Un-rock Star

Fired Pearl Jam drummer Dave Abbruzzese seeks life after fame in North Texas

Dave Abbruzzese rallies bandmates Paul Slavens, Doug Neil, and Gary Muller for a firewood run--a trip out in the 4X4 to scavenge dead branches for the fireplace at Abbruzzese's North Texas recording retreat. David Castell chooses to stay behind to continue mixing one of the group's new songs rather than pile into a pickup for a cold, bumpy ride in the October night. He's the smart one. Everyone else is either feeling adventurous or just too bored to refuse.

But first, with the group gathered in the immense, wood-paneled kitchen, Abbruzzese lights up a cigar. The stogie has an odor not unlike that of a petting zoo. Abbruzzese narrows its scent down further: "sheep dung." His colleagues enthusiastically agree. Unfettered by this revelation, he continues to puff.

Everybody climbs into the cab of Abbruzzese's truck. As Abbruzzese starts to manhandle the big vehicle across the rugged landscape, Slavens points out the headlight of a train on the distant horizon. Somebody figures there's enough time to rendezvous with it.

Abbruzzese carefully negotiates his truck around trees and over ditches and the other obstacles encountered when you leave the roads and even trails behind. He reaches the elevated berm on which the railroad tracks run and stops the truck. He's the first to hop out of the cab, and he climbs into the truck bed, encouraging the rest of his crew to follow. He's clearly reveling in the beautiful 50-degree night and the starry sky. The other guys scramble into the back, careful not to slip on the condensation that has formed on the bed's metal surface.

"We've reached dewpoint!" Abbruzzese declares. He's obviously stoked, digging the air, the trees--the nature all around him. The thought of just being here seems enough for him.

Slavens, Neil, and Muller take in the surroundings with lesser degrees of enthusiasm. Muller, lanky and soft-spoken, silently takes in the stars. Longtime Abbruzzese pal Neil is exhausted to a droopy daze, but he still seems to enjoy the nighttime beauty. Slavens looks cold--shivering in a jacket, a knit cap over his shaved head--trying to keep warm in the moist chill despite his knee-length shorts.

"Tonight is kind of a little celebration for me," Abbruzzese announces.
"Yeah? What are you celebrating?" asks Slavens. Among the four, only he can speak in a voice that matches the commanding tone of Abbruzzese's.

Abbruzzese takes the cigar out of his mouth. "I'm finally free--from all the legal stuff with that band." A silence follows, as there usually is whenever he refers to "that band." Even Slavens remains quiet. Abbruzzese looks back up at the stars, puffing on the cigar again.

No wonder he appears to be taking in everything tonight as though it were a brand-new world. To Abbruzzese, it is. And in a new world, even a dung-smelling cigar is something to be savored.

Soon the train arrives, drowning out any attempt at meaningful conversation. Everybody turns their attention to it, if not their thoughts. There's some speculation about which direction it's headed--toward Dallas or toward Fort Worth--though it really doesn't matter. Watching the cars rumble by in the darkness, going somewhere, is satisfaction enough.

A couple of weeks earlier, inside the Kharma Cafe opposite the University of North Texas campus in Denton, Abbruzzese reflects upon his recent, famous past with Pearl Jam. It is 3 a.m., but he is wide awake.

"It's either I love every one of those guys and wish them even greater success," he says in his characteristic, amiable way, "or [that they] just die in a plane crash."

It's a joke, of course, but it illustrates the conflicted feelings Abbruzzese harbors for his former colleagues.

At 28, Abbruzzese has entered a kind of retirement--from a life that, for all intents and purposes, was in another world. It has been a little more than two years since he was fired from Pearl Jam. To this day, the former drummer of the hugely successful band says he was never given a reason why he was let go. He never expected it. It just happened.

Abbruzzese, with his long hair, stocky physique, and soul patch--a smidgen of a beard beneath his lower lip--has a way of looking slightly displaced, like a musician whose bandmates accidentally left him behind after a gig. Even when he's with the members of his new band, Green Romance Orchestra, Abbruzzese seems like he belongs somewhere else. Perhaps it's the childlike enthusiasm and unrockerlike lack of pretension he exudes. Whatever it is, it made him sharply stand out from his fellow, more consciously subdued Pearl Jammers. So maybe it's true, as many Pearl Jam fans suspected, that he never fit in with them either.

Bitterness and anger are difficult to associate with this fundamentally good-natured man. But hard feelings, following his abrupt firing, would be understandable. After all, it's not like he was a temp. Though he was the band's third drummer in less than two years, Abbruzzese was also its longest employed and, most critics agree, the drummer who most significantly contributed to the evolution of Pearl Jam's music. His drumming agility has been described as hard and fast. Critics and fans remember him for pushing Pearl Jam toward an edgier, harder rock sound. Taking up where second drummer Matt Chamberlain left off, he began shaping the band's beat when he first started touring with Pearl Jam in 1991. The band's sophomore album, Vs., which followed two years later, was the first to which Abbruzzese contributed his talents.

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