How Pearl Jam Stayed Alive

Sep 16, 2011
Originally published on September 17, 2011 9:52 am

Pearl Jam is 20 years old. Most rock bands don't make that milestone; rock can be a rough way to make a life.

Cameron Crowe, the Academy Award-winning writer and director, was once an astonishingly young rock journalist. In the early 1990s, he went to Seattle to see Pearl Jam when the band was just starting out. What followed is chronicled in Crowe's new documentary, Pearl Jam 20, which opens in theaters next week.

NPR's Scott Simon spoke with the director, as well as longtime Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis, to find out what has kept the grunge godfathers kicking for so long.

"The guys in Pearl Jam really did study their heroes," Crowe says. "They didn't just listen to the music — they studied the interviews, the way bands fell apart, the way bands stayed together. Pearl Jam was built for the long run."

For more on the staying power of Pearl Jam, as well as what to expect from Cameron Crowe's new film, head to NPR's music news blog, The Record.

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His new film, "Pearl Jam 20," which opens in theaters next week and will be seen on the PBS series "American Masters" on October 21, could be seen as his report card on what he discovered. Cameron Crowe joined us in our studios in New York along with Kelly Curtis, the band's longtime manager. We asked what he heard when he got to Seattle.

CAMERON CROWE: With Pearl Jam, the tragedy came early. And the next 20 years is about making good on a promise of staying together. Wouldn't you say that's sort of the structure of...

KELLY CURTIS: Yeah. There was a band before Pearl Jam, Mother Love Bone, that was the promised band. You know, everyone thought it was going to be the next big thing. And just overnight, that ended by the singer falling off the wagon and OD'ing and dying, you know. And...

SIMON: This is Andy Wood.


CROWE: Yeah. Yeah. From the ashes of that great band...

CURTIS: Came Stone and Jeff.

CROWE: Came Stone and Jeff and later, Eddie Vedder. And lightning struck twice, which never really happens in the careers of many bands.

SIMON: One of the kind of founding stories of Pearl Jam is - there's a clip - Eddie Vedder, living in California at the time, got hold of a Mother Love Bone demo tape.

CROWE: Mm-hmm.


EDDIE VEDDER: I was working a security job in San Diego. I was just like, writing music in my living room for the longest time, you know. This instrumental tape migrated to me, and it really started bringing out some emotions that I hadn't touched on in a while. It just - a natural thing came out, and all I did was record it. I surfed in PB one morning after work and went and recorded it - like, literally, with the sand still in my feet and stuff. And just sent it up that day.


VEDDER: (Singing) Don't even think about reaching me...

SIMON: So Kelly Curtis, what happened then?

CURTIS: Well, Jeff said he got this amazing tape, you know, from this singer that none of us had heard about and, you know, that I should come over and listen to it. And, you know, it was a voice that none of us had ever heard before - a voice like that, and so it was crazy.

CROWE: They say in the movie that the tape was so good that the guys sitting in Seattle, listening to this tape from this young surfer in San Diego, looked at each other and said: Is this real? Is this a joke?

CURTIS: Yeah, Mike said that.

CROWE: Is somebody playing a joke on us?


CROWE: Who is this guy? And they brought him up from San Diego and six days later, they were playing together.

CURTIS: Our first show.

CROWE: Yeah.


CROWE: It's a miracle situation.


SIMON: Well, let's listen to a clip from that early time. This is Pearl Jam playing "Alive," one of the group's iconic songs. This is - I'm told the date's December 22nd, 1990. Happens to be the day before Eddie Vedder's birthday, and the guys had been playing together just a few weeks.


PEARL JAM: (Singing) ... have I got a little story for you. What you thought was your daddy was nothing but a...while you were sitting home alone at age 13, your real daddy was dying. Sorry you didn't see him, but I'm glad we talked.

SIMON: Why did things come together so quickly, do you think - Cameron Crowe?

CROWE: And this really had a deep impact on this guy, and he wrote these songs about his life and his feelings and his relationships. And they just poured out of him. And at the time, if you kind of go back into the history of rock, there were no songs like that. It was about ...

CURTIS: Girls, cars...

CROWE: I'm on the road baby. You're not going to see me tomorrow because I'm moving on, you know. And so here comes Eddie Vedder writing these songs about, I'm still alive; your real daddy was dying. It's like, it was so real and authentic that he and Cobain, and many of the other musicians that were writing so soulfully and powerfully from their hearts, you know, took over the landscape of rock. And rightly so, I think.


JAM: (Singing) Oh, I'm, oh, I'm still alive. Alive. I'm alive.

SIMON: Forget - I mean, you know, we know films like "Almost Famous," "Jerry McGuire," "Vanilla Sky." What's - your storytelling films - what's different about a documentary?

CROWE: This guy Andy Wood - were it not for this first singer and this first band, Mother Love Bone, had he not kind of been sacrificed, you know, in an attempt to live a rock lifestyle that didn't work out for him, there would not be Pearl Jam that learned how to survive. And I thought, let's pay tribute to the first guy, and let's pay tribute to how he created a situation where Eddie and Pearl Jam are still here today.

CROWE: One day I'm going to feel the time is right to sing the song - a song from Andy Wood. And 10 years later, he finally did it. And that moment is in the movie, and it's emotional. And I wanted to do a movie where you felt that kind of emotion, too.

SIMON: Is that "Crown of Thorns"?

CROWE: Yeah, "Crown of Thorns."

CURTIS: Yeah. Good choice.


JAM: (Singing) This is my kind of love. It's the kind that moves on. It's the kind that leaves you alone, yeah. Oh, this is my kind of love. It's the kind that moves on. It's the kind that leaves me alone. I used to treat you like a lady, now you're my substitute teacher. This bottle's not a pretty, not a pretty sight. I owe the man some money so I'm turning over honey. Ah, Mr. Faded Glory is once again doing time.

SIMON: Does a streak of staying together like, 20 years - you know, for 20 years begin to wear in some ways after a while? Are they doing it just to keep the streak going, or is this a creative partnership that, you know - is this a very happy, creative marriage?

CURTIS: They don't really hang out when they're at home except when they're in the creative process. And so it's always kind of fresh and new, and they aren't sick of each other.

SIMON: I think we should go out on a song we played earlier from one of the first shows of Pearl Jam, but they're still playing it. Here it is, I guess 2009, Philadelphia.


JAM: (Singing) Hey, I, oh, I'm still alive. Hey, I'm, oh, I'm still alive. Yeah.

SIMON: So, Kelly Curtis, the joy is still there?

CURTIS: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Because you never know where you're going to get that night, and this band is pushing the envelope all the time. I mean, this movie was enough of a chore - but continually pushing the envelope. It does not get boring at all. Oh, I have the best job. For sure.


SIMON: Wow. What a good thing to say.


SIMON: Well, Kelly Curtis, thanks very much - the longtime manager of Pearl Jam. And Cameron Crowe, filmmaker. Most recently, the documentary "Pearl Jam 20," and that film is going to premier for one night, September 20th. It's going to play in theaters for a week beginning September 23rd, and will be shown on the PBS Series "American Masters" on October 21. Gentlemen, thank you both very much for being with us.

CROWE: Thanks, Scott.

CURTIS: Thank you.

CROWE: Take care.


JAM: (Singing) Hey, I'm - we're all still alive. Yeah.

SIMON: And you can find out more about how Pearl Jam stayed alive at This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.