Out of all the bands from the early days of grunge, Pearl Jam was the most indebted to classic rock. When listening to the licks of Mike McCready and the gravelly baritone of Eddie Vedder’s voice, it was easy to draw a line between their brand of rock and the same blues-infused tunes coming out of acts like Bad Company 20 years before. If time had gone differently, though, there was a good chance that Pearl Jam would have never been known.
Starting as the band Mother Love Bone in Seattle, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament originally began life as a stadium-rock outfit, having an all-star frontman in Andy Wood. While Mother Love Bone seemed like the band that would take the Seattle scene mainstream with their debut album Apple, the release date corresponded with a tragic accident.
After getting involved with heroin, Wood fatally overdosed just before the album’s release. While he was on life support, Gossard and Ament could only say their goodbyes before he passed away later that evening. Although most artists would never want to pick up their instruments again, Gossard soldiered on, creating a demo of instrumental recordings he worked on before Wood’s passing.
When shopping the tapes around the West Coast, Gossard gave one to his friend, Jack Irons, the latest drummer for Red Hot Chili Peppers. During a camping trip in California, Irons came across San Diego native Eddie Vedder and passed along the tape. Moving something in Vedder’s soul, the soon-to-be frontman wrote the genesis of songs like ‘Alive’ and ‘Once’ over Gossard’s instrumentals and sent it back up to Seattle.
The lyrics behind those first songs weren’t for the faint of heart, either. Telling a story across each song, Vedder created a macabre tale of a teenage kid who turns into a psychopathic killer after his world falls apart.
Starting in ‘Alive’, the protagonist is told by his mother that the man he knew to be his father was his stepfather and that his real father had passed away. Enamoured with her son’s uncanny similarity to his father, the mother then tries to force sex upon the narrator, which causes his mental state to snap.
Bleeding into the song ‘Once’, Vedder sings about the man going on a killing spree, bragging that he has a gun buried under his clothes and reminiscing about the times that he was able to control himself. In the final song, ‘Footsteps’, the narrator awaits his trial and eventual execution as he lies in his jail cell after being apprehended by police.
As Vedder awaited a response to his dark rock opera, the former members of Mother Love Bone were playing again with Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell at the helm. Being a lifelong friend of Wood, Cornell had written a few tributes to his friend and wanted to record them under the name Temple of the Dog with the surviving members of the group.
Midway through the sessions, Gossard was knocked out by Vedder’s tape and insisted that he come up to Seattle. Since most of the scene was about singers that liked to sing crazy high notes, Vedder’s bluesy low register appealed to Gossard, remarking in Rolling Stone, “I thought ‘no one’s going down there.’”
After playing a handful of rehearsals with the group, Vedder also got the chance to sing alongside members of Temple of the Dog on the song ‘Hunger Strike’, which would become a massive hit once the grunge scene started breaking big around the world. Though Vedder was apprehensive about becoming the frontman, Cornell endeared himself to the frontman, giving him the confidence to front Pearl Jam.
Making their debut album, Ten, on a shoestring budget, Vedder’s lyrics took on dark themes across the rest of the album, including the tale of a kid who shot himself in front of his classmates on ‘Jeremy’ and a girl who is misdiagnosed as crazy by her parents on ‘Why Go’. While every piece of the rock opera would see a mainstream release, they would be scattered across the album, with ‘Alive’ appearing as the third track, ‘Once’ opening the record, and ‘Footsteps’ being reserved for the B-side of the ‘Jeremy’ single.
While members of Mother Love Bone had faced one of the biggest heartbreaks any band can endure, their resurrection with Pearl Jam brought them a new lease on musical life. There were a lot of raw emotions surrounding the beginning of Pearl Jam, but the lyrical content was about them taking those harsh feelings and channelling them into beautiful rock bombast.