The Meaning Behind Pearl Jam’s “Waiting for Stevie” and How a Music Legend’s Tardiness Inspired the Song

Pearl Jam’s “Waiting for Stevie” began while singer Eddie Vedder waited for a music legend to arrive for a recording session. It’s the kind of anthem Pearl Jam used to write regularly. Think Yield’s “Given to Fly.” It’s a return to the band’s familiar sound following the experimentations on their previous album, Gigaton.

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While many legacy acts chase contemporary sounds, others are content with sounding like themselves. Pearl Jam’s new album, Dark Matter, sounds like Pearl Jam.

On paper, it’s not what one expects. Pearl Jam worked with a young producer named Andrew Watt, who was born only a few months before Pearl Jam recorded their debut Ten. Watt has produced Justin Bieber, Post Malone, and Miley Cyrus, which leads you to believe Pearl Jam was chasing a modern pop trend. They were not.

Instead, Watt helped Pearl Jam sound like an energized version of themselves. He’s done similar work with The Rolling Stones and Ozzy Osbourne.

A Tardy Legend Inspires a Pearl Jam Song

Vedder worked on his third solo album with Watt. He released Earthling in 2022, and some high-profile friends collaborated on it. The all-star lineup of musicians includes Ringo Starr, Elton John, Chad Smith and Josh Klinghoffer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Paul McCartney’s drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., among others.

Stevie Wonder performed harmonica on “Try.” However, Wonder’s session didn’t start on time. He was scheduled to arrive at the studio at 4 p.m. but didn’t arrive until 11 p.m.

While Vedder and Watt waited for him, they began trading guitar riffs. Watt played first, and Vedder said he had a similar idea. They created a new riff by combining both ideas, which became the starting point for Pearl Jam’s “Waiting for Stevie.”

You can be loved by everyone
And still not feel, not feel love
You can relate but still can’t stop or conquer the fear
You are what you’re not

Though Stevie Wonder inspired the title, the song isn’t about him. Vedder explained to Howard Stern the song’s inspiration is music. He said, “It’s a song about being affected by music. And music changing your life, and maybe leading you to your tribe.”

He said it connects to Wonder because his music has “that power.”

Words follow her down; needs to shake ’em off now
This godforsaken town don’t deserve her anyhow

“Waiting for Stevie” unfolds slowly, and Watt and Vedder’s riff sounds like something Billy Duffy would have written for The Cult.

Just Breathe

Pearl Jam arrived in 1991 when grunge took hold of the music world and culture. Sadly, many leading bands from the movement had tragic endings.

Vedder, in particular, worked hard to protect his band as their fame grew. At the time, Pearl Jam received criticism for their perceived grievance against success. However, watching the toll fame took on their friends and musical peers proves Pearl Jam protected more than their legacy. It’s how they survived.

Pearl Jam concerts feel like something bigger than music—similar to Bruce Springsteen. For Vedder, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament, and Matt Cameron, each album and tour is a celebration.

The lyrics to “Waiting for Stevie” are vague enough for interpretation. But survival, celebration, and just breathing (to paraphrase a Pearl Jam song) are precious rewards. It’s the power of music Vedder talked to Stern about.

Why Go Home?

Though Vedder said “Waiting for Stevie” is about music, the lyrics also contain an element of self-doubt. He mentioned how Wonder embodied and became music in the studio.

Vedder has often talked about music’s healing power and how it’s gotten him through difficult times. “Waiting for Stevie” might be waiting for inspiration or salvation. The uplifting riff that drives the song, the one Watt and Vedder wrote similarly, sounds like redemption.

Many rock bands of Pearl Jam’s stature record new albums as an excuse to tour. Lionel Richie once explained how fans only want to hear the hits. Just play the hits. Of course, “Even Flow,” “Alive,” and “Black” sell the tickets, but “Waiting for Stevie” will probably become a big live moment for the band.  

Stevie Wonder arrived at the studio seven hours late. Then he tracked harmonica on a punk rock song and left. The experience moved Eddie Vedder, and Pearl Jam ended up with one of their strongest songs in years.

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Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

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