“I’m just looking to make it right.”
In a rare telephone interview, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder is talking about the illness that forced him off the stage in June, just six songs into a set in front of 50,000 people at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
In one of those surprising stream-of-consciousness moments that endear him to those who know him well, Vedder has called a reporter to talk about radio and Pearl Jam’s commitment to broadcasting possibly illegally, during its visit to San Jose this weekend. He is responding to a column in last week’s San Jose Mercury News praising the band for bringing 1960s idealism back to life.
Vedder has gotten steered off his subject, and he’s answering longstanding questions about what happened the last time he was in the Bay Area.
Leaving the San Francisco show was one of the big regrets of his career, he says. To make up for it, the band will play at San Jose’s Spartan Stadium Saturday.
“I wish I could have played that San Francisco show or something would have happened which allowed me to play it,” he says, speaking in a style that is at times disarmingly casual and at others betrays an intense wariness in dealing with the media.
“That’s a regret that I guess I don’t have any guilt over, because I know there was no way. I never should have been let out of the hospital. I was having a hard time standing up.”
Vedder says he went to bed early before the San Francisco show, June 23. He turned down an invitation to go to a jazz club and stayed in his room reading “Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo.” The author, 13-year-old Zlata Filipovic, was going to meet the band at the show, a dream come true for her.
But, says Vedder, at 5 a.m. he checked into a downtown San Francisco hospital, where he remained until 9 a.m., suffering the effects of food poisoning.
“I wanted to write a letter to the newspaper or something, but I always feel that if I am explaining myself, people will take a negative slant,” he says.
In telling the story, Vedder shows some of the hypersensitivity that has plagued his dealings with the media. He is worried that saying he had food poisoning sounds trivial - something with which anyone who has suffered the sickness will argue.
“It sounds like it’s not a big deal,” he says. “But I thought I was going to die. We’ve been in some pretty tense situations as far as crowd control, and usually I pull it off. I think they just thought I was going to pull it off.
“I’m not being a martyr or anything, but it was hard. And then I was looking through the set list. Well, maybe I can pull this off or that off. And then it was like, ‘I can’t. I just can’t do this. It’s crazy.’ That was one of those low moments. That was a really tough thing. But there was nothing, just nothing, I could do. I’m human.”
That is a point Vedder says he most wants to make. That he is just human.
Born Edward Louis Seversen III in Evanston, Ill., 30 years ago, he has an earthiness about him that friends and co-workers quickly point to, in contrast to the booming other-worldy Jim Morrison-like voice that leaps off Pearl Jam’s albums.
“You’d be surprised at how normal he is,” says a 21-year-old guitarist who calls himself Campbell 2000 and played with Vedder in the band Hovercraft. “He’s just like anyone else, and after you are with him a while you never think of him as a rock star.”
Vedder was struggling in the San Diego area, working at a Longs drugstore and briefly playing in a band called Bad Radio. Drummer Jack Irons gave him a tape of music from Seattle guitarist Stone Gossard, who was looking for a new singer. The music eventually became the multi-platinum album “Ten.” A surfer, Vedder wrote lyrics to the song that became “Alive,” while riding the waves.
Vedder hates media hype and hates being identified as the star of the band, which has sold almost 20 million albums since it was formed in 1990, according to those close to him. Musically, he shares billing and creative output with guitarists Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Irons, formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
But the more reluctant Vedder is to grant interviews and speak on the record to the media, the more his fans hang on his every word.
A lot of them, however, haven’t had a chance to hear the rambling freestyle FM-radio broadcasts he does after most shows, on a portable pirate (he prefers “free radio”) station that follows the band around.
It will broadcast before, during and after the San Jose show on an empty band somewhere between 88.1 and 89.5. During the broadcasts, Vedder and other band members spin records and speak off the cuff. They also take questions from fans on a cellular phone.
Vedder seems more relaxed with his own medium, where he can’t be misquoted or taken out of context. He says he would like to broadcast seven days a week in his hometown, Seattle.
“I feel the radio thing has only reached 10 percent of its potential,” he says. He sees it as a way of turning people on to new music and answering the questions he receives in countless letters from fans.
“I don’t think we’d be a threat to commercial radio at all,” he says. “You’d have to have pretty eclectic tastes to tune in. What we play is even under college radio, as far as being underground.”
Vedder and two friends have driven the van that followed the tour as a way of feeling “more connected” to the cities in which Pearl Jam has appeared. The van won’t be in San Jose, though, because it is being used for something else, says Vedder. The broadcasts will originate from a tent.
Vedder, who practices the kind of idealism that many others only preach, says he would have no problem if commercial radio wanted to broadcast the shows, as well. The band also ignores bootlegging of its live performances.
While it won’t give permission, if asked, it doesn’t believe in bothering those who tape without asking. And the group encourages such recordings by broadcasting high-quality live shows, taken off the band’s soundboard.
Another theme emerges in Vedder’s conversation: He sounds tired of making people angry.
He and the band have been slammed in the media every time their good intentions took a minor misstep, despite the fact that they are among just a handful of musicians trying to do something for their fans, rather than just raking in the bucks from arena tours.
Vedder says he sometimes questions whether it’s all worth it, and is happy to get encouragement and support from fans.
Taking a different road from say, Kurt Cobain, Vedder seems to have dropped much of the angry-young-man stance that characterized early grunge rock.
“I don’t want to make anyone mad at radio stations,” he says. “For sure, that would be pretty distressing… . This band is not a problem child.”
When he heard that several local stations were complaining about fielding phone calls from confused fans and making fun of him for leaving the San Francisco show, even playing a Neil Young song parody about his getting sick, Vedder says he thought it was funny.
And he offers an apology to those who found the ticket-buying process for the San Jose show - which involved sending back Golden Gate Park tickets, along with an additional $12.45 - confusing.
“I thought it was pretty cut-and-dried,” he says. “I thought it would be better organized. I know what it’s like to field a … load of phone calls. It’s not a lot of fun.”
He had wanted the San Jose makeup show to be free, but says the band is just breaking even at the price it charged.
Vedder says he will continue to refuse to play venues that have exclusive contracts with the Ticketmaster monopoly, although the battle has been draining for the band and has too often taken its focus off the music.
“It was the final insult as to how blown out of proportion that thing got,” he says. “Because we were just talking about a few dollars per ticket, and it was just one more very, very, very small detail of how we handle our shows. Maybe we shouldn’t have worried about it, but at least we were consistent.”
Vedder compares the Justice Department’s failure to see a monopoly in Ticketmaster’s contracts with various venues to the “justice we saw in the trial in L.A. You can hire people and make it work. That’s what they did. They had the dream team.”
Even though many fans consider him an enigma, his life is fairly routine, he says.
“The mystery is probably way more interesting,” he says. “All I do is my laundry and pick up coffee at 7-Eleven. I work a lot, but it’s just work, my craft. I have a broad range of interests, which is probably why we don’t have a record out this year.”
After Thanksgiving, the band will release two Vedder songs, recorded with Neil Young on guitar, on a single called “Merkin Ball,” a title that plays off Young’s “Mirror Ball.”
(Vedder says the title refers to an “arrowhead.” Webster’s defines “merkin” as an archaic term for a pubic-hair wig. The guy who gave us “Bugs” on “Vitalogy” has a sense of humor.)
The San Jose show will be different from those on the June tour, he says, because the band has been evolving - “and Neil’s not going to be there,” he adds, laughing.
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