Interviewing Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard (Final Update)

Posted: September 6, 2011 in Other Key Interviews

It was the spring of 2009.  I was three years into researching for what would become The Strangest Tribe.  I had completed most of my interviews, but I still had a few folks on my wish list.  Given that I knew virtually no one when I started this process and had few connections, I realized I had gotten about as far as I was going to go.

The population of potential interviewees presents itself like a pyramid.  The more prominent the person, the higher up they sit, and thus the harder they are to access.  By 2009, I had penetrated all but the very top of the interviewee pyramid.  Fortunately, it really didn’t matter that much, since my book focuses on the time before people became famous.  And I had already pretty much covered every band from the inception of Seattle’s punk rock scene until grunge’s detonation.  Furthermore, at that point I had chatted with some pretty prominent people, like producers Jack Endino and Steve Fisk, Chad Channing of Nirvana, and photographer Charles Peterson.

Pearl Jam still intrigued me, though, not because of the band’s celebrity, but because four of its members trace their roots deep into Seattle’s underground music community.  Guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament played in Green River, arguably the original grunge band.  Matt Cameron drummed for Soundgarden, the first punk band to openly pay homage to its metal heroes, and Mike McCready played guitar for the metal band Shadow.

But Pearl Jam is a tough nut to crack.  Unless you have an “in” with a famous band like that, you’re not going to penetrate an organization’s outer shell.  And I had no “in.”  No connection to music press people, no connection to PJ’s management.  Zero.  Emails to their management company went unanswered, as did phone calls.  So I pretty much gave up.  That was until the spring of 2009.

I had planned one more research trip to Seattle, for the fall.  Then in June, I got an email from the Fags’ Ben Ireland.  I had previously interviewed him about the late ’70s/early ’80s Seattle punk scene.  Ben suggested I come out in July for a planned reunion show.  The Fags were a glam/psychedelic act, led by the legendary (and now deceased) Charles Gerra, better known as Upchuck.  Ben urged me to head to Seattle not only to see the Fags, but also because a number of old school punkers would certainly attend the show.  So, I moved my research trip up to July.

The gig was scheduled for Thursday evening, July 2, at a small venue in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood.  I showed up early and hung out at the bar.  As it got closer to show time, a number of said punkers began wandering in such as Dennis White, Lee Lumsden, Rob Morgan, John Conte, Chris Crass, James Burdyshaw–some of whom go back to the mid-’70s inception of Seattle’s punk rock scene.  I said hello to all of them, and waited for the show to start.

As I returned to the bar to enjoy a beer, Stone Gossard casually walked in and sat down.  The funny thing about Seattle–and I’ve seen this happen before–is that nobody gave a shit, at least not in a “Wow, Stone from Pearl Jam just walked in…let’s fawn over him!” kind of way.  People did go up and say hi, but only to chat with the “Stoney” they knew from the old days.  As I sat there sipping my beer, I thought, ‘Okay, here’s an opportunity that just fucking fell into my lap.’

Biding my time, I walked up to Stone and politely introduced myself as a history professor from Philly working on a book about Seattle music history.  I asked him if we could chat about his Green River days.  I made sure he understood that I did not want to bother him that evening, but rather hoping we could talk at another time.  Stone was totally gracious, and suggested I email him about doing an interview.  Since neither of us had a pen, I memorized his email address.  I then quietly walked back to the bar, grabbed a napkin and a pen from the bartender, and hurriedly copied down his address before it escaped my memory.  I felt like I was at a bar twenty years ago, writing down some girl’s phone number (and hoping it wasn’t a fake.)*

I then ordered up another beer and waited for the Fags to take the stage.  Ben Ireland sat behind the drums, and his sister Barbara picked up her bass.  The Irelands were joined by guitarist Dahny (pronounced “Danny”) Reed along with guest guitarist Mike Refuzor from the hardcore Refuzors.

The Fags with Refuzor rocked that night, but the entertainment did not end there.  Legendary Seattle front man Rob Morgan (Pudz/Squirrels) replaced Refuzor on stage to lead the band in a rousing rendition of the Stooges’ “Loose.” After we all bounced around to Iggy, Rob announced to the crowd that we had just witnessed the debut of the Spooges, a Stooges cover band.

I flew back to Philadelphia the next morning with a smile on my face.

The next day, I emailed Stone about an interview, fully expecting I would hear nothing back.  Along with my request, I sent him a list of everyone I had talked to up to that point.  Stone got back to me within an hour, suggesting we do a phone interview, and stating he would be honored to get on the list.  We tentatively scheduled our chat for the following Friday.  He asked me to email him that morning when he would know better about his daily schedule.  At the time, PJ was working on “The Fixer” single.

I sent him an email as instructed on Friday morning, and waited.  Nothing.  I sat in my attic office working on miscellaneous stuff for most of the day.  3 pm, 4 pm, 5 pm.  Still nothing.  Around 6, my daughter texted me to ask if I was coming down for dinner.

Unfortunately, I have a very low “I’m feeling sorry for myself” threshold, and I sat up there wallowing.  I texted her that I hadn’t heard from my PJ contact and was experiencing severe “woe is me-itis.”  She was super-sweet and reassured me.

About five minutes later the phone rang, and my daughter picked it up downstairs.  She came up the steps to the attic, handed me the phone and deadpanned, “There’s this Stone guy from Seattle on the phone for you.”

* – reminds me of a comedian who said he went into a bar and asked for a woman’s phone number.  She responded, “Four-five-six, seven-eight-nine-ten.”  He then inquired, “Is that in the one-two-three area code?”

******

Talking with a music scene participant decades after the fact is almost akin to a conversing with a combat veteran.  Understand that I’m not comparing levels of bravery or honor, but both individuals do experience trauma.  In the case of Seattle musicians, that trauma resulted from the deaths of close friends, as well as the inevitable fall-out from some bands playing Saturday Night Live while others remained in obscurity.  So it follows that some music scene veterans simply want to live in the present.  For others, recalling the past becomes therapeutic.  It helps people to better understand themselves by delving into their roots.  Stone Gossard fits into the latter category.

(I can also somewhat appreciate, based on my limited exposure to book-related interviews last fall, why some folks have an aversion to them: you get the same boring, inane questions asked repeatedly; you hear queries posed purely to stir controversy; you get misquoted; and sometimes even accurate quotes are taken out of context.)

I believe Stone agreed to talk with me, a relative unknown quantity from Pennsylvania, because I was in fact interested in his roots, not his celebrity status with Pearl Jam.  So we delved into those beginnings and left PJ off the table.

We chatted twice by phone, for a total of about an hour.  Mostly, we talked about Green River, Stone’s first real band, which was formed in 1984 by veterans of Seattle’s hardcore and noise scenes.  As has been documented many times, Green River essentially represented an unstable compound.  Half the band—basically Mark Arm and Steve Turner (who eventually formed Mudhoney)—wanted to remain true to their punk and pre-punk influences.  The other half, notably Stone and bassist Jeff Ament (which eventually led to Pearl Jam), became lured by arena rock stardom.

Grunge’s opening salvo, in my opinion, did not happen with Mudhoney’s 1988 single, “Touch Me I’m Sick,” (or certainly not with Nirvana’s 1991 “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), but rather with Green River’s “Come on Down,” the title track to their 1985 album.  (Now, you should turn away from reading this blog and find a copy of hype! [clips are available on Youtube.]  Skip to the part where Leighton Beezer plays a two chord progression on his guitar, and describes it as punk rock.  Then he plays another pair of chords and categorizes it as grunge.  He doesn’t say this in the film, but he told me the first progression mimics the Ramones; the second is the opening sequence from “Come on Down.”)

The chords comprising the Green River tune bear more than a passing resemblance to Black Sabbath.  That connection did not arise consciously, but Stone’s musical background certainly contributed to it.  “I think that I probably just tried to make a song that kind of was heavy as it could possibly be,” Stone comments, “So, if it sounded like Sabbath, great….So much of it was like visual for me in terms of like, you look at a guitar neck and go…‘Where’s a weird note to go to?’”

We chatted about Green River’s evolution from the underground toward a more mainstream-friendly sound, and about Steve Turner’s departure in 1985.  Stone admired Steve’s fierce artistic dedication, and his desire to keep the band from polishing its act too much.

In 1987, Green River called it a day, and Mark formed the snarling Mudhoney with Steve, Feast’s Dan Peters and the Melvins’ Matt Lukin.  Contemporaneously, Stone and Jeff created the big rock-sounding Mother Love Bone, with Malfunkshun’s singer Andrew Wood, and, eventually, Greg Gilmore on drums.

Andy remains a sensitive subject for those who knew him.  He passed away in 1990 as a result of a heroin overdose, just prior to the release of Apple, MLB’s first full-length record.  If you’ve ever seen the documentary Malfunkshun, you’ll realize Andy led a tortured life.  At the same time, he was incredibly funny, perhaps the most hysterical participant in a music scene filled with comedians.  I’ve heard glimpses of his humor from his friends (like, for example…and this one’s from the late Ben McMillan of Skin Yard…how Andy would sometimes play keyboard on stage with his feet.)

I could tell Stone was reluctant to delve too much into Andy, and I did not press the issue out of respect.  Andy is almost like Seattle’s Syd Barrett.  For those not aware, Barrett was the visionary behind early psychedelic Pink Floyd.  In the late ’60s, Barrett took an industrial dose of acid, and literally fried his brain.  He was never the same again, and shortly thereafter was kicked out of the band he founded.  In 1973, Floyd released the landmark Dark Side of the Moon and became superstars.  The band’s associative guilt at their massive success poignantly manifested itself two years later with the Barrett tribute “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.”

Similarly, Stone and Jeff Ament’s enormous celebrity with Pearl Jam would not have happened if Andy and Mother Love Bone survived.  MLB certainly would have enjoyed some mainstream stardom, but I can’t imagine that band would have attained the legendary status of PJ.  This is of course my own theory…feel free to savage it.

Perhaps one thing that really surprised me most was Stone’s appreciation of early Mudhoney.  He looks back on Green River as becoming too pompous, too obsessed with sounding like a big rock act.  “[Mudhoney] was the possibility that I ignored in Green River,” says Stone.  “That was an eye-opener for me and [it was] exciting to hear how Mark, Steve, and Danny and Lukin played together and [it was] so much more free and heavy and not as overly complex.  They were letting it all hang out.”

******

We also talked about Stone as a young music fan.  He was one of the few punk kids who ventured across Lake Washington to catch metal shows at the Lake Hills Roller Rink.  (Note, Mark Arm disputed my referring to Stone as a “punk kid.” He asserted that Stone was a mainstream rock/metal fan, and thus not a punk at all.  I disagree.  It’s a fine line, for sure, but even if Stone listened to more metal than punk, he did in fact go to U-Men shows, his band played the Ditto and Gorilla Gardens, and he hung with punk kids…so my unbiased non-ego driven ruling is “punk.”)  He was impressed at the technical prowess of those metal bands, as were others who went over there as fans, like writer Dawn Anderson and the members of Malfunkshun.

We also spent some time chatting about the U-Men, a band that has unfortunately been cast as “laying the basis for grunge” or “providing a bridge between the Seattle punk and grunge scenes.”  False.  No.  No.  NO!  The U-Men’s heyday certainly happened between the punk and grunge eras, but it does not follow that they laid the basis for bands like Soundgarden.  The true connection between the U-Men and the later heavier bands comes from the fact that the grunge kids went to every U-Men show.  The influence was there for sure, but saying the U-Men laid the basis for grunge is like saying the Young Fresh Fellows had a hand in it.  You’re reaching.

Stone, like others who would form Green River, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Nirvana, et al, became a huge fan of the U-Men.  In particular, singer John Bigley, who prowled the stage with his manic charisma, drew him in.  “Bigley…[had the] ability to get himself into a trance,” Stone recalls, “…he [was] having fits up there….[He] really raised the bar in terms of how possessed people are willing to be…[he] sort of went ballistic.”

We also talked about 10 Minute Warning, a band that could have been Pearl Jam if it had the inclination.  Unlike the U-Men, one could argue 10 Minute Warning helped create grunge as it was a hybrid band of punks that also drew influences from hard rock.  At one point, the band included Seattle mythical guitar legend Paul Solger, virtuoso drummer Greg Gilmore (later in Mother Love Bone), and bassist Duff McKagan (later cofounded Guns N Roses.)  Unfortunately, drugs and egos doomed the band’s prospects, not to mention Greg and Duff venturing to LA in 1984.  “You could tell,” says Stone, “[10 Minute Warning] was kind of bringing together these different sort of elements, that wasn’t just like, ‘Oh, I know what this is.  It sounds like heavy metal.  I know what this is.  It sounds like punk.’  It sounded like something brand new.”

I’ll finish up with a somewhat surprising observation Stone made to me almost in passing (and one I totally agree with.)  “That first Mudhoney record [the 1988 single “Touch Me I’m Sick”],” says Stone, “….That describes perfectly grunge.  I think in the long run Pearl Jam was lumped into grunge, but it was never really a grunge band.”

(Stone performs with BRAD at the World Cafe, Philly, in June.  From right: drummer Regan Hagar [Malfunkshun], bassist Keith Lowe, Stone.)

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Comments
  1. This was a most excellent article! Stone is my favorite Seattle icon–his history is very impressive. I’m glad you took the time to document your contact with him, it was very touching. I am also inspired to read your book for the second time!

    • Stephen Tow says:

      Thank you, Whitney. Like I said in the write-up, he was very cool and approachable…and I can understand why somebody like that would want some anonymity. I think, though, he has a genuine desire to connect with his roots, and thus why he granted an interview to an unknown professor from PA.

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