20 years ago today exactly I saw Pearl Jam live for the first time. August 2, 1992. It was Lollapalooza’s stop in Chicago with Red Hot Chili Peppers headlining — and I wasn’t even a Pearl Jam fan… until PJ played. All these years later now, I find myself, a huge fan ever since, in Chicago for Lollapalooza again with RHCP headlining, and I can’t help but think back on my teenaged self and the serendipity that led to that August day.
My 20-year-old PJ ticket stub. Lollapalooza, Aug. 2, 1992. Tinley Park, Il. “Take the day off.”
None of the reasons I scraped together $29.50 involved PJ, a band by then in heavy rotation on MTV with “Alive” and “Even Flow” and which a couple friends liked enough to buy “Ten.” I went partially because I wanted to see the Chili Peppers and Soundgarden, but the number one reason was because my best friends had gone the first year without me and I vowed I wouldn’t let that happen again. I said count me in for 1992 before I ever heard who was playing at all.
It was during one of those magical summer breaks between high school years.We loaded up our buddy’s ugly 1987 blue minivan with generic cola and snacks we were going to sneak in. I had this brilliant idea to wear all white, the idiocy of which was obvious as soon as we took our very un-awesome spot on the lawn at the World Music Theater in Tinley Park, IL. It became even more stupid when the steamy overcast day morphed into a muggy, horrid pelting of rain sometime during the first act, Lush.
It was merely spitting when the next band came on. Pearl Jam. Eddie Vedder was a ball-capped, brown-jacketed speck in the distance, but he boomed out Jane’s Addiction’s “Summertime Rolls” a cappella, leading a clap-along, and as a teen who’d recently gotten into her first fender bender distracted by rocking out to Jane’s too loud on the radio, Eddie’s nod to festival founder Perry Farrell’s band gained my full attention right away.
They blasted into “Why Go” right away. Everyone on stage jumping around, thrashing their bodies to the music. The chorus. “Why Go Home.” Eddie started it, but the crowd kicked in and finished it, singing it for him. What? The crowd knows this song? This isn’t a single. I’ve never seen it on TV. I’ve barely heard it before. This band is playing at 3-something in the afternoon. They’ve got us rapt. I’m listening. I’m listening.
By the time “Jeremy” came on, the third song. Eddie let his hair down, he was in full-on vocal attack. Stone’s neck is snapping back and forth. Jeff is up and down in to the air, headbanging. Mike McCready is literally skipping around the stage.
Next thing I know, Eddie’s pointing back at us, all of us, stuck way back there on the lawn. “I should tell you that I came out really early today,” he said. “Before the show I made friends with every one of these guys in yellow jackets [security]. Every one of them. We kinda made a deal that probably all of you could come right up here for just our set if you promised to go back. You can handle that responsibility, couldn’t you?” Eddie started gesturing folks forward. Security started intervening. Eddie said, “It’s alright, he’s with me…. Just pretend you have freedom. 1, 2, 3!” Pow. “Even Flow.”
Standing there on the lawn, wet and grass-stained, Eddie Vedder telling tens of thousands of people it was alright to ditch the crappy seats and come a little closer struck me as one of the coolest things someone could possibly say onstage. I can admit that, no, I didn’t go running down to the pavilion to get a closer look. I was skeptical security would take his word for it. But I still thought it was a huge thing for Ed to say.
If I think back on that first show, the first thing I think of is the moment Eddie invited the whole “World” down to the front. It’s easily the moment, along with the musical energy onstage, I remembered most in the following days.
They’d played less than forty-five minutes. Nine songs. 75% of “Ten.” The rest of the day is kind of a blur. I remember Soundgarden was pretty good. I remember that as much as I liked the headlining Chili Peppers, Ministry — who was playing to a hometown crowd — completely upstaged them. I mean throbbing mosh-pit all over, people launching each other into the air on blankets, thousands spontaneously ripping up the sod on the lawn and hurtling it upward so it rained dirt and grass. You felt like you ran a marathon after Ministry played.
But when I went home, it was the Pearl Jam seed, already planted, that had well and truly taken root. The “Jeremy” video premiered within days of that show. Eddie with that intense look in his eye. I couldn’t shake it. I got hold of “Ten.” I got hold of a show broadcast on the radio. I played both over and over and over and over. Pearl Jam. This is my kind of band, I thought.
And It still is.