Cover Story: Just Go With the Even Flow

A fan's retrospective of growing up in Pearl Jam's footsteps

Keith Klenowski

Eddie Vedder still connects with fans at a May 20 show in Cleveland.

A fan's retrospective of The year 1990 went like this: I got laid, got pierced, smoked, drank, skipped, protested term papers and fell to my knees, having a nervous breakdown in the high school hall. Another girl was pregnant; she wore her Catholic uniform safety-pinned under her belly, and I wondered if she felt like me: lonely, petrified, piss-angry.

Weekly, I saw school counselors; we got nowhere. I put on some faces. Convincingly calm, I rarely got caught. (Insert wry smile.)

In Seattle, at the same time, connections occurred. Former Green River bandmates Jeff Ament and Mike McCready recorded a demo with Stone Gossard, handing it to Red Hot Chili Peppers' Jack Irons, who passed it to his hiking/basketball buddy, Bad Radio singer Eddie Vedder. Legend: Lyrics came to Vedder while in the ocean. He wrote a furious symphony about incest, suicide, murder and madness.

Landing a "go-fer" job at a limousine company that handled concert tours, I had VIP passes and tickets to most Riverbend shows. In those crowds and that noise, I felt some relief from aching depression, the heavy weight of severely introverted me.

In the pit, my world was raw; old wounds busted open like skinned knees. I bled it all out. No apologies. Fierce, a trashed creature, I traveled alone.

1991. The band, called Mookie Blaylock (Ament, Gossard, McCready, Vedder and drummer Dave Krusen), signed with Epic Records, changing their name to Pearl Jam. They called their album Ten after NBA star Blaylock's jersey number. Krusen soon left, replaced by Matt Chamberlain, then Dave Abbruzzese, who stuck around.

Along with Alice in Chains, Nirvana and Soundgarden, Pearl Jam leveled the music scene with thick grunge cement.

That summer, I opened a late birthday present, a tape (no CDs yet) from my brother. My faded Olds had missing hubcaps, bald tires and a smashed door, but when I heard Ten on the car stereo my ride morphed into a souped-up racing machine.

See, my parents were getting divorced, our house was for sale and I felt the full intensity of Grunge sound. In my house, there were never any fights; the buried emotion, the screaming, was all inside. This music released internal noise — the self-destructive, silent, raging me.

July 1992. Lollapalooza. Riverbend. The venue was littered with ratty hair, combat boots, army green shorts, shredded T-shirts and, yes, flannel wrapped around waists, regardless of the heat. Vedder climbed into the rafters and jumped, surfing the crowd's hands, and we were all in there — nobody was in the right row and nobody cared. The bouncers were useless.

Vedder dripped anger, drenched like us; he was long-haired then, rolling his eyes back in his head when he sang. It was hell-hot in the mosh pits, and limbs were everywhere. Covered in grime, body fluids and bruises, we were loaded, livid adrenaline junkies.

We fought and helped each other stay standing, in a strange love/hate dance. Just a bunch of broken kids, and our leader was as crazy as we were. (Rumor: Riverbend banned PJ from coming back, later lifting the ban.)

March 1994. Louisville. General admission. Scored a ticket three hours before the show. I was so close, I could see band grimaces and spit. I was struck by their energy and expressions — the guys were having a kickass time. Irons had replaced Abbruzzese on drums, and they seemed newly charged.

I was half-drunk and so seemed Vedder, slurring more than his usual slur. Pearl Jam clones made up the crowd, wearing the protective, slam-dancing uniform straight from Seattle streets. Our proud hands + voices + echoes = skin oceans.

May 1996. After college, researching my novel, I headed to Seattle. All around me were addicts, musicians, skaters. I took notes. I became these notes. Playing street guitar for money, my home was the bottom bunk in a closet-sized room. Life was ugly-wet, wet with rain, tears, booze, blood, sweat, urine.

By September, I was thin, sick and broke. Then Pearl Jam booked a secret warm-up show at The Showbox, a small club downtown. For hours, I waited in line. The marquee read something like "Broken Bottle" to throw people off. The club closed entry one person ahead of me, but some fan handed me a ticket for the Key Arena show two days later. Thanks, Jamie.

Sept. 16, 1996. Seattle. Key Arena. First row, seats, but when the strobe lights flashed I jumped the railing, heading for the floor. The bouncers followed, yelling, "Get that little one," but I was quick and small, weaving.

Then some guys tossed my body up on the hands, turned me upside down, and I landed belly-up on stage. There, a poem fell from my pocket near Vedder's boots. A bouncer cradled me in his arms, setting me down, gently.

Nobody died that day, but in between songs I felt the depth of my sinking, stinking world that was nothing but cravings and shaking. That week, I left Seattle. Bye.

October 1996. Charleston S.C. Waiting, I braided my hair and played guitar in the gutter. Fifteen minutes before show time, they released pit seats, and I got lucky. But the Southern crowd was brutal; it was a mad, crushing panic, out of control. And so was I. Even Vedder looked down and said, "That doesn't look like much fun."

Standing on tiptoes, I sucked in air, saving it. Trapped, packed, there was no exit. Then came chest pain, the feral urge to breathe and the pressing crowd not giving in. I choked, kicked, prayed until the crowd swayed, relaxing. Humbled, I was terrified — not of dying, but that suddenly, wholly, I wanted to live.

August 2000. Riverbend. No opener. Five guys on stage, playing. Sound, slightly new. Matt Cameron on drums. Simple backdrop. No fancy lights. No maniacal looks.

Vedder sang slowly, sipping wine. All glowy. I too was mellow. The scene was simply lucid — each movement was crisp, smooth, serene. I was more than two years clean.

June 2003. Riverbend. Cancelled. Flooding. Pit center ticket. No comment.

May 2006. I'm 31. Wiser, maybe. But the hard edge of the reckless life is still inside me — it creeps up, old pains stored in brain pockets, my mental elevator. That ain't the half of it. But that's another story.

Point being, we Grunge punks had no place to go other than the pits. At one show in Denmark, nine kids died dancing.

See, I raged and blamed until no one was left except bruised, vaporish me. The finger pointed at me. Perhaps the band would agree. On the new Pearl Jam album, Vedder sings, "Just for today ... I am free. I will not lose my faith. It's an inside job today."

Pearl Jam plays U.S. Bank Arena this summer. It's been a long ride, but I'm cool, home and dry. Besides, I don't have a ticket yet. (Insert sleepy grin.)

Imagined or real, either way, believe this: I'll be the little one listening close, slightly off center, right side up. I'm there.

PEARL JAM performs June 24 at U.S. Bank Arena.

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