I guess we have to talk about this.
Sometimes you build up an image of a celebrity in your mind and then, in a single moment of lost control, they slap it to pieces. Since celebrity worship is literally the modern American religion (and don’t even bother arguing with me on that), a moment like this can be felt by the public as actual trauma. But, a little time has passed now, so I feel like this is a good opportunity to try to process it. Let’s watch the clip, walk through it moment by moment, and try to understand.
For those of you who’ve been living under a rock, I’m obviously talking about this infamous incident in which rock legend Eddie Vedder drunkenly makes the worst margarita of all time. WARNING: If you’ve never seen this video, it takes an abrupt, upsetting twist near the end.
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The clip is from a lockdown-era Zoom gathering, a livestreamed substitute for the canceled Ohana Music Festival in September of 2020. Eddie hosted it from his kitchen (or maybe it’s just the wet bar in his music room?) and immediately it’s clear that what Eddie is about to make is by no means his first drink of the day.
“In honor of my favorite group…” he slurs before pausing, smiling and briefly forgetting where he is, “well, one of them, but from Seattle for sure, my favorite group Mudhoney, this is gonna be my last margarita for the summer.” A bold proclamation to make on September 24, Eddie!
Into a plastic cup of ice he pours all of the tequila that remains in one bottle, finds another bottle that he believes also has some tequila in it and pours all that in, then finds a third bottle and says, “A little bit of this, whatever the fuck that is.” Finally, he grabs a bottle of Pineapple juice and says, “A little bit of this, to sweeten it up a bit” and dumps in about two cups’ worth. He drunkenly sings, “Suck… you dry…” as he grinds it all up in his Magic Bullet blender, then takes a sip directly from the blender cup:
“Whew! Jesus…” he exclaims. “It needs a little lime and I just went all through the place to find a lime and I don’t have any limes.” While saying this, he glances around as if he did, in fact, search his entire home for a lime, because he exists in a space in which no lime’s discovery, regardless of location, can ever be considered a surprise. He takes another drink and, in what I believe should be featured in future textbooks as an example of drunk logic, shakes his head and says, “It needs somethin’ green.” He hunts around and finds the only thing green in his Margarita Room:
A fucking jar of pickles.
Pleased with his good fortune, he enthusiastically slaps one down on the counter, looks around for something to cut it with, reaches down…
…and, without hesitation, confusion or comment, grabs a full-size ax:
Rock legend Eddie Vedder then proceeds to chop up the pickle with his ax in a way that suggests he has done it many times, then plops the entire chopped-up pickle into his margarita. He takes a drink, sounds like he is crunching one of the pickle chunks, and says, “It ain’t that bad!” before ending the segment by holding up the cup, saying, “Here’s to Mudhoney!” a band which, based on the context, he apparently hates.
Now, readers under a certain age might be a little confused. “From what I gather, this ‘Eddie Vedder’ gentleman appears to be a cross between Jimmy Buffett, The Dude from The Big Lebowski and Homer Simpson from the ‘Flaming Moe’ episode…”
“…that is, he just appears to be a chill old guy living his best life, refusing to let the troubles of the world spoil his ‘I define the beach as wherever I happen to be!’ vibe. I kind of wish he was my dad.” Unfortunately, explaining the significance that this video holds for someone like me requires a brief history lesson and a bitter preview of the cold, treacherous wilderness that is middle age. So, buckle the fuck up.
First, note that cultural trailblazers always get watered down with time, and here I mean “watered down” in the sense that the Grand Canyon is the result of granite getting “watered down.” That’s why some of you only know Dr. Dre as the Beats headphones guy instead of a gangsta rap pioneer, and it’s why when Robin Williams passed, the internet was full of, “Oh, no! Not Mrs Doubtfire!”
In the case of Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, we must briefly rewind to the mid-1980s, when rock music had seized on all of the satirical tropes from This is Spinal Tap and turned them up to 11. Sorry, I need a moment to reflect on the fact that the “This goes to 11!” joke is nearly 40 years old, so for today’s kids it’s the equivalent of the ancient WW2-era Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched as a child in elementary school. Huh.
Anyway, that was the state of rock when I was a kid.
The music was shallow, stupid, sexist and theatrical to the point of absurdity. Then, in the early 90s, a pack of bands from the dreary Northwestern USA blasted onto the scene in a cloud of flannel and unwashed hair. The music was honest, stripped-down and emotionally raw. Mindless lyrics about partying with underage groupies were replaced with heart-wrenching tales of abuse, depression and longing. They were the proverbial ax to the glam metal scene’s pickle.
The most celebrated of these groups was Nirvana but the most commercially successful was Eddie Vedder’s Pearl Jam. Vedder was thus plastered on the cover of TIME magazine as the face of the movement:
“‘All the Rage?’ Is that supposed to be some kind of ironic joke?” says my hypothetical young reader. “The Eddie I just saw looks about as angry as a heavily sedated capybara.” But the younger version of the grinning, middle-aged sentient pickle margarita you saw earlier once hit the scene with a voice that seared itself into the zeigeist like a fucking branding iron, combining thunderous arena rock with lyrics that displayed his innermost trauma like a vivisected animal pinned to a dissecting table. Pearl Jam’s first album arrived when I was 17 and some of these songs hit me so hard that I couldn’t listen to them. I couldn’t handle it. There’s no joke here; I emotionally couldn’t make it through some of these tracks without finding it hard to breathe.
This man took all of my most closely-guarded self-loathing, dragged it out into the light and set it to music so haunting and piercing that I couldn’t believe it existed. It felt illegal. No artist has touched me that way before or since. “This man,” I said tearfully to my disapproving parents, “wants no part of your artificial, shallow, picklerita world.”
On stage, he glowered and trembled, seemingly struggling to hold his fragile sanity together. In interviews, he brooded and mumbled, hinting at his dark past and how music was his escape. “Some day,” I said in awe, “I hope they make a Batman like this.”
But there was always this hint of negativity behind the scenes, the other Seattle-area bands frequently making snide little comments to the press. For you see, Eddie Vedder was not from there, he was a surfer kid from San Diego who, some claimed, made the move to the Seattle scene specifically because that’s where the most lucrative deals were getting done. Further, some enjoyed pointing out that the brooding, tortured act vanished the moment he was out of the public eye, Vedder instantly becoming a smiling, life-of-the-party goofball.
And where Kurt Cobain absolutely did come from a troubled background of abuse, addiction and homelessness, it didn’t take long for music journalists to figure out that Eddie Vedder’s similar claims were a real surprise to the people who’d actually known him. Rolling Stone interviewed a bunch of his old classmates who pointed out that young Eddie was maybe the most popular kid in school, a star drama student who took the lead role in every play; a joyful, magnetic personality who was clearly going places. The tortured grimacing you saw on stage, the article implied, was the work of a trained actor playing a character, a career-minded striver who simply figured out where the market was going. If he’d been born ten years earlier, maybe he’d have been up there in teased hair and leather pants, singing about how he wasn’t looking for nothin’ but a good time.
“Back up,” you say, “I feel like a few minutes ago I was watching a dude chop a pickle like a limp log, how the fuck did we wind up here?”
Good question. To bring the point around, let’s turn our attention to one of the guys you probably thought I was going to talk about at the top of the article: a longtime standup comedian who, to the kids, is probably only known for his animated voice work. I am of course referring to Larry the Cable Guy. It has to be confusing for any youth finding out that the cartoon character Tow Mater…
…is credited to “Larry the Cable Guy”…
…when of course “Larry the Cable Guy” is also not a real person, but a cartoonish redneck character played by comedian Daniel Whitney. In other words, it’s a character played by a character played by a guy from Nebraska who was educated in one of the top private schools in the country. I realize no adult should be surprised to find that’s not his real accent or personality, but it’s still startling to see him do interviews out of character (though not as alarming as hearing Gilbert Gottfried’s real voice). That’s when you realize that, unlike his co-stars, when Whitney leaves the studio and goes out into public, he can’t really be himself — he can only pull back one layer, to yet another character. That has to be weird, right?
But then you think, wait a minute, is it possible that all of his peers are doing the same thing? Is everyone in the public eye just playing a role they’ve carefully developed in front of a mirror, the way Eddie Vedder was accused of consciously practicing his “deep, disturbed artist” mannerisms? I mentioned earlier that some kids today only know Dr. Dre as the Beats headphones guy and/or Eminem’s grouchy mentor, but really old-school fans remember that before he was a gangsta rapper, he was the DJ for the ‘80s electro dance group World Class Wreckin Cru. That’s him, in in the red vinyl suit:
“But Dre really did grow up in South Central LA! Gang violence was so rampant he had to change schools!” Sure, but my point isn’t that these people are all phonies (though you have to wonder where Dre would be today if he’d successfully gotten the job at Northrop Aviation he applied for out of high school); my point is that it has to be a kind of prison, feeling like you have to play a character every moment you’re in public. The lingering suspicion no one loves or cares about you, but only the costume you wear, must be suffocating. Hell, can you even fully drop the act in private?
And even worse, for some reason we have no trouble believing the seemingly happy dude is secretly tortured, but really struggle to grasp that some do the opposite. That’s the paradox of Eddie Vedder; it was liberating for a young me to hear that I didn’t have to perform being happy, that I could talk about my trauma and openly allow it to be a part of who I was. But at some point, it became cool in our culture to be the brooding depressive. As a society, we started to equate sadness with thoughtful intelligence and happiness with blithe ignorance. Now, it’s like you’re not cool unless you have trauma — we demand that even our Superman struggle with PTSD. If a TV character smiles too much, then their happiness needs to either be the result of vacant obliviousness…
…or a mask to disguise a tragic past:
That, for me, is the lesson of the incident the press would come to call Pickleritagate. The initial shock implied that somehow Ten-era Eddie Vedder had tricked us into thinking he was a deep, thoughtful artist instead of the ukulele-plucking Spicoli he was behind closed doors. But why can’t a fun-loving goofball also make profound, emotionally complex art? Why can’t we acknowledge that all of us are playing roles for the public, especially in the social media age? Why can’t we feel it as relief when a superstar drops the mask, even if we don’t like what we see? Especially if we don’t like it?
After all, aren’t those the moments that put cracks in our collective delusion that these people are somehow larger-than-life demigods instead of regular human beings with extremely specific, lucrative talents? I say the sooner we shatter that delusion, the better. Let’s be very frank here: There’s only one “celebrity” you should be “worshiping” and you won’t find them in Hollywood.
You know exactly who I’m talking about: It’s this sassy disabled raccoon food critic on TikTok.
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