Few bands in recent history have done more to express idealism and authenticity in music than Pearl Jam. In this fascinating interview with guitarist Stone Gossard, we are offered an insider's view of the gritty origins of grunge music, the iconic rise of the "most popular band of the 90's," and the struggles of maintaining one's artistic ideals in the vertigo of sudden fame. Stone Gossard, guitarist and founding member of Pearl Jam, one of the most influential bands in recent decades, and often described as "the most popular American rock band of the 1990's."
Every now and again, pop culture is forced to reinvent itself. Like an epic drama among Hindu deities, our collective tastes are born, destroyed, and reborn again, swinging like a massive pendulum from one aesthetic extreme to the other. As a new cultural niche becomes more and more popularized, what typically begins as fierce artistic independence eventually devolves into reckless overindulgence, and creative novelty slowly bleeds away until all that is left is a formulaic husk used to manufacture tomorrow's next fads. It is usually at this point, when a particular scene becomes so over-saturated that it can no longer support the weight of its own excess, that the entire scene will die an often-humiliating death, bloated and alone on an unflushed toilet.
In the 1980's, the music scene in America was dominated by the glut and theatrics of "glam metal." For nearly 10 years, most of popular music was defined by sex, drugs, and machismo-in-drag, and an entire generation of youth nearly lost themselves within a cloud of hairspray. There was a void in the cultural heart of the musical mainstream that was dying to be filled—an utter lack of artistic interiority, emotional depth, and authenticity. Untold millions were craving artistic substance, and were only offered artificial decadence.
Then along came grunge, taking the entire world by storm in the early 90's. From the rain-soaked streets of Seattle emerged a new voice for American youth. In much the same way that punk music arrived just in time to offer salvation for our Disco-era sins, grunge music promised to completely cleanse our cultural palette, placing an aesthetic imperative upon more simplicity, more spontaneity, and more sincerity. And so bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam came into the mainstream, forever changing the landscape of American music. From behind a tsunami of massively distorted guitars, hallowed vocals, and countless acres of flannel, appeared an unmistakable return to introspection and idealism—even while cloaked by themes of angst and despair, the natural result of our collective interiors being ignored for almost a decade.
Few bands of the era embody this move toward introspection and idealism as strongly as Pearl Jam. As the grunge scene continued to explode, it was becoming apparent that the inherent iconoclasm of the scene was ill-suited to handle the immense pressures of fame, and many artists found themselves circling the drain of inevitable self-destruction—for many, Kurt Cobain's suicide was a morbid reminder of what can happen when artistic ideals are reduced to mere currency for the status-sphere. One by one the originators of grunge began to fall away, and an impossibly huge body of talent was forever lost to suicide and drug addiction.
Few bands survived as the industry began churning out the newest grunge-inspired fads, marketed (ironically) as "alternative rock." Pearl Jam was one of the few who did make it through this period of intense commodification. Unlike most others from the Seattle era, they were able to prevent themselves from being crushed by the enormous pressure that their celebrity brought to their personal and professional lives. While they did in a sense try to distance themselves from their own fame, they were also simultaneously using their celebrity as a platform for their idealism, soon finding themselves fighting "on all fronts" for initiating real change in the world. From their famed battle with the corruption of the Ticketmaster venue monopoly, to publicly berating the policies of George W. Bush, to expressing pro-choice sentiments in concert, to promoting awareness around Crohn's disease - Pearl Jam was helping to return rock and roll to its roots, in terms of both the profoundly personal and the deeply political. And they continue to do it to this day, over 18 years since the band first formed.
The story of Pearl Jam is one that is truly aligned with the essence of Integral Art, which attempts to restore Beauty to it's rightful place within the human condition—emphasizing creativity instead of deconstruction, idealism instead of apathy, depth instead of sensationalism, authenticity instead of irony—and always reflecting the fullest expressions of both artist and audience alike.
The band's last five albums: No Code, Yield, Binaural, Riot Act, and the self-titled Pearl Jam have wild oscillations that occur in Pearl Jam's overall sound, between what might be described as a more traditional classic-rock sensibility and their more experimental forays into sonic novelty, causing critics to describe just about every other album as a "deliberate break from their sound" — indeed making it very difficult to nail down what exactly their sound is in the first place.
The band make their live recordings available to their fans through the web, an innovative move which severely curtails much of the parasitic greed that exists in bootleg culture—in which people sell often lousy recordings to fans for ridiculous profits, none of which makes it back to the band itself. This was certainly a win-win solution for everyone involved, as the fans are offered sound-board quality recordings of live shows, while the band was offered another revenue stream, through which they can better support their own musical ideals—increasing their ability to continue making music their own way, without having to compromise their sound for mainstream consumption.
One of the most impossibly painful moments in the history of the band came back in 2000, when nine fans were tragically trampled to death at a music festival in Denmark. An experience that has irrevocably changed the band, collectively and individually, in just about every way. Bruce Springsteen is quoted as saying that "the great challenge of adulthood is holding on to your idealism after you lose your innocence." In many ways Pearl Jam has watched their meteoric rise lead to their innocence being torn to shreds by the currents of success and celebrity, the tragedy in Denmark being the pinnacle of this sort of loss — but for them, losing their innocence only seems to reinforce their idealism, transforming it from the rhetoric of youthful naiveté into real, practical exemplars of ever-increasing care, compassion, and sophistication, while setting new benchmarks of artistic integrity for the rest of the world.
Pearl Jam has been one of the most powerful forces of idealism in rock music for almost two decades. You can hear it in their lyrics and their music, you can see it in their various philanthropic work, you can feel it in their unwavering devotion to their fans. And they continue to grow into their own ever-deepening sense of idealism, battling the tides of ignorance, corruption, and, well, really crappy music to this very day....
"Bands have to be smart about when somebody's really helping them out; they're notorious for being ungrateful...."