Pearl Jam Versus Nirvana: Nevermind, What was it Anyway?

Tuesday we discussed Soundgarden, a band that was extracted from Seattle and inserted itself into the Californian alternative scene. Today we’re talking about Pearl Jam, a band that transplanted a California scene vocalist into a solidly Seattle band. In both cases, it wasn’t just Nirvana’s commercial success that impacted the trajectory and achievement of each band, it was the way Nirvana came to own a substantial part of the storyline of grunge and the North-West scene. With Soundgarden it was simply that the history of grunge became synonymous with the story of Nirvana so there was less space for a band that had left the grunge scene behind before Nirvana began their rise. With Pearl Jam their position became partly defined by the storyline announced by Nirvana’s leader himself.

The first time I listened to Pearl Jam must have been prior to July 1994 when I moved to Lincolnshire. A school friend, whose name quite escapes me now, was determined in his belief that Pearl Jam were Nirvana’s superior and lent me a double cassette bootleg of them live, I believe somewhere in Britain, sometime in the year/two years beforehand. I can still recall Even Flow making an impact, Jeremy, Alive…I remember nothing else; I stayed Nirvana side and we had an occasional play fight over the issue. Sometime between 1994 and 1998 someone lent me that collaboration with Neil Young the band did; I couldn’t take it. About ten years later I took a shot on the Rear View Mirror two CD greatest hits collection and traded it in having realised I liked the three songs mentioned earlier plus Spin the Black Circle. Yet this is a band I innately respect. They’ve walked a path away from fame and back into the underground, wilfully so and without regret. They’ve never let the twists of popular taste impact their specific musical inclination, a quality also present in Mudhoney. But, like Radiohead, they’re a band I can’t love, I can’t fall for.

Despite my personal tastes, however, and despite the plain (and well-attested) truth that Kurt Cobain didn’t like Pearl Jam, neither of those issues translates into genuinely believing Kurt’s more cruel statements about his rivals. Pearl Jam, again like Soundgarden, had extremely solid roots within grunge, far exceeding Kurt Cobain’s distant involvement; members of the band had helped initiate grunge via Green River, had been on the Deep Six compilation in 1986, on Sub Pop 200, were part of Mother Love Bone then the Temple of the Dog side-project – their credentials within grunge are impeccable and the primary influence they always claimed was fully paid-up awkward rocker Neil Young. Yet the way Kurt Cobain positioned them was as sell-outs, phoneys and fakes. Heck, according to Jeff Ament, a lover of basketball, “Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love talked trash about the fact that I hooped” – the guy couldn’t even play sport without being seen as the enemy.

It’s certainly true that the breach in Green River emerged due to the desire of the future Pearl Jammers to pursue a major label deal and Pearl Jam dived onto Epic at the end of 1990 with unseemly haste – but being caught up in the wave of alternative rock signings that commenced in 1988-1989 and became a flood in 1990-1991 doesn’t make Pearl Jam any different from numerous others…Including Nirvana. It’s that single point of comparison that seems most crucial.

The bands Kurt Cobain took issue with, Pearl Jam and Guns n’ Roses, were used as the representatives of two specific types of enemy; the macho opposition (i.e., sexist, racist, homophobic hair metal rock dudes) and the internal traitor (i.e., those who would sell out or mimic alternative rock sounds or styles for profit.) It’s a duality that clearly stuck in his mind because in the liner notes to Incesticide it’s the same combination he uses when he vents at “ the threatened man…traitor women”. In the case of Pearl Jam, however, without particularly enjoying their music I can’t see any great sign of the individuals concerned having committed any greater compromise with the corporate rock behemoths than Nirvana themselves though I can certainly acknowledge that Cobain associated sport with the macho jock types he hated also and that some of that personal dislike bled over into his attitude to Pearl Jam. In fact, what’s most plain about the comparison is that both accusations, that Pearl Jam were just traditional mainstream rock and/or that they’d sold out or taken advantage of an indie movement, were accusations that could be levelled at Nirvana.

Kurt Cobain, on a regular basis, tended to state the negatives about his own work, about his band and so forth as a defensive mechanism so that no one could voice a criticism without him being able to shrug and say “I already said that.” Being fair though, he was in an exceptional situation, one he had reached it within an unbelievably short space of time in terms of the rise from borderline-poverty to superstardom. It’s understandable that he required defences and ways of protecting himself – most of us aren’t asked, having compromised ourselves knowingly or unknowingly, to then speak to representatives of the media every few days or to then have our contradictions repeated back to us for analysis.

His reaction was certainly exceptional, for all his negativity about individuals who had harmed him personally – ranging from parents, to schoolmates and onwards – picking verbal battles with other musicians wasn’t a common move for Cobain. What I believe we’re seeing in his treatment of Pearl Jam in particular (as well as Guns n’Roses) is Kurt displaying a very ordinary rhetorical trick used by people to shield themselves from damage. Regularly, when people wish to deny the moral ambiguities they themselves recognise in their day-to-day living, will construct a sentence along the lines of “well it’s not like I’m/we’re dealing drugs/murdering people/abusing kids…” By setting up an absurd comparison while turning the gaze outward toward someone or something else, they nullify the chance to intellectually engage with the accusation they feel is being made and also escape having to make any honest and revealing commentary on their actions – the irrelevance of that other entity’s actions to discussion of their own (commenting on someone else’s sin doesn’t make one’s own sin lesser) doesn’t stop people needing the protection it affords to their sense of self.

This decision to avoid questions about his own band’s decision to play the corporate rock game, the choice to point accusingly at another band and state that they weren’t playing it honestly or with respectable intentions, dragged in fans and media creating a low key inquisition in which allegiances had to be pledged and Pearl Jam’s success became open to questions about its legitimacy, questions that were rarely asked of bands outside of the Milli Vanilli/Vanilla Ice categories of musician. Kurt Cobain’s access to the media and ability to make a story was so powerful that even in Pearl Jam’s twentieth anniversary celebration releases there was a need to address the controversy, it had become so major a piece of Pearl Jam’s history – all thanks to the word of one man.

Did he come to recognise that he had illegitimately harmed others for selfish reasons? Possibly. The Pearl Jam 20 material does focus on the happy endings, on Kurt and Eddie Vedder slow-dancing at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, on Kurt and Eddie in interviews declaring their respect for one another, on Eddie’s April 8, 1994 statement about how crucial Kurt Cobain had been to the new generation of musicians and their fans – in another source Kurt stated plainly “I’m not going to do that anymore…It hurts Eddie and he’s a good guy…He didn’t ask for this.” At the least he did manage to separate his disdain for the band’s music from personal attacks on the individuals involved but, again, as in the case of Soundgarden, the importance of Nirvana and/or the word of Nirvana influenced another band and how they are remembered. Such power…


10 thoughts on “Pearl Jam Versus Nirvana: Nevermind, What was it Anyway?”

  1. for sure Kurt said bitchy stuff about fair few ppl.
    Hilarious if he was giving Ament abuse over playing basketball.
    but your points about Pearl Jam being ex-Green River are sort of don’t mean much as Pearl Jam didn’t sound nothing like Green River and not in a good way.
    I rmember hearing ‘Ten’ at the time it came out and being quite shocked how …well…crap it sounded to be honest.
    Eddie’s voice was like nails down a chalkboard to me for starters .
    and even that aside ive always been puzzled how non-descipt and bland Pearl Jam sounded in general. they sounded like an old band at the time.
    As Nevermind for all its alledged polish (which it had) had great songs on and did the pop thing far better than any other former grunge bands did do.
    I listened to Pearl Jams latter stuff out of curiosity few years back and was still pretty crap. Not terrible stuff but very forgetable and non-descript.
    I can sort of respect the way they turned into Grateful Dead of 90s but they simply didn’t have many good songs. im always amazed how popular they are in the US
    I think Cobain could be bitchy etc for sure but dont think he wasn’t really ever inconsistent with his views on the music he liked or didn’t like.
    He didn’t like Pearl Jam . Later apologised for comments on them but still insisted he didnt like their music.
    As for Guns N Roses – he didn’t like Guns N Roses and NEVER did – he was always taking pop shots at in even early interviews in 1989.
    Its quite understandably why he hated them as did quite a lot of ppl .Paradise City was embarassing in 87 or whatver as is now.
    Kurt Cobain always said how much he disliked Guns N Roses when asked.
    It’s not like Cobain only started to ‘hate’ on them when famous himself which is what you sort of imply which is very inaccurate in my opinion. He always hated them as a band as did many and just said so.

    1. Hey ya! Certainly not doubting that he honestly disliked both bands…BUT…What I’m referring to is the level of public vitriol – he didn’t just say “I don’t like those bands,” he chose highly public events (MTV VMAs, two of Nirvana’s only U.S. gigs in 1992, etc.) to foreground his distain for them.

      And the nature of his criticism was very specific, again, it wasn’t just that he didn’t like their music, he specifically claimed Pearl Jam were bad because they were commercial sell-outs, he specifically attacked Guns n’ Roses for sexism, racism, being the archetype rock star macho men.

      His comments were specific and deep, were not just about the music and actually YES, Kurt Cobain’s public declarations only commence once he’s famous – prior to then he might place many bands on a list of dislikes, but his criticisms of each band in 1992-1993 had a depth, plus could be amplified remarkably by his new found media power.

  2. i repsectfully disagree a bit.
    Kurt was bit neurotic about his own fame for sure – needlessly at times IMO – but i don’t think that shaped his opinion on Pearl Jam or Guns N Roses . This is where i differ in opinion me thinks. Kurt had been saying numerous negative things about Guns N Roses in 1989 interviews. pre-fame. there was clear venom in a then young Cobain towards “Goons & Poses” as he called them.

    He was quite bitchy about Pearl Jam and Guns N Roses but do you not think he had a point ?
    i don’t buy the suggestion he was trying to “reassure” himself of anything in all honesty .

    It’s not like he was slagging everyone off as say John Lydon used to do -i’ve never heard him say anything positive about any music bar maybe Beefheart , Can , The Slits ,himself.
    But with Kurt Cobain there was many , many bands and artists that Cobain and Nirvana were very complimentary of. Not just underground US indie (in the proper sense) bands either .

    i remember Cobain in 1991 interview saying he liked Blur’s single at the time – There’s No Other Way .Look at the bands that supported with Nirvana – from Teenage Fanclub to The Breeders to The Boredoms to Bikini Kill.

    i never heard or least i don’t recall Cobain slagging off Soundgarden or Alice In Chains for instance Both major label Seattle bands who were on major labels

    what i’m saying i don’t buy into the idea that Kurt was ridiculing Pearl Jam or Guns N Roses to make himself or Nirvana somehow seem ‘cooler’ or to make himself somehow feel better about fame.

    i think it was down to music taste.

    However -you are right that Kurt’s critcicms of Axl Rose often included allegations of sexism or racism . He did seem to actually hate Axl Rose.

    He wasn’t the first or last person to say negative things about Axl Rose.

    His criticisms of Pearl Jam being a cynical band were bitchy but did have an air of truth to it.
    At least with early Peal Jam.

    That basketball insults if true though is hilarious and dumb.

    BTW Nick – is there anyway to make more previous post headlines seeable in the sidebar?

    1. We’re good to disagree but I don’t think we’re a million miles apart. 🙂

      Quick one – alas, I can’t get the sidebar to list more than the last few pieces. The ‘section’ headings still fit pretty well but I think I need to break Nirvana Thoughts and the Nirvana Stats one down further. The search bar is pretty effective but I realise its useful if you’re me and can remember all 203 pieces I’ve written for the site – oops. I tried, in the 100 posts and 175 post summaries, to list my favourites from past months. Oh! The month breakdown can be useful too, at least then there’s only circa 30 pieces to sift.

      Nowww…Again, I don’t disagree at all about Cobain’s like/dislike of Pearl Jam or Guns n’ Roses, or that his views were sincere – that’s not the point I’m making. It isn’t about whether Pearl Jam were/were not whatever, nor about what Guns n’ Roses were/were not – so I’m making no qualitative comment on either band (for the record, there’s about half a dozen PJ songs I can take but Guns n’ Roses, though it took years of me to make peace with the idea, I like a whole lot of their music).

      Cobain’s reaction to fame was extreme, as is often the case with Cobain, yup, he’s more than ‘a bit neurotic’. In 1992-1993 its possible to see an incredible amount of his behaviour as being a direction reaction to feeling he’d sold-out. The April 1992 recording sessions yielding noise rock, the large number of underground cover songs that go out that year, the entire Incesticide project, the nonsensical decision to pair up with an underground label and The Jesus Lizard, the absence of more mainstream covers (Do You Love Me, Here She Comes Now) from Incesticide. This was a man, who feeling rejected by the underground is sitting at home alone writing unsent hate mail to Calvin Johnson and snobby remarks about the underground – when frankly they hadn’t done anything to warrant it.

      Cobain had set out to make a mainstream record, with an MTV friendly video, had done everything to make it a success – and was absolutely terrified when it succeeded. That hadn’t been expected. Before 1991 has even finished he’s refusing to play Nevermind songs in radio sessions if he can help it, by mid-1992 he’s trying not to play SLTS on TV if he can; he’d rather play Rape Me and Tourette’s if he can get away with it.

      In amidst this, sure, he clings on to past hatred about Guns n’ Roses but it goes further, deliberate confrontations, reporting private discussions and meetings. “The Guns n’ Roses its OK to like” comment is a very fair statement on the rebel appeal of each band, both were mainstream rock entities. Cobain is stating plainly “we’re not like them” over and over again, it’s one of his most plainly spoken topics of the year – it matters to him to tell people “we’re not like Guns n’ Roses” precisely at a time when his band has just become a whole lot like them.

      In the case of Pearl Jam, the band does a Nirvana – writes a bunch of rock songs acceptable to the mainstream and runs with it. Nothing more. Cobain is accurate in his depiction of Pearl Jam as mainstream rock dressed to impress, but he’s unfair in claiming they’re some kind of impersonation of the alternative – Pearl Jam had paid their dues, had ongoing relationships with the North-West scene (Temple of the Dog, Green River on stage reunion, later side-project with Staley of Alice in Chains) and his one dimensional portrayal of them as some kinda record label set-up was unfair.

      Again, his dislike isn’t in question, but his way of expressing it dwelt less on what the band were but on what he disliked about how he felt his own band was being perceived in the circles he cared about; the underground. Cobain spent 1992-1993 trying to show his underground roots and ties, hauling in Albini and so forth, and stating in interviews over and again “well we’re still underground not like that band or that band.” Nirvana, commercially speaking (not sonically), were a LOT like Guns n’ Roses or Pearl Jam; another commercial product to satisfy the rebel edge.

  3. The problem with pearl jam is that they weren’t alternative. They became alternative and I admit they’re a guilty pleasure of mine. Pearl jam, Jeff ament’s jockish tendencies aside, music was not of the underground. They were more mainstream sounding than the chili peppers. Their main offense, probably in kurt’s eyes, was mother love bone. MLB was a blatant butt rock band. Soundgarden began as an alternative band, took a detour into mainstream rock, and returned to an alternative form of arty stoner rock by 94. Pearl jam had the virtuoso Mike mcready in his Stevie Ray Vaughn outfit, clearly continuing the mother love bone aesthetic in 1992. Alice in chains, another guilty pleasure, are probably the most suspicious of the top four Seattle bands (I won’t use the word grunge as it’s an invented term that none of the bands save mudhoney have anything to do with). Alice in chains were metal, soundgarden were alternative metal, nirvana were punk rock, screaming trees were sixties garage rock, and pearl jam were a mainstream rock band. Pearl jam’s ten is unlistenable. It sounds like a motley crue record. Their following records were much better sonically and had better songs. Eddie Vedder had seized the steering wheel and drove the band towards something more organic. His fugazi obsession probably as important as embarrassment over kurt cobain calling them “cock rock poseurs on the sunset strip.” The problem with all of this is that these bands share a state on the map, a record label (except alice) and nothing else. The music of Alice, soundgarden, and pearl jam is similar enough to call them the same genre. Nirvana on the other hand, while friends with Ben shepherd from sg, don’t belong in the same category. We could put nirvana in a field with mudhoney, tad and truly as there was friendship and a common punk aesthetic, but nirvana were only really personally connected to four bands that managed to get out of Washington: melvins, screaming trees, bikini kill and earth. If an argument for a mainstream connection must be made than nirvana is most closely tied to the breeders. At the end of the day nirvana was the flagship band of the alternative era and the tenuous Seattle connection was latched onto their success to give a neat categorization for pearl jam, Alice in chains and soundgarden so they could be marketed by Sony to the emerging rock audience.

    1. I think you’ve totally hit it. MLB/SG/AiC were the wave of Seattle bands all heading toward major labels by 1989 / early 1990 and part of that wave of music. Nirvana belonged to the garage-orientated/punk-influenced next generation and bar sharing a city/region with SG/AiC/Pearl Jam (as you say, the continuation/resurrection of MLB)…Nowt else.

  4. If you think about it, Guns n Roses sounded very much like Aerosmith and even AC/DC on a good night. Both of those were bands Kurt liked. Musically there was no reason why Kurt should have hated GNR, at least not Appetite, but attitudinally, he had every reason. Everything from the hairspray to the content of songs like One in a Million, Used to Love Her and Back off Bitch to the presentation (I seem to remember reading about Slash dedicating a song live on stage to “blowjobs”; Kurt Cobain declared himself homosexual and a walking bacterial infection on stage). Guns n Roses represented everything that was absolutely gross about corporate rock to him, everything that was safe and pretending to be dangerous. The fact that they actually had some punk credentials (Duff, Izzy’s Johnny Thunders thing, GNR used to play with bands like Fear and Social Distortion) didn’t make it better, as perhaps Axl or Duff would have thought, it made it worse. Same goes for Pearl Jam; Jeff Ament (and later Steve Turner, and Mark Arm) made it a practice of defending the punk credentials of Pearl Jam; Jeff Ament mentions that he was in a real hardcore band while Kurt Cobain was going to Sammy Hagar concerts. But again, these made things worse. It’s like how sects of one religion are even worse enemies than different religions altogether.

    I happen to think that much of this animus was youth-driven, and Kurt might have grown out of it, the evidence being that everyone else from those days also thought GNR sucked. “The Guns n’ Roses its OK to like” comment actually underscores that. GNR had zero cool credibility with the Amerindie and punk scene, Kurt just echoed that. There was no reason for the Cows to be talking about GNR, but Nirvana were eventually in actual competition with them (and GNR was nothing but inviting to Nirvana). This is actually kind of funny, because in a way GNR was the lead-up to bands like Nirvana having a mainstream platform. Whether Thurston Moore or Flipside liked GNR, they were a lot more gritty and authentic in 1987 than Def Leppard and Lita Ford, and arguably a stepping stone in getting that audience ready for Nirvana. Axl was talking up Soundgarden in Rolling Stone in 1989, at any rate.

    Speaking of which, Soundgarden toured with them, but the two bands didn’t get along, mainly because Soundgarden didn’t like GNR. GNR later covered Soundgarden’s Big Dumb Sex, but Soundgarden thought it was hilarious and pathetic that GNR took that song seriously (at least in Soundgarden’s opinion). However, eventually everyone made their peace with GNR, at least with Duff, even Krist. Now they’re all just a bunch of mellow middle aged dudes, turned out they all had more in common than they realized, and bygones are bygones. If you had said in 1988 that 50 year olds Duff and Mark Arm would share a stage to jam on the Stooges, I imagine that would not have seemed terribly plausible to either. In the meantime, Kurt never really stopped being a teenager, did he? When Pete Townsend reviewed the Journals he was deeply offended that Kurt said “I hope I died before he turns into Pete Townsend.” Pete pointed out that when Kurt said that he wasn’t even old! That’s true… to people my age (close to 40), but isn’t true when you’re 24 (Kurt). Anyway age, so yes, to Kurt Cobain playing basketball could typecast you as a certain kind of person.

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