It is odd listening to Mother Love Bone’s one and only record, Apple in 2015, 25 years after its initial release. Taken by itself it is nearly a complete celebration. It is brazen, euphoric, cocky, tongue in cheek, sexy, but also oddly innocent, naive, and just plain fun and funny. It is everything that glam metal should have been. Its glam metal without the arrogance, macho posturing, and overt sexism.
If you want evidence, you need only look at MLB’s live performances on YouTube. There you can see singer Andrew Wood in all his camp glory, mincing and pouting his way across the stage, cowboy hat atop his head, feather boa across his shoulders, like a more cuddly Freddie Mercury (in fact, during ‘Capricorn Sister’ Wood, seemingly randomly, sings Freddie Mercury’s name). He knew he was a rock star, even if the rest of the world had not quite cottoned on yet. The rest of the band are a decidedly more ‘grunge’ proposition with only Jeff Ament’s penchant for colourful leg warmers and a variety of hats hinting at anything close to flamboyance.
However, if you listen to it in context, the album is deeply, deeply mournful. This is, of course, due to the fact that on March 24th 1990, just four months before Apple was set to released on July 19th, Andrew Wood succumbed to his heroin addiction. He overdosed and died. By all accounts Andy was a fun loving constantly smiling guy. Jerry Cantrell, guitarist with Alice in Chains, said, “Andy was a hilarious guy, full of life.” In Wood’s memorial book, Chris Cornell, singer of Soundgarden and Andy’s flat mate, called Wood the “love master”. In PJ20, the Cameron Crowe directed biography of Pearl Jam’s career, Stone Gossard, guitarist with MLB and Pearl Jam, said, “There’s certain people that you just know that you love, and you’ll do anything for,” when talking about Andy. Clearly he was a guy held in the highest esteem within the Seattle scene. He was the belief, the soul which bound it together. All this adds a near tangible sense of melancholy to listening to what is mostly carefree music that is full of hope and wonder. It adds gravitas to the rockers and a near unbearable weight to the ballads.
It must be strangest of all for Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder to think of, or listen to Andy Wood. After all, it was Wood’s death that paved the way for Vedder to become Pearl Jam’s singer, and lead the band to become one of the biggest bands of the 90s, and now rock legends on a near par with Bruce Springsteen, and The Who. In fact, in the early Pearl Jam performances you can bear witness to the band’s collective pain and frustration. Jeff Ament is like a dynamo. He races across the stage, virtually attacking his bass. Stone Gossard plays a much more aggressive, and angrier groove than he ever demonstrated in his MLB days. Meanwhile, Eddie is unhinged, climbing rafters, stage diving from great heights, the whole time with this unhinged stare planted on his face.
The album itself, while sounding a bit dated due to Terry Date’s echo heavy production job, is pretty much a stone cold classic. Straddling the glam metal of the era and the gritty grunge of Seattle, it manages that most difficult of feats: marrying soulfulness with rock excess. Throughout there are up tempo rock anthems like ‘This Is Shangrila’, ‘Holy Roller’, ‘Captain Hi-Top (Hi-Top)’, all of which are dripping in Wood’s trademark swagger, an indulgent amount of funk fueled riffs, and some seriously out there lyrics such as: “I’m the instigator of the me generation / The official inseminator of the female population baby, yeah.”
Mid tempo rockers of a more reflective nature are also represented healthily. ‘Come Bite The Apple’ displays the trepidation that Wood had about his fate when he sings, “My future was in my hands / Till I washed it all away.” This theme is echoed in the more down beat material of the album. This is arguably where Wood leaves his most lasting impression. If the up tempo tracks show Wood’s cockiness, and confidence, the more reflective material reveals the insecure, troubled boy beneath. For instance, there’s an extra resonance to a lyric like, “Stargazer, won’t you kick with me, oh, please” when the nature of Wood’s demise is taken into account. As towards the end of the song he mentions his girlfriend Xana’s name, it seems that perhaps she is the Stargazer he is imploring to help him ‘kick’ his habit.
Of course this all culminates in the absolutely incomparable ‘Crown of Thrones’. While the version on Apple is only half of Wood’s ‘Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thrones’ masterpiece (the full version appears on the band’s Shine EP and the Singles Soundtrack), it, nevertheless, shows just what a vulnerable talent Wood was. It begins, “Have you ever heard the story of Mister Faded Glory? / Say he who rides the pony must someday fall.” Of course, to ‘ride the pony’ is to shoot up heroin recreationally, and here Wood again seems to predict his own demise. It climaxes with Wood howling over the guitar solo, singing, “I said, “Baby, don’t burn your bridges, woman””, but maybe there is no woman. Maybe he is calling upon himself not to burn his bridges, not to throw everything he has away.
That is what is so tragic about Andy Wood. Behind all the smiles, and fun, and showmanship, there was a vulnerable, insecure drug user and potential addict. It’s like depression; he hid it so well until it was too late. What then are we, the listeners, left with? Well, first and foremost, we are left with a stellar, and unique, record of ‘love-rock’ as Wood dubbed it. It’s a tour de force, and we must be happy that we were invited along for the, albeit brief, ride. We’re also left with a lesson and a warning. Be careful with those you love. You have no idea how fragile they are.