What do you want to know about Pearl Jam? Whatever it is, you’re likely to find it somewhere in Pearl Jam Twenty. Released for the 20th anniversary of the Seattle grunge stalwarts’ monster debut album, Ten—a record that went on to sell 13 million copies, and counting—Twenty is a lavish, beautifully illustrated slab of coffee-table gorgeousness that meticulously records the day-to-day life, travails and triumphs of one of the most successful rock acts of the last 20 years (or more).
Twenty is also a companion volume to the Cameron Crowe-directed documentary of the same name. Releasing a book to go with the movie makes oodles of sense, as it would be mighty tough for a single two-hour doc to squeeze in even a fraction of the information contained within these pages.
Even a book of nearly 400 pages has trouble containing it all. The story is too sprawling, too laden with detail to take well to a straight read-through from first page to last. Rather, the best way to approach a book like this is as an exercise in browsing, which allows the reader to leaf through particular years (“Chapter 1992”, “Chapter 2001”, etc.) or read up on individual albums (from Ten and Vs. to the later Riot Act and Backspacer), or simply to ogle the seemingly endless supply of band photos, concert stills, Polaroids, press clippings and so forth.
A dedicated fan might choose to cherrypick quotes from the diversity of rock royalty who comment upon the proceedings throughout the book. Such luminaries as Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Buck and Pete Townshend contribute their reflections on the band’s career, resulting in commentary that ranges from the insightful to the, uh—less insightful. Here’s the Who’s Townshend, an idol of Eddie Vedder, reflecting on Vedder’s struggles with the feeding frenzy of the band’s early success: “I said [to Vedder], ‘I’m not sure you have a choice. Once you’ve been elected, you have to serve as mayor’.”
Then there’s Neil Young, another icon of the band (and the press-proclaimed “godfather of grunge”), recollecting his performance of “Rockin’ in the Free World” alongside the band at the 1993 MTV Music Awards: “I don’t even know what I was doing there, to tell you the truth. But it sounded like a good idea, and we rocked. We rocked it good.” Thanks, Neil.
There are countless quotes and recollections from the band members themselves, commenting on everything from specific songs to performance memories to larger issues, such as the Roskilde tragedy in Denmark, in which nine people were crushed to death during the band’s performance.
As if all that weren’t enough—and let’s face it, for some obsessive Pearl jam fans, it probably won’t be—this volume contains a listing of virtually every performance in the band’s history. (I say “virtually” because it isn’t quite comprehensive. It certainly appears exhaustive, but it’s not, and the only reason I know this is because the show I attended in Barcelona, on Sept 1, 2006, isn’t listed.) Some shows are notable for their performances of a new (or very old) song, or incidents involving the crowd or fellow acts, but even less memorable concerts often get a mention.
Perhaps inevitably, it’s the early years of the band that are most interesting, as groups of Seattle teenagers dream of stardom and form bands like Green River, which evolved over time into Mother Love Bone. MLB disbanded after the death of singer Andrew Wood, and some of the remaining members regrouped with other musicians, jammed and recorded a demo tape without lyrics. This tape found its way into the hands of California surfer dude/would-be vocalist Eddie Vedder, who put some vocals on the tape and sent it back. Liking what they heard, the rest of the band invited him up to Seattle to jam. From then on, everything clicked.
Ten was a monster album, and the next two records, Vs. and Vitalogy, kept the sreamroller going. The how-big-will-this-thing-get? storyline is inherently more engaging than the “established statesmen of rock” position that the band would occupy during the release of later records like 2003’s Riot Act and 2009’s Backspacer. The book makes a game attempt at keeping things lively, with plenty of attention given to Vedder’s solo career, but it can’t help but feel anticlimactic. From a 2006 concert, we’re told that “During the first encore, Vedder gives a speech about his high school drama teacher, the late Clayton Liggett, for whom he wrote the song ‘Long Road’.” Well, okay. But at this point we’re well into obsessive-fans-only territory.
Ultimately, though, is this any surprise? A tome like Pearl Jam Twenty is obviously going to appeal to fans first and last, and it’s hard to predict which particular nugget will appeal to fan sensibilities the most. The good news for the band is that, having sold tens of millions of records, there are plenty of potential listeners (and readers) out there for this handsome, well-produced volume to appeal to.