Pearl Jam's drunken MTV debacle: Cameron Crowe looks back -- an EW Exclusive

Pearl-Jam

Image Credit: Tony Mottram/Retna UK

Twenty years ago, director Cameron Crowe decided to follow his much-loved debut, 1989’s Say Anything, with a romantic comedy set in the world of the Seattle music scene.

That movie was Singles (1992), and when Warner Bros. got first sight of it, just before the Seattle music scene exploded, they determined to shelve it. Then grunge went mainstream, and many of the bands featured in the movie, including Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, would go on to multiplatinum superstardom.

The biggest of these bands was Pearl Jam, the members of which were cast as Matt Dillon’s bandmates in the fictional Citizen Dick. The studio reconsidered, and then planned to release the movie to capitalize on the current hottest music trend with their “grunge movie.”

But not before they would ask Crowe to call in a favor from Pearl Jam. This would prove near disastrous, as Crowe — whose love letter to the band, the documentary Pearl Jam Twenty, opens Sept. 20 and includes the now infamous MTV footage — remembers…

“When Harry Met Sally… was the big hit as we were filming, I think. I think the studio saw Singles and thought, ‘What is this guy with the dreads, shaking?’ That’s Layne [Staley], man! From Alice in Chains! ‘Uh, where’s Billy Crystal? C’mon man, give us the thing we know.’ And it just kind of solidified into positions. They didn’t understand the movie at Warner Bros. They weren’t that happy they made it. We were editing it and trying to just finish it and fighting to finish it and no one wanted to put it out.

And then, ironically, Nirvana broke. Actually, Alice in Chains broke. Then Nirvana broke. Then the kind of zeitgeist story started to become Seattle. And then Pearl Jam broke and the studio was like, ‘Okay. Well, all right, the guy that shakes his head with the dreads, we like him now. But we need MTV to do a promotional party so we can kick the movie off to let people know they can see all this crazy popular Seattle music.’

I had to go on Lollapalooza and beg the guys in Pearl Jam to play the party. I was Willy Loman on the Lollapalooza tour. You know, it wasn’t fun and I never like asking people a favor. I just don’t. I’d rather do a million favors than ask for one. But here I was asking them on their day off to play the show. They said yes to help me get the movie released. But, this was their one day off.

Eddie [Vedder] had some surfer buddies around and I think they needed to blow off some steam. They showed up to play this live MTV premiere party-concert drunk. Like, really drunk. [Laughs] And I’d never seen Eddie drunk. I mean, I’d never seen him drink! But now all of a sudden, he’s got these surfer buddies who are pouring beer down a funnel and he’s drinking beer from a funnel and it’s like, Whoa! This is like Animal House, man. The idea was, this was going to be an acoustic performance. Like Unplugged.

But we got the word shortly after the funnels started appearing that Pearl Jam’s changed their minds. It’s going to be a punk rock set. And from there, everything began to unravel in classic punk rock style. Eddie slipping all over the stage, saying the stage is like Hollywood slick. And guys are looking at me like, ‘Yeah, we loved releasing this movie. It was a ball of laughs before and now it’s really fun. My kids just heard ‘f—‘ five times straight from your man Vedder.’ It was ugly, we barely had anything to cut together. I think it showed once.

Anyway, it was a disaster and I never brought it up with the band until years and years later when we had cameras and we were filming for the movie. Eddie looks at me like, ‘This is the worst possible question you could be asking. You wait 20 years to bring up this horrific event and now there’s a camera with you when you do? Thanks a lot.’ But then he answers the question and he’s pretty great. Stone [Gossard] had the great answer too because Stone said, ‘That was the birth of ‘No.’ So we got to use it as kind of a buoy in the water of the Pearl Jam adventure. But it was reliving this really terrible event on-camera with them.”

Pick up this week’s issue with Brad Pitt on the cover to read more from Cameron Crowe on Pearl Jam Twenty.

More on EW.com:
‘Say Anything’ Turns 20
On the scene at Yankee Stadium: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax crank and shred
Toronto round-up: ‘Moneyball’ scores, while Fassbender’s ‘Shame’ and Blunt’s ‘Sister’ find distributors

Comments (24 total) Add your comment
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  • ERNIE

    Back when they were great!

    • Kevin

      They’re still great in concert. I enjoy their studio albums but music has evolved so much since the 90s (not necessarily in a good way) and they’re still kind of doing the same thing they’ve always done. It’s lost it’s thrill. But that’s to be expected when a band has been around for 20 years. But they own the stage when they play live.

      • Snow Palm

        I think you expressed my opinion exactly. I love PJ, but the music on the newer albums just doesn’t hit me or thrill me the same way say anything on their earlier albums does. On the other hand, they are the only band I fork over money to go see live.

      • Pittner

        I agree that they are of course still great in concert but I disagree about their albums over the past ten years. Their most recent album, Backspacer, is definitely an evolution of the band. It’s more pop and new wave inspired and has a cheerier sound to it than any of their other records. Their self-titled cd is probably my second favorite after Vs. Binaural and Riot Act is the band experimenting and at first I didn’t care for them but they get better with each listen. I guess I just get sick of people saying they’re not good anymore just because they aren’t in the mainstream, which was a choice the band decided to make.

      • Matt

        I was a massive, massive obsessed fan, and loved Vedder.. and now I just hate to see how phony he really is.. Maybe phony isn’t the best word.. contrived. That is the perfect word. He isn’t true to himself, he is true to the vision he wants portrayed of himself.

        Crowe expounded on that brilliantly.. off camera, Vedder berates him for the question.. then answers it greatly. It’s sort of like how he made such a huge deal about band equality, then ran the band, made the decisions, and took a higher cut of the profits.. Sort of also like how he was so into his high school sweetie Beth, and cursed the models that would come after him, and the he divorces Beth and goes and marries a model.. Just contrived as all hell.

        Pearl Jam went to hell right when Vedder started calling the shots wholesale. Firing Dave A, putting spoken word on the album, waging a failed war on ticketmaster to save fans a nickel because he “cares” so much. I know a lot of you still have this man’s back to the death. and God bless you, but it makes me sick. I’ll still always love the Ten/Vs years and liked the next couple albums, but good riddance with everything that came from this band in the last 10-12 years.

      • A fan

        If you really knew anything about the band, Matt, you’d know that Vedder has never ‘called the shots’. Their activism- political, environmental and health-related, as well as extensive charity work are causes shared by all of them, with Vedder being the most vocal. They have been called “… as organic and principled a rock band as exists.” by Spin magazine, and they continue to put their fans first. All of them.

    • deedeedragons

      Time can’t stand still ya’ know.

      • A fan on the fence

        Matt, you hit the nail on the head. I have loved Pearl Jam for 19 of those 20 years and I think I am pretty much over them. I haven’t liked any of the music they’ve put out in the last 5 years. They haven’t even played my state in over 5 years! The last straw for me was when they sold the album exclusively at Target. That went against everything they stood against for the previous 15+ years.

        I feel the exact same way about Vedder that Matt does. He is the biggest reason I am no longer emamored of this band. Charging $80 for a SOLO tour. Give me a break.

        This all being said, I will love Jeff Ament til the day I die.

  • Curious Khan

    Wow I forgot how cool it was when MTV actually was about music!

    • Emilio

      I thought the M stand for “Moronic” TV.

  • Molls

    I still have the Singles soundtrack somewhere – I had to buy it twice because it ended up getting scratched over my favorite track, that great Smashing Pumpkins song, Drown. I think it was exclusive to that soundtrack. Good work, Cameron!

  • Curious Khan

    Maybe that should be a new MTV program DRUNKEN ROCK BANDS. We’ll invite well know bands to the show, have them drink up then play!

    • crispy

      More like “Bi-Curious Kahn” amirite?

  • Dessa

    I have the version of the Vs. CD … before Pearl Jam decided on a name for it. I mean, I have the unnamed, released-anyway CD of what was to become Vs. Pretty cool. But I just found out that my daughter’s BF doesn’t like Pearl Jam, which pretty much takes away the coolness factor of us having lived in Seattle during the grunge years. So I think the BF has to go. Will reconsider if anyone can find a reason for him to stay.

    • Pittner

      Dump the loser.

    • Matt

      Well that’s about as rational as a lot of decisions Vedder has made, so rock on.

      • Dessa

        OMG, @Matt, so I was also in the UK for a while during the punk era of 70s/early 80s … so BF starts schooling me on this new punk band “Arcade Fire” and starts explaining to me what Punk is. Apparently it’s too raw and real for me and I should stick to Girl Bands. What, like L7 or 7 Year B!tch or PJ Harvey I ask? Who? And then, says he doesn’t like Pearl Jam. At that point my daughter sees the look in my eyes and says something random. Music is passion not fricken that attitude. BF’s gotta go man.

  • Kelly

    PJ blowa, they got lazy & complacent & greedy and their music reflects that. Alice in Chains is the better, more real band. They don’t overcharge for concert ticket prices, and they still have THE FIRE. Their music still has ANGST. And they are RIDICULOUSLY GREAT LIVE, and for only $40 for a concert ticket (saw them twice last year and $40 is the MOST I paid). I understand PJ tix costs in the HUNDREDS. PJ had ONE GREAT ALBUM, TEN, then they went soft & political, AiC has NEVER gone soft or believed their own BS. Soundgarden revived is ALSO awesome, saw them in July, cheap concert tix, and they were fantastic, even my 13 yr old LOVED it. God Bless AiC and Soundgarden for staying TRUE to themselves AND their fans, and not going SOFT, or COMMERCIAL.

    • Doug

      Kelly, AiC don’t really exist any more so not really a good comparison.

      You can’t claim a band that reforms without the lead singer to make some cash is “real”.

      Shame, but true.

    • Sonja

      PJ tix cost in the hundreds?! Wow, then somehow they must strangely have made a mistake every time I bought tickets in the last years.Last time I paid about 60.

  • Kelly

    MY BAD, PJ “BLOWS”, sorry, was typing too fast!!!!!

    • WesCAddle

      first, if you’re saying one band “blows” over another then obviously you’re missing the point of any of these guys music. All of the bands you listed are “commercial”. If they are signed with a major label and release music to the masses it is commercial. Pearl Jam has their own record label and release their stuff all on their own. You couldn’t get any less commercial than that. And obviously you care enough about Pearl Jam to waste your time to say that they “blow”.

    • WesCAddle

      and as far as being “soft” you may have heard of an Alice in Chains album called Jar of Flys. One of their hardest albums to date. If you haven’t noticed, there is sarcasm in my typing.

  • Sunshine

    PEARL JAM IS THE LOSER

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