Mike McCready Pearl Jam
Image: Sian Kennedy

Photograph by Sian Kennedy in Huntington Beach, California

NOT MANY BANDS can say they outlived the genre they helped create. But two decades after ripping rock in two and catapulting Seattle into the pop culture conversation, Pearl Jam has transcended grunge. And through van tours and quick fame, Crohn’s disease and song fatigue, Mike McCready has been there, stage left, jamming away. This month, the solo-shredding guitar hero will join Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and Matt Cameron to celebrate PJ’s 20th anniversary with a Labor Day weekend festival in East Troy, Wisconsin. The flannel has frayed and the combat boots are worn through, but rock and roll like this will never die.

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The other day I was watching the AC/DC “Let There Be Rock” video, which I hadn’t seen since 1980. Watching them, back in the day at their prime, that’s rock and roll. Because it’s simple, it’s from the gut, and it’s kind of dangerous. You’re like, “I feel a little bit uncomfortable here. But I like it.”

I hear sounds in my head sometimes. They come out of nowhere. And if I don’t grab them really quick, they’re gone. Sometimes I can’t get the rhythm back, and that’s the most important part.

When we were on Lollapalooza in 1992, we were second on the bill. We had a 45-minute slot at about 2 every afternoon, but when we went on we’d have 50,000 people rush the stage. Maybe not that many every time, but it started happening. It was kind of scary, but it was also totally exciting. That’s when I knew something was up.

Some decisions early on—not doing videos, not doing interviews, not going to award shows—I didn’t necessarily agree with. I remember one record company guy saying, “If you guys don’t do a video for ‘Black,’ you’re over.” We felt like that was bullshit, but at the same time I thought, “Maybe a video for ‘Black’ would be cool.” Had we gone the route where we did all of those things, though, we would have broken up. I just remember how tense it was and how much weirdness had happened because we got so big so quickly. We would have ridden that for a little bit, and then given how volatile we all are there would have been a big blowup.

I’m more of a peacemaker in the band. Ed will certainly have strong opinions. Jeff will have things that he believes ­really strongly. Stone will, too. The three of them don’t always meet up. But they somehow make compromises. And I go along. I have opinions about stuff, but I just want the band to keep going.

There’s the audience and the band, and the symbiotic relationship that goes on emotionally and physically and spiritually between the two. You want to be there for it.

The Strat is the easiest guitar to smash, but I’ve smashed Les Pauls and Telecasters and all of that. But I miss a bunch of them. Honestly, looking back, I wish I could have a couple of those guitars back. It felt good at the time, though. It was very Who-ish.

It was 1986, and I was at Johnny Rockets on Melrose in LA. All of the sudden I had to go to the bathroom really bad—and it hurt. I thought it was something I ate, but then it was still going on over the next week and a half. So I finally called back to my parents, and I was like, “I see some blood. This is weird.” They told me to go to a doctor, so I did, and it was originally diagnosed as ulcerative colitis. I was 21. I was just devastated. I was like, “Am I going to die?” I only lasted about a year in LA after I was diagnosed, and then I said, “I got to get back home.” I quit playing music for a while, and then I started playing again, and then Stone called me to see if I wanted to start a band. So had I not gotten Crohn’s, I might never have been a part of all of this.

The best thing to happen when I’m soloing is to have nothing going through my mind. It’s a place that I try to get to, but I can’t unless it just happens. Sometimes I’ll think, “Maybe I’ll have a ham sandwich after the show” or “I had a fun time running today”—random stuff—and that just screws it up.

You know, no, I don’t get tired of playing “Yellow Ledbetter.” Who knows what it’s really about, but people still sing it with a passion. Actually, I just played it with Ed on his solo tour down in Long Beach. I went to the show and thought he might ask me to jump up on stage, but I didn’t find out for sure until I got there. And I have to come clean: I went out to the lobby and listened to a YouTube version of it on my phone. Hey, I still have to rehearse.