A look at the first year of the band originally known as Mookie Blaylock.
DOWN A DARK Belltown alleyway, where pigeons outnumber people most days, a heavy door opens to an ironworks shop. Inside, you walk down a dozen or so rickety steps to a basement, about 30 feet by 30 feet. Exposed water pipes hang from the ceiling.
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In the fall of 1990, this shabby space was crammed with guitars, drums and amps strewn on threadbare carpet, cords and wires everywhere. Sheets and blankets were tacked to ceilings and walls, for better acoustics. Posters of basketball players, filmmaker John Waters and guitar god Stevie Ray Vaughan inspired the rock band that rehearsed there. Rent would have been less than $75 a month, according to the blacksmith upstairs.
And that little room right there, off to the side, the one the photographer used for his darkroom? That’s where Eddie Vedder lived for a while. He lived a lot of places his first year in Seattle.
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This is where Pearl Jam began. Ed went by Eddie then. Jeff Ament, the bass player, and guitarist Stone Gossard — everyone called him Stoney — were still grieving after the death of the singer in their old band. The new group wasn’t even Pearl Jam yet. It was called Mookie Blaylock, after an NBA player with a funny name. A good meal, if the guys could scrape together the money, was a burrito at Mama’s or a burger and a beer at Cyclops.
Everyone referred to the rehearsal room as Galleria Potatohead, the name of the artists’ studio in the front of the building, facing Second Avenue. Louie Raffloer and Mary Gioia ran the ironworks business in the back, Black Dog Forge.
Raffloer and Gioia say that with people coming and going all day at their shop, they didn’t pay a lot of attention to the racket coming from the basement. They describe the five musicians, all in their mid-20s, as regular guys. They say they were never idiots, or jerks. Businesslike. They didn’t act or dress like rock stars. A little boring, even.
“It’s not like we had Steven Tyler downstairs,” Gioia says.
“They were working on a record that was going to make them world-famous, and we didn’t even know it,” says Raffloer.
A lot of Seattle bands practiced in a lot of Seattle basements. But in the short time from Vedder’s arrival in Seattle on Oct. 8, 1990, to the release of “Ten” on Aug. 27, 1991, Pearl Jam relied on hard work and talent to set itself apart in an exploding Seattle music scene.
And on April 7, in a ceremony in Brooklyn, N.Y., Pearl Jam will be enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
This is the story of the first year of Seattle’s greatest band.
OOH; SEATTLE’S GREATEST BAND? Ever? Controversial.
Is Pearl Jam better than Soundgarden, or Alice in Chains? That’s debatable, and certainly a matter of personal preference, but Pearl Jam is the band going into the Hall of Fame, for what that’s worth.
Some would make the case for fellow Hall of Famers Nirvana, but that’s Aberdeen’s greatest band.
Not that a Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam debate would be anything new. Many of the too-cool-for-school Nirvana fans were suspicious of Pearl Jam’s success. Kurt Cobain said he didn’t like Pearl Jam’s music. Cobain and Vedder eventually made up, sort of, though they never were what you’d call friends.
Pearl Jam, the Seattle band, just didn’t do things the Seattle way.
Charles R. Cross is a journalist and author, and the former editor of the late, great Seattle music magazine The Rocket. One of his books is “Heavier Than Heaven,” a Cobain biography.
“They were criticized by Kurt Cobain and others as careerists, but every band in town wanted success,” Cross says. “For some reason, the populism of Pearl Jam — writing anthematic rock, striving to be a band that gets on the radio — these were things that, in Seattle, were not the way people acted. You were supposed to play a bunch of shows nobody saw, release three or four crappy singles on alternative labels and not be a success, and THEN break through. Pearl Jam didn’t follow those rules.”
BUT BACK TO the beginning …
“Pearl Jam is essentially the story of Mother Love Bone,” Cross says.
Well, that’s a good place to start.
Mother Love Bone’s singer, Andrew Wood, was everything a rock star is supposed to be.
“There has never been a singer in Seattle music history that wanted to be a star more than Andy, and had the charisma and gregarious nature … it was going to happen for him,” Cross says.
Wood’s band, which included Ament and Gossard, former members of the seminal Seattle group Green River, had generated serious buzz and signed a major-label deal with PolyGram, a source of great jealousy among other local bands. The first Mother Love Bone album was recorded, and was days from release in early 1990. Stardom and success, fame and fortune, were inevitable. Then Andy died.
Wood was only 24 when he passed away on March 19, 1990, a few days after a heroin overdose. In July, the record was released, and reviewed favorably by Rolling Stone and The New York Times, among others. But the band, devastated and disappointed, was done.
There were no plans for anything new the night Gossard met KISW disc jockey Damon Stewart at the Oxford Tavern near Pike Place Market. “We were hanging out, having some beers, just talking,” Stewart says. “I asked him what he was doing. He said he was doing a little writing, just noodling around.” The two decided to go to another bar and, outside, ran into a childhood friend of Gossard, a guitarist named Mike McCready. They turned around, headed back inside the Oxford, and Gossard and McCready “just kept talking,” Stewart says. Later, McCready convinced Gossard to reconnect with Ament. Now there was the matter of replacing Wood.
Gossard and Ament, hoping to hire former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons, sent him an instrumental cassette of songs written by Gossard. Irons passed on the offer, too busy with his new band, but sent the tape to a friend, a singing surfer living in San Diego. Vedder wrote lyrics and added vocals to three songs and mailed the tape back, earning an audition in Seattle. In October 1990, he found himself in the basement rehearsal space.
“Stone and Jeff saw talent in Eddie that no one else did,” Cross says. “One part of the story that never, ever gets told, is they could have picked 20 other lead singers. There were other people in Seattle that certainly would have approached them.
“What those guys saw in him … was when his voice opened up, he had the ability to sing an anthematic song with scary power.”
EXACTLY TWO WEEKS after Vedder came to Seattle for the first time, the band — Mookie Blaylock — was ready to play its first show. Well, maybe not ready, exactly.
“They just said, ‘We’re going to go down to this club and play,’ ” says Dave Krusen, a drummer from Gig Harbor who had been hired shortly before Vedder. “We were still learning the songs. It was nerve-wracking. They just wanted to set up and play, get on stage and see how it felt.”
Krusen didn’t tell anyone in advance about the show.
El Corazon, on Eastlake Avenue, is a nightclub and live-music venue in a building that’s more than a century old. It’s wedged into a funky, triangular, good-luck-finding-parking sliver in the shadow of Interstate 5 in the South Lake Union neighborhood.
On Oct. 22, 1990, it was known as The Off Ramp Cafe. The elevated stage and the long, narrow wood floor really haven’t changed. If you close your eyes, and picture the Melvins, or Mudhoney, or Nirvana on stage, you probably can smell stale beer, cigarette smoke and sweat. An affable doorman at El Corazon says capacity is 600, and that might be true on a night a lot of really skinny people show up, but there were considerably fewer the evening Mookie Blaylock made its debut.
Krusen estimates the place was a quarter full when the band started. “By the time we were done, it had filled up a little,” he says.
The band played “Even Flow” as a sound check, then performed eight songs (five of which appeared on “Ten”) in a set that lasted about 40 minutes. Most of the songs were played at a slower tempo, and some of the lyrics were different from later versions. And this was not the band that in just a year or two would be known as one of the best live acts in rock. But there’s no mistaking the power in the chorus and McCready’s virtuosity during “Alive,” or the intensity of “Black.” Vedder starts slowly, but about halfway through the show, as the band is ripping through “Once,” he takes off his long-sleeved shirt and steps closer to the front of the stage, taking command. Still, there’s a shyness in his performance.
“The Eddie Vedder of the first year of Pearl Jam is certainly not the Eddie Vedder of a year later,” Cross says. “He wasn’t ready to be a band leader. A year later, he was a band leader. And Pearl Jam shifted dramatically.”
Krusen says his bandmates “probably thought it sucked, but I thought it was great. I’ve heard the show, and sure, the arrangements were not ironed out, but … the energy was there, and I was really blown away with Eddie.”
Lance Mercer, who had photographed Mother Love Bone and was asked at the band’s formation to photograph Pearl Jam, didn’t shoot this show.
“I walked out,” he says. “Seeing Jeff and Stone onstage was really difficult, because I felt Andy was the one who deserved to be there, not Eddie.”
“There was no question they were good,” KISW’s Stewart says. “I was kind of in awe. I just tried to soak it all in. I remember thinking, ‘Wow; that was different.’ ”
THE BAND SPENT the next four months playing shows around Seattle and did a quick California tour. Back in town, everyone realized that Mookie Blaylock (or Mookie Blaylock’s lawyers) would object at some point to a band from Seattle calling itself Mookie Blaylock, so the band decided to change its name.
On March 10, 1991, Ament, Gossard and Vedder appeared with Stewart on his “New Music Hour” show at KISW’s old studio on Aurora Avenue, where band members had been known to drop by to dig through the station’s record collection. Vedder announced to Stewart, and to the world, that the band’s new name was Pearl Jam.
The next day, Pearl Jam began recording its first record at London Bridge Studio, a nondescript, boxy building in Shoreline, far enough back off Ballinger Way that you wouldn’t know it was there. Ament and Gossard had worked before at the studio and with talented producer Rick Parashar, first with Mother Love Bone, then on the Temple of the Dog project with members of Soundgarden in late 1990. Pearl Jam had done a bit of recording a few months earlier, including a take of “Alive” it never was able to top; that was the version that made it onto “Ten.” The studio had high ceilings, a back wall made with bricks recycled from a local high school, a wood floor from an old gym and — a win-win for the stage-diving, high-climbing Vedder — a rope hanging from the ceiling to swing from and plenty of room to crash, which he did for a few weeks.
Ament, Gossard and Vedder also found time to appear in the Cameron Crowe movie “Singles,” as members of the fictional band Citizen Dick. The lead singer was played by actor Matt Dillon, who borrowed some of Ament’s clothes for the role. In a memorable scene shot in a booth inside the OK Hotel, the three scan a review in The Rocket, unsuccessfully, for something nice to say about Dillon. Finally, Ament reads that Dillon’s character “was ably backed by Stone and Jeff, and drummer Eddie Vedder.” Vedder tries to cheer him up: “A compliment for us is a compliment for you.”
A wrap party for the movie was held at a Pearl Jam show May 25 at RKCNDY, one of Seattle’s long-lost rock ’n’ roll clubs. The band played RKCNDY a couple more times that summer and filmed its first video there, performing “Alive” multiple times during a show on Aug. 3.
“Each [version of the song] was more powerful than the last,” says Cathy Faulkner, who was KISW’s music director. “I remember how hot it was in there. I was crying. I was just crying because there was so much energy, such a rawness. You knew you were part of something special.”
The show ended with a Temple of the Dog reunion, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron joining Pearl Jam onstage. (Time for a little Pearl Jam drummer history: Krusen and Cameron, the band’s drummer since 1998, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Krusen left after “Ten” was recorded, but before it was released, to seek treatment for alcohol abuse. He was replaced briefly by Matt Chamberlain. Chamberlain left to take a gig with the “Saturday Night Live” house band and recommended his replacement, a friend from Dallas, Dave Abbruzzese, who was fired in 1994. Irons was next, staying until 1998.) All will be invited to the Hall of Fame event, according to a letter posted by the band on its website.
Abbruzzese’s first performance with Pearl Jam was its final show before the band’s first record came out: a free concert at the Mural Amphitheatre at Seattle Center on Aug. 23, 1991, in front of 4,000 fans.
Four days later, “Ten” was released.
FAULKNER REMEMBERS talking with Vedder in the KISW newsroom and asking whether he had any idea what was about to happen to the band.
“We talked about every subject under the sun,” she says. “There was just a stream of consciousness. After that, I was never surprised by anything in his lyrics because of the depth of feeling and the multitude of thoughts in that conversation.”
The original question — Do you have any idea what is about to happen to the band? — they didn’t really get around to. But they knew.
Mercer played the tape in his car.
“I knew right away,” he says. “I listened to the whole thing, and I thought, ‘This is going to be huge.’ ”
Cross says he thinks “Ten” is overproduced. He prefers the band’s second record, “Vs.”
What does the band think?
“Every band with a long history has a difficult relationship with the record that made them famous, usually the one their fans like the best,” Cross says. “Everyone in Pearl Jam knows ‘Ten’ is their biggest record, but I don’t think there’s anyone in the band who would name it their favorite.”
Well, somebody likes it. The album has sold more than 13 million copies in the United States and maybe twice that when you include overseas sales.
And besides, as Cross points out, Pearl Jam is going into the Hall of Fame based on its career, not one record.
“The remarkable thing about Pearl Jam is that they did not break up, and the music they create today still has meaning to them,” he says. “In the history of Seattle bands, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.”
AND THAT BASEMENT where it all started? Gioia and Raffloer are still making beautiful ironworks (including some for Pearl Jam members). The basement is still used as a practice room by local bands. On a recent day, a vanload of tourists on a rock ’n’ roll sightseeing trip was being ushered through the space. Fans have been visiting for 25 years, which Gioia finds amusing, and a little odd.
“They pull up in the alley,” she says, shaking her head. “Tourists from all over the world.”
Raffloer remembers taking a phone call from his brother in Virginia, just after “Ten” was released. It was loud in the shop, and Raffloer tried to find a quiet spot to talk. His brother asked why it was so noisy.
“I told him I was in a storage room, and it was loud because there was a band downstairs,” he says. “He said, ‘They’re playing a Pearl Jam song.’ I told him, ‘That IS Pearl Jam.’ ”
“They were just that band in the basement.”