"There are probably five people in the world who know what you're going through right now, and I'm one of them," the longtime manager of U2 said to the young manager of Pearl Jam, no doubt over the clanking of cocktail glasses and the chattering of rock stars and their hangers-on. "You're doing fine." One can see McGuinness putting his hand on Curtis' shoulder, offering a pat of brotherly reassurance.
It's little wonder Curtis recalls those few words, spoken a long time ago, with such clarity and fondness. Back then, he was regarded by some in the music business as little more than friend and fan doing the bidding of musicians whose rapidly burgeoning success would swallow him whole and spit out the carcass. Even now, Curtis recalls those days as "a whirlwind, a blur...overwhelming." Other managers were sniffing around Pearl Jam, shaking their asses in hopes of luring the band away from the rookie; they had no idea that even back then he'd been with some of its members through life and death, quite literally.
But McGuinness--who met Curtis at a Pearl Jam concert in Chicago in April 1992, during the band's final moments of obscurity--had no such intentions. He too managed but a single band; he too was there from the very beginning, before fame had a few million faces. McGuinness has been the business face of U2 almost since the band's inception in the summer of 1978, and in the past decade, he has watched Curtis, whose previous musical experience consisted of helping run Heart's fan club, go from crawling to stumbling to sprinting. He offered his support and even a bit of counsel; as such, he has become one of Curtis' most trusted friends in a business where trust is rarely an option.
"We've been friends for a long time, and I always thought Kelly was doing a pretty good job all on his own," McGuinness says. "I must say I never thought of it as an educational process. I was interested in what he had to say. I just responded to him naturally, because he understood that you have to trust the client. You have to have a great client, which he does, and you have to trust them. So many managers are inclined to control and dominate the client, and he was the other kind. I liked that. I got as much from him as he got from me."
But where McGuinness stays very much out of sight--it's to be expected when your band's frontman is Bono, who carries with him his own spotlight--Curtis is often the voice of Pearl Jam in interviews. Eddie Vedder does the singing, but it's Curtis who does the talking. Little wonder, then, that he refers to the band as we and us; little wonder he asks, in mock horror, "Are you saying I'm the sixth member of Pearl Jam?" Yes, actually. The Billy Preston of Pearl Jam.
At this moment, Vedder's in New Zealand, performing with Crowded House's Neil Finn. Guitarist Mike McCready's scoring writer-director Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, with Crowe's wife--and Heart singer-guitarist--Nancy Wilson. Guitarist Stone Gossard has just completed a solo album. Bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron likewise are working on various non-Pearl Jam projects. In fact, after the band concluded its world tour last November in Seattle, its members went their separate ways for the foreseeable future. Vedder departed by telling Curtis, "See ya next year," meaning the band likely won't even be in the same room till sometime in 2002.
Which leaves Curtis as the band's frontman, sort of. Since the band parted ways, it has released 71 live double albums and one triple CD, the so-called bootleg series recorded in 2000 during the band's Europe and North American concerts. And on May 1, Epic Records will release to retail outlets a DVD titled Touring Band 2001, which features three hours of live footage taken from last year's tour, plus 50 minutes' worth of bonus material, including never-before-seen videos and outtakes from the recording sessions for the band's last studio album, Binaural. With the band in hiding, then, it has been up to Curtis to talk to the media about the various projects; he's done more talking into reporters' tape recorders the past few months than Vedder's done the past few years. "It's funny, but the amount of press this band gets for a band that doesn't do press is insane," Curtis says. "It's just insane."
But Curtis has as much right to talk about Pearl Jam as though he's in the band as any of the musicians who take to stage or studio beneath its moniker. He was there before Pearl Jam ever existed: In 1988, he met Gossard and Ament when they were playing in a band called Mother Love Bone; he helped the band sign its deal with PolyGram Records. Curtis was also in the hospital room on March 19, 1990, when Mother Love Bone's singer Andrew Wood, who had overdosed on heroin, was taken off life support. And he was there when Ament, Gossard, McCready and a 25-year-old singer named Eddie Vedder played their first shows as Mookie Blaylock.
Curtis has been there for all the highs (say, selling 10 million copies of the band's debut, Ten) and all the lows, the worst of which came when nine people were killed and 43 more were injured during the band's performance last June at the Roskilde Rock Festival in Denmark. (Though it's possible that at least one person might have died before Pearl Jam took the stage, according to two sisters who attended the show.) Curtis has had to deal with Vedder's clumsy attempts at dealing with his fame, and he's had to serve as liaison between band and label. Indeed, part of his job early on was informing Epic that Pearl Jam wouldn't do any more videos, which infuriated the label.
"A long time ago, I learned from Elliot Roberts, Neil Young's manager, that you never take on the fight like it's your fight," Curtis says. "Just blame it on the artist. That way, the label can't fight me. I'm like, 'I'm just the messenger.' In the end, the band created the machine. I just know how it works."
And it was Curtis who had to deal with the fallout from Pearl Jam's failed attempt to have the Justice Department charge Ticketmaster with being a monopoly in 1995. The episode is often blamed for the downturn in Pearl Jam's album sales: Cynics insisted it was a publicity stunt (it wasn't), and fans had a hard time buying tickets to shows, which were held, often, in shoddy venues. Where Ten would go on to sell 10 million copies, Binaural, released last May, has yet to sell a million. Curtis insists the Ticketmaster ordeal was blown out of proportion and that the band decided to turn down the volume; the hype was deafening.
"We know if we make videos and do TV shows and stuff that we could sell more records, but they're really comfortable with their level of success right now," Curtis insists. "It's very manageable, and everyone's grown up a bit. As far as working in a [business] environment that's seemingly not where we are philosophically, we do the best we can...There was definitely a time when it was bigger, but then you add the 10-year career artist kind of thing on top of it, and that makes it special."
Incidentally, it was Curtis' idea to release the bootleg series; it was something he had wanted to do for years, in fact. He owned enough boots to realize how expensive they were and how awful so many of them sounded, but he was always met with the same cool response from both band and label. Finally, Pearl Jam consented; Epic, on the other hand, took some convincing for at least two reasons. One, Pearl Jam owes the label one more album, and Epic executives worried that Curtis was going to use the bootleg series as a way of finagling out of the band's contract. Epic also wasn't happy with Curtis' plan of selling the discs only through the band's Web site (www.pearljam.com), which would alienate retailers. The label wanted to do a big marketing push, which the band nixed, since the intention was to get the discs in hands of the fetishists and not the casual fan.
But Epic was convinced when Curtis insisted it wasn't his plan to restructure the band's contract and when he told the label it wouldn't have to pay an advance for the discs, as Pearl Jam was going to record the shows anyway and package the discs in inexpensive cardboard. Fact is, the discs are, more or less, pure profit--the closest thing to a cash machine this side of the U.S. Federal Reserve System. The label estimates it has sold close to three million discs in the series: On March 7, seven of the discs from the first leg of the band's 2000 U.S. tour debuted on the Billboard Hot 200 chart, a first for any band, and just last week, two more titles entered the charts.
"When Kelly told me about the bootlegs a few months ago, I wasn't sure that it would go," McGuinness says. "One worry was how enthusiastic the label would be to do it, but it would seem they've been cooperative. Three million total is a very significant result for Sony [Epic's parent company] as much as for the band. It just goes to show that if you make a good enough case, these giant corporations will do exactly what you want. It's been my experience they respond well to being infiltrated, and if you go to your corporation with a plan and it's a good one, very often you'll get total cooperation and have good results."
But after the band turns in its final album for Epic, it will never again sign to a label; Sony might distribute Pearl Jam, but it will never again own the band's master tapes. As Curtis says, "The band's really looking forward to the day when they can all toast each other and say, 'We are free.'"
Curtis then mentions that even he has never worked for the band with the security blanket of a signed contract.
"Either they like me," he says, laughing, "or it would just be so much work to get a new manager that they'd actually have to meet."