If it wasn't for a disastrous, drunken show they performed as a favor to their friend Cameron Crowe, Pearl Jam wouldn't be the band they are today.
That was one of the lessons learned on Saturday afternoon at the Toronto International Film Festival — where "the hottest ticket at the festival," according to doc programmer Thom Powers, was to the premiere of a documentary about a rock 'n' roll band whose name does not include the letter U or the number 2.
Powers said the distinction belonged to "Pearl Jam Twenty," the Cameron Crowe-directed film that takes a 20-year emotional journey with the seminal Seattle band and its fans.
And an hour or so after the film premiered in front of a raucous audience at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Crowe and the members of Pearl Jam sat for a press conference in a nearby hotel – where the band members, who rarely speak to the media, said that "PJ20" showed them moments they'd forgotten about and provided a moving look at a band that has somehow managed to stay together and on track for two decades.
"Just trying to order pizza with five guys is hard to do," singer Eddie Vedder said, to big laughs. "To get five guys together and make music for this long is a miracle."
I moderated the panel, at which Crowe explained what he found fascinating about the band, with whom he's been friends since the mid-1980s.
"The story of Pearl Jam takes the usual rock story and turns it on its head," said Crowe. "Usually it starts out with a spark of brilliance, and then you have success, and tragedy cuts it short. Pearl Jam is tragedy surmounted, joy through survival."
Crowe and his three editors assembled the doc from hundreds of hours of concert film, home movies, backstage footage and interview segments – the Holy Grail of which, he said, was a widely-rumored but seldom-scene glimpse of Vedder and the late Kurt Cobain doing a brief but joyous slow dance together beneath the stage at the MTV Video Awards.
"The first time I saw that footage it was incredibly emotional," said Vedder, who explained that Cobain put his finger to his lips at the end of the dance, as if to shush Vedder, because they were beneath the stage where Eric Clapton was performing his ballad "Tears in Heaven."
"If he just could have pulled through," said Vedder wistfully of the Seattle icon with whom Pearl Jam had an occasionally contentious and occasionally friendly relationship. "It's a galvanizing moment, and something like that doesn't happen very often."
One of the key sequences in the movie, and one of the funniest of the press conference, had to do with a promotional party the band played for the 1991 release of Crowe's movie "Singles," in which the band appeared and which came out around the time that the Seattle music scene was having its commercial breakthrough.
Crowe begged the band to play the private release party in Los Angeles, which was to be filmed by MTV to give the film a commercial boost on its release. The request, he said, made him more uncomfortable than anything he'd ever asked the band to do – and Pearl Jam responded by agreeing to play the show, but then by getting drunk before going onstage.
The resulting show included Vedder repeatedly screaming "F— MTV!" as he staggered about the stage, ripping down draperies and berating the assembled movie execs and guests. It was, the film says, "the birth of the no" – the point when Pearl Jam decided it was okay to stop doing everything that businesspeople wanted them to do.
I learned about that no firsthand: At the time of the "Singles" party, I'd just been assigned a Rolling Stone cover story on the band. I was in the audience watching the entire debacle – and within a day or two of the show, I got a phone call from my editor telling me that the band was canceling the story: they'd decided they didn't want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone after all.
(They did make the cover before too long, in a story written by … Cameron Crowe.)
"Over the years, we talked about everything," said Crowe at the press conference. "But we never talked about the 'Singles' party. I'm sure the band was thrilled when I asked them about it when we were doing interviews for this movie: 'Oh, now you finally bring it up, with the cameras rolling.'"
"Actually, I think we owe you an apology," Stone Gossard said to Crowe. "I figured you'd just say, 'those guy are such assholes,' and never want to have anything to do with us again."
Also at the press conference, Vedder talked passionately about his distaste for celebrity culture ("I don’t know how people do it these days – the paparazzi and all is something I can't even f—ing imagine for a second") and about his sense of wonder over the longevity the band has achieved, and the band it has formed with its audience.
"It's just music," he said. "To have it turn into this other thing, a monument, is something."
I asked him if in a way, that wasn't always the point – to move beyond making "just music," to something deeper.
"Yeah," he said, "but it's like catching a butterfly. You can't grab it too hard."
(Vedder photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images; Crowe photo by Sharon Waxman)