On Oct. 22, 1990, Pearl Jam played their first show (as Mookie Blaylock) at Seattle's Off Ramp Cafe.
The Off Ramp is now the El Corazon/Funhouse at 109 Eastlake Ave. E. This essay from HistoryLink.org about their first show was written by music historian Peter Blecha.
Future grunge-rock icons of Pearl Jam perform debut gig as "Mookie Blaylock" at Seattle's Off Ramp Cafe on October 22, 1990.
On Monday, October 22, 1990, a fresh band composed of veteran Seattle rock musicians -- and a new singer named Eddie Vedder (b. 1964) recently recruited from California -- debuts at the Off Ramp Cafe at 109 Eastlake Avenue E. The musicians perform this and several subsequent gigs under the name "Mookie Blaylock," but within a few months Seattle fans, and then the world, will know them as Pearl Jam.
The Seattle Scene
Pearl Jam, a Seattle-based rock 'n' roll band, emerged from the Northwest's burgeoning underground music scene and quickly became one of the leading lights of the globally recognized "grunge-rock" movement. The group was formed by a core of members from another promising band, Mother Love Bone, which collapsed in the wake of the heroin-related death of lead singer Andrew Wood (1966-1990) on March 19, 1990.
Guitarist Stone Gossard (b. 1966) and bassist Jeff Ament (b. 1963) began picking up the pieces by joining forces with Mike McCready (b. 1966), who had already attained local notoriety for his flashy guitar work with Seattle metal band Shadow. That's about when Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell (1964-2017) composed a few tribute songs to Wood and, along with Soundgarden's drummer Matt Cameron (b. 1962), these musicians began to plan an album that would be titled Temple of the Dog.
Meanwhile Gossard, Ament, and McCready also began their search for a permanent new vocalist and potential drummers by discreetly distributing a 4-track demo tape of a few instrumental songs. That tape was eventually passed from the hands of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' former drummer, Jack Irons, to his friend Eddie Vedder -- a San Diego surfer dude who'd been fronting a post-New Wave-type band called Bad Radio. Vedder penned some lyrics, sang them over the tunes, and sent his recordings to Seattle. Highly impressed, the guys invited Vedder to audition and he was soon contributing some vocals to the Temple project. When that album was later released (in April 1991), it yielded the MTV video, and international radio, hit "Hunger Strike."
Throughout this period, the Northwest's music scene was rockin' with popular bands like Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, and Soundgarden all signing recording deals with big-time labels and others like Nirvana and Mudhoney having considerable impact on the outside world via Seattle's own mega-successful Sub Pop label. All the while, the taverns and nightclubs where all this action was taking place were in flux, opening and closing, changing formats and identities.
A Site to Behold
Among the scene's key venues was the Off Ramp Cafe, a dive situated in an odd no-man's-land corner of downtown Seattle -- trapped, as it was, between a concrete off-ramp from southbound Interstate 5 and the tangled intersections of Eastlake Avenue, Stewart Street, and John Street, and wedged below a massive wall of the Denny Way bridge over I-5. Finding the little 299-capacity joint was a challenge and locating parking nigh impossible. But those factors did not prevent the location from being an entertainment zone -- in fact, they may be why loud music actually worked in the rundown area.
Originally constructed around 1908, the Off Ramp Cafe building at 109 Eastlake Avenue E hosted a succession of grocery stores and a pharmacy before becoming the site of an African American-oriented joint, the Town House Tavern, in 1951. The mid-1960s saw it become part of the giant A Go-Go discotheque (at 101 Eastlake Avenue E), and in the 1970s it was a jazz, R&B, and soul club called the Gallery Tavern and later the Funky Watergate disco. By the early 1980s it was recast as the Eastlake East Tavern, a lesbian-oriented disco, and then in 1986 the building's owner, Lee Rea, took over and began booking alternative rock bands into his Off Ramp Cafe.
A New Band
After five days of rehearsals in October 1990, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, and Eddie Vedder -- along with Tacoma drummer Dave Krusen (b. 1966) -- were ready to test out their new sound and new songs in a live setting. It was Alice in Chains who gave them the opportunity to open a show at the Off Ramp on the evening of October 22, 1990. Now they just needed a new band name. With both Ament and Vedder being major basketball enthusiasts, the decision came as a bit of a lark, and one based on the moniker of the delightfully named NBA point guard Mookie Blaylock (b. 1967), then playing with the New Jersey Nets. As Ament explained in 2008:
"When we were recording our first record, we had a per diem of about $10. So when we got lunch at the store across the street, we'd always buy a pack of basketball cards. When we turned in our tape, we didn't have a name for the band yet so we put a Mookie Blaylock card in the case. We were about to go on a tour and still didn't have a name and needed one quickly. We were told it didn't need to be the name that we were going to use forever, just something for the tour. Someone saw the Mookie Blaylock card and said, 'How about Mookie Blaylock?' We decided to go with it ..." (Heaney).
A Slam-Dunk Performance
And so it was that Mookie Blaylock (the band) opened for Alice in Chains that October night at the Off Ramp. After a quick sound-check using the song "Even Flow" (and done with the crowd present), their set began. It included seven songs -- most of which would reappear on the 1991 smash hit album Ten (which was titled in homage to Blaylock's jersey number, 10) -- and one encore:
"Just A Girl" [encore]
It was a debut performance made under trying circumstances. The band's audience was still in mourning over the loss of Andrew Wood and the collapse of Mother Love Bone. But everyone on the scene wanted to see what Wood's band-mates had come up with -- and to hear their new singer. Among those in the rowdy crowd was Nancy Wilson, guitarist with Seattle's venerable rock band Heart. Of Mookie Blaylock's debut she recalled: "I saw the first time they played ... Eddie was quite shy. He was kind of studying his boots onstage. He was a really amazing singer, but being in Seattle with this whole tight community of people that loved Andy Wood before him, he was probably a bit nervous" (Yarm). Nevertheless, the band's slow, sensual grooves coupled with Vedder's deep baritone vocals and unusually interesting lyrics captivated the crowd.
Mookie Blaylock next performed at Seattle's Vogue dance club at 2918 1st Avenue on December 19 and then again with Alice in Chains at the Moore Theater at 1932 2nd Avenue on the 22nd. In January 1991 the two bands journeyed to Canada where they played Harpo's in Victoria, B.C., and the Town Pump in Vancouver, B.C. Now they were ready for a brief West Coast tour together that would kick off with a return to the Off Ramp Cafe on February 4, and proceed to Los Angeles for a date on the 7th, with additional gigs spanning Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, and Sacramento, California, and Eugene and Portland, Oregon, before returning again to the Off Ramp on February 25 and March 1, before finishing up at Seattle's OK Hotel (212 Alaska Way S) on March 2.
By that point the band was set to sign a major recording contract with Epic/Sony (which would buy out the contract with PolyGram Records that Mother Love Bone's survivors were still tied to) and they decided to rebrand with a name somewhat less subject to legal challenge than that of a living person, although their choice -- "Pearl Jam" -- was not without some issues, intended or not, of its own. This decision they announced on March 10 during a live radio interview on Seattle's KISW with DJ Damon Stewart. And the rest is, well, history: Pearl Jam went on to become one of the most successful bands to ever hail from the Northwest, and one of the most musically influential bands of the 1990s.
The Off Ramp's Exit
Meanwhile, the Off Ramp garnered its own legends and fame. The venue went on to host many other notable talents -- including a November 25, 1990, show by those up-and-comers from Aberdeen, Nirvana. In addition, and as the grunge-rock phenomenon spread globally over the following half-decade, the Off Ramp served as the setting for Soundgarden's live performance sequence in Singles, Cameron Crowe's 1992 hit film about the Seattle scene (as well as the site of that project's crew's wrap party); a venue that Courtney Love (b. 1964) and her band Hole rocked in 1993; and more, thus becoming a must-visit spot for grunge-history tourists.
Exceedingly few venues associated with the Great Grunge Uprising of 1988-1994 survived the incredible gentrification that Seattle experienced over subsequent decades, and the Off Ramp was not among them. It closed in April 1999 and by the following year the space was under new management and revamped as Graceland; in more recent years it continued as a popular rock club, El Corazon.
Patrick McDonald, "Despite Some Slow Nights, Discos Are on the Rise Here," The Seattle Times, October 3, 1975, p. 51; Clark Humphrey, Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story (Portland, OR: Feral House, 1995), 10, 142, 150; Veronica Kalmar, "Formerly Mookie Blaylock ... Pearl Jam," The Rocket, April 1991, p. 10; John Heaney, "A Team Player: What Might Have Been for Jeff Ament," Seattle Threads website accessed December 5, 2014 (http://webspace.ringling.edu/~hclark/seattle_threads/interviews_story.php); John Reynolds, "We Toured Young: Mookie Blaylock and Alice in Chains," Two Feet Thick website accessed December 6, 2014 (http://www.twofeetthick.com/2011/02/we-toured-young-mookie-blaylock-alice-in-chains-199/); Jessica Letkemann and John Reynolds, "How Did Mookie Blaylock Become Pearl Jam?," Two Feet Thick website accessed December 10, 2014 (http://www.twofeetthick.com/2011/03/how-did-mookie-blaylock-become-pearl-jam/); Chris Bucholz, "12 Bizarre True Stories Behind Famous Band Names," Cracked website accessed December 30, 2014 (http://www.cracked.com/article_17423_12-bizarre-true-stories-behind-famous-band-names.html); Mark Yarm, Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2012), 269; Tom Scanlon, "Off Ramp Closes with Local 808 as Final Act," The Seattle Times, April 8, 1999 (http://seattletimes.com/); author's archives and recollections.