Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge
By Mark Yarm
Kurt Cobain famously opened Nirvana’s final studio album, In Utero, with the lines “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old.” In the Seattle of the early 1990s, nothing, not even worldwide commercial success and near-universal artistic acclaim, was above moaning about. Indeed teenage angst did pay off well. Grunge, the musical genre of which Nirvana was Exhibit A, was at once a grassroots repudiation of the hair-metal hegemony that preceded it and a commercial juggernaut that woke up the world to Seattle. It also completely upended the music business, elevating independent labels and precipitating a major-label gold rush to the Pacific Northwest.
Mark Yarm, a former editor at the defunct Blender magazine, has taken it upon himself to capture every blessed, accursed moment in grunge’s history. Before he gets down to the business of presenting his exhaustive, 250-interview-strong account of the music movement that put the city in the global spotlight, he semi-apologizes for using the word grunge, which rankled Seattle’s scenesters back then and evidently still does. “When I see the word grunge, especially on books,” he quotes an interviewee, “I kind of go… .” Then this person proceeds to make “a rather convincing vomiting sound.”
A dedicated miserabilism pervades Everybody Loves Our Town, a feeling among its participants that life sucked in the lean years because it was harsh and penurious and that life sucked in the boom years because it was flash and phony. One minute, the erstwhile members of the U-Men, a seminal proto-grunge band, are recalling how they had to shoplift from 7-Elevens to survive on tour in the ’80s; the next, Eddie Vedder is summoning the psychic scars he bore from appearing against his will on the cover of Time. “I never knew … that they could sell magazines and make money, and you didn’t have a copyright on your face,” he says.
Yet the fact is that something truly exciting and appealing happened musically in Seattle as the ’80s turned into the ’90s. And grunge is a fairly apt, onomatopoeically pleasing way to describe the movement’s defining characteristics: the musicians’ mildewy flannel shirts and defiantly unteased hair; the marriage of punk’s DIY ethos to Black Sabbath’s heavy, down-tuned guitar riffage; and the dark and caustic lyrics. As local journalist and DJ Jeff Gilbert says: “Grunge isn’t a musical style. It’s complaining set to a drop D tuning.”
Yarm seems to have unearthed every living witness to the birth of the Seattle scene. Nearly two-thirds of the book goes by before he reaches the epochal event that loosed a plague of A&R men upon the Emerald City: the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, in September 1991, to whose 20th anniversary his book is timed. Everyone is here and on the record, from the alumni of the forebear groups U-Men and Skin Yard to the scene’s enduring celebrities (Vedder, Dave Grohl, Chris Cornell, Courtney Love) to the scrappy survivors in the second rung (e.g., Mark Arm of Mudhoney); from Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, the promotionally savvy but financially inept overseers of Seattle’s beloved indie Sub Pop label, to the opportunistic jackals from the major labels; from MTV’s Kurt Loder and Riki Rachtman to the designer Marc Jacobs, whose notorious “grunge collection” for Perry Ellis (flannels, Doc Martens, and skull caps repurposed for the runway) got him fired from his job as the company’s creative director.
As impressive a display of reportorial industriousness as Everyone Loves Our Town is, though, it’s not for the casual rock-history reader—the kind who might pick up Steven Tyler’s memoir in an airport. Yarm’s book is Advanced Placement reading for the serious rock snob: the kind of person who not only wants to familiarize himself with the genealogical intricacies of how the bands Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam, Temple of the Dog, and Mudhoney trace their origins back to the band Green River but is also keen to pore over the individual accounts of these bands’ musicians to compare and contrast their testimony.
The grunge kids came up without much in the way of intellectual ballast or romantic notions of life. Theirs was not the fertile, knowing alt-art underworld into which Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe insinuated themselves in Just Kids, the former’s memoir of her early years in New York. Rather, it was, as record producer Jack Endino puts it, a “little, isolated germ culture” suffused with the kind of backwater ennui that today begets meth labs. A lot of “Seattle bands” weren’t even from Seattle but from small Washington towns out in the sticks, places such as Aberdeen, Montesano, and Stanwood.
One nice thing that Everybody Loves Our Town does is bring into focus how this sense of cultural irrelevance and geographical isolation informed the sensibility of what came to be called grunge. Kurt Danielson, the bassist for the band TAD, relates how he went to college and got a degree, yet wound up “in a band projecting this image of precisely what I tried to escape. So this white-trash aesthetic was very ironic for me.” Cobain, Danielson says, was a kindred spirit in this regard, paradoxically parlaying the dead-end hopelessness of his childhood into his star persona.
That said, a lot of the formative experiences recalled in Everybody Loves Our Town are, frankly, puerile, gross, and repetitive: the squalid apartments, the dope benders, the dumb shenanigans. Painstakingly constructed and densely populated as it is, Yarm’s narrative all but ignores that grunge didn’t happen in a vacuum; it was within the context of a whole Seattle “moment.” Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s lush TV homage to Washington state weirdness, became a sensation a year and a half before Nevermind. Starbucks was just beginning to metastasize rapidly beyond its Pacific Northwest roots. Microsoft was entering its golden period of software dominance. Something was in the air, with Seattle exerting a gravitational pull not just on record-label executives but on normal people. What was going on? In what way were these phenomena interrelated? Yarm, frustratingly, leaves these questions unexplored.
We do know, however, how the story ends: The grunge bubble burst, leaving in its wake relief, recriminations, and a horrific body count. The first to go was Andrew Wood, the puckish lead singer of Mother Love Bone, who overdosed in 1990 on the eve of his band’s debut album release. The heroin-related deaths never really stopped after that: Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch in ’92, Cobain in ’94 (of a gunshot wound, but still), Kristen Pfaff of Hole in ’94, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains in ’02, and, just this past March, Staley’s former bandmate Mike Starr, who had achieved post-grunge renown on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew and is quoted liberally by Yarm.
Aptly, if at times oppressively, Everybody Loves Our Town defies the fun, frothy expectations that the oral-history format raises. Grunge was a boon to an America mired in mediocre rock, but even now its participants seem reluctant to take the cheery no-regrets tack that has otherwise become de rigueur for aging, formerly debauched rockers. It’s the feel-bad rock book of the fall.