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…