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Band of Brothers: Pearl Jam Marches On

by Tim Donnelly on December 26, 2016
With the news that Pearl Jam will enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, here's a look back at our 2006 cover story on the band as they readied their self-titled record. 

"The Star-Spangled Banner"

The house lights in Washington D.C.‘s MCI Center have been on for almost 15 minutes when Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament takes a seat at the foot of drummer Matt Cameron’s kit and cracks open three beers for himself, Cameron and guitarist Stone Gossard.

With beers in hand, sweat dripping, they stare at guitarist Mike McCready, who is finishing his solo on the band’s seminal show-closer, “Yellow Ledbetter.”

Meanwhile, Eddie Vedder is offstage, taking a drag off a smoke, swigging from his bottle of wine, looking out at the crowd. McCready holds the last note for a second or three. Then, with his eyes closed, his right hand strikes the opening riff of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The audience of 20,000 is shocked into a “Holy shit, this is going to be a special moment” awareness. People stop dead in their tracks on the exit stairs. Even the doughy, cantankerous front row security guards are drawn in.

McCready, one of the most underrated yet copied guitarists of the modern-rock era, is taking on one of the most listened-to songs in the world. It’s a move that could be audacious – or misconstrued. Capping a show during a week in which the war in Iraq raged on, McCready’s improvisational “Star-Spangled Banner” reclaimed the majesty of the anthem for the people. Fans in the crowd openly wept.

Vedder and his friend, political punk-rock governor Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi, The Evens) peer out from side stage at the crowd, which is now fully involved as one. Ament, Cameron and Gossard put down their beers to applaud McCready home to the anthemic, uproarious ending. The entire band then joins a happily dazed McCready at center stage for one last, triumphant bow.

“It’s a piece of music I felt that I wanted to do. It’s not something that belongs to Republicans or Democrats. Or anything,” says McCready in New Jersey on June 3rd, when we sat down to talk. “I’m doing it because I can. And I want to do it.”

McCready’s love of fellow Seattleite Jimi Hendrix’s version at Woodstock was just as engrained in him as saluting the flag in school. He would practice for hours in the mirror, trying to copy his idol’s style.

“That’s the version that really means something and touches my soul,” McCready admits. “As a little kid, I was conditioned to salute the flag from kindergarten on. When I do it [now], I go someplace different and I’m kinda shaking afterwards. Something happened that night [in D.C.], and I don’t know what it was. The more I do it, the more it’s happening. The less I think about it, the more I can freely let it come.”

"Inside Job" 

It’s said that religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell and spirituality is for people who have gone there and lived to tell. If that’s the case, then Mike McCready is a humble spirit living in the material world.

He’s endured a serious entanglement with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that causes swelling in the intestines. It is one of the most painful ailments the body can endure and it can strike without warning. He’s stopped smoking in the past year and now is in full freak-out mode aerobically on stage. But it took work, inside and out.

“When I start complaining about my situation, I have to know that people are in far more painful situations than I am. They are stronger than I am in many situations, like a fifteen-year-old kid in a wheelchair.”

The emotional track “Inside Job,” from Pearl Jam, is the first song to which McCready has penned lyrics.

“‘Inside Job’ was searching for some type of spiritual solution. To be able to write that song and then have everyone in the band want to do it was fucking awesome,” he relates.

But first he had to give it to Vedder. Despite their longtime friendship, McCready was nervous that Ed wouldn’t approve. “I was nervous because I had written the lyrics out, knowing that he had a lot of shit on his plate,” he laughs. “It was like I gave him a full dinner, another extra course.”

McCready then did something he rarely does. He sang to Vedder. “It was pretty nerve wracking,” he confesses. “But he was into it. It was cathartic to actually put some lyrics down and not feel self-conscious or embarrassed by it.”

Today, he knows that whether he’ll have a good or bad day is dependent on him and part of ensuring a good day is by helping someone. “It’s important that these issues are talked about. These are very embarrassing issues for someone who is 15 years or 40, when you shit yourself. And it really fucking hurts right before it! And it gets worse than that,” he says candidly.

“If my coming out and talking about it helps anybody, then it’s all in a day, even more so than the band. It’s more important.” “I think we have an example of a musician who exorcises some demons on a nightly basis,” says Vedder. “In a way, it allows anyone who attends the performance to do the same. He’s channeling things that are positive and he’s channeling things that are negative. It’s fairly deep what he’s doing, considering his back story and what he has overcome.”

Jeff Ament, who has shared a side of the stage with McCready since the beginning, marvels at McCready’s complete transformation. “A lot of it was us not giving up on him. We knew what a special talent he was and what a great person he was. It’s amazing how much further he has taken it, beyond getting sober, beyond dealing with Crohn’s. He’s totally gone beyond all that stuff,” says Ament. “He’s a big part of why it’s a totally different band: It’s because he is 100% there and has been for the last couple of records for the first time. There is a complete connection in the band now. All the time.”
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