Un-rock Star

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"And then," he says, "I get this phone call."
He was asked to fly to Seattle to audition for some band called Pearl Jam. The group's drummer was former New Bohemian Matt Chamberlain. Based on what he saw of Abbruzzese's drumming in the Dallas bands, Chamberlain recommended him for the spot he was vacating to join the Saturday Night Live band.

It was August 4, 1991. As Abbruzzese left Dallas for the audition, he felt "5,000 pounds lighter." The weather in Seattle was gorgeous when he stepped off the plane. "I felt completely reborn."

If ever there were a band that could be associated with fickle Generation X--on a similar, grandly commercial scale as the Beatles and Grateful Dead are tied to their generational groups--Pearl Jam would be near the top of the list. The other, of course, would be Nirvana. Both bands sprouted in the early '90s from Seattle's alternative rock music scene and are usually categorized with the "grunge" sound, though each had a unique take on it.

At times the two bands shared such an animosity for each other, nourished by the pop music press, that opinions among fans of the bands remain polarized to this day. Most notably, Nirvana lead singer and creative driving force Kurt Cobain wrote off Pearl Jam's music as a commercialized bastardization of grunge.

That's an oversimplification that strays into the territory of hypocrisy, but his remark highlighted the difference in psyche between his band and Pearl Jam. While Cobain agonized about the enormous fame and influence he wielded, Pearl Jam, personified by Vedder, enjoyed success--but disdained openly accepting its trappings or even admitting it to themselves for fear of being perceived as a high-and-mighty rock band.

The irony is that this is exactly how the band, especially Vedder, is generally labeled, due in part to the group's publicized crusades--most notably, its high-profile challenge two years ago of Ticketmaster's monopoly of concert ticket sales. The effort resulted in a lot of press but nothing to show for it in the end besides derailing the Pearl Jam tour. And industry observers question the wisdom of the band's refusal to shoot music videos in the future, which--artistic integrity aside--are crucial to promoting awareness of a new album.

In the wake of Cobain's suicide more than three years ago, pop culture writers postulated that Cobain was the extreme example of a generation's nihilism. It could be said that Pearl Jam exemplifies that complex generation's wariness of and disdain for the same mass media that fascinates it.

"Jeff Ament said I was living like a rock star," Abbruzzese says with a chuckle. "That still conjures up complete belly laughter from me." He can't help deriding his former colleagues as "un-rock-stars."

It remains to be seen if Pearl Jam will ever be as prominent as it was during its height from 1993 to 1994, when grunge culture and its music peaked. The band's first album, Ten, released in '91, has sold more than eight million copies. Since then, numbers for the band's following albums have been impressive but steadily declining: Vs. (released in '93) at five million and Vitalogy ('94) at 2.5 million. In a recent Billboard magazine chart of the nation's top-200 album sales, Pearl Jam's latest, No Code, which debuted in early September, dived from 10th to 20th place in the span of only a week. (It did, though, hold the No. 1 spot at the time of its release).

The music industry's computerized album sales tracking service, Soundscan, lists No Code as having sold more than 367,000 copies during its first week of sales. In comparison, Vs. and Vitalogy moved just less than a million copies (950,000 and 877,000, respectively) during their first weeks. Reviews for No Code have been mixed: At worst, critics have sounded indecisive or indifferent; at best it is pretty good yet still no Ten--regarded as the band's greatest and most commercially appealing album for its radio-friendly hooks. Fans have clamored for an encore, but the members of Pearl Jam have steadfastly refused to even attempt to reproduce the sound of their phenomenally successful freshman work.

The sales numbers suggest that, besides holding onto core fans, Pearl Jam simply isn't drawing the next generation--early teens to 21. And less-than-dedicated fans have moved onto other sounds--to frat rockers like Hootie and the Blowfish. How else to explain the confounding success last year of that act with its numbing rhythms and anthemlike songs other than as a sure sign that Generation X is finally starting to grow old and mellow?

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Howard Wen