“The last time I saw Eddie, he was lying on his face…” It’s the summer of 1995 and Neil Young is standing in front of a crowd of 50,000 frothing Pearl Jam fans at San Francisco’s Polo Fields attempting to head off a riot with only his guitar “Old Black” and a few limp boomer-isms at his disposal. So far, it’s a tenuous peace at best.
Just seven songs into the band’s set, Eddie Vedder has staggered off the stage with a debilitating bout of food poisoning. Or was it drugs? Or was he just a rock-star jackass? At this point the crowd seems split. All that’s clear is that after an hour of head-swiveling uncertainty from bandmates and fans alike, Vedder is not coming back. Young, who’d been lounging on a bus waiting until Pearl Jam’s encore, is now plowing through a monster impromptu set in his stead, but the crowd is unmoved. They are baring their fangs: “Refund! Assholes! Sellouts!”
It is just the latest setback in Pearl Jam’s season of failure. There was the stalker who tried to kill herself by ramming her car through the front gates of Vedder’s home (further embittering the fame-weary singer). There was their valiant, ultimately useless battle with Ticketmaster (which made catching the band’s cathartic live show akin to scaling a wall using only teeth). Worse yet, the group itself was fracturing, leaving anybody not named Vedder feeling like a hired hand in his Pensive Eyebrow Band. And now this Waterloo moment in San Francisco: bassist Jeff Ament, a Seattle lifer who’d plugged away in Green River and Mother Love Bone long before “grunge” became a fashion plate, being buried under an avalanche of boos.
Three weeks later Pearl Jam—reeling, exhausted, and fraying at the seams—would enter the studio to record their fourth album, No Code. Whether they’d survive the process intact was anybody’s guess.
This was Eddie Vedder’s show now. No longer Stone Gossard’s stage-diving muse, he had been deputized as a generational oracle of disaffection. And he hated it—an emotion that shown bright and bitter as he led the band down an altogether more vitriolic path. Tensions swelled. Gossard threatened to quit. Mike McCready landed in rehab. Drummer Dave Abbruzzese was fired Before the release of 1994’s Vitalogy.
Jack Irons was brought in as a stabilizing force. He was older. He had a wife and kids. And most importantly he’d seen fame, death, and dysfunction up close during his days behind the kit with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was Irons who had first introduced Vedder to Gossard and Ament, who, technically, made Pearl Jam. It was the band’s sincere hope that Irons could help remake Pearl Jam.
Initially that meant giving warring factions some space. “If we played together nothing would get done,” McCready told Spin, one of only two outlets the notoriously media-shy band spoke to around the release of No Code. “We’d all just get pissed off at each other.”
The band, sans Vedder, spent the later part of 1995 touring Europe with Neil Young in support of his Mirror Ball album. Gossard, McCready, Ament, and Irons had recorded the album with Young, and while Vedder makes an appearance, his vocals are so low in the mix on “Peace And Love” they are barely audible. For his part, Vedder appeared on the soundtrack to Sean Penn’s film Dead Man Walking dueting with world-renowned Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
The result of these divergent paths was the Merkin Ball EP. A first glimpse into No Code’s potential sound, it consisted of the woozy, Crazy Horse-style stomper “I Got Id” and the funereal “The Long Road.” Far from the wall-punching of Vs. and Vitalogy, “The Long Road” saw Vedder with his gaze lifted up from his shoes and toward the sky.
Grunge was dead—and good riddance—but even in Seattle’s nuclear winter Merkin Ball seemed like proof that Pearl Jam might actually be capable of carving out a new, more experimental direction. Something spiritual. Something risky. It seemed the only way to get out of this rut alive.
Recording for No Code began at the Chicago Recording Company in the guts of a notorious heat wave that put 739 people in the ground. Considering the dysfunction surrounding the band, it was a fitting cauldron in which to hit “record.” Initially Ament wasn’t even invited to the sessions and would ultimately walk out and threaten to quit. “I feel like I had all these ideas that I wanted to contribute and people just weren’t interested,” Ament told a Lexington, Kentucky, weekly in 2003. “Luckily I had a home studio and I was doing a lot of recording on my own. If it wouldn’t have been for that, I doubt I would’ve stayed in the band.”
The band’s plan to record on the road—Chicago, New Orleans, Seattle, Atlanta—while still stringing together Ticketmaster-less shows only stretched the frayed bonds of communication further. But this time Irons was on hand to hold the center together. “Everybody was on their best musical behavior around him,” producer Brendan O’Brien admitted to Spin. McCready called him a “big spiritual influence—if not the biggest.”
Irons wasn’t just massaging bruised egos. His loose, tribal drumming style was creating an entirely new terrain for the rest of the band to stretch out on. “We realized we had a chance to experiment,” Vedder told Spin. But what was happening in the studio was more akin to an outright reinvention.
Album opener “Sometimes” was an existential prayer that faded to a whisper before exploding into the drunken bull-rush of “Hail, Hail.” “In My Tree” rumbled with a world-beat bounce; “Smile” bore the heave-ho growl of time spent with Uncle Neil. Even Pearl Jam’s now-customary forays into balladry were rendered so intimate you could hear sighs, bent strings, and false starts. “Who You Are,” in particular, with its polyrhythmic drum pattern and electric sitar was a jolting left turn. “I’d been playing that [drum pattern] since I was eight,” Irons said at the time. “It was inspired by a Max Roach drum solo I heard at a drum shop when I was a little kid.”
The band still brandished its snarl on tracks like “Habit” and “Lukin” (a wounded animal’s howl recalling Vedder’s stalking experience), but largely this was the sound of five men resigning their post as biggest band in the world. They were packing up their gear and heading off the grid. If you wanted to follow them, great; if not, that was fine, too.
Lyrically Vedder had gone from the cross-armed loner of Vitalogy, whose small table “seats just two,” to coming to terms with his place in the universe—a “book amongst the many on the shelf.” “I think there’s a little bit of self-examination,” Vedder told the Los Angeles Times. “Something that a lot of my friends are going through, too, as they approach 30.”
After two albums spent leaning hard on the wheel of discontent with the outside world, he was looking inward. It wasn’t enough to simply deem the world a cesspool and dream up a song about a getaway car anymore; the problem and solution might actually lie within. “You can spend your time alone re-digesting past regrets,” he sings on album linchpin “Present Tense.” “Or you can come to terms and realize you’re the only one that cannot forgive yourself.” More often than not Vedder turned to meditations on existence: gaining wisdom in solitude, living in the present, dreaming up a new self, and accepting the fact that it may be you that was the asshole the whole time. “Making No Code,” Vedder admitted, “was all about gaining perspective.”
By Pearl Jam standards, the album bombed. Which was, of course, part of the plan. “Who You Are” was released as the first single and threw off all but the most rabid fans. Vedder admitted the choice was a “conscious decision” to keep the size of their audience at a more manageable level. He even joked that the title of the album referred to the emergency room order for “do not resuscitate.” Further aiding their efforts to unshackle themselves from the limelight was their ongoing windmill-tilting with Ticketmaster. The North American leg of the tour was brief—only 12 dates—and without Ticketmaster venues, Pearl Jam was forced to play in far-flung and imperfect locales. But as they’d shown with No Code, being backed into a corner wasn’t always bad.
On September 29 they took the stage at Downing Stadium, a decaying concrete slab on New York’s Randalls Island, and played what many fans consider their best show ever—a ferocious, unfiltered statement of intent that, until the advent of YouTube, was bootlegged and analyzed like it was the Zapruder film. For over three hours they played, piling up a 35-song set featuring nine of No Code’s 13 tracks.
At one point Vedder begins wrapping himself in duct tape and preaching from the No Code manifesto: “The best way to change something is to change yourself. Only you know who you are. No one can tell you who you are. No one can tell me who I am.” He then threw himself into the crowd for the first time in forever. Midway through “The Long Road” Vedder explained a dream in which the band took the stage, started playing, and just didn’t stop. In his dream they played so long that the crowd just started trickling out until there were only six fans left at the lip of the stage. In essence it was a vision about a life after No Code in which Pearl Jam could finally just do what they wanted, how they wanted, with a core audience that would follow them regardless. And that’s exactly what happened.
Sales-wise, Pearl Jam would never again reach the oversaturated, multi-platinum status of their first three albums, but the tribe that stuck with them after No Code has remained loyal in the 20 years since, buying records, trading bootlegs, filling up arenas whenever they hit the road, and keeping the band on the comfortable periphery of relevance.
Perhaps as a cause-and-effect between the album, the band, and its fans, when No Code was played in its entirety for the first and only time at a 2014 stop in Illinois, the official bootleg of that show became the highest-selling performance of the tour. Looking back, even Ament, so secluded during its creation, can see the importance of the record: “It was the band’s story,” Ament admitted to the Los Angeles Times. “It was about growing up.”