Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready spoke to a capacity crowd at the KEXP gathering space on Tuesday, talking about his book, "Of Potato Heads and Polaroids: My Life Inside and Out of Pearl Jam."

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Mike McCready takes a shot of the crowd gathered at KEXP’s gathering space May 30 for the release of his new book, “Of Potato Heads and Polaroids.” (Nicole Brodeur / The Seattle Times)
Mike McCready takes a shot of the crowd gathered at KEXP’s gathering space May 30 for the release of his new book, “Of Potato Heads and Polaroids.” (Nicole Brodeur / The Seattle Times)

“Am I really an author if I just put pictures in a book?” Mike McCready asked.

The capacity crowd at the KEXP gathering space seemed to think so. They had all come out Wednesday to see the Pearl Jam guitarist talk about “Of Potato Heads and Polaroids: My Life Inside and Out of Pearl Jam.”

The book is a collection of 500 photographs McCready has taken over the last 25 years while his band traveled the globe and he grew from a scrawny, gifted guitarist to a husband and father of three with his own record label (Hockeytalkter, which published the book) and a fresh induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

McCready was interviewed onstage by KEXP’s Kevin Cole while a selection of the Polaroids from the book were projected on a large screen. The event was live-streamed on both the Pearl Jam and KEXP Facebook pages, and some 200,000 people tuned in to watch and ask questions.

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One shot at a time, McCready has captured everything from Pearl Jam’s increasingly bigger crowds to his ever-changing hair color and growing family. There are shots of the music legends Pearl Jam has played with and the hometown and celebrity friends who have visited backstage.

Most are holding a Mr. Potato Head he found in a Minneapolis drug store in 1995.

“The box said, ‘They’re fun!’ so I thought, “I’ll buy one of those.'”

Mike McCready’s new book, “Of Potato Heads and Polaroids” includes 500 photos taken over 25 years on the road and at home.
Mike McCready’s new book, “Of Potato Heads and Polaroids” includes 500 photos taken over 25 years on the road and at home.

So why Polaroids? Cole asked.

“It was this instant, tangible thing,” McCready explained. “Instant gratification.”

But the photos also allowed a certain intimacy. The simple act of shooting a single photo seemed to remove any sense of formality. The subjects are smiling and playful.

And yet, some of the photos are artful, like the silhouette of McCready raising the 12th Man flag atop the Space Needle. The Duomo di Milano and Stonehenge. There’s a double-shot of McCready’s daughter, Kaia, that could be hung in a museum.

In one shot, McCready’s 1956 Stratocaster stands beside Paul McCartney’s Hoffner bass. McCready took it when was asked to help record a song with McCartney (and Lady Gaga).

“It was one of the highlights of my musical life,” McCready said.

Still, he told Cole that he was struck almost speechless until he thought to ask McCartney about his earliest memory of Jimi Hendrix. McCartney told him of stopping into a London pub called The Bag O’Nails for a meal during the “Revolver” era and seeing a three-piece set up on the stage. It turned out to be The Jimi Hendrix Experience. McCartney called some friends — including Pete Townshend of The Who — to come down and see them. Fast.

There are shots of backstage visitors like  Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson, Kate Hudson, Dustin Hoffman and Sting. Neil Young, Venus Williams. Eddie Vedder with Johnny Ramone.

There’s former Pearl Jam drummer Jack Irons with his hands plunged into a bucket of ice. Current drummer Matt Cameron hunched over an open box of Band-Aids. (“Now we’re all trading epsom salts and ointments,” McCready cracked.)

There is a photo of Jack White that McCready took during an interview he did for Sirius XM radio.

“He’s like eight different guys in one guy,” McCready said. “He’s got a label and is in about eight different bands that are all rad. He’s bluesy and nasty and real and effective and I can feel it in my soul.”

There are several photos of Steve Gleason, a friend of McCready’s who was a gifted player for Washington State University and the New Orleans Saints before he was diagnosed with ALS in 2011.

“He was a fan and a hippie dude and a football player and (his diagnosis) didn’t make any sense,” McCready said of Gleason.

There are also people who are gone. Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley, who died in 2002. And Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, who died May 18.

“It’s tough to look at that right now,” McCready said while a shot of Cornell flashed on the screen.

“I miss him,” McCready said. “It’s everyone’s loss … and I wish we didn’t have to talk about these pictures in that kind of sense … We all know how amazing Soundgarden was, and his solo things and how great his voice was. I mean, he was incredible … I am still at a loss and grieving.”

Said Cole: “We’ve lost the voice of Seattle.”

“Amongst a bunch of others!” McCready said. “And it’s like, ‘Stop! Stop (expletive) dying.’ Sorry, am I swearing a lot on world-wide radio?  Sorry, Prague. Or the South.”

Some of the happiest shots are those McCready has taken from stages around the world: South America, Europe. The Showbox in Seattle. Fans smiling and screaming with their arms held high, or reaching toward him, or holding signs that say, “MIKE IS A HEADBANGER. MIKE IS A PUNK ROCKER.”

“I probably should be playing guitar,” he said of the time he took to take the shots. “I’m generally paying attention to our songs.”

Over 25 years, he took some 20,000 Polaroids. He would toss them in his road case and then, once home, into a box.

Last year, drummer and graphic designer Regan Hagar put the book together, choosing just 500 from the mass of pictures that have captured an extraordinary life.

“This is a dream come true,” McCready told the crowd. “So thank you for being a part of it.”

The entire interview is available on KEXP’s Facebook page, here, beginning at the 28 minute mark.