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Flashback: See Neil Young and Pearl Jam Rock the Free World in 1993

Pearl Jam were cresting when they made an appearance on the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards. Not only did they win Video of the Year for “Jeremy,” trouncing video warhorses like Aerosmith, Peter Gabriel and R.E.M., but they also performed on the show, giving the network footage to air when the band moved away from making music videos. The peak of the evening was when Neil Young joined them onstage for a lively rendition of his 1989 hit “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Young just sauntered onstage in jeans, T-shirt and a Native American necklace and sang the verse as rawly as possible — something Eddie Vedder then does himself on the second verse — and the two vocalists sang in harmony on the chorus. They stretched it out for close to seven minutes before the Pearl Jam guys smashed their instruments.

It marked the first time the band played with Young, who has been a repeat guest on Pearl Jam’s stages in years since. They later served as Young’s backing band on his 1995 album, Mirror Ball, and he joined them on their companion EP, Merkin Ball.

The night kicked off, however, when Christian Slater, likely then promoting True Romance, introduced the group’s live performance and the band immediately kicked into the lean punk rocker “Animal.” The song would appear on the group’s second album, Vs., which turns 25 today. During the performance, Vedder leaned into the mic and let his hair dangle as he howled the song’s gritty lyrics – “One, two, three, four, five against one” – counting off each number on his hand as the song is winding down before throwing down his fist as his bandmates slam the tune’s last note.

Vedder has never revealed to whom he was directing his animus in the song, but it’s long been perceived that it’s about how he felt outnumbered during the recording of Vs., which came out about a month and a half after the band’s VMAs performance and was originally titled Five Against One, a lyric from the song. In her book, Five Against One, Kim Neely wrote that the “five” in the song was likely the other four band members and their manager at the time, Kelly Curtis, and that Vedder was the “one,” the outcast. Others have hypothesized that the song was about gang rape, but guitarist Stone Gossard once told RR-Magazine he felt it was more about intra-band struggles. “You might have five great artists in the band, but if they can’t compromise and work together, you don’t have a great band,” he said. “It might mean something different to Eddie, but when I heard the lyric, it made a lot of sense to me.”

While the band was honored for “Jeremy” that night, though, it swore off making music videos – perhaps as a result of their win. “At the MTV Video Awards we won ‘Greatest Video in the World’ or something,” Vedder said in an interview at the time. “I should have really just said right then what I was feeling which was, ‘Wow, I guess we don’t have to do any more of these, because where do you go from there?’” They wouldn’t release another proper video until 1998, when they hired Todd McFarlane and Kevin Altieri to make an animated clip for their song “Do the Evolution.”

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