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The Battle of the Band

For Stone Gossard and the other members of Pearl Jam, being politically active is just part of being a rock star.
 
 
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The sellout crowd at the Sovereign Center erupted Friday night when Pearl Jam ripped into "Animal," the second song of their concert to kick off the Vote for Change tour in Reading, Pennsylvania. After rocking through the first few songs with the intensity the band has sustained for well over a decade, front man Eddie Vedder told the enthusiastic crowd, "If you're gonna participate in the vote as well as you participate in the singing, then we don't have to talk about politics at all."

But politics were hard to avoid. Sponsored by MoveOn Pac, the tour features 20 artists rallying to play 37 shows in 12 battleground states during the next two weeks. Proceeds will go to America Coming Together, a growing grassroots organization that has been registering voters and garnering support for progressive candidates.

In fact, the idea of "America coming together" was the recurrent theme throughout the evening. "This election and any election is not about hate and opposition, but finding a better way for all of us, and by all of us, I mean the whole earth!" Vedder declared after the band covered John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth," in which Vedder substituted "Georgie Porgie" for "Tricky Dicky." Vedder also paused to eulogize Johnny Ramone, a close friend despite being an ardent Republican.

Bi-partisanship was the perfect message to deliver to the slightly unusual crowd, which was also there to see indie-rock superstars Death Cab for Cutie. Of course, there were the college students, like a couple of fans from West Chester University, who agreed, "It's nice to see bands that are together on the same issue get out and play together." There were also some local concertgoers like Debbie Moyer, who stood out.

Moyer was a Nurse Administrator from nearby Auburn until recently, when she was forced to stop working in order to care for her mother-in-law and her daughter, who suffers from a muscular disorder, and had rested all week to come to the concert. Brought up in a Republican household, Moyer voted for Bush in 2000. But she disagreed with the President about the Iraq War, and has been horrified by the exorbitant cost of medications for her family and the paltry Social Security check she will soon receive. "I try to keep an open mind." Moyer said. "I'm a fan of Pearl Jam, and I'm really interested in what they have to say."

Prior to the show, Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard sat down with AlterNet to talk about the band's participation in politics, the confluence of art and activism, and what makes the band happy.

Zack Pelta-Heller: What are some of the goals that you hope to accomplish with your involvement in this tour?

Stone Gossard: My personal goal is to help John Kerry get elected. And I think that's probably almost universal within this group; we felt that by going out, and raising money for America Coming Together, that we were going to get people registered to vote, and we were going to raise awareness about the fact that maybe George Bush had had his shot at the presidency. We'd seen what we'd gotten with George Bush, and maybe it's time for something new. We're not going to say who it is (John Kerry), but we'll go out, and run it up the flagpole.

...Ralph [Nader] was proven wrong, in terms of 'There's no difference between the candidates.' I don't think we'd be in Iraq if Al Gore was president. I think we had signed on to the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty, we would have done a lot of things differently in terms of being engaged in the world community in a proactive, positive way that would inspire connectivity, inspire our allies to work with us in figuring out things like terrorism, global warming, environmental degradation, genocide in the Sudan, all of these issues. I just think that the world community would be much more likely to want to partner with us if they felt like we were respecting them and not sending troops to Iraq before we even had a coalition built.

As you're reaching out to voters, do you feel that they are becoming informed?

I don't know, I hope so. I think there's a lot of people out activating, and just really excited about being involved in the process right now. There's just a general, loose coalition of a lot of different groups all working to hopefully re-engage in the political process for good. Because you know, [if] John Kerry gets elected, John Kerry's got to do the right thing. He's got to be involved, he's got to have his ear to the ground, and he's got to live up to a lot. I hope he's inspired to take chances and to be courageous, and to motivate America in a positive direction. I hope the Democratic Party gets re-energized. I hope the Republican Party finds a new voice that they can be excited about because conservatives and liberals have to work it out. There's just no getting around it...

There has to be a bi-partisan appeal?

Yeah, I mean, that's where the real action is. Anyone in the Senate knows that the real business gets done when you can get an idea that resonates on both sides. We got to get some people in there who are inspiring people that think that way.

Have you or any other members of the band ever felt that you have compromised your music in order to promote a certain political agenda?

I think writing songs and playing music is one thing, and being active politically is another. I don't think they necessarily affect each other all that much. Every song is political, in some sense if you think about it in terms of...you're trying to say something. You're telling a story or describing a situation you think would have some meaning to somebody else. So, there's politics, I guess in everything we do, but I've never felt that any sacrifices I made at the altar of politics [have been] at the cost of the music...We should practice more though [laughs], we should continue to try to write great songs. And you never know when those songs are going to happen, but I don't think it has anything to do with politics.

Are you more inclined to be politically active as a celebrity in the public eye?

Well, I think individually, all of us have been – to some degree or another – involved in politics. Whether it's in our local communities or voting, but I think together as a band, we've grown to become more politically active, because I think that we've encouraged each other too. I think that there is a certain feeling that we have an opportunity to raise an issue that wouldn't be able to be raised by someone else. Or that we feel compassionate about something, or compelled to want to speak out. I think that having a certain amount of success with the band has given us a platform to do that.

By being more successful in a band, it's made us more confident in terms of trusting our own instincts and following our own feelings, and particularly, when we all agree about something...I mean this band does so much philanthropic stuff – individually the band members do and then as a band we do too – that it's really become just part of our everyday existence... So there's a lot of different groups that we are involved with, and I just see it growing more. I would love to give more money away every year, based on [the fact that] we have a bunch of money, and we continue to make money on the road, so I want to be even more sort of...

Involved?

Yeah, because it just has been nothing but a benefit because it makes people happy, it makes the band happy. It actually has been leading to more success and more connection with our fans, and people in our families and our communities. So, it's upside only.

Do you have any other political projects lined up before November 2?

No, but we're hoping that people are just involved right up to the day it goes down. I'm thinking about the people, the 50% of the people who don't vote. I just want people to get registered to vote. It's every couple of years, sort of like the one thing you do collectively, you know? And you can do all this stuff for yourself and your small community, but every four years...you just have to make one trip to participate. You got to participate.