Pearl Jam: The Making of 'Ten'
Created from the depths of despair, Ten was Pearl Jam’s 1991 bold and defiant debut. For guitarists Mike McCready and Jeff Ament, it was also a second chance at success. Guitar World presents the story behind this grunge rock masterpiece.
The letters, when they started coming, all began in the same way. “I was recently considering suicide,” they said, “and then I heard your music.” The letters were often about a song called “Black,” and they were always addressed to a band called Pearl Jam.
The catalyst for the letters was a performance the band had given on MTV Unplugged in May 1992. The Seattle quintet had released its debut, Ten, about half a year earlier, but the record had yet to grow into the stupendous hit it would become. At the end of the group’s rendition of “Black,” a quiet memorial to heartbreak, singer Eddie Vedder, intense with emotion, sang, “We belong together…together.” They were evidently words that hundreds of lonely teens needed to hear.
By the end of the summer, Ten had gone Gold and had reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts; it would eventually sell more than 11 million copies. The album would also help bring about the ascension of alternative music, while Vedder, along with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, would be viewed as the voice of Generation X.
But despite the fact that Ten is one of the best and most important albums to have emerged from the Nineties, Pearl Jam have in recent years distanced themselves from it. Some of this disavowal may be due to the album’s metal slant; bassist Jeff Ament told Spin last year that he’d “love to remix Ten,” if only to “pull some of the reverb off it.” It may also be due to the disdain with which Ten was held by Cobain; a punk purist by then, the Nirvana singer insisted that an album with such prominent guitar leads couldn’t really be “alternative.” But perhaps some of this distancing also has to do with what a personal album Ten was—and the fact that once it was absorbed by the public consciousness, its meaning became distorted, and it no longer belonged to the band alone.
Pearl Jam had never meant for Ten to be a message to a disillusioned generation, a salve for their feelings of isolation. Instead, it was a cathartic purging of pain and loss. It was also, for two of the band’s members, something of a rebirth. Just one year before the album was released, they had watched a close friend die—and take their dreams of success with him. With Ten, they were given something very rarely granted: a second chance.
In 1990, the “alternative” music scene was nothing more than a scattering of musicians operating independently of each other. Guns N’ Roses were the biggest band going; hair metal was still the reigning sound.
But in Seattle, a mini-scene was coming together, the culmination of almost a decade’s worth of bands working as a community, putting out their own records and performing around town for the hell of it. These bands were actually starting to enjoy some sort of success as well: Soundgarden had just seen their album Ultramega OK get a Grammy nomination and were about to put out Louder than Love, their first release for the major label A&M. Nirvana’s debut, Bleach, had caused such a stir that Geffen had swooped in and signed the band away from local indie Sub Pop. And Sub Pop itself—a stronghold of Seattle talent—was enjoying attention on a worldwide scale, having launched an aggressive marketing campaign that included flying over a British music journalist to write up a spread on its bands for the U.K. music weekly Melody Maker. In effect, the Seattle hype was beginning.
In the summer of that year, two guitarists, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, and bassist Jeff Ament were starting down the long road that would lead to their own success. The three would congregate in Gossard’s parents’ attics, long used as a rehearsal space by the guitarist, and jam on the instrumentals that within a year would become Pearl Jam’s Ten.
McCready had previously played in a flashy local metal band, now defunct, called Shadow; Gossard and Ament had also played on the local scene, starting in the early Eighties with the band Green River. They split up that band in 1987 to join singer Andy Wood in the band that was soon to be named Mother Love Bone. Gossard and Ament’s aspirations for Green River had been clashing with that of their bandmates, in particular singer Mark Arm: while his model for the band was the DIY ethic of punk bands like Black Flag, Gossard and Ament drew their inspiration from commercially successful hard rock acts such as AC/DC and Kiss. (After Green River’s dissolution, Arm, along with one-time Green River guitarist Steve Turner, would go on to form the staunchly anticorporate, grunge-pioneering Mudhoney.) With Mother Love Bone, Gossard and Ament were able to exercise their arena-size ambitions to the fullest, having found a kindred spirit in Wood.
Wood openly courted success, having set himself the goal of becoming a rock star at the age of 11. His onstage presence was flamboyant and larger than life, whether he was dressing up in feather boas and platform shoes or leaping from the stage, cordless mic in hand, to roam through the crowd while he sang. But such behavior was in many ways a mask for the low self-esteem that had long plagued him—just as the drugs he used, often secretly and in shame, were a way to combat it. Despite an intervention by his bandmates in late 1989, and a period of sobriety on his part, Wood died from an accidental heroin overdose on March 19, 1990. It was just weeks before PolyGram Records was due to release Mother Love Bone’s first full-length, Apple.