How Pearl Jam Went from Being a Basement Band to Making a Huge Impact

It was the 22nd of October 1990 when a new band from Seattle played their first concert at the Off Ramp Cafe. Their name: Mookie Blaylock. It was the name of a New Jersey Nets player whose basketball card somehow found itself in the band’s tape case of early demos. “It was kind of goofy,” Eddie Vedder admitted. But apparently, they were too busy working on songs to worry about a band name.

Eddie Vedder with his guitar in front of a drawing of Pete Townshend / Pearl Jam posing for a photograph at the MTV Awards in 1993
Source: Twitter / Photo by Fotos International, Shutterstock

That’s fine, really, for an unknown local band. But once they started attracting national attention and recording an album, they couldn’t just keep the name of a popular NBA point guard. The story of how they came up with Pearl Jam is somewhat of a myth, with some saying Vedder named the band after his grandmother Pearl who would make hallucinogenic jam.

This is the origin story of Pearl Jam and their most controversial song, Jeremy…

A Shabby Basement in Belltown

If you were in Belltown, Seattle, in the fall of 1990, and you were to walk down a dark alleyway on Second Avenue, you would find a blacksmith shop. After opening the heavy steel door, you would walk down a bunch of rickety steps to a basement, which measured about 30 feet by 30 feet. It was a place where water pipes were hanging from the ceiling.

Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, Dave Krusen, Eddie Vedder, and Stone Gossard hanging out in the band’s rehearsal space underneath the blacksmith shop
Source: Flickr

The shabby basement was crammed with guitars, drums, and amplifiers strewn on a worn-out carpet, with cords and wires lying around everywhere. You would see sheets and blankets tacked to the ceilings and walls – you know, for better acoustics. There were posters of basketball players and filmmaker John Waters and guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan.

A Band Called Mookie Blaylock

There was also a little room off to the side where Eddie Vedder lived for a while. He and the guys paid around $75 a month, according to the blacksmith upstairs. Everything in that room was partly responsible for making the band we now know as Pearl Jam. But in those early jam session days, they weren’t Pearl Jam just yet.

Mookie Blaylock
Source: USA Today

The band included lead singer and guitarist Vedder, lead guitarist Mike McCready, bass player Jeff Ament, drummer Matt Cameron (who joined later, in 1998), and guitarist Stone “Stoney” Gossard. (At that point, Ament and Gossard were still grieving the death of Andrew Wood, a singer from their former band Mother Love Bone). The guys were in a group who called themselves Mookie Blaylock, after an NBA player with a peculiar name.

The Galleria Potatohead

In those days, if they could scrape together enough cash, a good meal consisted of a burrito at Mama’s or a burger and beer at Cyclops. When they weren’t feeding themselves to stay alive, they were playing music in that basement. They called their rehearsal room the “Galleria Potatohead,” which was the name of the art studio in the front of the building.

A photograph of the Black Dog Forge ironworks, the store above Pearl Jam’s rehearsal space
Source: Twitter

Louie Raffloer and Mary Gioia, who ran Black Dog Forge, the blacksmith business in the back, said that with all the people coming and going to their shop, they didn’t really notice the racket coming from the basement. They described the five musicians as regular guys in their 20s. It might come as a surprise that the couple said the guys were never jerks; they were always businesslike.

Just a Bunch of “Boring” Rock Stars

The members of Mookie Blaylock didn’t act or dress like rock stars. According to Raffloer and Gioia, they were even “a little boring.” Gioia said, “It’s not like we had Steven Tyler downstairs.” They were working on a record that was going to make them world-famous, “and we didn’t even know it,” Raffloer admitted.

A group shot of Pearl Jam
Photo by BEI / Shutterstock

In fact, many Seattle bands practiced in basements in those days. It was a short time between Vedder’s arrival in Seattle (from California) on October 8, 1990, to the release of the album Ten on August 27, 1991. That near-year before they called themselves Pearl Jam required a lot of hard work and talent to stand out in an exploding Seattle music scene.

An Early Rivalry

After all, Seattle is home to the biggest names in Grunge Rock, with Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and, of course, Nirvana. In fact, many of the “too-cool-for-school” Nirvana super fans were suspicious of Pearl Jam’s success. Kurt Cobain famously said that he didn’t even like Pearl Jam’s music. There did seem to be a rivalry between the two rockers, but Cobain and Vedder eventually made up.

Eddie Vedder posing with a baseball cap backward and a t-shirt that says Loser on it / Kurt Cobain posing with sunglasses hanging out of his mouth
Photo by Pat Johnson, Shutterstock / Stephen Sweet, Shutterstock

When it came to Mookie Blaylock turned Pearl Jam, this Seattle band just didn’t do things the Seattle way. According to Charles R. Cross, a journalist, and author of a Kurt Cobain biography, Pearl Jam was criticized by Cobain and others as “careerists,” but every band in town wanted success.

A Competitive Seattle Scene

Cross also noted that, for some reason, the “populism” of Pearl Jam — making “anthemic rock” and striving to get on the radio — wasn’t something that Seattle musicians did. Basically, it was below them. Cross explained how if you were in a band in Seattle, you were supposed to play shows that nobody saw, release some bad singles on alternative labels, and remain under the radar… and THEN make a breakthrough.

Pearl Jam in concert circa 1991
Photo by Kevin Estrada / Shutterstock

But, “Pearl Jam didn’t follow those rules.” They went to the beat of their own drum, so to speak, and it all started with a band called Mother Love Bone. The band’s lead singer, Andrew Wood, was really everything a rock star should be.

An Abrupt End

If there was ever a Seattle singer who wanted to be a star, it was Andrew “Andy” Wood. Before Pearl Jam, and before Mookie Blaylock, Gossard and Ament were in the band Mother Love Bone. Wood was their frontman, and there were also former members of the group Green River. Together, they created some serious buzz and even signed a major-label deal with PolyGram, making other local bands jealous.

The band Mother Love Bone posing together
Mother Love Bone. Source: Tumblr

By early 1990, the first Mother Love Bone album, Apple, was ready to be released. Everything was going smoothly, and all signs were pointing to fame and fortune. And then Wood died. Tragically, the 24-year-old passed away on March 19, 1990, from an overdose.

A Bittersweet Moment

Nonetheless, in July 1990, the album was released and was reviewed favorably. It was a bittersweet moment – perhaps more bitter than sweet – as the band, devastated by the loss of Wood, was done. After Wood’s death, the remaining members had no real plans. One night, Gossard met KISW disc jockey Damon Stewart at a local pub called The Oxford Tavern.

Stone Gossard performing in 2006
Photo by Andre Csillag / Shutterstock

Stewart asked Gossard what he was doing, to which he responded, “doing a little writing, just noodling around.” The two then headed to another bar and, outside, bumped into an old friend of Gossard’s, a guitarist named Mike McCready. The three then had a night of talking over beers. It was then that McCready convinced Gossard to reconnect with Jeff Ament.

Enter Eddie Vedder

The guys found themselves in the process of creating a new band, which meant they came to the point where they needed to replace Wood. Gossard and Ament were initially hoping to hire former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons. They sent him a demo tape of instrumental songs written by Gossard.

Eddie Vedder posing at the MTV music video awards in 1992
Photo by Randy Bauer / Shutterstock

Irons, though, was too busy with his new band and decided to pass on the offer. So, he sent it to a friend of his – a singing surfer who was living in San Diego at the time. Irons gave Eddie Vedder the tape, telling him that a Seattle band was looking for a singer. Vedder listened to the tape briefly before going surfing, which was where lyrics came to him.

Writing His First “Mini-Opera”

Vedder came back, wrote down some lyrics for three of the songs on the tape (which he later described as a “mini-opera”), recorded vocals for the songs, and mailed the tape back to Seattle. Those three songs would later become Pearl Jam’s Alive, Once, and Footsteps. That demo tape earned Vedder an audition in Seattle.

Eddie Vedder performing with six tall candles burning and a red mask sitting between them
Photo by Andre Csillag / Shutterstock

By October 1990, he found himself in that shabby little basement, aka the Galleria Potatohead. Gossard and Ament were instantly impressed with Vedder’s unique voice and saw a talent in him that no one else did. According to journalist Cross says, “One part of the story that never, ever gets told, is they could have picked 20 other lead singers. There were other people in Seattle that certainly would have approached them.”

They Were (Almost) Ready to Play Live

What the guys saw in Vedder was something powerful. When his voice opened up, he had this ability to sing an “anthemic song with scary power.” Literally two weeks after Veddie landed in Seattle (for the first time, by the way), Mookie Blaylock was ready to play its first show. Well, not exactly “ready.”

Eddie Vedder performing in 1993
Photo by Andre Csillag / Shutterstock

The group just said they were “going down to this club to play,” said Dave Krusen, a drummer from Gig Harbor who was hired shortly before Vedder. At that point, they were still learning the songs. “It was nerve-wracking. They just wanted to set up and play, get on stage, and see how it felt.” After all, what did they have to lose?

Their First Live, yet Unrepresentative, Gig

On October 22, 1990, Mookie Blaylock played their first live gig at the Off Ramp Cafe. Krusen recalled the place being about a quarter full when the band started playing. “By the time we were done, it had filled up a little,” he stated.

Mookie Blaylock performing in front of a large crowd at the Off Ramp Cafe
Their first performance as Mookie Blaylock at the Off Ramp Café. Source: YouTube

The band played the song Even Flow as a soundcheck, then went ahead and performed eight songs (five of which appeared on their future album Ten). The whole set lasted about 40 minutes. That night, their tempo was slower, and the lyrics were different from their later versions. They were not the band that would soon be known as one of the best live acts in rock. But the power was there, and it made an impact.

A Different Kind of Eddie

The Eddie Vedder of Mookie Blaylock was not the Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, at least according to Cross. In 1990, he still wasn’t ready to be a bandleader. But it didn’t take too long for him to take the lead. By the time they became Pearl Jam, he had shifted dramatically. Remembering that first night at the Off Ramp Café, Krusen said his bandmates “probably thought it sucked, but I thought it was great.”

Eddie Vedder performing in a red plaid shirt and long wavy hair in 1992
Photo by Malluk / Mediapunch / Shutterstock

He also said the energy was there, and that he was “really blown away with Eddie.” Lance Mercer, who used to photograph Mother Love Bone, was asked to photograph Mookie Blaylock, but he didn’t shoot the show in the end. “I walked out,” he said.

A Lawsuit Waiting to Happen

“Seeing Jeff and Stone onstage was really difficult, because I felt Andy was the one who deserved to be there, not Eddie,” Mercer continued. As for KISW’s Damon Stewart, he was “kind of in awe. I remember thinking, ‘Wow; that was different.’” The group spent the next four months playing shows around Seattle, as well as a quick California tour.

Pearl Jam posing for a photograph at the MTV Awards in 1993
Photo by Fotos International / Shutterstock

Meanwhile, in Seattle, people realized that Mookie Blaylock (or at least their lawyers) would have to address the band’s name at some point. Calling themselves Mookie Blaylock was a lawsuit waiting to happen, so they were forced to change their name. On March 10, 1991, Gossard Ament, and Vedder appeared on Stewart’s New Music Hour show at KISW. That’s when they revealed their new band name.

The (Un)Exciting Story Behind the Name

Vedder announced to Stewart, and the world, that their new name was Pearl Jam. As I mentioned earlier, the name change has been the subject of folklore. In an early promotional interview, Vedder said that the name “Pearl Jam” referred to his great-grandmother Pearl. He said she was married to a Native American man who had had a special recipe for peyote-laced jam.

Neil Young with a guitar and harmonica in 1976
Neil Young. Source: Shutterstock

But in a 2006 Rolling Stone interview, Vedder admitted that it was “total bull****.” He did have a great-grandmother named Pearl, but the true story is a lot more mundane. Ament randomly thought of the name/word “Pearl,” and the band settled on “Pearl Jam” after seeing a Neil Young concert.

When Pearl and Jam Come Together

Ament recalled how every one of Young’s songs was “like a 15-or 20-minute jam. So that’s how “jam” got added on to the name. Or at least that’s how I remember it.” Either way, the name stuck, and it’s the name they held by the time they reached massive fame. Pearl Jam immediately started recording its first record at London Bridge Studio, a place Ament and Gossard had worked in before with both Mother Love Bone and Temple of the Dog (a project with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden in late 1990).

Eddie Vedder and friends posing while hanging around on a street
Photo by Bei / Shutterstock

The studio, with its high ceilings and recycled brick walls and wood floors, was a win-win situation for the stage-diving and high-climbing Vedder. He had a rope hanging from the ceiling to swing on and plenty of room to crash, which is what he did for a few weeks.

Members of “Citizen Dick”

Between all the recording sessions, Ament, Gossard, and Vedder found the time to appear in Cameron Crowe’s movie Singles. They were members of the fictional band Citizen Dick, whose lead singer was played by Matt Dillon. He even borrowed some of Ament’s clothes for the part. In a scene shot in a booth in the OK Hotel, the three “Citizen Dick” members were scanning a review in The Rocket.

Cameron Crow and Eddie Vedder holding up a sign that says Pearl Jam state of love and trust
Cameron Crow and Eddie Vedder. Photo by Tremolo Prods / Vinyl / Kobal / Shutterstock

Their characters were looking for something nice to say about their frontman. Ament reads that Dillon’s character “was ably backed by Stone and Jeff, and drummer Eddie Vedder.” Vedder’s character then tries to cheer him up by saying, “A compliment for us is a compliment for you.”

A Stream of Consciousness

After an incredibly energetic and moving show at RKCNDY, one of Seattle’s original rock ’n’ roll clubs, KSIW’s music director Cathy Faulkner asked Vedder if he had any idea about what was going to happen to the band. Faulkner described how they talked about “every subject under the sun” that day in the KSIW newsroom.

The members of Pearl Jam posing for a photograph together
Source: Pinterest

“There was just a stream of consciousness.” She said that, after that, she was never surprised by any of his lyrics because of the “depth of feeling and the multitude of thoughts in that conversation.” But regarding her starting question – about where the band was going – Vedder never really answered her. But they knew. Everyone did.

Making It to Ten

Everyone knew where Pearl Jam was headed. Soon enough, the album Ten was released. Photographer Mercer played their tape in his car. “I knew right away,” he recalled. “I listened to the whole thing, and I thought, ‘This is going to be huge.’” Many bands with a long history have a confusing relationship with the albums that make them famous, which tends to be the ones their fans like the best.

Eddie Vedder and Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam performing at The Bridge School benefit in 2003
Photo by Brian Moghadam / Shutterstock

Journalist Cross said that “Everyone in Pearl Jam knows Ten is their biggest record,” but he doesn’t think there’s any member of the band who would say it’s their favorite. The album was actually slow to sell, but, by the end of 1992, it was a breakthrough success, certified gold and reaching #2 on the Billboard charts.

The Semi-Autobiographical Tale Behind Alive

Ten produced a number of hit singles, such as Alive, Even Flow, and Jeremy. Alive was initially considered an anthem by many, but Vedder later revealed that the song tells a semi-autobiographical story about a son who discovers that his father is actually his stepfather. Meanwhile, his mother’s grief makes her intimately embrace her son, who strongly resembles her late husband (his biological father).

Eddie Vedder performing in 2006
Photo by John Taylor / Shutterstock

Vedder initially thought that the lyrics of “being alive” were a curse, as the sadness of the character in the song suggests. But considering how fans quickly turned the title into a self-empowering anthem, especially at concerts, Vedder said the fans essentially “lifted the curse.” He told VH1 Storytellers in 2006 that the audience changed the meaning for him.

The Tragic Tales of Jeremy and Brian

The song Jeremy and its music video were inspired by a true story that isn’t for the faint-hearted. The song is actually based on two different yet true stories. But we’ll start with the more talked-about tale – the one about a boy named Jeremy Wade Delle from Richardson, Texas. Jeremy shot himself in front of his teacher and entire English class (of 30 students) on the morning of January 8, 1991.

Jeremy Wade Delle as a young boy
Jeremy Wade Delle. Source: Twitter

The song’s second inspiration involved a student named Brian that Vedder knew from junior high school in San Diego. Vedder described this boy who shot up an oceanography classroom. “I remember being in the halls and hearing it, and I had actually had altercations with this kid in the past,” Vedder explained.

Who Was Jeremy Wade Delle?

To Vedder, the song is both about Jeremy and Brian. He says that a lot of people interpret the song in different ways, and he himself has recently been talking about the meaning behind it. He hopes no one’s offended, and “believe me, I think of Jeremy when I sing it.” So, who was this Jeremy, and what happened to him?

Jeremy Wade Delle posing in the hallway of a school
Jeremy Wade Delle. Source: Pinterest

The song Jeremy describes an unhappy and isolated teen. In the spring of 1991, Vedder read the morning newspaper and came across a shocking headline about a teen’s suicide. 15-year-old Delle had mysteriously taken his own life during his English class at Richardson High in Richardson, Texas. Obviously, Vedder was taken aback by the story…

His Parents Were Never Contacted

Vedder immediately felt the need to honor this story, and thus the song Jeremy was born, but if you ask Delle’s friends and family, the song doesn’t follow Jeremy’s actual life so much. While the hit song lives on as one of Pearl Jam’s best, it actually happens to eclipse the true and tragic story of this troubled boy.

Jeremy Wade Delle as a young boy posing with his mother in front of a home with bushes surrounding it
Jeremy Wade Delle and his mother. Source: Twitter

While the controversial song and its eyebrow-raising music video pushed Pearl Jam and their hit album Ten to the top of the Billboard charts, the Delle family was dealing with a horrifying reality. His parents, Joseph Delle and Wanda Crane, were divorced, and Jeremy had been living with his father. Neither of Jeremy’s parents were ever contacted about the song.

Vedder Didn’t Want to Intrude

It also seemed like both of them had their own issues with it. The way they saw it, the song whittled their son down to nothing other than his horrific death. According to Vedder, he considered reaching out to Jeremy’s family before he started writing the song, but “felt like he was intruding.” Vedder even admitted that he assumed that Jeremy was ignored by his parents – without ever speaking to them.

Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam performing / The article reading Richardson teen skills self in class
Photo by Andre Csillag, Shutterstock / Source: Twitter

In a 2009 interview, Vedder said he felt the need to make something out of that article he read that morning – “to give that action, to give it reaction, to give it more importance.” After all, the story does deserve a retelling.

What Really Happened

On January 8, 1991, Delle arrived late to his second period English class. Upon arriving, his teacher told him to head to the office to get an attendance slip. But instead of coming back with a slip, Delle returned with a Smith & Wesson .357 revolver. Just before he turned the gun on himself, he said to his teacher: “Miss, I got what I really went for.”

A photograph of Brian Adams High School

How Delle died became public and well-known knowledge, but the reason why was a lot less understood. Delle’s classmates remember him as “shy” and “sad,” but none of them ever considered him as someone who could do such a thing. However, one of his classmates noted that he was acting a bit strange in the days prior to the suicide.

Later Days

Lisa Moore knew Jeremy from the school’s suspension program. She used to pass notes back and forth with Jeremy throughout the day. Moore said that he always signed his notes in a certain way, but the day before his suicide, he deviated from the norm. “He signed all of his notes, ‘Write back.’ But on Monday [January 7] he wrote, ‘Later days.’”

Jeremy Wade Delle in a middle school photograph

According to Sgt. Ray Pennington of the Richardson Police, Delle put forethought into what he did. The revolver was very likely stashed in his locker, and he also left a suicide note. The content of the note was never released, though. As much as Pearl Jam wanted to “honor” both Jeremy’s and Brian’s stories, the truth is that the song didn’t depict Jeremy’s real life.

An Inaccurate Story

The song describes a child who didn’t receive any attention at home and whose parents ignored his cries for help. But Delle’s close friends and family claim that couldn’t be further from the truth. Pennington said in a statement that after Delle’s father was called down to discuss Jeremy’s attendance issues, Delle and his father had even enrolled in counseling together.

Eddie Vedder performing while standing next to the guitarist
Photo by Andre Csillag / Shutterstock

Delle’s classmate Brittany King spoke out against Pearl Jam’s song when it was released, criticizing how inaccurate it was. “I was angry at them for writing that song,” she said. “I thought, ‘you don’t know, you weren’t there.’” Joseph Delle ended up issuing a statement on the subject, referring to how “fans” of Jeremy’s were leaving notes on his grave, while the band was capitalizing on their grief.

Making an Impact with One Hit

The single Jeremy became Pearl Jam’s most successful song from the album Ten on the American rock charts. It received nominations for Best Rock Song and Best Hard Rock Performance at the 1993 Grammy Awards. Allmusic’s Chris True said Jeremy “is where Pearl Jam mania galvanized and propelled the band past the ‘Seattle sound’ and into rock royalty.”

Pearl Jam fans excitedly enjoying a concert
Pearl Jam fans. Photo by Pasquale Modica / Shutterstock

True described the song as a “classic buildup tune” that marks Pearl Jam’s “most earnest work.” The song has made an impact, and the extra-controversial music video that came along with it only created more hype. Due to MTV restrictions, the video had to be censored to omit the more violent scenes, of course.

A Heck of an Accomplishment

After Jeremy, Pearl Jam turned away from making music videos. As Ament put it, “Ten years from now, I don’t want people to remember our songs as videos.” They didn’t release another video until 1998’s Do the Evolution, and it was entirely animated. Who knew that this basement band in Seattle would make such a dent in the rock world?

Eddie Vedder performing with other members of Pearl Jam behind him on stage
Photo by Ibl / Shutterstock

Journalist Cross said that the remarkable thing about Pearl Jam is that they never broke up – a rarity in rock group land. Furthermore, the group still makes music that has meaning to them. According to Cross, “In the history of Seattle bands, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.”

An Homage to Where It All Began

Oh, and that basement where the story began? Well, Gioia and Raffloer are still there, making beautiful ironworks (some of them for the Pearl Jam members themselves). And the basement is still used as a rehearsal room by local bands. One day in the recent past, a vanload of tourists who were on a rock ’n’ roll sightseeing tour was ushered through the space.

Mike McCready mid-air playing his guitar in 2016
Photo by Amy Harris / Shutterstock

In fact, fans have been visiting the spot for 25 years – something Gioia finds both amusing and odd. Raffloer remembers a phone call from his brother in Virginia, just after Pearl Jam’s Ten was released. It was loud in their shop, and Raffloer tried to find a quiet place to talk. His brother asked him why it was so noisy. “I told him I was in a storage room, and it was loud because there was a band downstairs. His brother then said, “They’re playing a Pearl Jam song,” to which Raffloer told him, “That IS Pearl Jam.”