A “Fantasy Warehouse” for fans of the iconic Seattle rockers
On October 22, 1990, a five-piece outfit named Mookie Blaylock (after the basketball player then playing for the New Jersey Nets) played their debut gig, an unannounced show at Seattle’s Off Ramp club, performing an eight-song set that included the future classics “Alive” and “Even Flow.”
Twenty-eight years later, having ditched the Blaylock moniker in favor of the more organic Pearl Jam, those songs are still in the band’s setlist — but the crowd’s grown somewhat larger. This past August 8 and 10, Pearl Jam played two sold-out shows (dubbed the Home Shows) at Seattle’s Safeco Field baseball park, thrilling fans with sets that ran to three hours, featured drop-in guests like Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil (wearing a shirt with an image of Chris Cornell patterned after the Starbucks logo), Mark Arm from Mudhoney, and singer/songwriter Brandi Carlisle, and raised over $11 million dollars to aid efforts in grappling with Seattle’s homeless problem. “Empathy became action,” the band’s lead singer, Eddie Vedder, declared in an official statement released after the shows.
And that wasn’t the only excitement generated by the band in Seattle this month. August 11 saw the opening of Pearl Jam: Home and Away at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP), a comprehensive exhibit that goes back to the days of those 1990 shows and tells the band’s story through a wealth of artifacts (over 200 of them), ranging from bassist Jeff Ament’s hat collection to the backdrop used for the cover of the band’s debut album Ten (perfect for photo ops) to the “Momma-Son” cassette demo that Vedder mailed to the band by way of auditioning to become then-Mookie Blaylock’s lead singer. It’s a great chronicle of Pearl Jam’s epic journey; from a band that was born out of tragedy to the global phenomenon that they are today, having risen like a phoenix from the ashes.
The band’s roots go back to Seattle band Green River, whose first Sub Pop EP, 1987’s Dry As a Bone, was hailed as “ultra-loose GRUNGE that destroyed the morals of a generation.” There’s an Ament-designed Green River t-shirt in one of the display cases. “I silk-screened that in my basement,” says Ament, who dropped in during a media preview of Home & Away. “I haven’t seen that shirt in years. That’s probably Kevin’s. [Kevin Shuss, Pearl Jam’s archivist and videographer] I don’t know he got that! But he has a way.” (As Jacob McMurray, one of MoPOP’s curators observes, “I think if Kevin wasn’t saving all of these things, I don’t know if they’d exist”).
Green River broke up at the end of 1987, with Ament, and guitarists Jeff Stone and Bruce Faithweather putting together a new venture, Mother Love Bone, joining forces with Regan Hagar on drums — later replaced by Greg Gilmore — and charismatic lead singer Andrew Wood.
Wood had previously rocked Seattle stages as “Landrew, The Love Child,” purloining a name from a Star Trek episode. “The first time I saw him was at [Seattle club] the Metropolis,” Ament recalls, “and he was like, ‘We’re just down from Mount Olympus, people!’ I think that flamboyance probably goes back to what he was doing in his bedroom as a kid; he really looked up to Freddie Mercury and Marc Bolan and Elton John. You think of all the flamboyant guys of the ’70s, they were probably all at the top of his list.
“He could win people over,” Ament continues. “In a lot of ways, I was really different than him. But I loved him. I worked with him every day for a year at the Raison [Raison d’Etre, a since-closed coffee shop in downtown Seattle] and we just had a blast; it was so fun. Because he was into sports, and he was into weird music, and into rock records with fretless bass; we just had these crazy conversations. And he liked wordplay and alliteration, so his favorite bass player was Pino Palladino — not only because he was a great fretless bass player, but because his name was Pino Palladino! It was a cool word to say.”
Mother Love Bone signed with Polygram in 1988, and were on the verge of releasing their debut album, Apple, in 1990, when Wood died on March 19, 1990, of drug-related causes. Nothing if not resilient, Ament and Gossard regrouped with new musicians (Vedder and guitarist Mike McCready being the only other original members from that era), and seven months later were kicking out the jams on the Off Ramp’s stage.
According to Ament, MoPOP had previously expressed interested in doing something Pearl Jam-related, “but we were still holding a lot of this stuff close to the vest.” However, the band started getting their feet wet at PJ20, a two-day celebration held in 2011 at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin, that featured music acts, and a museum of Pearl Jam artifacts set up by Kevin Schuss. “Which was sort of a little bit of a trial run for this,” Ament explains. “It allowed us to see how much stuff we had and what people had in their basements.”
When the Seattle Home Shows were being set up, an accompanying exhibit seemed like a natural fit. “These shows sort of feel like the culmination of all of our time as a band, so it made sense to do an exhibit like this around them,” says Ament. MoPOP was approached about doing Home and Away just last March, which meant they had to move fast to be ready by August; a Star Trek exhibit at the museum ended up being closed a month early, to allow more time to work on the Pearl Jam installation.
Early meetings at Pearl Jam’s Seattle-area HQ provided the overall concept for the exhibit. “We’ve always said, the fans would love to see our warehouse, but they’re probably never going to get in there” says Schuss, referring to the complex where the band’s archives are stored. So if the fans can’t come to the warehouse — why not bring the warehouse to the fans? MoPOP designed what McMurray calls a “fantasy version” of the band’s warehouse, using the same kind of shelving that the band uses in their own space. “The idea was to make this feel like Pearl Jam’s world, Pearl Jam’s warehouse, and where they hang out,” explains Tim Bierman, who runs the band’s lifeline to their fans, the Ten Club. “And I think they did a great job at capturing that. When I walked in, it felt like I was at work!”
You can thank Schuss for the wide range of artifacts on display. “I’ve saved posters and flyers and stuff from the shows since the beginning,” he says. “I think it’s partly due to my nature. I grew up in a small town in Idaho and never really thought I’d get to see anything or go anywhere. So once I started doing this, I kind of pack-ratted stuff just more for a personal thing, so I could remember a lot of these places that I’ve seen and been to. And then being able to do something like this and share it with people is just amazing. I guess that’s part of the other reason I’ve pack-ratted stuff, like, okay, if in 20 years anybody cares about this stuff, we have stuff that we could show.
“And I tried to get the band guys a little more involved as far as personal items, clothing, awards, guitars, things like that,” he adds. “Getting stuff from the guys, getting a little more intimate and having them open up and want to be able to share things, that was probably the hardest thing to get.”
It paid off. There are the usual kind of items you’d expect to see in such an exhibit: posters and flyers, t-shirts, backstage passes, stage props, and the band’s instruments (including an area that has been set up to replicate a rehearsal space). But there are also a wealth of more personal items, like Vedder’s notebooks with his handwritten lyrics (generally 100-page Mead Composition books). The jacket Vedder wore in the “Jeremy” video. A handwritten note of congratulations from President Obama when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (“You have shaped American culture for a generation, and capture the best of our spirit”). And there are fun items like Gossard’s “Devo” outfit he wore during shows in Philadelphia in 2009. A set of commemorative liquor bottles, one of the more distinctive promo items for the Vitalogy album. Flyers for Citizen Dick, the fictional band featuring Pearl Jam’s members in the film Singles. There’s an interactive display where you can look up information on any of Pearl Jam’s thousands of shows, then head over to the large monitor displaying an endless stream of tour footage. Feel like chilling out? Step into the “Sound Temple,” where you can listen to music from the band’s albums while watching a display of live shots taken by the band’s official photographers. Then head over to the wall where you can write your own Pearl Jam message. “Thanx for the love and music! Named our son Vedder,” read a message from Erin Soldezzo, while someone named Gabe dared to write “Nirvana was best!!!”
There’s also a moving tribute to Andy Wood, in the form of a nearly eight-foot-high, 13,000-pound bronze statue. The statue was commissioned four years ago, following a visit the band members made to Wood’s grave at Miller-Woodlawn Memorial Park in Bremerton, Washington. They were dismayed to find it had been partially vandalized, its stone star having been broken off, and Ament decided to have a statue made to honor his friend. His then-girlfriend (and now wife), Pandora Andre-Beatty, suggested approaching artist Mark Walker, whom she knew through taking his class at Seattle’s Pratt Fine Arts Center. Once Walker got over his disbelief that Pandora was dating Ament (“I said ‘Come on, Pandora….’ It took her about five minutes to convince me that she wasn’t lying”) he readily agreed.
The couple wanted the piece to emphasize Wood’s Pacific Northwest roots; accordingly, he’s depicted, arms outstretched, growing out of a tree trunk. Rocks, leaves, and moss at the tree’s base add to the organic feel; the starfish at the base morph into stars on Wood’s shirt. The statue also features personal references to Wood’s life; his birth and death dates on opposing sides of the statue’s base, an apple in the corner behind him (referencing Mother Love Bone’s Apple album), and, in the front corner, a coffee bean, a nod to Wood’s and Ament’s day job at the Raison d’Etre coffee shop.
Ament admitted he found his first look at the final exhibit “pretty overwhelming.” And he sounds wistful as he reflects on the impact Wood’s life, and death, had on him personally and on Seattle’s music scene: “All that plays into the way the cards fell,” he says. He smiles as he looks at an early Ten Club newsletter; “I remember working on that with my brother.” Ament is still involved with the design of Pearl Jam’s t-shirts and merchandise, as well as the Ten Club newsletters, which are sent out twice a year. “I’ve gotten away from the original thing, but I’ve always wanted it to feel like it was cut and pasted,” he says, remembering the old days when he’d have text for the newsletters typeset, and having typesetter excitedly show him the latest fonts that had just come in. And how even errors in the work would add something unique to the end result: “That’s the stuff that always looks the best. Everything is so not that way now. Everything is so perfect, and everything’s done with a computer.”
You won’t find such sterility in Pearl Jam’s realm. It might be a modern world. But Pearl Jam has always worked hard to never leave behind their heart and soul.
Pearl Jam: Home and Away runs through early 2019. Info: mopop.org