Eddie Vedder stands alone now.
Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell’s death Wednesday night left rock fans reflecting on the grunge era, and many came to a sorrowful realization: Vedder, the frontman of Pearl Jam, is one of the movement’s only icons who is still alive.
The story of grunge is also one of death.
The sound, loud as it could be, was relegated in the 1980s to a handful of indie-label bands in the Pacific Northwest. The genre’s songs were gloomy as the gray Seattle sky, and heroin usage was not uncommon among its guitar-wielding practitioners. Before the genre exploded through the headphones of disaffected middle-America teenagers, its numbers were already dwindling.
Mother Love Bone’s frontman Andrew Wood, who the New York Times said “could have been the first of the big-league Seattle rock stars,” died of a heroin overdose in 1990. Stefanie Sargent of the punk band 7 Year Bitch died similarly two years later.
Still, with breakout hits from Nirvana and Soundgarden leading the way, grunge finally flooded American soundwaves and, with them, the Billboard charts. In 1994, the genre was arguably at its peak.
That year, Pearl Jam enjoyed its second No. 1 album, “Vitalogy.” The Stone Temple Pilots’ second album “Purple” debuted at No. 1 that summer. “Jar of Flies” by Alice in Chains became the first EP — extended play, meaning a record that’s too short to be a full album but too long to be a single — to top the charts. And Soundgarden and Nirvana songs continued to blast from speakers in shopping malls and car stereos.
That was also the year that Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, the genre’s leader, put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger, killing himself. At the time, heroin was pumping through his veins.
He was the first major figure to go but far from the last.
“If their music failed to make it clear, life was intolerably painful for many of Cornell’s peers,” wrote The Washington Post’s pop music critic Chris Richards. “Singer Layne Staley and bassist Mike Starr of Alice in Chains each died of drug-related causes, in 2002 and 2011, respectively. In 2015, Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland died of an overdose on his tour bus.”
Cornell hanged himself in a Detroit hotel room after performing what would become his final show with his band, which he closed by playing “In My Time of Dying” by Led Zeppelin.
Vedder’s Pearl Jam, however, persists. It long ago took up the mantle as grunge’s longest-lasting band, steadily releasing albums for the past 25 years.
Vedder was a different kind of frontman, and Pearl Jam was a different kind of band than others in the grunge era, even though its founding members included some members of Mother Love Bone.
At its commercial height, Pearl Jam wrote songs that weren’t quite as angry; they were more melodic, more stadium-ready. To some, the band was softer, more easily digestible by the masses.
Among those was Cobain himself, who once said, “They’re a safe rock band. They’re a pleasant rock band that everyone likes” and on a separate occasion said, “I find it offensive to be lumped in with bands like Pearl Jam,” according to rock critic Steven Hyden’s book “Your Favorite Band is Killing Me.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Vedder wasn’t known for using heroin. He didn’t speak about it in interviews, save for vaguely mentioning drug use in the band’s early days.
Though the phrase “sell out” often appeared when describing Pearl Jam, Vedder, like Cobain and Cornell before him, didn’t enjoy his fame. Rather than turn to substances, though, he merely began writing songs that loyal fans found much more appealing than a mainstream audience.
“By the early aughts Pearl Jam was actively subsuming the operatic emotionalism of their more popular early records in order to cater to hard-core loyalists,” Hyden wrote. “The way Vedder purposely piloted Pearl Jam toward a significantly smaller audience is still remarkable. Other than Radiohead, no rock band has ever been more deliberate about ferreting out precisely the people it wanted to care about its music.”
Despite Vedder’s seemingly good health and the fact that he is still making new music, rock fans armed with jokes and tributes alike fretted publicly about him on Twitter.
Some, of course, might take issue with the idea of Vedder as the genre’s last icon.
Among them might be Nirvana’s drummer, Dave Grohl, and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm. Both, after all, are very much alive. But Grohl’s true fame came from fronting the Foo Fighters later, and while Mudhoney helped spawn grunge, it never gained the crossover commercial success of Soundgarden, Nirvana, the Stone Temple Pilots or Alice in Chains.
To many, the weight of grunge’s legacy now rests squarely on the shoulders of Vedder.
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