what it’s like. You get off tour and you get home, and you just totally let your defences down. It’s like letting your guard down in boxing with 30 seconds left in the round and you get fuckin’ hit when you least expect it. And I got hit in the face really bad. I was really fucked up. And then they were calling, saying, ‘Well, can you be better by Tuesday? Can you do this? Can you do that? Can you play the show? And I was feeling like shit and I was gonna sound like shit and we knew a lot of people would get to see it if we played and it would sound real shitty. So I just said no and it turned out to be a real big fuckin’ thing.”
A lot of people thought you’d pulled out because you didn’t want to appear with Nirvana, that your non-appearance was a big fuck you, that it was simply petulant.
“And that was the worse part of it all,” Eddie says, exasperated. “Sitting at home fuckin’ sick as a dog and sweating and shivering and watching the hours pass before this thing was going to happen and thinking ‘I’m fucked, man, I’m totally fucked’, and then having it get even worse because there were all these rumours going around about where I was and why I wasn’t there. And people were saying we pulled out because we wanted to headline or we wouldn’t appear. But fuck it, there was no problem. We would have gone on first, second or fuckin’ third, where the fuckever, you know. There was no problem with the order. And I was really happy about playing with them. I even thought about writing to them to say, ‘Sorry, man, I was sick’, But then the rumours got to be fun to listen to. One had me surfing in Hawaii. One had me walking in and seeing all the lights and cameras and going ‘Whoa, fuck this shit. I’m outta here’. And that,” he smiles, “would probably have been the closest to the truth. I mean, in the end the bottom line was that I was sick. But later it seemed to me that if we were really going to get together to do something, it should maybe be for something more important than an MTV special, you know.”
There was one thing, talking about the rivalry between Pearl Jam and Nirvana and the way it made people take sides, that Eddie remembers really hurt him. When Kurt went into a coma in Rome, a local Seattle magazine, a small-circulation coffee house rag, carried an article with the headline: “WHY COULDN’T IT HAVE BEEN EDDIE VEDDER?” This was exactly what Courtney Love had told Select magazine, I tell Eddie. He looks absolutely stunned. “Oh,” he says, the wind gone out of him, utterly deflated. “That’s nice. that’s really nice. That makes me feel really good. I wonder why she didn’t mention that when I phoned her last night and offered her any help or support I could give her…” We sit for a while in one of our regular silences. “I really don’t know any of these people,” he says eventually. “I don’t know Courtney, I’d never talked to her before. But someone said I should call her and I thought maybe I should. I mean, all this shit that comes up and all this bullshit that flies back and forth in the press that Last October, Pearl Jam released “Vs”, the follow-up to “Ten”, which by then had been on the Billboard chart for more than two years, during which time it had sold over five million copies in America alone. A lot of people doubted that they could repeat this kind of success.
In the event, “Vs” sold an astonishing 1.2 million in America in its first five days of release, smashing the previous opening week sales of 777,000 clocked up by Guns N’ Roses “Use Your Illusion II” in 1991. In its own first week of release, Nirvana’s “In Utero” had sold under 200,000 copies. This made it the fastest selling album ever in America.
Pearl Jam were part of history now, and you wondered how Eddie would react to the fact that “Vs” would most likely be remembered now not as a great record but as a statistic. You hoped again that he would cope, that he might even enjoy its success. This turned out to be wishful thinking.
On November 19, two weeks into Pearl Jam’s U.S. tour, Eddie was arrested in New Orleans on charges of public drunkenness after a bar room brawl. At around four in the morning, after the first of Pearl Jam’s three sell-out shows at the Lake Front Arena, Eddie was drinking in a bar on Decataur Street in the city’s French Quarter with members of support band Urge Overkill and Jack McDowall, pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, Urge’s local baseball team.
Eddie was allegedly involved in an altercation with a local resident, James Gorman. After a frank exchange of opinions, Eddie reportedly spat in Gorman’s face. A full-scale fist-fight erupted, the fracas spilling onto the street. In the chaos that followed, Eddie was said to have knocked Gorman unconscious, while McDowall was flattened by a bouncer from the nearby Blue Crystal Nightclub. When the police arrived, they arrested Eddie. “And I didn’t do SHIT!” Eddie explodes when I bring up the incident. “What happened,” he says, “was that in New Orleans, somebody did something I didn’t like and I spit in their face. And now there’s a three million dollar lawsuit. That’s fuckin’ bullshit. It was like, I was thinking, ‘ Would I take this off this guy if I was just fuckin’ anybody?” ‘ And I thought, ‘No, I fuckin’ wouldn’t.”
Trying to get the story straight, I ask Eddie if he’s talking about James Gorman here. “I don’t know his fuckin’ name,” Eddie says testily enough to make me wish I’d never asked. So what happened? “I must have talked to, like, two dozen people that night in that bar and the names of 20 of them ended up on my cocktail napkin plus one for the guest list to our next show. And as far as I remember I talked to this guy for a while.”
“You know,” he says suddenly, interrupting himself, “I’m not supposed to even talk about this because it’s still in litigation. But fuck that, man. Fuck it. I didn’t do shit. I was with Blackie and Ed from Urge. I talked to this guy for a while and we tried to walk on. But this guy, he wouldn’t let it go. He still had to have more. He still had to cover some more points. And Blackie says, ‘Look, man, just mellow out, we’re going, you know….’ And this guy’s going, ‘No, no. I got to say one more thing, we gotta talk…’ And finally I kinda held him against the wall,” he says, his voice dropping to a slow emphatic whisper, “I…spit…in…his…face. Big fuckin’ deal. Anyway, then all hell broke loose. But I never threw a punch. Thank goodness. Because — who knows? —I could really have hurt him. Because that’s when I realised, you know, that my friend was hurt. He fell into the bumper of a Jeep on the street there. So there’s this guy, a talented and well-respected friend of mine who’s lying on the ground unconscious because of this little dick who’s saying to me, ‘You’re not my Messiah, you’re not my Messiah…’ “And I’m going, ‘That’s what I was trying to tell you, man. That’s what I was trying to TELL you. I’m not your fuckin’ Messiah.’
“This is the shit that happens. Even last night, after we played on ‘Saturday Night Live’, there was this incident, something that was totally fuckin’ violating to me. Something I could not control happened and suddenly we’re in this huge thing, and I’m going ‘Jesus fuckin’ Christ, after all I fuckin’ do, you know, and STILL somebody is not happy. They want MORE.’
“You know I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m not giving any more. Like, just a few days ago, there’s some kid and he wants his picture taken with me and I just didn’t feel up to it. It didn’t feel right. And he’s going, ‘Come on, come on, let me get my picture taken with you. I gotta get my picture taken with you.’ And I’m like, I’m sorry, man, I can’t do it. I’m having a really tough time these days. Like, we just lost Kurt, like three days ago, man. I’m all fucked up.”
“And he’s just not listening and he’s going, ‘I should tell you, man, Kurt posed with me, man…’ And I just said, ‘Yeah, and look where he is now, look where it fuckin’ got him, man.’ “I mean, what is this kid doing, you know. Collecting our fuckin’ heads? And you know this kid, he’s going to be doing the same thing next week with Bon fuckin’ Jovi or somebody.
“You know what I really need right now?” he asks suddenly. “I need to know what people want from me. I feel like there are all these contradictions about what people want, you know. And in the end they want too much. They want you to be a leader. They want you to be a victim. They want your fuckin’ soul. They want everything. And some of them, they don’t give up, they’re relentless. And why should I care? I shouldn’t even fuckin’ care, man. I should be strong enough to say ‘I don’t give a fuck. Fuck you all, I don’t give a fuck, you fuckin’ bastards.”
“And then I’d really be a spokesman for a generation. Because there are a lotta people out there, man, going ‘Fuck this fuckin’ shit. Fuck it.’ They’re ignorant and they’re happy and they don’t give a fuck about anything. I see a lotta people out there, man, and they’re beyond fucked up. So maybe I should care a little less about them, because it looks like they don’t care about me.”
Just over a month ago, Kurt Cobain ended what had become the awful anguish of his life with a shotgun blast that blew his face off. You would have thought it would have been an occasion for nothing more complicated than tears and grief. For some people, however, it was an opportunity for gloating condescension, questionable moralising and something approaching sneering indifference. For these people, Kurt was weak, pathetic, a snivelling little asshole who took a coward’s way out. These were the people for whom Kurt was nothing more than an irritating little saddo who, having become successful, did nothing but whine about it. I am thinking here particularly of Chrissie Hynde and the motifyingly embarrassing interview with the silly old dear in the NME the week after Kurt’s death, which for sheer churlishness was pretty unbeatable.
“When will people understand the simple fuckin’ fact that it’s not success that’s the fuckin’ problem,” Eddie veritably froths. “It’s a fuckin’ honour that people love your music and buy your records and come to your shows. It’s what happens when a lot of these people start thinking you can change their lives or save their lives or whatever and create these impossible fuckin’ expectations that in the end just start tearing you apart that’s the problem. If that’s success, fuck it. I’m outta here. The thing is, success on any level can be hard to deal with for most musicians. Why? Because you never really believe you’re going to be successful. I mean, I’ve met very few musicians who truly believed they’d ever be successful on like a major scale. At least, very few that I’ve liked. If they thought they were going to be successful, they were probably some cocky fuckin’ bastard I didn’t give two shits about. So when you unexpectedly become more successful than you ever imagined, it can be something that’s real heavy to deal with. And I think Kurt, he definitely had a lot of shit to deal with. It’s like Mike, our guitar player, I don’t mind talking about it, fuck it, he’s fuckin’ up, man. He’s getting fucked up way too much, doing stupid shit and I’m fuckin’ worried for him.”
“The thing is, we’re not Madonna. And I don’t mind mentioning the name because it’s a good example and she’ll be proud of the fact that I’ve even mentioned her. She’s someone who manipulates the media, someone who has a new look and a new theme behind every performance. She orchestrates this kind of anticipation and she thrives on it. ‘What’s she gonna do now? Where’s she gonna go next?’ She loves the attention. “And someone like that, look what they’ve had to do. They end up having to shock and strip and go as far as you can go. And I’m sorry, that’s boring, so boring to me. I don’t need that attention. I don’t want that attention. And I don’t think it’s fair for anyone to criticise me or Kurt or anyone else for not wanting any fuckin’ part of it. Because that’s not why we got into this. We got into this because we wanted to be in a band, play music, make records. End of fuckin’ story.”
Eddie’s been quiet these last couple of minutes, so you know something else is on his mind. “The thing is,” he goes on then, “you’d think your ego would be massive, playing for all these people, having all these people sing your songs. The fact is, you never think you’re that good. You don’t feel like you deserve this kind of attention or adulation. And so what you end up feeling instead of this large ego is, you feel like you’re worthless. You can’t live up to the glorification and it makes you feel small and it makes you feel real shitty.”
“Like, we get thousands of letters a week from people who want some kind of help. I’ve had people sending me notes saying they’re going to commit suicide and I’ve called them up, and some of them, man, they’re beyond help. But you’re in this position where you start to think there must be something you can do, you know. So maybe I’m more tortured now, because I feel like there’s more I should be doing. But you can’t help everybody and if you say, ‘Well, I’ll help this person, but there’s nothing I can do right now for that person’, it’s even worse, because then you do start acting like God. Because there are so many people who deserve whatever help you can give them.” “It’s the same with organisations. We’re constantly getting letters asking us to do this or do that. And they’re good causes. But they can’t even show them to me any more. Because they know I’ll let my innards be scooped out. I’ll have nothing left.” “And people have advised me on this. They’ve said, ‘What you’re doing musically, don’t jeopardise that. The music is something everyone can get something out of, and you shouldn’t be required to do anything more. And if you put everything into that, then that’s helping more people than you could ever imagine.’ “And I’ve come to realise that these people are probably right. Because if you get lost in these individual situations and circumstances, if you get too drawn in, you can lose control of your own life and where you’re going. And then you really would be worthless as far as making music and in the end you need to protect that. So as far as all these cries for help go, it’s easy to hear and easy to take in. But it’s almost impossible to do anything. And that may be really fuckin’ hard to accept,” he says with a weary finality, “but it’s the sad fuckin’ truth.”
Let me mention here that Eddie had told me about one particular letter that came to his attention. It was from a 13 year-old boy named Michael and it was about his mother. This was a woman whose husband had walked out on her, leaving her to bring up three children on her own. She worked cleaning toilets, delivering mail, anything, to earn enough money to put herself through community college. She eventually got a degree. Then she had an accident, her hip was destroyed, she couldn’t walk, she couldn’t work. On Valentine’s Day last year, she tried to commit suicide. Eddie was moved by the letter, got involved, tried to make what he described as a useful response. The morning after the interview, I wake up in my hotel room to find an envelope pushed under the door. It’s from Eddie, a note and the letter Michael’s mother sent him thanking him for everything he’d done for her. I read it over breakfast, a chill creeping over me.
You wondered, then, how you would cope with things like this, one of many small involvements in people’s lives, and the responsibilities you assume when like Eddie you get in so deep. And you were glad then that you’d probably never have to find out. Because you were sure that more than one letter like the one he’d given you would fuck you up, no doubt about it.
Back at the Paramount, the interview is winding down when Steve Gullick turns up. He’s been told that he can only take pictures during the first number of Pearl Jam’s show, no flash, from an obscure vantage point on the far side of the stage.
“Fuck that,” Eddie says. “Take as many shots as you like, from where you like, for as long as you like and if anybody gives you any shit, tell ’em to talk to me about it.” Steve asks if he can do a couple of shots in the dressing room. Eddie says sure and goes to fetch his guitar. “Let’s go in here,” he says, walking into the shower stall and turning on the water. Then he borrows my lighter and starts burning the cork from the wine bottle we’ve just emptied and starts making up his face, drawing dark circles around his eyes, and a cross on his forehead. “This is going to make you look ever so weird,” Gullick tells him. “Let me be as weird as I fuckin’ like,” Eddie says. “It’s my fuckin’ life.”
Source: Melody Maker, May 21, 1994