Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder ended his latest solo tour Tuesday night in Clearwater, Fla., where a packed audience tried to sit still and be quiet. Mr. Vedder and his warm-up act on this tour, singer/songwriter Glen Hansard, were gun-shy after disruptive shows in Miami and Jacksonville where audience chatter and abrasive camera-phones became unruly. Mr. Hansard's music is textured and melancholy at times, the way a river is sad, and he was open about his love of the experience on the road with a legend, a man he respects with all of himself. He then did his part to keep the audience in line with a fast and purposeful version of "Respect" in which he prodded us to spell the word with him. Jill McCormick, Eddie's wife, came out before her husband did for a little pep talk too. She asked that we refrain from electronics, flash photography and please, please, "Just don't be a dick."
Eddie walked out and waved, surrounded by electric and acoustic guitars of various vintages. It was clear he was allowing us into his basement for a night of private reflection and a showcase of his remarkable voice and tender playing. Not easy to do if your fans are antsy for the rocker who used to dangle from the rafters during live shows, risking his life for those who'd literally catch him as he dropped from the scaffolding.
Tuesday night they loved him, respected him for sure, but they also had a buzz from dinner and Floridian beers are "HUGE!" The alcohol, I guess, prodded many to request, "Jeremy!" the title of a huge Pearl Jam '90s hit. "Play Jeremy! Jeremy!" they yelled as the poor fellow attempted to speak to us about depression, love, PTSD, a dear friend's death and most crucially, the word empathy. But he was stopped in his tracks, for moments, by nothing short of apathy, beer-buzzed and red-nosed disrespect.
Mr. Vedder doesn't want to play Jeremy. In fact he compared performing the song without his band-mates to eating an ice cream sundae made of sand.
"Empathy," he said again. "If you can feel empathy for people you... "
"I LOVE you, Eddie!"
"Thanks, I'll take that with me."
"I LOVE you too, Eddie." This time from the back of the room.
"Okay. But if you can feel empathy for people it changes your whole outlook. Who am I? Who are you? Isn't life humbling?"
If we as an audience could hear his message it would release him, for the evening, from the massively influential "grunge" era he helped invent. He is less depressive and manic-rocker tonight and more crooner, an altruist for sure, and the type of poet who writes of love, loss, abandonment, learning to fly alone. Eddie Vedder is vulnerable to a fault, sure, just like Bono and Bruce Springsteen before him, assuaging the pitfalls of their good fortune by caring for people who fall through the cracks of American rigmarole. They are all, as Eddie described it between songs Tuesday night, "Great, good people."
It wasn't all soft stuff. Both Eddie and Glen broke a few guitar strings, getting the crowd amped enough to stand and scream from their rock 'n' roll muscle -- memories. Mr. Vedder played some of his beautiful Into the Wild pieces and sprinkled in warmly rendered cover tunes by James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Pink Floyd and Neil Young. The ukulele, which he was careful to pronounce ookalaylee, is the smallest but biggest star of the show.
"Impossible to make this thing sound evil," he said, looking down at it, like the most loyal friend he's ever had.
As I listened to him I thought of Cameron Crowe's recent documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty or PJ20, a look back at the band's two decades of surreal, Led Zeppelin-type success. The filmmaker has a shot of a daytime concert with Eddie as a younger man, maybe twenty, his hair very long, shirtless, his two hands choking the mike. The band jams behind him as they do so well and for a moment he walks to the side of the stage and glares up at the sun, just breaking through the clouds. He lifts his arms in the air as if to thank it for coming to the show. A huge, personal smile forms on his face, his chin held high. The surfer had caught the perfect wave, and he was realizing it didn't come from the ocean. It was coming from the masses, perhaps the stars, and a sliver of reluctance may have fallen over him, down to his toes. You can tell the boy up there was experiencing something bigger than his wildest dreams. Something otherworldly, beyond the scope of average men. It would be difficult to evoke. Who would understand what this feeling was like? Who would hear him?
He could've tuned in, tuned in
But he tuned out
A bad time, nothing could save him
Alone in a corridor, waiting, locked out
He got up outta there, ran for hundreds of miles
He made it to the ocean, had a smoke in a tree
The wind rose up, set him down on his knee
A wave came crashing like a fist to the jaw
Delivered him wings, "Hey, look at him now"
Arms wide open with the sea as his floor
Oh, power, ohhhh
(Lyrics, Eddie Vedder, "Given to Fly")
The day after the show I was off to lunch near the beach. My routine on Wednesdays is to drive to Pass-A-Grille, not far from St. Petersburg, and walk along the water's edge to a certain hotel. Eddie Vedder and his family were by the pool. Careful not to poop myself, I noticed him noticing me. I appeared suspicious to him, I think, only in the way I resemble him. I have the same haircut, same dark shorts and T-shirt. I may, in fact, qualify as a very high-risk stalker of this particular rock star. In Eddie's eyes I've mapped out where he's staying in order to steal his napkins, maybe his shoes, an eyelash. Careful to keep my gaze from them, I ordered two fish tacos and sat very still.
At the pool he did things only the very famous do. 1) Took a sip of a drink. 2) Hugged his friend goodbye. 3) Looked adoringly at his children. Empathy. I thought if I had any empathy for this man, I'd stay a hundred feet from him. Trillions of dudes like me with longish hair and apartments in Seattle in 1993, have approached this person to tell him where they were when they first heard "Jeremy." My story is no different, except it was "Even Flow." The song literally altered the rock 'n' roll landscape of my brain. The day I heard Pearl Jam's first album Ten, I said, "I've been waiting for this sound my entire life." Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Screaming Trees and Stone Temple Pilots had found the sound before me too. But Pearl Jam was special. And it was because of Eddie Vedder. How can I not share this story with him? I stand from my chair, wobbly with the task before me. I'll say, "Hi," and tell him my "Even Flow" story. I bet he'll like that, I thought. He was smiling, preparing to swim with his daughter.
"Just don't be a dick."
It's only my own ego that begs for this encounter. I luckily had the inkling he'd be fine without knowing me. My ego was so excited. A story about someone famous. A story I can tell friends, my wife. In its inception, my actions would kill all the empathy Eddie Vedder asked of me as a Floridian. I felt pathetic as he knelt to pull floaties over his daughter's tiny biceps. I retreated from him. For life.
The tacos were yummy. My check arrived, just as Eddie Vedder's did. Just like that I was suddenly a few inches from one of the most important rockers of my generation. When I said, "Eddie," he pensively froze before looking up at fan number five-trillion-and-one. As I found his eyes, I searched for wordage that would come off... respectful.
"Thank... you," is what I said. "Thank you."
His smile was warm, and his wife was too. She asked if I'd been to the show and I said, "Yes, but I promise I'm not following you guys."
She laughed a bit and I wondered how many times people had said that to them. People who were lying.
I thanked them for "being so patient with Floridians," and Eddie smiled again.
"No," his wife said, "the audience was very good last night."
I was proud of Clearwater/St. Pete for getting a decent grade.
"Empathetic enough," I said, and they both nodded sweetly, and said goodbye.
My walk to the car had my bare feet in the waves again. I'd somehow gotten away with respecting myself in the face of an important celebrity in my life. I took out my I-pod and flipped randomly through one of the biggest and best songbooks I own. And quickly, there was empathy in the sea air.
Do you see the way that tree bends?
Does it inspire?
Leaning out to catch the sun's rays.
A lesson to be applied
Are you getting something out of this all encompassing trip?
You can spend your time alone, re-digesting past regrets,
Or you can come to terms and realize
You're the only one who can't forgive yourself.
(Lyrics, Eddie Vedder, "Present Tense")