by Robyn Kaiser
June 7, 2017. Gramercy Theatre, New York. Mike McCready, lead guitarist of Pearl Jam, known for screaming riffs, melting faces, changing guitars multiple times per song, and supporting every band under the sun would be talking about his book and life. He would not be treating the audience to any guitar solos tonight. Instead, they were treated to his words, thoughts and how he’s viewed the world for over 25 years – through the lens of a Polaroid camera.
Moderated by Jonathan Cohen (former Billboard journalist and author of Pearl Jam: Twenty), McCready took the audience on a ride through his history. From early days of Pearl Jam to pictures of his family, fans were treated to intimate details and amusing anecdotes.
As McCready took the stage to a standing ovation, he joked “You guys know that the band isn’t here, right?” Nobody cared. The audience was there to hear Mike McCready. As the discussion began, he jumped right in with stories – including what was up with Mr. Potato Head?
The answer was quite simple, really. “It was just my thing,” said McCready. “I had Mr. Potato Head, so I’d go up to people on tour and say ‘hey, wanna take a photo with this potato head?’ People thought it was cool or weird, and it just sort of happened.” Artists who posed with the plastic potato include: Neil Young, Tom Petty, Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star (in what appears to be the only photo of her ever smiling – Mike thinks she may have been stoned), members of Pearl Jam, and the late Layne Staley of Alice In Chains, while sitting on a motorbike.
The discussion gave more insight to his book Of Potato Heads And Polaroids: My Life Inside And Out Of Pearl Jam. The book is literally a picture book. Each spread features several Polaroids, some with handwritten notes, others with captions printed at the corner of the page noting the people in each photo.
Cohen asked questions as pages from the book were projected on a large screen behind them. McCready did not shy away from any of the questions. The audience listened intently, laughing at funny moments, hanging on his every word.
The personal anecdotes and memories are what truly made the evening special. As a photo of McCready with Matt Cameron and Kim Thayill of Soundgarden was displayed, he recounted his experiences as a self-proclaimed Soundgarden fanboy. “I’m a huge Soundgarden fan,” admitted McCready. “When we [Pearl Jam] are on tour, I get to ask Matt one Soundgarden question a day. Okay, sometimes it’s more. Seriously, I do. I know that he gets over it. This one time, I bought a whole bunch of pizzas and brought them to a Soundgarden rehearsal just so I could hang out with them.” He paused. “On a sad note, I have no idea what those guys are feeling right now. I feel so sad about the situation [Chris Cornell’s death.] It doesn’t make any sense. Chris was an awesome dude, and I hope that they have some sort of solution or easing to their pain because they went through this thing no one should have to go through. And certainly Chris’s kids and wife. It’s a double-edged sword, because a lot of the pictures that are in there [in the book], he’s in them, and it’s just different now.”
Chris Cornell memories continued as a photo of McCready with Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell and Nancy Wilson flashed on the screen. As he spoke of this photo, his eyes seemed to tear up. McCready explained how Chris took Eddie under his wing, welcoming him to Seattle. “When Ed was coming up, you know, he was from San Diego, and people in Seattle were kind of dicks to him,” he said. “There was this insular kind of passive-aggressive BS that happens in Seattle. And it was some of my friends doing this! I got pissed at them – this is ED, this is our DUDE. Ed was shy, super shy, especially at our first show, which was only eight days after we formed. But Chris took Ed under his wing and was like ‘hey man, welcome to the scene.’ They went out for beers, went hiking, played with their dogs… Just to say ‘you’re part of this thing.’ He didn’t have to do that. He was Chris Cornell! He could’ve said ‘fuck it, I’m Chris Cornell. I’m outta here. I’m the best.’ Which, we all know how great he was, but he wasn’t that way. I think Christ felt, after Andy’s [Andrew Wood, Cornell’s roommate and lead singer of Mother Love Bone] death, his feeling for Jeff and Stone was that this [Pearl Jam] was another chance for them. So aside from being just a cool dude, that was really a reason that he was there for Ed. For both of us, actually.”
As Cohen turned the question and answer portion over to the audience, tons of hands went into the air. Questions included: What album would you want to play in full at a show, just destroy? Answer: Yield, because that was the first album McCready did a lot of writing on. Another audience question was “what moments are you upset you missed taking a photo of?” McCready spoke of being at a show where two guys in horse costumes were on stage, and the picture he took wasn’t a good picture at all. He also laments all the times he attempts to take a photo and is out of film. “I’ve been doing this for so long, you’d think I would know by now,” he joked.
The main takeaway from the evening was the insight into McCready’s personal life and thoughts. Cohen asked about his family, of which there are photos in the book as well. He spoke of touring with Pearl Jam and his family. “We all have kids now. We’re old dads. Touring is a great way for our kids to get out there and see the world,” he said. “When Pearl Jam was going to Boston for the first time, I was stoked. I did all this reading and it’s this giant thing in my head. But then I get to Boston and it’s a lot smaller than I thought! To me, it was this giant thing and it was amazing that all that history happened in that area. That was my first real life experience – learning all this history, going on the Freedom Walk… and I want my kids to have that too. To see Stonehenge. To see Australia. Out in the world is where real learning happens. I remember our first trip to New York City. We get into the city in the middle of the night and roll out of our van. I see homeless guys throwing bottles at each other. Welcome to New York.”
Times have changed since those early days of New York, as the event at the Gramercy Theatre proved. Instead of homeless men throwing bottles at each other, a line of approximately 200 people welcomed him hours before the event. The audience of 500 waited three hours after the discussion for their one-on-one time with McCready. Many people had personal stories, how his music touched them, took them out of dark places. To one woman who told him that, McCready got excited. “Yes! Yes! Stay there! Don’t go to dark places!” His eyes lit up when she showed him one of his Polaroids, which he took of the crowd at Fenway Park on August 5th, 2017. McCready has been taking Polaroids at concerts and throwing them into the crowd. As the fan showed her his Polaroid, a genuine smile crept across his face. From beginning to end, the event showed what Mike McCready and Pearl Jam fans already knew: he’s special, he’s endearing, and probably, one of the coolest, most down-to-earth guys you’ll ever meet, who just happens to play guitar in a famous band and is in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
Of Potato Heads And Polaroids: My Life Inside And Out Of Pearl Jam by Mike McCready (powerHouse Books) is available now.