The Political Pearl Jam – Part 1

by Jessica Letkemann on November 4, 2005

They aren’t the Clash shouting “White Riot” or Rage Against the Machine naked and duct-taped in anti-censorship protest, but Pearl Jam is and always has been one of the most politically conscious bands around. You’ve already heard they’re playing a swing state tour this fall. Besides, this is a band whose singer talks about the WTO and Halliburton and who once said onstage that “if you don’t vote, let that be your fucking epitaph.” This is a band whose rhythm guitarist has hosted a candidate fundraiser in his home and spends his off time building homes for disenfranchised Native Americans. It’s even possible to register to vote at their shows. You may agree with who they support or you may not, but just about anyone can see the value of giving a damn about how the world works and encouraging others to find out what’s going on and participate. As for Pearl Jam, they’ve never been shy about speaking up, singing out, or pitching in on both a financial and grassroots elbow-grease level for what they believe in politically. In fact, there have been so many political Pearl Jam moments, that not even an overview will fit in one article. To wit, part one in our three part series on The Political Pearl Jam. You’ll notice the blurbs are not in chronological order, they’re a cross-section of PJ’s political efforts with more to come from across all the years in parts two and three. And p.s. If you haven’t already done it, it’s a great time to register to vote. Voting does make a difference.

Merch with a Message

The anti-war message is hard to miss when “No War” is stamped in metal on dogtags. Made available in Australia and America. Clockwise from top left: Faux Cubs logo; spin-off of Seattle Sonics logo ; No Apathy; “Who Are You” Who reference; “See me…” Who reference ; orange “P” and “J”

Among the many ways Pearl Jam has voiced their political opinions, they’ve also had a thing or two to say with their Pearl Jam souvenirs. Voting related, Pearl Jam-branded pin-on buttons (see photo at right) were laid out free-for-the-taking on large tables throughout Key Arena at their election eve shows in November 2000. Two of the five designs (the first and the third in the photo) sported subtle “Pearl Jam” logos, and two others (the second and third) had sly nods to The Who, but all of them referred to the election and voting. Three years later, as the war in Iraq became imminent, sets of “Pearl Jam No War 2003″ dog tags were on sale alongside Pearl Jam t-shirts and posters during the 2003 tour.

Ed Vedder, Lone Protest Singer
Long before Ed Vedder ever brought his guitar to Key Arena in September 2000 to lend his talents to Ralph Nader’s campaign, he and his acoustic were stationed outside of a San Diego city council meeting in 1988. The council was coming close to a decision on a new plan to harshly deal with the city’s homeless problem. Vedder was out front, alone, playing Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution.”

Halloween on April Fools; Denver, April 1, 2003
Opening day of Pearl Jam’s 2003 North American tour and Ed’s already familiar routine with the George W. Bush Halloween mask during “Bu$hleaguer” prompts a round of intense press coverage after one reporter writes that two-dozen attendees left the concert and argues that they left in protest. The “accusation” was that by setting the mask on his mic stand, a move similar to putting a hat on a coat rack, Ed had “impaled” the mask. It’s a good thing (or is it?) no reporters noticed any of Ed’s other onstage mask antics. By Denver, without any fans storming out, the mask had already smoked a few cigarettes and drank some wine, had Ed whisper sweet nothings in it’s ear, had been French-kissed by Ed, had given Ed a blow-job (Dec. 2002 Seattle), and been held aloft (while on Ed’s head) by three folks wearing their own W. masks. Who says Eddie gave up the theater after high school?

T-Shirts and Television, 1992.
Sometimes a simple, strategically shown slogan is the most effective way to voice your views. Witness Pearl Jam, then a newly crowned it-band, do their two songs on Saturday Night Live in April of 1992. There was no time for chat, but Ed didn’t miss the chance to speak up via a message that read “No Bush ’92″ in black gaffer tape on his brown t-shirt, the coat hanger on the front a subtle allusion to Ed’s firmly pro-choice stance. He also wore a Rock for Choice t-shirt during the closing credits and held up a sign that said “See you in DC.”

You Have the Right to Free Speech?: Stoney implores the FCC, 2003
Did you know that in 2003 Stone, along with REM’s Mike Mills, spearheaded a petition to forestall the Federal Communications Commission from voting to relax laws that inhibit media monopolies? Neither did we until researching this article. “The more I learn about the potential changes in the business landscape brought on by further deregulation,” Stone said in the press release at the time, “the more I feel the need to know. With one of the fundamental elements of democracy at risk, it is immensely important that more time and information is provided to the public so people are able to fully understand and scrutinize the potential ramifications of this vote.” Unfortunately, the FCC ultimately went ahead and voted to make it easier for big companies to own even more. More info is here and here.

Let the Song Protest, Part Two: Covers in Election Years
Ever notice a theme running through the songs Pearl Jam covers when there’s an election afoot? It’s no wonder that a band whose singer emphatically scrawled “Pro-choice!!!” on his arm on TV purposely added Neil Young’s scathing “Rockin’ In the Free World” (with it’s overt references to Bush Sr.’s catchphrases, “a thousand points of light for the homeless man / a kinder gentler policeman’s hand”) and Little Steven’s “I Am A Patriot” (which Ed modified to “I ain’t no democrat, sure as hell ain’t no republican either!”) to their setlists in 1992. Come 2000′s electoral face-off, both songs regularly turned up (Ed updating the RitFW lyric to “A kinder, gentler Bush Jr. hand”). Once Bush took office in 2001, Ed began playing John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” (subbing in “Georgie Porgie,” for Lennon’s line about “Tricky Dickie”) and Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” (“The power… to wrestle the world from fools, it’s decreed the people rule”). In 2003, while continuing to turn to “RITFW,” “Truth,” and “Patriot,” the band poignantly began regularly playing Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” (“when the band plays ‘Hail To The Chief’, they point the cannon at you”), The Clash’s “Know Your Rights” (“You have the right to free speech, unless you’re dumb enough to actually try it”). The Police’s “Driven to Tears” (“Protest is futile, nothing seems to get through / What’s to become of our world ?”) made it’s first and second appearances in ’92 and 1999 before it became a regular part of Pearl Jam set lists in 2003. Ed and Mike had tackled Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” in 1992, but with the war in Iraq underway, Pearl Jam resurrected the song in 2003, adding “white” to modify Dylan’s line into, “you hide in white mansions while young people’s blood flows out of their bodies…”, an unsubtle reference to George’s Pennsylvania Ave home.

“Grassroots” Vedder; Petitions at the ’97 Tibetan Freedom Concert
10 a.m. at a soccer stadium in New York City. You’re standing at the gates waiting to be let into this massive concert organized to raise awareness against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Volunteers soliciting signatures protesting the occupation are everywhere, working the crowd. Here comes one now: a short, slim guy wearing a floppy hat, shades, and shorts. “Will you guys sign this petition?” rumbles the deep baritone. Man, this guy is really familiar. Holy shit, is it really Eddie Vedder? What’s he doing here? The shades are removed, the blue eyes flash, there’s the Earth First! tattoo on his calf. It’s him! Says he figured he could do more good out in the field than just playing or writing a check. True story.

How did you spend your Sunday?

Give Peace, Not SUVs, a Chance, March 23, 2003
Shortly after the end of the Aussie/Japan leg of the Riot Act Tour and just days after the war in Iraq began, Eddie turned up at the massive anti-war rally at Hollywood and Vine in L.A. busking an improv (“Don’t drive me, I’m an SUV”) on an acoustic guitar emblazoned with “Stop the War” and singing into a mic held out by actor/director Tim Robbins. “I think everyone should feel that there’s power in gathering together and being out in the street,” Eddie had told The Nation writer Ann Powers four months earlier. “On the day of the Westlake Center peace protest in Seattle, I was out of town. I talked to Tim Robbins, and he and Susan had been down to Central Park that morning and he said it was beautiful, maybe 40,000 people out there. I saw about three seconds of that on CNN. It was Sunday morning, and I’d watched This Week and Face the Nation and I was about ready to take a hammer to my head. So it’s such a positive thing to be out there and feel active. It’s like Christmas in a way. It feels good.”

Putting Their Money Where Their Mouth Is
Stone was the first member of the band to donate money to a candidate. He gave a thousand bucks to Seattle TV-newsman-turned-Dem politico Michael Godfrey James in June of 1994. That August he even threw a Mike James fundraiser at his own Seattle home. Stone, who gave two-grand to the Howard Dean campaign last September, is also the member who has most recently financially backed a politician; but Eddie, Mike, Stone, and Jeff also gave $2000 each to Ralph Nader in 2000. Interested in who else is donating how much to whom? Visit Opensecrets.org.

Say It Loud: ‘War’ at the Showbox, Seattle, December 6, 2002
After subbing in “the bombs fall down” for the “Daughter” line “the shades go down,” and leading the crowd in several impassioned choruses of “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!,” Eddie went into an ad-libbed, vein popping, enraged, red in the face, top of his lungs diatribe of “Fuck you! No war! No war! Not over my dead body! No war! Fuck you! No war! No reason, no reason to go to war!” captured in close-up detail on the Live at the Showbox DVD.

“Sure As Hell Ain’t No Republican either!”, 2000 Tour
It quickly became clear that Ed Vedder was supporting Nader in 2000, but that didn’t mean he held back in his feelings about the Republican party and it’s candidate. We’d have to devote an entire article to fit in all of the anti-Republican things Ed said onstage in 2000, but one glance at his lyric changes gives a good sampling of his feelings on the subject. Live, “Even Flow” gained it’s “never vote Republican!” ending during the 1992 election, but it was present and accounted for in 2000, morphing from “don’t vote Republican” to “I dare you to vote Republican,” back to “never vote Republican.” “Last Exit” (“It soon will be over, if they vote Republican,”) and “Do the Evolution” (“I do what I want irresponsibly. Why? I’m a Republican, baby!”) also got modified in 2000.

Men in Black or What’s In the Box?: Madison Sq. Garden, NYC, Sept 10, 1998
At the start of the first encore, while he was otherwise distracted and startled by thousands of Breath signs, Eddie carried out an elaborate skit about the political topic du jour: the release of reams of pages of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s report on President Clinton. A cadre of faux Secret Service agents in dark suits, shades, and earpieces filed onstage with several large file boxes as Ed, ever the thespian, went into his routine. “Kenneth Starr’s people wanted a few backstage passes,” he joked. “I told them I would do it if I got a copy of the report. So here it is, should we read it? Box number three says something about cigars and masturbating. That looks like a good one to start with. There may even be some actual physical evidence in one of them.” Then Ed grows serious, “There would have to be because how could they have 18 boxes worth of paper? I mean, it must be just every detail, like ‘Well, he called me at seven. I watched an episode of Cops, and then he got there at 7:30, and then the first thing he took off was my blouse.’ It’s just, you know what? We have no business knowing. I don’t give a fuck (the crowd cheers). I don’t think you give a fuck (crowd cheers). And if you do give a fuck, it’s just in this weird, seedy way that has nothing to do with our government, our country, our freedom, what happens overseas, or how we participate in the rest of the world. I’d really like to know what was going on with some of the issues.”

Jessica Letkemann ( Twitter: @Letkemann )
TFT co-editor Jessica Letkemann is a New York based digital music journalist & editor. She's currently VP & Editor-In-Chief of Digital at Fuse Media (Fuse.tv) and was previously managing editor of Billboard.com. She has also been on staff at Spin and Premiere magazines. Her first Pearl Jam show was at Lollapalooza on August 2, 1992.

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