Considering where they came from, and when they came from, Pearl Jam should be dead, done, kaput. Over. They should have wound up an important yet ephemeral footnote in the shaggy annals of rock 'n' roll.
Like Nirvana. Like Alice in Chains. Like Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Hole, Bush, Smashing Pumpkins.
Birthed from the worried skull of the grunge era, a murky musical movement built to crumble under the weight of its angsty flannel heart, the five-piece Pearl Jam was the Other Seattle band, the also-rans brooding in the shadow of Kurt Cobain's doomed trio. But once the Nirvana frontman's shotgun went off, it signaled the end of the Seattle sound — and a saccharine uplift in popular music.
Hello, Hootie & the Blowfish.
But nearly two decades later, with most of their early '90s rock counterparts either vanished or clinging to cheap nostalgic gigs, Pearl Jam will play the St. Pete Times Forum tonight as a still-vital rock group packing arenas.
Even the band's members are astounded by their longevity.
"The average lifespan of a band is, like, five years," says lead guitarist Mike McCready, 42, a Pensacola native calling from his Seattle home. "So believe me, we're extremely grateful we can still go out and play music."
McCready reasons that Pearl Jam, which has never tempered the surly spirit behind its music, is still around because "we can sit down and we can talk to each other and we can say, 'You're (bleeping) me off!' We don't harbor grudges. We've figured out who we are as a band and what the dynamics are."
That's key, for sure. But it's more than that. And after listening to the great churning rock of Corduroy and Even Flow, of Black and Yellow Ledbetter, we've come up with ...
Five Reasons Why Pearl Jam Is Still Alive.
1. PEARL JAM KEPT BREATHING
Don't underestimate the importance of a pulse. Cobain's suicide ended Nirvana. The late Layne Staley's drug cravings derailed Alice in Chains; his 2002 overdose sealed the deal. STP's Scott Weiland shot so much heroin, he should have been dead. But not only have the boys in Pearl Jam not croaked, they haven't broken up, either, with the original core of McCready, singer Eddie Vedder, bassist Jeff Ament and rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard still intact. (Drummer Matt Cameron joined the band in 1998.) Vedder, who often seems intent on becoming the next Neil Young, could have split for the solo spotlight years ago. But while he indulges in side projects (including masterfully soundtracking 2007 film Into the Wild), his day job remains warbling Jeremy with his first love.
2. PEARL JAM IS STILL CUTE
Let's be honest: Most grunge bands were pretty darn ugly, which wasn't really a problem for a dude-centric genre. But for all their musky swagger, the guys in Pearl Jam also scored with the ladies. Vedder and McCready generated their share of school-locker crushes, but the hunky Gossard turned into a full-blown heartthrob, a Tiger Beat star in a Rolling Stone world. For many, the song World Wide Suicide is easier to stomach when the men singing the politicized rallying cry are, like, wicked cute.
3. PEARL JAM KNOWS WHO'S BOSS
"We could be a band where Ed writes everything," says McCready. "But he sees us as a band, and we have a lot of good songwriters." McCready says each member of Pearl Jam brings eight to 15 songs to a new recording session — which is not to say that Pearl Jam is a democracy. "If Eddie's not inspired by a song, it's not going to (get on an album)." Vedder, a tremendous songwriter who's never too proud to put a big juicy hook in his raging rock hits, makes many of the band's major decisions. So, yes, Pearl Jam is a band, but it's Vedder's band.
4. PEARL JAM BELIEVES THE FANS COME FIRST
Vedder & Co. have always fought for their faithful, from boycotting Ticketmaster to releasing scores of fan-club-only goodies. For this reason, Pearl Jam's following has taken on a Grateful Dead vibe, with fans flocking great mileage just to croon along to Betterman. A la Springsteen and Dylan, Pearl Jam is also known for swapping out entire set lists night after night, giving fans even more reason to catch as many shows, and as many rarities, as possible.
5. PEARL JAM HAS MAGIC POWERS
After 17 years together, McCready and his mates have achieved psychic abilities. Or, um, something like that. "We can nonverbally communicate," he says. "You just kind of know where the guys are going. A lot of time we'll follow Ed's eyes and go from there." It's all about "intuition" now, he says. Grunge bands never had that. But great rock bands sure do.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.