I want to tell you a story about my favorite band, Pearl Jam. It’s a story I’ve thought a lot about. It’s a story of compassion, death, art, redemption, and much more.
The story starts on September 29, 1996.
The scene is a now-torn-down outdoor stadium on Randalls Island, just outside Manhattan. The stadium holds 22,000 in the seats. The attendance that night is 30,000—with a moshpit on the floor and thousands of others crowding in.
The band is on fire. They’d end up playing a three hour show that night—remarkable for a band with only four albums released. The crowd is alive and singing—it’s New York City and the summer is fading away. Everyone’s looking for that last kick before the sun ashes itself into autumn’s ashtray.
At one point, Eddie duct-tapes his body and crowd surfs in the pit. Someone throws an ‘Eddie Vedder For President’ shirt on stage (it’s an election year). By all accounts, the show is absolutely electric. Here’s the whole concert.
Yet, something’s off. The band has to stop playing a few times to address it. Eddie gets a bit angry having to repeat himself.
The “pit”—the standing area right in front of the stage—is looking a bit dangerous. There’s a bad sway to the packed-in crowd. The band is worried that someone could get hurt. Eddie, the voice of the band, pleads for reasonability and safety.
At 16:07, Eddie stops a song entirely. He points to a person in the audience and waits for them to be kicked out. He tells the people in the back that they have it good because they’re not in the pit. The PSA to clear out the danger lasts for almost two minutes. It’s a total concert buzzkill.
They start playing again. At 21:15 he implores the crowd to “watch out for your neighbor”. He’s now making announcements between almost every song they play. And the concerts only just begun.
We’ll stop there for a few paragraphs. Hang on to this scene though.
Fast forward to four years later.
It’s June 2000. The band is playing a series of shows in Europe, mostly festivals. One night they play one in Denmark—a festival called Roskilde.
They start playing. The crowd, exciting by those opening chords of what will likely be an epic rock n’ roll vision quest of a concert, rushes toward the stage.
But the ground is muddy. Things start going terribly. People are crushed. Nine concert goers end up dying by being trampled on in the chaos.
It’s an excruciatingly sad entry on the band’s timeline—the saddest. They cut the show short and leave. They cancel forthcoming tour dates. The police blame Pearl Jam for the deaths, though the band refutes that. Here’s a news report from the day.
No one is sure if they’re going to play again. The band said later that they weren’t even sure. There’s no good playbook for how to come back from something like this. They talk to the families of the deceased fans. The band, having had some issues from sudden fame, is bound together in a closeness that hasn’t existed for years. It’s ten years into the existence of Pearl Jam.
It takes them months to play that next show. They play, they say, because it will help them heal. In their documentary, all of them point back to Roskilde as a crucial point. A before-and-after day in their history.
Their first show back they play in Virginia Beach. It’s almost four years after that New York show (we’re still coming back to this). It’s an emotional show, to say the least. They dedicate songs to the fans who passed. They improvise. They shed some tears.
Eddie asks the crowd to do something. He says the last time they asked it didn’t work out (where they tried, like in New York, to have fans give each other space). But this time it’s singing.
The crowd does. They sing “it’s okay, it’s okay”—a cover of this song. It’s therapy for everyone, but it’s the band that needs it the most. They’ve gotten fans through so much, now it’s time for the return. As Eddie said that night, “it’d be nice to start anew.”
Later, Eddie would say, “When we were trying to figure out what to do, the thought was not to react, but to respond. How to make the best of a really screwed-up situation.” He also pointed to The Who—his favorite band—who played on shows after losing their drummer, played on after losing their bassist years later, but mostly Eddie pointed out they played after a concert tragedy of their own: losing 11 fans at a show in 1979 in Ohio.
Die hard Pearl Jam fans know the Virginia Beach 2000 show. The first one after Roskilde. But many don’t know the New York show in 1996. It wasn’t particularly notable—another great show in the pantheon of great shows. Even the band’s cautions to the pit were something Pearl Jam had to do regularly in the 90s. Before venues themselves started cracking down on moshpits.
I didn’t know anything about the New York show. But I like to put on full concerts when I write and as I was listening to the show one day something caught my ear. I stopped writing immediately and went back.
It happens right around the 25:45 mark. Eddie’s addressing the fans for the third or fourth time that night.
At 26:00, he says, “If someone was hurt to the point where they didn’t live after tonight, I don’t think we’d ever play again. Some bands they continue on, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Music ain’t that important.”
I was stunned. Four years before Roskilde he gave a prophetic statement of where he’d stand should something hypothetical happen. And then it happened.
And then he did exactly what he said he wouldn’t do.
Since then, I’ve been searching for meaning in this. What does it mean? Was my favorite lead singer a hypocrite? Or was he just saying something to say it way back in NYC in 1996?
I don’t have that answer. Perhaps Eddie does—along with Mike, Stone, and Jeff.
But here’s what I think.
First: we can make claims about anything, including ourselves, in the hypothetical. We’ll never know what we’d really do until that something materializes.
And there’s some wisdom in this—but the wisdom is wiser when we try to establish an opinion on how someone else acts when we’re still in the realm of hypothetical. Like we learn in the famous movie scene, experience is a greater teacher than mere learning passed down through words.
For Pearl Jam, Roskilde is a story of redemption. It’s taking a terrible event and turning it into fuel to keep going. From pain to purpose. The fact that Eddie said something about that event years before may simply give it another point of redemption. Redemption from ourselves, from the hypothetical part of the first point above.
Second: What the New York concert shows is fear. Eddie’s fear of something terrible happening. But he, like all of us, can’t know what happens if that fear is manifested. Because we often fear fear itself, as the saying goes, we live in the hypothetical as though it were the reality. It’s not. The reality deserves its own judge—and we deserve the space to be separated from what we had thought in the hypothetical.
Third: the things that we create—the art we pour our hearts into, whether its music, poems, drawings, 3D models, etc…may be the only thing that can heal us from the depths in which it has hurt us.
Ten years later, in 2010, at a concert in nearby Berlin, Eddie spoke about that day. After a false start met with some tears and Stone’s and the audience’s encouragement to keep going, he said:
“It continues to be the hardest day in our lives….It’s not like we’re thinking about it any more today, because it’s thought about every day….
I’m still sorting out what the lessons are here. Well, I’m sorting them out in logical. What they mean given the evidence and history I’ve gone into above.
There’s another part though: the emotional lesson. And that’s already figured out. It’s a group bouncing upward from both fear and loss. That’s a lesson I can carry with me without the need for more clarity. I’m grateful for the lessons the band learned and the lessons I’ve learned in being a fan.