25 years ago this September, rock maestros Pearl Jam hit their native Seattle’s London Bridge Studios to record a song that expertly mirrored the grungy angst of the early 90s. “Jeremy,” which was based on a true story and written by band members Eddie Vedder and Jeff Ament, told an unflinching story of school age bullying and violence years before Columbine thrust those hot topics into the news. Released as the band’s third single from their landmark debut album Ten, the video for “Jeremy” elevated the song from rock fame to cultural infamy, going so far as igniting a cultural debate and winning an MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year.
Despite the fact the video for “Jeremy” came out over two decades ago, director Mark Pellington and editor Bruce Ashley say they still get chills watching and experiencing it. Pellington, son of rough and tumble Baltimore Colts linebacker Bill, tries to sum up what an impact the video made on his career, which is as long as it is esteemed. “I look at projects I’ve worked on from just eight years ago and they can look dated. I think the song still holds up today and the layers of it stylistically are still very vital. I probably talk about ‘Jeremy’ at least twice a year, interest in it never seems to stop. It’s going to be on my tombstone.” Ashley echoes those sentiments. “What’s interesting even though about 25 years has passed it feels timeless. It holds it’s own. You look at videos from the 80s, they’re clearly 80s videos but this has its own uniqueness.”
It was a life changing experience that almost willfully passed him by. Before hooking up with Pearl Jam and frontman Vedder, Pellington was working with some of the biggest acts of the late 80s and early 90s, from U2 to Public Enemy. “During that time I was doing more hip hop and pop, so when Pearl Jam sent me the track I initially passed on it.” (Pellington was brought aboard after an original crack at a “Jeremy” video by a different director was nixed.) However, he soon took another listen. “I listened to it again and again, and after getting on the phone with Eddie, that was it. It tapped into my own childhood and I just ended up writing and writing and writing.” Pellington quickly threw himself into the project, collaborating with editor Bruce Ashley. “Mark had a prescient instinct about what the video meant and what it represented,” remembers Ashley. “It speaks a lot about many issues.”
Pearl Jam – Jeremy (Directors Cut) from Mark Pellington on Vimeo. Featured here: Both Ashley and Pellington prefer the uncensored Director’s cut of “Jeremy” to the more sanitized version that aired on MTV.
Ashley, who since has edited a multitude of projects from music videos to commercials and even the 2015 Brad Pitt-narrated documentary “Hitting the Apex,” was instrumental in creating the feel of “Jeremy,” especially considering the immense amount of graphics and cuts. “I was inside Bruce’s head and he was inside my head,” notes Pellington of their long and fruitful creative relationship. Adds Ashley, “Working on it was an amazing experience.”
Production on the video took place around Staten Island, New York and Bayonne, New Jersey, and throughout its creation, Pellington and his crew had a feeling they were onto something special. “You know when the song is great,” he explains. “You know when it’s speaking profound truths. You know when the performers are great. You know when the ideas are clicking. When it feels good, you have no control over the reaction.”
The reaction to “Jeremy” was stronger than anyone could have imagined. MTV nixed the original cut which showed the title character putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger, instead releasing an edited version that, despite being less graphic, is a bit more ambiguous. (Pellington refers to the second cut as “the censored, confusing version.”) However, that didn’t stop the network for showering it with awards at the 1993 Video Music Awards. It was a night that cemented the video’s cultural legacy that Mark remembers clearly. “Sharon Stone was shit-faced,” he says with a laugh. “I was sitting behind Kurt Cobain and when they said it won and announced my name, he turned around and said congratulations. I remember feeling so nervous.” Along with Video of the Year, “Jeremy” was also given accolades for Best Group Video, Metal/Hard Rock, and Direction. “It was a little bit of a landslide.”
Perhaps “Jeremy” made the impact it did due to the issues it shined a bright, raw and uncomfortable light on. “Nobody was talking about kids and guns then,” says Pellington. “This was seven years before Columbine.” Years later, gun control continues to dominate news headlines making it more of a hot topic than ever, making “Jeremy” a pioneering force in launching a discussion. It’s that continuing discussion that led Pellington and Ashley to collaborate on a series of public service announcements in 2014 that touched on both the Virginia Tech and Aurora Movie Theater shootings and advocated for common-sense gun control.
Besides the gun debate, many other things have changed since “Jeremy” took pop culture by storm. MTV long ago did away with the ‘music’ portion of their name and instead air an endless parade of teen soaps. Music videos, meanwhile, now freely float around on internet. What hasn’t changed is the art of making them, which leads Ashley to call the genre his favorite to explore. “It’s much more expressive and open and more of an art form,” he says of the craft of visually representing music in creative and thought-provoking ways. “The actual process of making them hasn’t really changed at all, though. It’s still the same sort of principles no matter the technology. The digital side of things makes it all more efficient, but that’s about it.”
Pellington echoes those sentiments, explaining that he’ll “always want to do videos. They’re a different form. I love the freedom, except today the budgets are lower.” He continues to hone his video craft, recently directing videos for the likes of MIA’s (“Dynasty”) and Silversun Pickups (“Nightlight.”) However, it’s “Jeremy” that will always be an indelible part of his legacy.
Notes Pellington of the experience, “No one knows what something is going to become.”