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R.E.M., Pearl Jam and the 1993 MTV Music Awards: I Was There
keep on rocking on a free way*
The year is 1993. Kurt Cobain is still alive and Dave Grohl is still “the new guy” in Nirvana. Aerosmith have revived their career, Madonna could still be counted on to do something that upset everybody, you got dressed to go out listening to En Vogue, R.E.M. became global superstars, and U2 took an entire satellite television station on tour. I was living in Tel Aviv, running an affiliate of Warner/Elektra/Atlantic, a job that never actually felt real even when I was in the middle of doing it every single day, and doing it well. The latter is the reason I am able to tell this story 30 years later. If I had been bad at my job none of this would have happened.
One of my sisters was getting married at the end of August 1993, and so I decided that I was going to combine a trip back to the Tri-State Area for the wedding with… going to London on the way to see U2 at Wembley Stadium on the Zooropa tour (for which I called in a favor from WB in London to ask Island for a ticket), and then, after the wedding, going to Los Angeles to visit the record labels there and oh, by the way, can you please get me a ticket to the 1993 MTV Awards, I asked my colleagues at WB International in a telex (or a fax, that was how you did business internationally with no time zone overlap). At the time it was announced, the VMA’s were going to be R.E.M.’s only performance in 1993. I had no way to get to see them on the Green tour and in my mind, this would make up for that. Seemed simple enough to do all of this on one trip.
Sidebar: This is not about U2 at Wembley, I’ll republish that next week.
I arrived in Los Angeles the day before the VMA’s. I visited my pals at Geffen, I went to see someone at the Whiskey (I think it was Candlebox, lol) and everyone at the show was VERY EXCITED because Lenny Kravitz was there with Madonna. (Were they dating at the time? I think they were dating. They were the same height.) The next day I went out to Burbank to visit the Warner Brothers international team at the very 70’s mountain cabin vibe office building that was known as “the Rabbit Hutch” and find out about my VMAs ticket. Honestly, they could have told me to go pound sand. I just assumed they could help me and didn’t realize it was going to be a tough ticket, which I found out when I arrived and was told that they’d finally gotten me a ticket by telling Seymour Stein from Sire that they were trying to get the label manager from the Israeli affiliate into the VMAs, and he told them that I could have his ticket, that he’d find a way in. So not only do I have a ticket, I have a ticket that was better than what I was actually entitled to.
I have meetings, I eat lunch, I get in my car and drive frantically all the way back to West Hollywood from Burbank so I can get dressed. I optimistically bought an evening dress and 4-inch black suede heels and all the accoutrements. The dress wasn’t fancy, it was a slinky black sleeveless maxi dress that had that kind of washed pattern that was popular in the early 90s, I was 29 and cute and honestly you didn’t need more than that, some red lipstick and false eyelashes. I wish I had thought to take photographs of myself but I was so worried about getting there and getting in that all I wanted to do was get in the car and go. I thought I had made good time -- remember, this is a live awards show on the West Coast, so it’s going to start filming at, like, 4 or 5pm -- until I got closer to the Universal Amphitheater and saw the traffic backup. My heart was pounding, I have the air conditioning on full blast so my makeup does not melt off before I even get there. Just when I was worried about parking (New Yorkers always worry about parking) I realized it was all valet parking and breathed a sigh of relief. I got out of the car and tried to pretend that I belonged there.
I promptly blew any chance of creating that impression when I got into the queue to get in and realized that they were going to search my evening bag (I know I borrowed something from someone) and that I had a camera with me. It was a small-ish point and shoot but small-ish point and shoot in 1993 meant basically the size of a brick. My solution to this was to take out the film and the batteries and stick them in my bra, and then ask a man in a tuxedo who was on line near me if he would sneak my camera into the venue in his pocket. I think I may have mentioned that I had traveled some distance to be there. Before you get all judgey on me, this was a thing that was kind of sort of accepted back in my day? Or maybe I was just used to going to shows with tapers and so there was always some kind of legerdemain going on when you were entering a show.
So basically I have just handed a stranger a camera and asked them to break a rule for me and then I have to find them again once we get past security and somehow without phones I find him again and thank him profusely (he was vaguely disapproving but he also still did it, so thank you again, anonymous industry dude, whoever you were). I go straight to my seat and then basically do not leave it again. The seat was on extreme stage left, about halfway up the section and towards the latter third of the row towards the stage. It was exactly the kind of seat I would have chosen had I been buying tickets.
The people on the other side of me arrive, a nice couple where the husband worked for Reprise Records. We introduce ourselves and chat, the topic turns to Neil Young who had recently returned to Reprise and who had just played some shows in SoCal. I say I’m sorry I missed it. Mr. Reprise immediately says, well, we’ll fix that, when are you going back? I tell them I fly back to New York early tomorrow morning.
“That’s too bad,” he said. “But at least you’ll get to see him tonight.” “...Tonight?” “Yes, he’s playing with Pearl Jam, it’s a very badly kept secret.” “Pearl Jam are performing tonight???”
You have to understand, I lived on the other side of the world. We had MTV Europe but there was a delay in getting news in real time. I had also been traveling and not attached to the media and then, you know, in a wedding. When I left Israel, the only people I knew were performing were Madonna, R.E.M., Aerosmith, and, like, the Spin Doctors. There had already been multiple unproductive attempts to see Pearl Jam -- promised tickets to see them opening for Neil Young in London in July fell through and that was after abandoning the idea of going to see them open for U2 in Rome -- it was just too hard to figure it out at a distance and with no Italian, and was too much money (that I also did not have) to just fly there and hope it worked out. However, this current stunt where I just flew somewhere hoping it would work out was, in fact, working out just fine.
Being in an audience for any rock and roll thing being taped or filmed is not ever as fun as it looks. No matter where you are you will have a camera in your way. The cameras take precedence over everything. I realized very quickly that despite the lengths to which I went to smuggle the camera in, there would be no way for me to stealth any photographs and the consequences for getting caught were exponentially higher than any possible reward. I wish I had taken notes, though, even though by this point I had mostly given up that I was ever going to be any kind of writer.
The entire thing was unreal. The show opens with a Madonna production number. There’s R.E.M. sitting in the front row of the lower bowl towards the center. I know Kurt and Courtney were there with Frances Bean (the only time I was in the same places as Kurt, another band I wanted to see and couldn’t figure out how the hell to get to the Reading Festival in any kind of logical way) and Sinead was there and a ton of other people, but I am very face-blind and it is hard for me to recognize people I actually know when they are right in front of me so I know there were dozens of other famous people I likely sat near or walked by or talked to and had no idea who it was.
The live performances were great, even Sting or Aerosmith or anyone I didn’t care about seeing, we’re talking super high production values and it’s live so everyone is vibrating a little bit. It was hilarious to see Soul Asylum, who I used to see at fucking Maxwell’s in Hoboken, on along with Peter Buck and Victoria Williams. R.E.M.’s spot were in the middle and they got two songs, “Everybody Hurts” and “Drive” and it was one of those “sadly ecstatic that the heroes are news” moments where you’re thrilled that the band you got to see in clubs and theaters have reached the top of their game, that all those years driving around in vans and buses and playing New Wave night at a Pizza Hut actually paid off. The first time I saw Michael Stipe onstage his pants were falling down because he didn’t have a belt, and he was mesmerizing then. Now I’m watching him perform basically in front of the entire world. “Everybody Hurts” is a fantastic ballad but “Drive” is an exponentially harder song to deliver in this particular context (and a braver choice, they could have just done “Losing My Religion” or literally anything else from Out of Time) but “Drive” is the one I remember the most. The space inside the melody, the way the song morphed into this ginormous ball of energy.
Pearl Jam won four out of the six awards they were nominated for the “Jeremy” video, and I hope someone somewhere is writing a doctoral thesis about how much heat they took for the existence of the song and the message and my god, look at where we are in 2023. The awards podium was on stage left so on the other side of the stage from where I was sitting, so I was watching much of the acceptance speeches on the big screens like everyone else. You know that feeling you get when you watch an awards show and the same person or movie or record keeps winning and it starts to feel crazy and untethered at some point when the same people keep coming up and dealing with the energetic swings of “we’re not gonna win anything” to “holy shit we won again” to “are you serious, another one” is exactly what it felt like sitting there live watching it happen.
Pearl Jam came onstage during a commercial break, and in order to warm up/soundcheck, launched into “Sonic Reducer” by the Dead Boys. I knew they covered it, it had been on the 1992 fan club single and I might have heard that by then via cassette tape (I didn’t join the Ten Club until 1995), but I’d never seen them before! I knew who the Dead Boys were, of course, and both recognized and appreciated the gesture, that way of signaling what side you were on by who you had in your record collection, who you listened to, who you listened to while you were learning to play, when you were figuring out how to make noise and what you wanted that noise to sound like when you finally figured it out. I already liked them and thought we were sympatico but this moment showed me that I was right.
Pearl Jam’s whole deal is the transmutation of the 60’s British bands’ interpretation of American rhythm and blues, interspersed with heavy metal, hard rock, a little funk, and punk, like chocolate swirls in vanilla ice cream, not so much that it dominates the main vibe but enough to differentiate them from everyone else trying to do something similar. Pearl Jam were smarter. Jeff and Stone had already been around the try-to-get-a-record-deal block once (as did McCready) and Eddie Vedder had never wanted to do anything else, this single-minded devotion to history and craft and writing lyrics and being a frontman. He’s not about leading a band, Pearl Jam is about the sum of the parts. And I think it was very easy to slag them off in the 90s because they were so fucking good at what they did, especially live. They were able to create the feeling of the big 70s rock show better than any of their peers, they were insanely consistent even when they fucked up, but they were such a loud driving force. I think of this now watching them perform “Animal” on the 1993 MTV Awards, but at the time all I was thinking was: YES. THESE ARE MY PEOPLE.
And then Neil Young -- who’d they’d just been out on tour with -- walked onstage and it’s time for “Rockin’ In The Free World” which was still a new-ish song back then, it just came out in 1989! It was only four years old. We had just gotten rid of the first Bush, so everything in that song was still painfully relevant, we had just gone through that era and thought we were on a better track. I always heard PJ’s version as both celebration and condemnation, that sucked but that guy’s gone now, let’s fix our shit and get back to where we should be. As you may know, there are two versions of RITFW on Freedom, the live acoustic version that opens the record and then the proto-grunge-crunchy version that closes the record. On the Pearl Jam side of things, they began playing the song live in mid-92 and actually closed their MTV Unplugged session with it, which sadly never saw the light of day. RITFW became a show-closing stalwart for PJ in those years and every single time they played it they absolutely took no fucking prisoners, which is exactly what happened tonight. Guitars were smashed, Eddie took the mic stand apart and handed it to someone in the audience, Neil kept playing. But even without the chaos, the performance was already one of the best things you would ever be lucky to witness.
People talked about that performance for months. My youngest sister, who very much did not care about either Neil Young or Pearl Jam but could be counted on to run the VCR for me, said “Rockin’ in The Free World, huh?” when I came back to my parents’ house and she handed me the video tape.
“Did you watch?” “Of course not but it’s all they could talk about afterwards.”
Janet Jackson closed the show and I felt so sorry that she had to go on after Neil and PJ had basically lit the joint on fire. I wish I remembered more of her performance, but I was seeing stars and birds flying around my head like I was a cartoon character.
When the show ended, I walked over to the party that was (as I remember it) kind of a giant field adjacent to the venue. I don’t remember much of it, except that I ran into George Clinton and got his autograph on the event program, and when I walked out, the Bee Girl was just walking in. I knew it was unlikely I’d see anyone that exciting at the official party, I probably would have walked right by them if I did, and I had an invitation to a private party, so I collected my cheap-ass rental car from the valet, drove to a place called the Hollywood Cantina, and just parked my car myself. This is where R.E.M. were having their after-party, and Warner Bros. told me they would make sure I was on the list. I truly appreciate whatever bravado that Caryn had at that moment that let me walk into a private post-award show Hollywood music business party like I was actually important, which I only realized the second I opened my mouth and told the door person my name and that I was supposed to be on the list. “You’re not on the list but I know who you are, please go in,” the first and likely only time in my life this will ever happen to me.
I stayed at the party — that I get to keep for myself — until it was time to go back to my hotel, change my clothes, and headed straight to LAX to get my early-morning flight back to NYC and from there, points further east. I was sound asleep the second I bucked my seat belt. I knew that it was a Cinderella night and normal people didn’t have a lot of these, but this night, combined with my two nights seeing Zooropa at Wembley, definitely made me realize it was time to move back to the States. I was missing out on too much that mattered. I’d be back Stateside for good by New Year’s Eve.
*The subtitle comes from one of my PR team, who was originally from Argentina and that’s what he thought the lyrics were
I later tried to figure out who it might have been because he looked vaguely familiar, but could never work it out satisfactorily.
If you want to look at an old seating chart for Universal, I’m guessing it was section 7 or 9, but I don’t know how much seating got taken out for production.
Shoutout to Dave A., who was incredibly kind to me when I lived in Seattle, but he was a great fucking drummer in absolutely the wrong band for him.
Until a bunch of fans liberated a VHS tape for sale on eBay but that is not part of this story.