Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge
- Mark Yarm
- Crown Archetype
- 592 pp.
- Reviewed by Stephen C. Cominski
- October 5, 2011
A rock-music writer offers an inside look at the unique culture of the distinctive music genre that sprang up in the Pacific Northwest.
Reviewed by Stephen C. Cominski
Everybody loves us Everybody loves our town That’s why I’m thinking lately The time for leaving is now
In Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, the reader is presented — even before reaching the table of contents — with this haunting refrain from Mudhoney’s 1992 album. It is perhaps not coincidental that this particular song was written and performed at the height of grunge music’s ascendance to the top of the American popular-music landscape, and just two years before the loss of its scion, Kurt Cobain, frontman for what then may have been the most prominent band in the world: Nirvana. Grunge music came, saw and conquered, but by the late 1990s — barely 10 years after grunge prototypes like Mother Love Bone and Green River first began breaking out of the dreary, as yet unheard of Northwest music scene and onto the world stage — it was dead.
At the time of Cobain’s death in 1994, numerous bands from the Seattle area had enjoyed incredible success, and many more musicians and bands were flocking to Seattle to take part in the recording-industry feeding frenzy in the wake of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album and its iconic hit single, “Smells like Teen Spirit.” The lyric greeting readers at the beginning of the book alludes to the horde of talented musicians, followed by large recording studios trolling for the “next Nirvana” descending on Seattle at this time.
The music insider Mark Yarm, a former senior editor for Blender magazine, presents a narrative history of grunge, putting readers in the same room with many of the musicians, band managers, roadies, club owners and record-company professionals who lived and breathed Seattle music during this historic era. Woven together into something resembling temporally accurate order are over 250 unique interviews, phone conversations and folklore from the people who lived grunge before it had a name. They speak conversationally, about who they were then, and what went down as they remember it.
Grunge is a style of rock music that emerged in the Pacific Northwest from the mid-1980s into the 1990s. Grunge rose out of the ashes of the decline of punk, and returned underground in the late 1980s after having given way to new wave, heavy metal and glam rock. Young artists took inspiration from progressive and genre-stretching punk bands like the Melvins, the U-Men, Iggy Pop and the Ramones. Blending loose, noisy instrumentals with even looser, anguished, often humorous and self-deprecating vocals in a style all their own, grunge artists were neither punk nor metal, but somehow appealed to both audiences in an infectious fashion that flourished in Seattle’s wet and fertile music landscape. Characterized by a deep, gravelly sound full of distortion, heavy percussion and a pendulum swinging between down tempo, then crescendo, then down tempo, then crescendo, the music was fresh, serious, exciting — and definitely something people had not heard before.
Indeed, it took time for the sound to grow on people, especially outside the Seattle area. Early grunge champions included KCMU radio out of Green River Community College in Kent, Washington, and Sub Pop records, which helped put Seattle’s artists on the map through guerilla marketing tactics and relentless promotion of the scene. Groups like Green River, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and heavy hitters like Soundgarden and Mother Love Bone began landing lucrative recording deals and tours. These bands paved the way for Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and many others who came after, generating much more popular appeal, sales numbers and ultimately becoming some of the biggest bands of the decade with all the trapping: MTV fame, gold- and platinum-selling albums, and sold-out world tours.
Grunge’s momentum suffered, however, in the wake of the deaths of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley and other luminaries from drug addiction and suicide. These deaths left a pall on the always philosophical and generally downbeat community of musicians and fans that provided the scene’s energy, and it is this profoundly strange and sad tale that is really being told in Our Town.
Artists who worked with Nirvana remind us that behind the manufactured stardom most of the people making grunge music were fringe characters at best, social outcasts at worst. Punks, skaters, rockers: a far cry from the droves of basically happy, average, middle-class suburban kids all over the country who would soon become grunge music’s most loyal fan base.
From Eddie Roser, singer and guitarist of Chicago’s Urge Overkill: “Cleveland was our first show with Nirvana, and they hadn’t really quite hit it really huge there, and like within a week, by the time we were in St. Louis, it was the most insane crowd I’ve ever seen. Kurt would obviously see that there were a lot of frat kids with baseball hats in the audience who would literally have been the kids beating the shit out of him a couple of years before, so Nirvana were like, ‘This music is not for you.’ ”
The friction between the artists making grunge and the diverse masses who consumed it was a huge part of what made the grunge phenomenon so interesting. The musicians saw themselves as very different from the audiences going wild for their music. They were making intimate music, full of youthful angst and rage at white upper-middle-class America and its conventions. Yet grunge’s biggest fan base came from children raised in just such homes and communities, and who fit in all too well with the conventions at which the musicians lashed out.
I believe music lovers will find this book candid and fresh, despite the nearly two decades since the decline of the scene. The unique “oral history” angle provides both a historical document of the scene and insight into the life stories of some of grunge’s most colorful characters.
Everybody Loves Our Town should inspire new conversations about the unique culture and people that made grunge so unusual and unforgettable to so many fans. The book is timely, as 2011 marks the 20-year anniversary of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Pearl Jam’s multi-platinum debut album, “Ten.” Everybody Loves Our Town is as good an excuse as any to put on an Alice in Chains CD and curl up with a good book about some great old friends with whom we haven’t spent much time in a while.
Stephen C. Cominski is a native of Long Island, N.Y., who moved to Northwest in 1988 at the age of 14. A prolific reader, occasional blogger and music lover, he still lives in Seattle with his wife, lots of great pets and too many motorcycles.