An Oral History of Grunge - Hype Week

By: Meredith Schneider
Photo courtesy of Feral78.

There might not be anyone who would get super excited over the release of local historic volume on any American small town. But if that town spawned some of the most interesting acts of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and lent itself to an awakening in live music performance, among other things, then it might be something to write home about. For Seattle music writer and former senior editor at Blender magazine, Mark Yarm, there’s enough right at home to write volumes about.

The author of the recent history on his home city, Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, has used his editorial talents in a number of other incredible publications including Esquire, Wired, and Vulture. His own history in music writing led him to a vested interest in Seattle’s grunge period which, to the benefit of the world, resulted in one of the most praised pop-culture books of this generation. This in no small part was driven by the laid-back, story-telling nature of it all.

Yarm made a point to interview everyone — members of Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Melvins, Green River, Pearl Jam, etc. There are vendor owners, girlfriends, publicists, and renaissance men. Take Mark Deutrom, who not only co-founded Alchemy Records but also performed various tasks for local acts in areas of production, sound engineering, and performance (he played bass for the Melvins between 1993-98).

Some of them met each other as early as grade school or as late as the shows of their adulthood. There is a camaraderie that comes across in these accounts that people could not fathom unless they were in the Seattle area at that time. Until now, that is. There are also random facts and tales that would surprise both fans and other music lovers alike.

For starters, Alex Shumway of Green River was a ballet dancer as a child. The Trees turned down a Budweiser commercial so they wouldn’t have to change their song lyrics to “Nearly Lost You.”

Band names came from teachers they hated and community colleges they never attended. Mark Arm, of Green River, explains how both he and Steve Turner selected their band name on the same day at different moments. He then regales the reader with the story of how the band was shunned because of its relevancy in the community with the Green River Killer on the loose.

“We opened for the Dead Kennedys and the Crucifucks. I didn’t see any evidence of it, but apparently there was a group outside picketing based on our name,” says Turner. “Okay, it’s the Dead Kennedys and the Crucifucks, and you’re picketing Green River?”

The stories are well told and the personalities of those interviewed are tangible.

Everybody Loves Our Town is a compilation of stories like these, and quotes that really lend themselves to each other in a way that’s poetic— the prose ebbing and flowing from one account to the next. Chapter 39 foreshadows the death of the most widely known grunge idol, Kurt Cobain. Soundgarden bassist, Ben Shepherd explained that when he knew Kurt was on his way to suicide in a very painful and palpable way simply by convention of hearing his music.

I had just put my bags down in our hotel room in London and turned on MTV. I saw the video for “Heart-Shaped Box.” That was the first time I’d heard the song, too. I freaked out and was like, “I need to get ahold of Kurt right now.”

Yeah, I can feel Kurt. A million miles away, and in one song. One note, one little drain of his voice, that’s when I could feel it. It was a bad feeling. Like, it’s either him or me. Kurt, don’t. That’s what I felt like. So I tried to get ahold of Kurt for our entire European tour. But no one helped me get ahold of him from our camp. No one paid attention.

Perhaps the most telling of the accounts leading up to Kurt’s passing was the one given by Larry Reid of The U-Men.

The last conversation of any substance I had with him was backstage at this show they played at the Seattle Center Coliseum, in September 1992… Kurt said something like, “That’s the way I wanna go: Live fast, die young,” or words to that effect. I’m paraphrasing. And I just started yelling at him. I think he must’ve used the word romantic, because I remember saying, “There’s nothing romantic about it at all!” Then I said, “Yeah, you die and it’s fine, but you leave nothing but hard feelings. You’ve got this beautiful young baby, and you’ve got a lunatic wife…” He just sort of sheepishly wandered off.

It is lines like these that make the book, in turn, so addictive and difficult to put down. Every chapter has its deep, rooted meaning and a title that best summarizes it (i.e. “Touch Me I’m Sick,” which is a Mudhoney song, and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifters,” by Nirvana).

Everybody Loves Our Town is—above all else—a nostalgia piece for those readers who were lucky enough to experience grunge, whether it was during that time or in its infamy as it lives on in the alternative cannon. Butch Vig, drummer for Garbage, remembers, “The first thing Nirvana played, on the first day of rehearsals for Nevermind, was “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and I was just completely floored. It sounded huge and crashing and loud. I just was pacing around ‘cause it sounded so fuckin’ cool.”

And, of course, the book would not be complete without the Kurt Cobain-Courtney Love saga, with perhaps the least foul story Courtney has ever told:

“I met Kurt in Portland in 1989… He was with Tracy, and then Kurt and I got into a wrestling thing… because I told him he had a fat girlfriend. I was just being a dick. But then he gave me a sticker—a little sticker with Chim Chim [the monkey] on it that had Nirvana in his hand.”

If you were not already privy to it, this book emphases how grunge music was all about performance – and may be best remembered by those who made it that way. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, among many other artists, describes how intense he became during performances.

In San Diego we were playing with Nirvana and the Chili Peppers. I had climbed an I-beam that you could kind of wrap your hand around. So I got to the top, and I thought, Well, how do I get down? I either just give it up and look like an idiot, or I go for it. So I decided to try it, and it was really ridiculously high, like 100 feet, something mortal. I was thinking that my mother was there, and I didn’t want her to see me die. So somehow I finally got back onstage, finished the song, and went to the side and threw up. I knew that was really stupid, beyond ridiculous. But to be honest, we were playing before Nirvana. You had to do something. Our first record was good, but their first record was better.

Engaging the audience was a huge part of why these people did what they did, and that is obvious throughout every story, laugh, and correction made in this book. It’s all about having fun and being in the know and Mark Yarm has satisfied these cravings.

At the same time, he makes each of his characters human. Every reader can relate to someone—or some anecdote—in this book. It is no wonder that the public responded to it so positively.

Everybody Loves Our Town has been critically acclaimed worldwide. The Guardian claimed it was “A Herculean work of interviewing and editing which gives everyone a voice.” It became a Spin and NPR choice for Best Music Book of the Year (2011), A Guardian and Telegraph Best Book of the Year: Music (2011), and even a Time magazine Best Book of 2011.

Living up to its title, Everybody Loves Our Town, continues to grow in popularity instead of subsiding into literary abandon, a feat that many authors never quite reach.