Eddie Vedder Covers Warren Zevon, Remembers Chris Cornell, and Reveals the Sage Advice He Gave Bradley Cooper Before Filming ‘A Star Is Born’
Legendary Pearl Jam frontman also talks songwriting, surfing, and sharing the stage with SpringsteenNovember 2, 2020
The man, the myth, the legend Eddie Vedder joined the Stern Show for the very first time on Monday, sitting down with Howard for an epic, three-hour discussion covering everything from the rock icon’s atypical childhood and unparalleled music career to his current efforts to mobilize voters ahead of Tuesday’s big election. Joining the show from his home studio, the 55-year-old Pearl Jam frontman picked up several guitars throughout the course of the morning and dazzled listeners with a live on-air performance of Warren Zevon’s gut-wrenching tune “Keep Me in Your Heart.” Eddie also reminisced about sharing the stage with Bruce Springsteen, laughed about teaching Bradley Cooper to pass for a rock star, and spoke candidly of the heartbreaking loss he felt after the death of his friend and former bandmate Chris Cornell.
Though it’s been more than three years since the beloved Soundgarden, Audioslave, and Temple of the Dog frontman took his own life, Eddie said he still struggles to process it. “I’ve had to be somewhat in denial,” he told Howard. “I don’t even feel like I had a choice. I was just terrified where I’d go if I allowed myself to feel what I needed to feel.”
They became close shortly after Eddie moved up to Seattle to form Pearl Jam. “We were neighbors. I would hang out with him outside the band more than even the other band guys, and I didn’t know that many people in Seattle,” he recalled. “We would go on crazy hiking adventures, or we would go mountain biking, or we would chase the dog in the rain while drinking shitty beer—and it was cool.”
Eddie told Howard he was already dealing with grief when Cornell passed. His third-youngest brother, also named Chris, had died after a climbing accident. “That one took me down so hard … I seriously didn’t know if I was going to get out of that one and it really hurt me to think about what my daughters were witnessing,” he said. “There was no hiding it. It was a dark place.”
Eddie has two daughters and, if Monday’s interview is any indication, parenting isn’t a responsibility he takes lightly. When Howard asked if he was the type of artist who dabbled with drugs to get his creative juices flowing, Eddie revealed he’s actually given them up since becoming a dad.
“I had my time with that stuff. I still imbibe a cocktail, but I think after having kids I haven’t done any psychedelics since then. I feel like you never know if you’ll need to be called to duty, he said.
“But as soon as they’re out of the house …,” he added with a laugh.
Eddie’s own childhood, meanwhile, seemingly offered less stability. He was a teenager when he found out he’d been lied to his whole life about the identity of his biological father. “When my mom told me that this guy wasn’t my father and was somebody else. You know, it was a shock, but I was so grateful in a way. I was like, ‘Oh, fuck. Thank god,’” Eddie said, later adding, “I didn’t want to be Mr. Normal. So, even when my mom told me that my dad wasn’t my dad, I thought, ‘Well, that’s a fucking interesting twist.’”
Eddie’s parents divorced when he was 15. His mom moved his brothers to Chicago and he stayed behind in Southern California where he was left to fend for himself. While his classmates worried about acing algebra quizzes, Eddie worried about putting food in his mouth and paying his bills. Looking for a silver lining, he told Howard it likely helped him become a better artist.
“It all worked out so well,” he said. “Now I relate to the downtrodden. I know what it’s like to be under the lion’s paw. Had I not been through any of that, you know my whole life would have been a sham.”
Eddie eventually settled into a routine which included surfing during the day and working hotel security at night. The overnight gig afforded him plenty of time to write music, but his first and perhaps most important songwriting breakthrough came while he was hanging ten. He’d just returned from a camping trip with Flea and Jack Irons of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They put him in contact with Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, two well-respected Seattle musicians in search of a frontman for their new band. Eddie hoped to get their attention by writing lyrics for a few instrumental tracks they had recorded. As it turned out, inspiration struck while he was out on the water.
“All I remember about that morning, the fog it was like [June gloom] times 10. You couldn’t see the waves as they were coming in … so, it was this kind of eerie [bubble] and your senses were heightened, and for some reason that melody and lyrics came in my head,” Eddie recalled. “I went to a little four-track cassette player … I remember recording it with my shorts still wet. I was tired. I’d worked the midnight shift all night.”
“The next day I put it in the mail and I didn’t think anything of it,” he added.
The songs Eddie wrote that day were “Alive” and part of “Once.” Needless to say, they quickly commanded Gossard and Ament’s attention. The trio, along with Mike McCready and Dave Krusen, would soon form Pearl Jam. The band’s first album “Ten,” bolstered by the strength of “Alive” and “Once” alongside hits like “Even Flow,” “Black,” and “Jeremy,” eventually sold over 13 million units in the U.S.—making it one of the most successful debuts of all time.
Pearl Jam became a household name almost overnight, but some in the grunge community—including at times legendary Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain—reportedly took issue with the band’s meteoric rise. “We had a good scene here and it changed a little bit,” Eddie said. “Some of my crowd back in the day, they kind of held our band in great disdain. Some people in the world liked you and some they either resented you or hated your music or whatever.”
“And I agreed with them at all points,” he said with a laugh.
Still, Eddie suddenly had fans in high places, including late night host David Letterman, who invited Pearl Jam to play on “The Late Show” after the release of “Ten.” Eddie was a huge Letterman fan, but the band was still reluctant to go on his show at first. Dave persisted. Sometimes, he’d have his bandleader Paul Shaffer play “Black” during the show. Other times, he’d look into the cameras and speak directly to Eddie. “I’m sitting there by myself and I’m a little bit high, he just leans in and does the ‘Eddie’ thing,” Vedder recalled. “I’m like, ‘This Eddie thing has got to stop. It’s fucking freaking me out.’”
Pearl Jam eventually played “The Late Show” multiple times and Eddie and Dave forged a friendship which has lasted several decades. In 2017, the rocker even performed a song for Letterman as he received the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The tune Eddie played for Dave that night was Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart,” an enduring ballad Zevon wrote after getting diagnosed with terminal cancer. Howard recalled being moved by the performance.
On Monday, Eddie picked up one of his guitars and revisited “Keep Me in Your Heart” for Howard and his listeners.
Howard was moved once again. “Beautiful. God I love that song,” he said after Eddie’s performance.
Vedder kept the music going all throughout the morning. He played parts of “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” an emotional tune off Pearl Jam’s second album which Eddie recalled writing while Stone Gossard watched on and sipped coffee. He also strummed a bit from “Sometimes,” the lead-off track on his band’s fourth album “No Code,” while trying to explain to Howard that playing guitar for him was as simple as making the right “shapes” with his fingers.
While Eddie is best known for his contributions to the Seattle music scene, he’s also done plenty in Hollywood over the years, recording songs for several movies and even composing an entire soundtrack for actor-director Sean Penn—who incidentally just counted Vedder as one of a select few guests at his unannounced Zoom wedding. One of Eddie’s most unexpected cinematic assists didn’t involve making music at all, however—it involved giving Bradley Cooper a crash course in acting like a rock star ahead of his turn in “A Star Is Born.”
“We just hung out for a couple days. He just asked me a few questions and I told him things like, ‘Make sure your guitar covers your balls at all times,’” Eddie told Howard. “I think sometimes when the guitar gets a little bit high it looks like a bib.”
He clearly gave good advice, as Cooper earned an Oscar nomination for his performance. Still, Eddie wasn’t sure what to expect before watching the film and he told Howard he was nervous to watch it by Bradley’s side. “On the way over, I’m thinking of all the ways I can let him down nicely,” he said. “I was a little nervous, but I tell you when I saw it I was just fucking blown away.”
He spoke about several high-profile collaborations on Monday, including a few with rock legends Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. He said Neil took Pearl Jam under his wing early on into their careers, inviting them to his ranch and occasionally dispensing sage wisdom over a joint.
“We needed that North Star and he provided it,” he said.
He fondly recalled sharing the stage with Bruce in 2014 as he and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello lent the Boss a hand on a memorable cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”
“We ended up in the same city at the same time,” he said, explaining they were both touring Australia at the time. “That was one night where we had a night off.”
Eddie even dusted off his best Bruce impression as he relayed the events of that day for Howard.“I’ve got an idea,” he said as Bruce. “Here’s the deal. Alright, first song: AC/DC, ‘Highway to Hell.’ And you take a verse, I take a verse, and then you’re done. You can drink beer, you can do whatever you want, none of this encore shit.”
As many Stern Show fans know, Pearl Jam was originally supposed to sit down with Howard in person earlier this year to promote a planned concert tour through battleground states which they hoped would motivate more Americans to vote. While the pandemic forced them to scrap the tour, Eddie felt getting out the vote remained more important than ever. In addition to talking about his life and career, Pearl Jam’s new album “Gigaton,” and Venture Into Cures—he and his wife’s star-studded Nov. 18 benefit to find a cure for Epidermolysis Bullos (EB)—Eddie reminded Americans to cast their votes on Tuesday.
“We need to come together,” Eddie said, adding, “I think that all Americans really, really want the same thing. To be able to raise kids, to have job, have a family, listen to music, to eat and fuck and all these things that we all have in common. You know, the simple pleasures.”
He said he was heartbroken by the fact COVID-19 has killed 230,000 Americans. “You go through loss and you realize what the loss of one person does to a community,” he told Howard.
As always, however, Eddie looked hard for a silver lining. “On the positive side, you see 93 million people have voted ahead of time,” he said. “Maybe this is one positive byproduct that people aren’t able to sit this one out and people are getting engaged … There’s so much work to do and so much to be repaired,” he added.
“I could not have said that better,” Howard concluded.