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Pearl Jam - How Death Brought Ten To Life

Pearl Jam formed as the result of a heroin overdose that ended the career of Mother Love Bone, but no one ever imagined it would take them to an album called Ten...

It was one of those chill spring London nights, the sort that slaps your brain back into action when it’s been dulled by a few hours of booze and food in a cozy, hazy restaurant. It’s late but not quiet, and a small group of blokes are walking through Soho, laughing, bumping shoulders, just good mates on a night out. They don’t seem to have too much that’s bothering them, they’d been on top form all evening. Yet two of them - Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament - had just foreclosed on passages of their lives that they would never forget, and - although none of us walking through the streets knew it then - something even more remarkable, and less painful - was about to begin.

It was another record company beano, of course, a grip-and-grin for Stone and Jeff, a chance for a group of journos to meet them and maybe give some support to the first record with their new band. Nobody knew too much about them then. Mother Love Bone had been a fun and funky side street, part-Queen, part-something else entirely. The Seattle scene was gaining an ascendency over the death-throes of cock rock, but the streets weren’t yet full of plaid shirts and goatees, and Kurt and Courtney’s names were still to be irrevocably linked. He’d written and recorded the bruised and brilliant songs for Nevermind, but they’d yet to find their destructive public appeal.

People were catching on to the sonorous beauty of a little album A&M were about to issue called Temple Of The Dog. Alice In Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, Hole, Stone Temple Pilots, Candlebox and the rest lay ahead. So, too, that night, did Pearl Jam...

Ironically, it was a man with pretentions to be a genuine, cock-strutting frontman-superstar who played the vital hand in Pearl Jam’s rise, and he did it by dying. It wasn’t the definitive Seattle death of course, but it was almost as pivotal.

Andrew Wood sported the classic CV for an 80s hair-band frontman; his teenage obsession with stardom came after catching a Cheap Trick gig; he grew up on Kiss, Bolan, Bowie, Elton John and Prince; he loved excess in his clothes, in his face paint and also in his name – he came up with ‘L’Andrew, the Mythical Love Child’.

“If he could have been anyone,” Stone Gossard noted, “he would have loved to have been Freddie Mercury”. He wasn’t exactly of the Kurt Cobain mindset, then, but there was more to Wood than a luvvie’s love for the centre of attention. His was an excessive, addictive personality, but he also had a gift for the lofty, idealistic expression of epic rock’n’roll and he had an intuitive grasp of how to use his presence, of how to make people look. Wood also displayed the usual flipside to this genetic type. He was a conspicuous consumer of booze and drugs from his early years and was mainlining coke and smack at an age when most of us feel like Hunter S Thompson if we’re in the same room as a funny fag.

When he was in his first real band, Malfunkshun, his father had to hospitalise him with hepatitis contracted from infected junkies’ needles. His brother and bandmate Kevin remembers that, by 1985, he “had track marks up and down both arms”.

Malfunkshun’s contribution to a seminal Seattle compilation Deep Six, called With Yo Heart Not Yo Hands was about heroin and hepatitis. Wood felt that Malfunkshun, despite featuring his brother and also his best friend in drummer Regan Hagar, couldn’t provide the platform he sought, and he was tooling around Seattle giving the occasional solo performance on the side when Stone Gossard really began to take notice of him.

“Andy had a very giddy charm,” Gossard remembered. “He was always so funny, so disarming, that it was hard not to like the guy. He was totally captivating.”

“I had,” Wood himself noted wryly, “started to get frontman disease...” Gossard had been the guitarist, or one of them, in Green River, another local band featured on the Deep Six compilation that had also included at one time or another bass player Jeff Ament, guitarist Bruce Fairweather and singer Mark Arm (who would later form Mudhoney). The band had been financed by the tiny local label Sub Pop, and had worked on an EP, Dry As A Bone, with producer Jack Endino and a mini-album, Rehab Doll, which was released after the band folded. It was grating, sophomore college rock that was afforded posthumous significance given the names involved. Stone and Jeff Ament were looking to start again, maybe up the coast in LA, or maybe with Andrew Wood in rainy, trend-free Seattle. They chose Wood, and futures connected.

By 1988, the band was called Mother Love Bone, a classic piece of Wood rhetoric, and included Gossard, Ament, Fairweather and drummer Greg Gilmore, who’d ousted Regan Hagar in some earlier jockying for position.

They wrote quickly and prolifically, producing trippy, sonic rock songs like Stardog Champion and Holy Roller, and epic statements of intent like Crown Of Thorns. Their manager, Kelly Curtis, and Jeff Ament somehow provoked a bidding war between most of the major labels, and the band signed to Polydor on November 19, 1988, in a seven-album deal.

On the release of their mini-album, Shine, which preceded their full debut, Apple, Wood was asked to describe the band. He may as well have been coining his personal, good-sense-for-nonsense philosophy.

“I’d describe it as an escape, because we don’t want to get serious and we don’t want to remind people of what’s real. We want to take them away from that. I think that’s why we’re – or at least I am – from the [Marc] Bolan school. It’s about taking people away with things that don’t make sense, but which sound good.” With great prescience, he added: “But then Crown of Thorns is a message song, about people messing themselves up through drugs and stuff. A lot of my friends in Seattle are really confused. They seem to think that being a rock star, or being into rock, is about taking drugs at the same time. So that’s our two cents’ worth on that one.”

Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose on March 19, 1990. He had been clean for four months and was to be chaperoned by a new tour manager, another recovering addict, as Mother Love Bone began their big promo push.

He drove alone into downtown Seattle and scored. His girlfriend Xana found him in a coma on his bed some hours later, one fresh track-mark glistening on his forearm. Wood had fallen for the junkie’s version of a suckerpunch; loading up with only slightly less smack in the syringe than he would have used at the height of his addiction. With his tolerance levels lowered by 116 days off of the dope, he may as well have used a gun. It would have been quicker. He hung on via a life support system in the Habourview hospital for almost a week. but his family were told that in the unlikely event of the coma reversing itself, Wood would almost certainly be severely mentally handicapped following his brain’s deprivation of oxygen.

After three dreadful days, Wood’s family decided that his life-support system should be turned off, which it was as they, his band-mates and Xana surrounded his bed with lit candles and played A Night At The Opera, his favourite Queen album. He was 24.

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Stone Gossard spoke candidly of his emotions following Andrew Wood’s death. He had a new perspective on life, as anyone who had seen their friend’s life-support system shut down would have. “Andy was one of those kind of guys that I personally always felt seemed a little bit tragic. There was always something sad about his whole nature and his way of hiding it and dealing with it was being this flamboyant, over-the-top, happy guy.”

Gossard’s first professional decision was that Mother Love Bone was over. “There’s no reason for us to continue with the name. What we stood for is there on Apple and I’m not going to try to recreate with some other singer. I’m not into it. When something is over, you’ve got to let it die.”

It was a decision of some integrity in a business that for the most part operates quite nicely without any. “It would be total prostitution,” Jeff Ament concurred. The respective players had struggled along, first with Green River and then with MLB before they signed a big deal, cut a terrific little record just as the tides were turning back towards music which was genuinely emotional rather than phallo-centric, party-rock. Now their singer had upped and died on them at the crucial moment. Plenty of people would have opted to replace him and carry on. Plenty of people. But not this lot.

To compound the situation, music from Seattle was about to break big. One A&R man was heard telling a local: “I just want to sign any band from Seattle. I missed Alice In Chains”. Rolling Stone reported that 'the major labels are coming, because, amongst the city’s lush greenery, they smell money'.

Eddie Vedder headed off to work at an all-night gas station in San Diego one Friday in 1990 holding a tape passed to him by Jack Irons, once a drummer with Red Hot Chili Peppers. Irons and Vedder played basketball together, and Irons had just turned down the job of drumming for the guys on the demo, who he’d known since they were in Green River. Irons just had an inkling that the music on the tape matched his friend’s voice.

Vedder’s normal practice was to listen to tapes during the long night-shifts and then head out surfing when he clocked off early in the mornings. He spent most of his days demoing songs on a little four-track recorder. People wondered when he slept.

“I was a mad-scientist character,” Eddie explained. “People either thought I’d do really big things one day, or just... die.”

Eddie listened to the tape right through several times and then went surfing. “It was a great feeling. A combination of sleep deprivation and being very excited by the coldness of the water with this music floating around in my head. I got out of the water, went to this little run-down shack on the beach I was living in and laid down three songs. My feet were still wet and sandy.”

He named the three Alive, Once and Footsteps and re-taped them with his vocals on. Then he made them into a little package called Mamasan and returned them to Jeff Ament in the mail. When, shortly afterwards, Eddie met with Stone and Jeff in Seattle, they were immediately taken by the differences between Vedder and Wood. Vedder’s voice was stadium-size, but his body language was shy, diffident, defensive. He was stooped and round-shouldered and as scruffy as a tramp’s dog. His songs hinted at a past which included the discovery, as a young adult, that the man he thought was his father was his step-father, and worse, that his biological father had just died from mutiple sclerosis. His biological father had been a musician, too.

Eddie and Jeff and Stone rehearsed once and then parted, promising to make contact again in three weeks. “It’s definitely one of those instances that seems to happen for an outer-worldly reason,” noted Ament, “and only a few times in my life has that ever happened. “I just remember the coolest thing playing Alive,” recalled Vedder. “It was the first thing we played together. We were in the basement of this little art gallery – so the vibe was really cool – and here were these guys, and I finally had this music that I felt like... there was something about this music.”

Gossard caught the buzz, too: “I’d go home and try to do something else, and I couldn’t. I had to pick up my guitar and carry on playing what we had been doing that day.” When Vedder returned a month later they were a band, named after a basketball player for the New York Mets, Mookie Blaylock...

Andrew Wood had may friends – over a thousand had attended his memorial service. One of them was Chris Cornell, who fronted the influential Soundgarden. Cornell found himself writing two songs about Wood and his death, Reach Down and Say Hello 2 Heaven. Soon there were more, not as immediately influenced by Wood, but not tunes that fit Soundgarden’s loud and lusty manifesto either.

Cornell spoke with his label, A&M, who green-lighted a side project that included Cornell and Matt Cameron with Stone, Jeff, Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder. Sessions ran parallel with Pearl Jam’s rehearsals for the songs that would make up Ten. Cornell’s integrity and altruistic, artistic vision, infused the project.

“Can you imagine how inspiring that was?” noted Vedder. “We were going into coffee shops, fuelling up and going into this dank basement, playing this music with a band that had a magical intensity about it.”

It was clear that it was a one-off, a side project featuring two potentially very big bands, but it was a lot more than that, too. “It was a collaboration that we were happy to do”, Chris Cornell affirmed. “Once the record was mixed and we knew it was going to be released, then I think the tribute aspect of it started to creep back in on everybody. I mean, we’ve known each other for a long time, but we had never ever talked about doing anything like this.”

They titled the record and their impromptu line-up Temple Of The Dog after a line from Wood’s lyrics to Man Of Golden Words. Michael Goldstone, the man who had signed Mother Love Bone to Polydor, had moved to Epic, where he’d already recruited Alice In Chains. He’d kept in touch with Gossard and Ament and was following Mookie Blaylock closely. With equal serendipity, the band’s lawyer, Michael Anthony, had also done a lot of work with Epic and their parent company Sony.

The band had been called Pearl Jam for less than three weeks when Goldman and Anthony resolved the remaining legal ties that Stone and Jeff had with Polydor and offered them a deal. As the band were already rehearsed and tight and the songs written, they began sessions for Ten immediately at London Bridge studios in Seattle with producer Rick Parashar. What emerged was a record that contained a little of Mother Love Boneʼs broad melodic scope in the expansively lovely Alive, and Release, but there was a natural and powerful undertow, too, that gave Ten some of its darkness. No-one could listen to Once and Jeremy and not hear a band kicking with anger and maybe grief, too. And they capped the sessions with Black, a beautiful, bittersweet tune, full of melancholic regret.

The record incorporated the vibe of Seattle without being as inward-looking as some of the other bands were. Vedderʼs love of The Who was as obvious as Stone and Jeffʼs indie-punk aspirations. It was true mood music, an album that reflected the recent lives of its participants, and on those terms it supersedes anything that they have produced since. Much of that later material still plays like a downbeat reaction to the immediate public embracing of Ten and its broadscape dynamics.

In May 1991, the band finished the mix at Ridge Farm studios in Dorking, and did some gentle re-entry work with their record company. Temple Of The Dog filtered out. Within a year, Pearl Jam were a phenomenon, a movement, something that they never bargained on at all.

“The band will probably hate me for saying this,” said Vedder, just as Ten began to shift in threateningly big numbers, “but I feel itʼs getting too big too quickly. Believe me, Iʼm trying to keep it small, these songs are really intimate songs... Some people are saying, ʻletʼs go with it and see how big it can getʼ. You can only go so high before you start sounding silly.”

Andrew Wood would have loved it...


This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #24.

For more on Pearl Jam and how they came to terms with fame, then click on the link below.

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