[Here's an article that I wrote on Pearl Jam for the Toronto Star. It appeared today, just as the band arrived in town just in time for tomorrow's debut of their Cameron Crowe-directory, Pearl Jam Twenty. The band also has two shows in Toronto. Who will be their special guests? Bono again? Neil Young? You never know...]
Lollapalooza, Molson Park, August 5, 1992: A 5-foot-7 Eddie Vedder is getting smoked by his bandmates around the basketball hoop set up backstage, but it doesn't matter to him because he claims not to be much of a basketball fan, anyway. Strange for a group that was once named Mookie Blaylock, after the New Jersey Nets' point guard.
A little more than two years into their existence, Pearl Jam's debut album, Ten, has received some serious traction. Later that same day, Eddie converts more people to the Gospel of Pearl Jam when he stops during a song to caution people about pushing too much at the front of the stage. “A song ain't nothing compared to a human life,” he says. The set climaxes with Eddie climbing the scaffolding and diving into the crowd. A star is born.
I can tell that story because (a) I was there in person to see it; and (b) because Pearl Jam is one of the best-documented bands of all time. Just about every single thing they've done — including Eddie's warning that day in Barrie — has been meticulously catalogued by fans or by the group itself. Discographies, set lists, interviews, video footage, bootlegs, interviews, pictures, books, blogs, magazine articles — if it has to do with Pearl Jam, someone somewhere has recorded it. Just enter “Pearl Jam” plus any search terms into Google and watch what pops up. “Pearl Jam Molson Park Barrie 1992” brings back 21,000 results alone.
In exchange for the group allowing fans to freely bootleg their shows, the Pearl Jam community responds by maintaining a running account of their heroes.
Preserving minutiae works in Pearl Jam's favour. Longtime fans can reminisce. New fans have something to study. And because the band's rise to superstardom coincided with the public's embracing of the Internet, they were one of the first groups to truly benefit from this new way of record-keeping. Sure, you could keep collecting magazine articles, newspaper clippings, bootlegs and imports, but starting a Pearl Jam web page was just so much cooler.
Documenting things like concert dates, set lists and discographies became a worldwide community effort. The fan-supported Five Horizons website — fully endorsed by the band — was the place for all things Pearl Jam between 1996 and 2005. It's still available for browsing.
As a music documentary guy, I appreciate this strong sense of history. Some bands don't like to look back ever. Who in rock'n'roll wants to be reminded how old they are and that perhaps their best days are behind them?