Rock stars and myths go hand-in-hand. This is especially true when it comes to how they name their bands. Led Zepplin misspelled “lead,” because they feared Americans would mispronounce it. Velvet Underground’s name came from a porn mag one of its members found in the gutter. The Pixies supposedly flipped to a random page in the dictionary.
Back in 1991, when Pearl Jam was on the cusp of dominating rock, Eddie Vedder gave an interview to Rolling Stone wherein he laid the foundations for a little rock’n’roll myth — or a helping of total bullshit if you’re more jaded — about how the band got their name. In the nearly 30 years since, the band’s name has been debated by fans, refuted, and mythologized into something it most likely is not.
Still, as John Ford once sagely surmised about Americana, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
This all started with Eddie Vedder being a young daredevil in Seattle, back in ’91. While he was in the midst of an interview with Rolling Stone writer Kim Neely, the Cheshire cat-like Vedder began showing signs of his nascent disregard for gravity and famously — and maybe a little foolishly — mused about climbing through the barriers on the Seattle Space Needle to walk out on a beam and steal a single lightbulb.
Luckily (for all parties), Vedder thought better of this move. He and Neely moved on. Once back on the ground, the conversation invariably turned to how the then one-year-old band came up with its name.
“Great-grandpa was an Indian and totally into hallucinogenics and peyote,” Vedder told Neely in ’91. “Great-grandma, Pearl, used to make this hallucinogenic preserve that there’s total stories about. We don’t have the recipe, though.”
Before we dive down the rabbit hole of whether this is true or not, let’s get a little context. Vedder was 27-year-old kid thrust into the limelight of rock’n’roll. There was no access to the internet, no smartphones, just your own special brand of horseshit you passed off to get a rise out of rock journos or to make yourself sound that little bit cooler… probably because you thought it was funny. Cobain used to claim he lived under a bridge even though there’s no proof of that ever happening. It was simply a thing he said that helped bolster the myth of “Kurdt.”
I have to note here that this was a different time. A time when call-out culture was barely a speck on the distant horizon. So let’s not waste space with retroactively scolding 20-year-olds on the shit they made up to sound cool in the early ’90s just to make ourselves sound cool in the late 2010s. Still, over the years there’s been a lot of speculation as to whether Vedder’s peyote jam recipe actually held any water.
The myth seems to have been busted entirely by fellow band member Jeff Ament in another Rolling Stone interview with Brian Hiatt back in 2006. The band was seemingly making their first big comeback and were pretty candid about where they were as people after 15 years of rock stardom. Hiatt writes, “His great-grandma really was named Pearl. The rest is, indeed, ‘total bullshit.'”
Vedder had seemingly recanted the old story much to the relief of his fellow bandmates. Hiatt goes on the report that Ament came up with ‘pearl’ while the band was brainstorming names in Seattle. Then on their way to sign with Epic Records in New York, Ament, Vedder, and Stone Gossard went to a Neil Young show. Young jammed out nine songs in three hours. After that Neil Young concert, ‘jam’ was added to ‘pearl.’ And that’s that.
To be honest, I prefer the legend.