The Saga of Jeremy: Pearl Jam’s Song & Its Many Tragedies

Pearl Jam brought grunge to the masses, quality songs to the radio, and taboo stories to the forefront of people’s minds. The song Jeremy was the band’s third single, which debuted in 1992, and stayed in heavy rotation on MTV. The song is based on two true stories, one of which was about a troubled teen named Jeremy Wade Delle, who ended his life in front of his classmates in 1991.

Trevor Wilson / Pearl Jam / Eddie Vedder / Jeremy Delle, Pearl Jam.
Source: Getty Images

Lead singer Eddie Vedder was trying to send a message with this song, but thanks to video censorship, the full cut of the video (which still won awards) was never aired, and it caused confusion and controversy for years. But the song has gone on to have a much deeper and lasting legacy – one that no one would have expected.

The Day Jeremy Became Famous

On the morning of January 8, 1991, Richardson High School (in Texas) was about to make headlines. More specifically, a 15-year-old sophomore was about to become famous. But he wasn’t going to be around to see the results. Jeremy Delle brought a Smith & Wesson Model 19-4 .357 Magnum revolver to school with him that day.

A portrait of Jeremy.

He arrived late to his English class, so his teacher sent him to the office to get a late slip. But Jeremy didn’t go to the office. Instead, he returned to the classroom and told his teacher, “Miss, I got what I really went for.”

Later Days, He Said

Jeremy then proceeded to pull out the gun he had been holding in his pants waistband and shot himself right then and there, in front of his 30 classmates and teacher. Jeremy didn’t have many friends at the time. However, he did have one friend, and her name was Lisa Moore.

A former classmate of Jeremy, speaks during an interview.
Brittany King. Source: WFFA

Lisa later reported that she and Jeremy would pass notes back and forth whenever they found themselves in detention. Jeremy typically signed his notes with “Write back,” but the last note he passed down to Lisa was signed “Later days.”

The question remains: What happened to Jeremy?

Two Boys, Two Stories, One Song

The event inspired Eddie Vedder and bassist Jeff Ament to write the song Jeremy later that year. In a 1991 Billboard interview, Vedder revealed that he had come across a small newspaper item covering the boy’s tragic death.

A still from Pearl Jam’s music video.
Source: YouTube

Vedder explained that the story of Jeremy, in combination with a personal experience Vedder had had in seventh grade, was the basis for the song. That said, Jeremy is based on two very strange but very true stories. The second – less-publicized – inspiration for the song involved a classmate of Vedder’s who once opened fire during a geography class.

The Kid From Junior High

Vedder recalled his days in junior high school in San Diego, especially the kid – named Brian – who committed a school shooting. In another 1991 interview, Vedder described that day as an event that he couldn’t ignore when writing Jeremy.

A still of Vedder in Jeremy’s music video.
Source: YouTube

“I actually knew somebody in junior high school… that did the same thing,” Vedder began. He “didn’t take his life but ended up shooting up an oceanography room.” Vedder remembered being in the halls and hearing the gunshots. He had “altercations with this kid in the past,” he disclosed.

Pickin’ on the Boy

“Clearly I remember
Pickin’ on the boy
Seemed a harmless little f**k.”

Vedder exposed that he was “kind of a rebellious fifth-grader” who got into “fights and stuff” with this school shooter.

A backstage portrait of Eddie Vedder.
Photo by Lindsay Brice/Getty Images

And so, Jeremy is a “bit about this kid named Jeremy and it’s also a bit about a kid named Brian that I knew, and I don’t know… I’ve been talking about the true meaning behind it, and I hope no one’s offended and believe me, I think of Jeremy when I sing it,” Vedder said in 1991, unable to know just how far and wide the song would reach.

Just a Paragraph in a Newspaper

Vedder stated in an interview at the time that he wanted to give more importance to Jeremy’s story rather than get praised for what truly was an incredible song. He wanted to declare that suicide is not the answer. In fact, his point was that nothing changes once you kill yourself.

A newspaper clipping on Jeremy’s death / A photo of Vedder speaking on stage.
Source: Pinterest / YouTube

“It came from a small paragraph in a paper,” Vedder shared, “which means you kill yourself and you make a big old sacrifice and try to get your revenge. That all you’re gonna end up with is a paragraph in a newspaper.”

The Best Revenge

In the infamous music video, which came out a year after the single debuted, the story goes on to do just that – show that nothing changes. Vedder explained: “Sixty-four degrees and cloudy in a suburban neighborhood. That’s the beginning of the video and that’s the same thing in the end; it does nothing… nothing changes.”

A still from Pearl Jam’s music video / Vedder performs on stage.
Source: YouTube / Photo by Mick Hutson, Redferns, Getty Images

“The world goes on and you’re gone,” he added. Depressing? Very much so. But Vedder had a message to relay: “The best revenge is to live on and prove yourself. Be stronger than those people. And then you can come back.”

He Was a Son, a Brother, a Grandson

Vedder believed that the tragic outcome of Jeremy’s actions that January day was in vain. But what about Jeremy’s family? What did they have to say about it? As recently as 2018, Jeremy’s mother, Wanda Crane, decided to finally speak out.

A dated image of Jeremy playing in his bedroom.
Source: WFFA

After all these years and all the controversy surrounding the song about her son, she made a statement. “That day that he died did not define his life,” Crane declared to ABC WFAA. “He was a son, a brother, a nephew, a cousin, a grandson. He was a friend. He was talented.”

A Moment of Shock and Dismay

Wanda reflected on the moment she first learned about her son’s death. “I was in my office at work. I didn’t believe it. I was in shock. Not my son. I was going to pick him up that afternoon at school.” Jeremy’s death and the coverage it got didn’t show the person he really was.

Wanda speaks during an interview.
Source: WFFA

“At home drawing pictures
Of mountain tops.”

Thanks to Wanda, we now know that Jeremy was a budding artist (and if you watch the video again, you’ll see that it alludes to this). “He won first prize at the Texas State Fair,” Wanda said of her son.

As the Students Huddled in the Back

“He won best of shows, and this was all before he was 12 years old.” Wanda still has her son’s paintings hanging up around her house; one of them is a drawing of an elephant that her son was awarded for at the age of seven.

An image of Jeremy’s paintings.
Source: WFFA

“Jeremy spoke in class today
Jeremy spoke in class today.”

Jeremy’s former classmate, Brittany King, also commented on the incident. Brittany was actually present in the classroom when Jeremy shot himself. “Shock and fear went into my mind,” she recalled of that moment. “All the students kinda ran into the back of the room and huddled.”

“You Don’t Know. You Weren’t There.”

“Try to forget this (try to forget this)
Try to erase this (try to erase this)
From the blackboard.”

Brittany was 16 years old, and the incident was a “big wake-up call.” She realized that “life is not all hunky-dory all the time. Real things, tragedies happen. It made me grow up pretty quick, literally overnight.”

Brittany shows a photo of herself at the time.
Source: WFFA

What does she think of Pearl Jam’s musical tribute? She’s not a fan. “I was angry at them for writing that song. I thought, you don’t know. You weren’t there. That story isn’t accurate.” Perhaps she wasn’t aware of Brian, Vedder’s other inspiration. As for Wanda, she didn’t comment on the song.

In the Wake of a New Era

In 1991, in the wake of the new grunge movement, Pearl Jam hit superstardom. The band came out of the ashes of another Seattle band, Mother Love Bone, which came to a tragic end of its own as singer Andrew Wood died before their first album was ever released.

A dated portrait of Pearl Jam.
Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns/Getty Images

At the time, Vedder was a blue-collar worker and nomad surfer who decided to join the band after composing melodies and lyrics for a demo tape created by the surviving members of the group.

Trauma, Abuse, and a Rock Opera Named Ten

The result was a rock opera of sorts, one that told the story of a young man who discovered he was lied to about the identity of his true father, who was dying from a terminal illness. Most of these songs made it onto Pearl Jam’s first album, Ten.

A picture of Vedder performing on stage.
Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns/Getty Images

Among the themes of trauma, alienation, abuse, and broken relationships was Jeremy. While the lyrics belong to Vedder, the instrumental composition was Jeff Ament’s. The song’s intro was played on a 12-stringed bass and Ament used a unique use of bass harmonics (a technique popularized in the late 70’s by legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius).

All He Needed Was His Bass…

The music for Jeremy was actually written before Pearl Jam went on tour in support of Alice in Chains in February 1991, a month after Jeremy’s death. Ament revealed that he already had two pieces of music that he had written on acoustic guitar.

An image of Ament performing on stage.
Photo by Alison S. Braun/CORBIS/Getty Images

He was planning to play them on a Hamer 12-string bass that he had ordered. When the bass arrived, the piece became Jeremy. He said that when they recorded it the second time, they added a cello. For Ament, the track “never sounded good on guitar or bass.”

And a Cello Player

It’s the reason the band decided to bring in a cello player. The cello player, Walter Gray, “inspired a background vocal, and those things made the song really happen.” Ament shared how it was a “big-time production, for us.”

A photo of Eddie Vedder on stage.
Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

They “knew it was a good song,” he stated, “but it was tough getting it to feel right.” He explained how “the tune went from practically not making it on the record to being one of the best takes.” After the track was finished, it took a year for the music video to be released and make waves on MTV.

The Legendary Music Video

“3:30 in the afternoon.
An affluent suburb.
64 degrees and cloudy.”

The music video (which couldn’t BE more ‘90s) begins with stills of seemingly random text about the suburbs – the weather.

A still from the music video.
Source: YouTube

The video tells the fictionalized story of Jeremy, his family’s pain and the struggles he experiences at school. The words “peer,” “bored,” “ignored,” and “harmless” pop up. The character of Jeremy was played by a 12-year-old named Trevor Wilson (whose story became a tragedy of its own, but we’ll get to that later…).

The Uncut Video

If you watch the video now, you’ll see the uncut version. But back in the early ‘90s, the video had to be censored. And it’s obvious why. In the uncut version’s climactic final scene, we see Jeremy walk into his classroom, toss an apple to his teacher, and put the barrel of a pistol into his mouth.

A photo of Vedder behind the scenes of the music video.
Source: YouTube

Afterward, the same intro text repeats across the screen – the time, the suburb, the weather. We then see students in their chairs, recoiled in horror, with blood spattered on them.

The Censored Version

Due to the rules against portraying graphic imagery, MTV was forced to censor the scene with the gun. In other words, viewers (including us) only saw the image of the blood-covered classmates.

A still from the music video.
Source: YouTube

While such an image is still gruesome, it didn’t break any rules. But why all the controversy and confusion over the edited version? Well, without seeing when Jeremy shoots himself, the audience assumed that he shot his classmates.

There Was Going to Be an Amateur Music Video for Jeremy

There’s a story behind the making of the video, too. Photographer Chris Cuffaro had initially approached Vedder about making a music video – any video – and was given permission by Epic Records to use any song from Pearl Jam’s album Ten.

A portrait of Chris Cuffaro.
Chris Cuffaro. Photo by Lucianna Faraone Coccia/WireImage/Getty Images

Cuffaro chose Jeremy. But there was a catch – Cuffaro had to fund it as Epic Records wasn’t going to. So, the photographer sold half his guitar collection and had to borrow money from his friends for the $20,000 budget the video needed.

Scrap That – We Want a “Polished” Version

As the video was being produced and edited, Pearl Jam’s popularity was skyrocketing. By the time the video was done being edited, Epic Records shelved the project – they chose to fund a “more polished” production with a known music video director, Mark Pellington.

A still of Pearl Jam’s live performance.
Source: YouTube

Poor Cuffaro. He had gone through the immense trouble of raising all that money. He also filmed several scenes with a young actor named Eric Schubert, who played the part of Jeremy. The scenes with the band were filmed in a warehouse in LA, and Vedder was featured with black gaffer’s tape around his arms.

Listen – Actually Listen – to the Lyrics

The new music video budget grew to $400,000, but Mark Pellington wasn’t interested in making the video, at first. By then, he had made videos for ‘90s megastars like U2, Public Enemy, and De La Soul. Pellington later admitted that he didn’t want to make the video for Jeremy because he wasn’t a Pearl Jam fan.

Vedder is in a still from the music video.
Source: YouTube

He said he didn’t feel drawn to the lyrics, so he passed on the opportunity. Then Pellington’s producer urged him to actually listen to the lyrics. So, Pellington locked himself into a room and listened to Jeremy on repeat.

Vedder’s Possessed Look

Pellington then spoke to Vedder about the song’s meaning, which led to an “Aha!” moment for the director. He agreed to do the project. Unlike the original Cuffaro cut, which focused on each band member playing their instruments with only minor spotlights on Jeremy, Pellington did a 180.

A close-up on Vedder’s look in the music video.
Source: YouTube

His video hardly shows the band at all. He opted to home in almost entirely on Jeremy and his story. Vedder and his intense performance was the sideshow to Jeremy’s dark tale. During filming, Pellington described Vedder’s shots as having a “possessed look” (and I couldn’t agree more).

Of All Time

The official Jeremy video dominated the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards, winning four awards: Video of the Year, Best Group Video, Best Metal/Hard Rock Video, and Best Direction. The song also took home two Grammys for Best Rock Song and Best Hard Rock Performance.

Jeff Ament holds a microphone during an MTV Video Music Awards interview.
Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

The song and video’s praise reached far beyond the mid-‘90s. It’s one of MTV’s 100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made and Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Pop Songs. The uncensored version of Jeremy was eventually remastered in HD and released on Pearl Jam’s YouTube channel in June of 2020 in honor of National Gun Violence Awareness Day.

The 1996 School Shooting

To this day, the video is listed as one of the most controversial music videos of all time. Part of the enduring controversy has to do with the tragedies surrounding the video. One of them is the school shooting that occurred in 1996, when many placed the blame on the Jeremy music video. 14-year-old Barry Loukaitis opened fire in class, taking the lives of three students at his middle school.

A current image of Barry Loukaitis in court.
Barry Loukaitis. Source: YouTube

Loukaitis ended up pleading insanity. His attorney claimed that the Jeremy video incited the mayhem. That meant that jurors watched the video over and over again in order to determine whether or not the defense was credible.

The Storm Surrounding the Music Video

Loukaitis was ultimately convicted of multiple murders and 16 counts of aggravated kidnapping (he held his algebra class hostage). He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences as well as 205 years without a possibility for parole. (In 2017, it was reduced to 189 years).

A dated photo of Loukaitis in court.
Source: YouTube

This wasn’t the only storm that surrounded the video. After singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel told Jeff Ament that the Jeremy video “sucked” and that it “ruined [his] vision of the song,” Ament told Vedder that he wanted Pearl Jam to be remembered for their songs rather than their videos.

A Six-Year Hiatus

Subsequently, the band decided to take a break from making music videos to accompany their hit singles. They stopped making videos for six years. Director Pellington later gave his two cents…

A picture of Vedder on stage during a rehearsal.
Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

“I think Pearl Jam was very, very upset that this piece about an alienated kid who [took his own life] was taken to be this glorified piece about a guy who shoots his classmates,” Pellington mused. Speaking of an alienated kid, there is a fascinating story about the boy who played Jeremy, Trevor Wilson.

The Boy Who Played Jeremy

Ironically, when it came time to cast Jeremy, Trevor Wilson was sick on the day of the auditions. Nonetheless, he went up against hundreds of child actors and was chosen for the role. He blew away Pellington with his audition tape.

Trevor Wilson is in a still from the music video.
Source: YouTube

Pellington had told Wilson to just “look at the camera and don’t say anything” – to ignore everything that was happening around him. During filming, the 12-year-old was described as “unusually mature” for an inexperienced first-time actor. As Pellington noted, Wilson was “100% there.”

His One and Only Role

Wilson’s part in the video was his one and only role. He eventually slipped out of the public eye and became a one-hit-wonder of sorts, with his final public appearance being at the 1993 MTV VMAs. He appeared on stage that night during the award acceptance and did a post-show interview with the band.

A still from the music video.
Source: YouTube

His mother, Diane Wilson, an organic cook to celebrities like Michelle Pfeiffer and Ridley Scott, shared that her son didn’t like all the newfound attention after the video hit the mainstream. He stopped going to auditions and “decided he wanted to just be a kid.”

He Suffered His Own Tragic Death

Wilson didn’t want a life of fame. He turned his back on all the fan mail and “offers” from his female admirers as well as potential acting gigs. After hating his 5 minutes and 33 seconds of fame, the grown-up Wilson decided to work for the United Nations in the Middle East.

A portrait of Trevor Wilson.
Trevor Wilson. Source: Pinterest

But he was given free Pearl Jam concert tickets for the rest of his life, which was cut short in 2016. At the age of 36, almost 24 years to the day that the Jeremy video dropped (it debuted on MTV August 1, 1992), Wilson suffered his own tragic death.

Another Layer in Jeremy’s Saga

Adding yet another layer to the saga of Jeremy, the boy who played him died unexpectedly in a drowning accident while in Puerto Rico. Wilson had been swimming alone during a vacation in August 2016. On the video’s 25th anniversary, Billboard spoke to Wilson’s family and the video’s creators about the kid’s life.

A still of Vedder in the music video.
Source: YouTube

Cinematographer Tom Richmond remembers sitting with Pellington in his home, watching endless audition tapes of kids from New York wishing to play the anti-hero in the Jeremy video. But all the 200-odd child actors were too “typecasty.”

Dazed and Numb

All the kids were, as Richmond put it, “odd-looking and over-acting.” He explained how while Pellington couldn’t really articulate what he was looking for, “he knew he wasn’t looking for that.” As soon as Wilson’s audition popped up, the director and cinematographer looked at each other and shouted out, “That’s him!”

Tom Richmond speaks at the microphone.
Tom Richmond. Photo by Jemal Countess/WireImage/Getty Images

Pellington, then 30, was looking at this kid who was “kind of dazed and numb and f***ed up. I found out later that he was sick.” The director recalled, “He was not like everyone else. He had something wrong with him.”

Getting Into Character

Wilson’s dad, Jim Wilson, saw an ad for the casting call in the back pages of Billboard. He was the one who brought his sick son to the auditions that day. Sitting in the hallway, Jim heard someone say, “He has to have a good scream.”

Wilson is in a still from the music video.
Source: YouTube

So, he pinched his son’s leg until Wilson squealed, you know, to get him into character. He also told his son about Jeremy’s story to get him in the right frame of mind. The end result was Richmond and Pellington saying, “This kid is real.”

It Was (Almost) Weird

The 12-year-old was “like an old pro, it was almost weird,” Richmond shared. It turns out Wilson already had a taste of what fame was. His mother, a chef to the stars, put her son in the world-renowned Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute on the weekends.

A close-up on Wilson in a still from the video.
Source: YouTube

Wilson would get shuttled in a limo from classes at a Waldorf School in Manhattan to her own gigs so they could hang out until she finished work late in the evening. 1986’s Stand by Me is what got Wilson interested in acting.

A Very Big Deal

Wilson suffered from asthma, and, according to Diane, his chronic illness likely played a part in how her son looked and felt during the audition. “If I’d been home, I doubt I would have let him do that video. With the gun and all that,” she stated.

A picture of Trevor Wilson at the time.
Trevor Wilson. Source: Pinterest

After the video wrapped, neither Wilson nor his parents had any idea as to what would soon happen. But Diane’s friend, a celebrity stylist, told her that it was a really big deal. By the time the video debuted, the Wilsons had moved from NYC to LA and Wilson started going to Beverly Hills High School, where all the celebs’ kids were going.

Too Much Unwanted Attention

Soon enough, he started getting fan mail, and he even went on a radio talk show (the one with Dr. Drew Pinsky). Jim recalled how women were calling in and saying they’d like to put his pre-teen son to bed… “After a few months of that attention, he kind of turned away.”

Vedder is in a still from the music video.
Source: YouTube

As soon as the video became a hit, the slim, sensitive, 120-pound boy was getting recognized everywhere he went. It proved to be the last thing he had anticipated or wanted. He decided to give up on the idea of acting; it wasn’t for him.

“Hey Everybody, This Is Trevor”

The last night he was seen on TV was at the MTV VMAs, and Vedder gave him an interesting intro… “Hey everybody, this is Trevor, he lives,” the singer said with a smile as he lifted the kid’s hand and patted his little video star on the head.

Vedder speaks on stage at the MTV Music Video Awards.
Photo by Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect/Getty Images

Wilson, in his baggy jeans and baggy blue T-shirt, grinned and took in the surreal moment, right there on stage with the biggest artists of the era. It turns out, the band was also trying to deal with the absurdity of it all.

The Real S***

“The real s**t is if it weren’t for music, I think I would have shot myself in the front of the classroom. It really is what kept me alive,” Vedder said in his acceptance speech. He then handed the silver moon man trophy to Wilson as they left the stage.

A photo of Vedder speaking at the microphone.
Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Backstage, in an interview with not only Pearl Jam, but other acts like Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks, Wilson managed to remain cool, calm, and collected. It wasn’t easy for Jim to talk about his late son. Diane, too, had a hard time as a mom who still surrounds herself with her son’s poetry, writings and books.

The Band Kept Their Promise

When he reached his thirties, Wilson no longer looked like the kid in the Pearl Jam video, and luckily for him, people hardly recognized him anymore. But he still kept some of the perks, like those lifetime Pearl Jam tickets.

Eddie Vedder attends an event.
Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Every time they came to New York, Wilson had free backstage tickets and could hang out with the guys if time allowed; it was a promise the band kept until his death. “They’ve always been so nice to us, and even when Trevor didn’t ask in a timely fashion [for tickets], they would accommodate him,” Diane asserted.

His Last Conversation With His Mom

In the summer of 2016, Wilson wanted to relax in between his postings (with the UN), so he went to Puerto Rico. 10 minutes before he headed down to the popular Ocean Park beach in the capital of San Juan, he and his mom spoke on the phone. His mom’s go-to IT guy, she asked him what to do about her computer hard drive that melted down.

An image of Ocean Park Beach.
Photo by Jose Jimenez/Getty Images

In their last conversation, he said, “I’m going in for a swim and then I’ll try to meet up with [his cousin] for dinner.” But that meet-up never happened. His cousin couldn’t get in touch with him – Wilson wasn’t answering.

He Tried to Save Him

The waters in the area are known for some dangerous riptides, but, apparently, Wilson had gained confidence and felt he could swim there, despite the reported drownings. August 3, 2016 was Trevor Wilson’s last day alive.

A photo of the sea making waves.
Photo by Dave MacVean/Getty Images

A man was on the beach at the time with his two children, and he reported seeing Wilson’s pink and orange bathing suit shorts bobbing in the water. A lifeguard in training, he swam out to save him. He worked tirelessly to get a heartbeat, but once the paramedics came, it was too late.

The News Didn’t Even Reach America

Ironically, the boy who was once recognized on the street didn’t even get a newspaper paragraph – like Jeremy Delle did – when he died. There was a curious lack of reporting on his death in the local or international press, despite his semi-celebrity status.

A portrait of Jeremy Delle.

News of his drowning didn’t even make it to the States. Pellington, however, mentioned the drowning during a Jeremy-related interview on the Celebration Rock podcast in March of the following year. According to Jim, who by then was estranged from Diane, she didn’t even tell him about their son’s passing for about a month.

A Deep Depression

Naturally, both parents fell into a deep depression. Jim eventually started going to grief counseling workshops. He hadn’t watched the Jeremy video for years until his granddaughter brought it up on her iPad the year after Wilson passed.

A video still of Wilson standing before fire flames.
Source: YouTube

“It just shocked me, realizing that he’s gone,” Jim said. Diane spoke to Pellington and discussed Trevor’s poetry. The director apparently told her that Vedder was interested in maybe writing a song based on one of his poems someday. After his conversation with Diane, Pellington reached out to the band.

Too Soon?

Vedder responded to him immediately, asking for Diane’s number. Pellington said to Vedder, “If you ever want to make something or do a song or try to honor him in some way, I’m in.” For Vedder, who “grew up in the ocean as a surfer,” Wilson’s passing really resonated with him.

Vedder speaks on stage.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame/Getty Images

Will a song be made in honor of Trevor Wilson? Only time will tell. As of 2021, Diane has yet to collaborate with Vedder on creating a song in her son’s memory. Perhaps it’s too soon.