One of the saddest aspects to looking back on the “grunge” era of alternative rock is just how prescient, and real, a lot of the lyrics were. A major narrative around the various band’s during the contemporary heyday was that they were rich rock stars who were complaining about having miserable lives. “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old” from Nirvana song ‘Serve the Servants’, “My gift of self is raped/My privacy is raked” in Alice In Chains’ ‘Nutshell’, “Just when every day seemed to greet me with a smile/Sunspots have faded” in Soundgarden’s ‘Fell On Black Days’, and “Sell more records if I’m dead… Hope it’s sooner hope it’s near/Corporate record’s fiscal year” in Stone Temple Pilots track ‘Adhesive’.
Here’s the thing: everyone who wrote those lyrics is now dead. Two by way of suicide, and two by way of debilitating drug addictions that were at least partially worsened through depression. Music was an outlet for all of these singers, but when it was reflected back at them, they never shied away from what they were saying. Self-loathing in grunge might have become a cliche, but it always came from a true place.
So how Peral Jam’s Eddie Vedder make it out when Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Chris Cornell, and Scott Weiland couldn’t? What’s made Vedder the last survivor when his lyrics also contained themes of death, depression, and destruction?
Well, perhaps it was because Vedder was able to signal a change before Pearl Jam spun completely out of control. At the height of their fame, Cobain lost his life and the entire rock world had to take a pause. Staley, Cornell, and Weiland had their respective drug habits by this point, but Vedder claimed that most of Pearl Jam had stopped using drugs (but not stopped drinking) by the time they got big. He was newly married in 1994, and had outlets that allowed him to contextualise, and conceptualise, Pearl Jam’s success.
That also came from forging key allies with veteran rock stars. Figures like Pete Townshend and Neil Young were heroes to Vedder, and their advice proved to be invaluable when the pressure was heaviest on the Pearl Jam frontman. Townshend discouraged Vedder from retiring in 1993, and Young encouraged the band to take breaks when they needed it and to channel their rage back at the music industry. It’s largely the reason why Pearl Jam survived past 1995: battles with Ticketmaster and jabs at the political machine began to take the place of self-loathing and isolating lyrics.
But for Vedder, there was always a way to get away. Often it was to Hawaii, where surfing provided a calming outlet for Vedder to regain himself if things were becoming too difficult. The calmness he felt in the Aloha state could be heard in his ukulele-heavy solo career, or in the softer moments of Pearl Jam concerts, or in his relatively soft-spoken demeanour that contrasts with the powerful bellowing he does night after night on stage.
It wasn’t easy, though. Pearl Jam experienced growing pains and power struggles as grunge began to fade. Their decision to stay together gave Vedder dedication and purpose, but tragedy was unfortunately around the corner more than once. A crowd crush at the Roskilde Festival in 2000 lead to nine deaths. More recently, Cornell’s death in 2017 was a major blow, considering how close Vedder and the rest of Pearl Jam were to the Soundgarden singer. At this point, Vedder has understood how to compartmentalise the pain and direct it into more positive thoughts and actions. How he does it, only he knows.
Not to be underestimated is how Pearl Jam were able to turn their massive fame into a giant community. Outside of jam bands like the Grateful Dead, Pearl Jam has one of the most dedicated fanbases in all of rock music, one that values camaraderie and communion in ways that more casual fanbases don’t. Whereas the entire world listened to Pearl Jam in the early ’90s, the next ten years saw the band strip it all away just to see who was still there. The core group of fans promoted a far healthier environment for someone like Vedder to experience success with, and now that Pearl Jam largely stand alone among their peers, Vedder caries the torch for “grunge” in ways that nobody else could.
There doesn’t seem to be any distinct reason why Eddie Vedder is the last survivor of grunge. All the other leaders were intelligent, relatively well-adjusted individuals, but whether it was thorough addictions they couldn’t kick or dark thoughts that they couldn’t escape from, the only figure left that stands on his own is Vedder. Ensconced in tragedy, Vedder has persisted and survived. And the entire world of music is better off because of it.