A late meditation on the oral history of grunge
What follows is a meditation on Mark Yarm’s well-assembled book, Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, published in 2011. (By way of disclosure, I am one of the many sources he interviewed.) This essay doesn’t properly belong here, and I know that, but this is home, even if I only stop by once a year.
The very first piece I wrote for The Rocket magazine in 1988, when finally I came out from behind the typesetting machine, was about the process of getting the friend who had been my sponsor into the music industry sober. She is still sober. We used no treatment center because she’d already spent all her money on drugs, and nobody in the music business had health insurance. It is doubtful that I mentioned my own chemical explorations amid that page-long piece; they were not all that significant and far too much and not very interesting, except to me, at the time.
I also had for a mentor another woman, the late Maxine Cushing Gray, of the New England Cushings, who went all the way back to the same place the Alden name goes back except that Cushing really was her family name and Alden is not mine, save by some droll, dull tangent that takes a pitcher of beer to tell properly. Maxine had been a scholarship athlete at Stanford (her degree was in political science), a dancer with Martha Graham, and the first female art critic at a daily newspaper west of the Mississippi. She was a powerfully ethical woman and crispy graceful, nicknamed the Tweed Hornet. From Maxine I learned the immutable truth that critics do not socialize with the people they presume to write about.
At some point, probably during the spring of 1977, I saw my first punk rock show: Uncle Cookie, at the Richmond Rec Center. Conrad Uno, who had played golf for my high school well before I got there, played bass in the band. My buddy had interviewed him (I drove, maybe) for the school paper at this impossibly cool band house in the University District that smelled vaguely of beer and incense and had shelves and shelves of LPs. The band’s vain attempt to get some easy money playing a high school dance.
Conrad went on to start PopLlama Records, to launch the careers of the Young Fresh Fellows and the Presidents of the United States of America, and to offer an internship to a kid from Austin named Peter Blackstock, who became co-founder of No Depression magazine. Uncle Cookie were kind of a Ramones cover band with original material bolted on. I still have their single, “The Hamburger” b/w “Kidnapped,” and can type those titles from memory.
Over the next five or six years I saw every show I could afford at the Showbox, then as dilapidated a building as could be kept open, people passed out in nearby doorways, a burlesque next door. I don’t remember being brave or desperate enough to use the restroom. Everything from Devo to the Troggs to Muddy Waters, Pearl Harbour & the Explosions, the Undertones. Those are the ones I remember. That and a four-band bill which included the astonishing Pere Ubu and Magazine and maybe the Dead Boys and the Members, or maybe that’s where I saw the Undertones, but there were about 400 people at the Paramount, the promoters lost everything they’d made on two sold-out Devo shows, and I met almost every one of those people over the next decade.
Christmas of 1979 I saw John Cale at CBGBs, even though I thought it was J.J. Cale when I read the advert in the Village Voice. I swear the opening band was The The, and they were awful. Cale was mesmerizing — filled with cold, dangerous fury, wearing a hard hat — reprising the live album he’d cut called Ready for War just at the moment the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and Ronald Reagan took the White House. That same trip I saw Apocalypse Now but misread the showtimes and came in during the middle, watched through to the middle again, and found it made total sense.
One summer my high school debate partner came back from New York and put together a band called Food, which actually played a show at some union hall. The bass player was this hairy guy named Mike who became Jack Endino, because “Jack Endino” was the phonetic reproduction of his last name, and produced Nirvana’s first album. Somewhere in there I actually saw the Blackouts, who were transcendent, before they moved to Chicago and became Ministry’s rhythm section.
I was in Metropolis once, but I think the band cancelled or I didn’t have the price of admission. I know we ended up at one of the Gorilla Gardens locations, but I didn’t have fake ID and maybe nobody was playing that night. Mostly I wasn’t that cool or that hip, and my cars always broke down.
Then punk went hardcore and I spent five years listening to country radio, making my first stab at being an adult. Writing and designing crap for hire, and not hired much. Then hired at The Rocket, by my college editor, Charles Cross.
All of which compounds to mean this and only this: I was by no means an innocent during the years of grunge. Only that. I was not cool or special, I was just there. On the edge of things. Standing just in front of the soundboard because the sound is usually good there and guys with thick glasses don’t mosh if they have to drive home, and, anyway, I lived in the suburbs with a bond trader and was all but teetotal for most of those years, me and Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman in the back clutching water bottles, everything else happening in front of us. Happening to other people.
My job, I thought, was to figure out what it meant. To construct a context, a critical framework. A critic’s job. Honorable work, so it seemed.
Such unequaled joy, to be lost in that music and jostled by strangers.
Everybody Loves Our Town brings me almost to tears.
Almost a dozen dead, by the end, and that’s only the people who featured in the story who didn’t make it, and doesn’t count the suicide of the punk poet laureate of Seattle, Steven Jesse Bernstein.
All that carnage for a dream?
Hotel rooms and backstages and lives wrecked.
Wrenching, all of it.
Grunge was supposed to be the bright new thing which ended the dinosaur hegemony of the hair bands, the clear and clever art which brought an end to the myth of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Even if we all disavowed the brand name.
It was funny.
It was Jeff Ament rushing around before Soundgarden headlined Bumbershoot to dig out and touch up the Spinal Tap Stonehenge and cause it to appear during their encore. (And me trying to keep up with the joke because I’d never seen the movie.)
It was political. Deeply, personally political.
A lot of musicians were in the crowd which showed up downtown outside the Federal Courthouse to oppose the first Gulf War, we who were the ten percent.
It was funny and political. Krist Novoselic got us on MTV when a handful of rebels stood on the steps of the state capitol to protest something called the Erotic Music Bill. Somebody at the C/Z label taped two pieces of paper together and looped them on the office fax machine to help break the fax machine in the governor’s office, as if running the number on a constant crawl on MTV didn’t do the trick. Booth Gardner, a Democrat, signed the bill anyway. (We were told his wife made him.) Hilary Rosen, then a vice president of the RIAA (or something like), came to town to tell us to back off. We didn’t. The ACLU supported us, as did a handful of record labels and more than a few musicians, though most of them didn’t have any money so we supported the organizations selling t-shirts that said “I BUY MUSIC FOR MINORS.”
We won in court.
The next time we won in the legislature.
It was about being bottled up in a nowhere place.
Not about drugs.
I knew what cocaine sounded like. It sounded like California in the 1970s, that clear, precise, tense and airless music of Fleetwood Mac or the Eurythmics. Heroin sounded like jazz, and I didn’t understand either. Don’t understand either.
So I spent years arguing in print and with editors that grunge wasn’t about heroin, that heroin wasn’t deeply embedded in the culture and the music. That it was an anomaly. Building a career as a critic. And yet…an editor called from Los Angeles to ask me to check to see if Mark Arm really had just had an overdose. I called his manager, left a message on the phone which said something like, “You should know this question is being asked and I’m not going to do anything more about it than leave you this message.” I never wrote for her again.
I didn’t believe these smart, clever people who were fun and challenging to interview and astonishing to see make their art in public…I didn’t believe they were drawn to that pit. Couldn’t make sense of it.
Can’t make sense of it.
Never, ever wanted to be part of the process of mythologizing that shit.
Here, in Mark Yarm’s book, are all the stories I would never have told, never have asked. Page after page of people I knew, and liked, but did not know well (because I kept my critical distance) talking about smack. Page after page of death and destruction and debauchery.
This is not to find fault with Mr. Yarm’s book, for he has done an estimable job pulling the threads together. The occasional error which marks him as an outsider (the Green Lake neighborhood is not a suburb, or hasn’t been for at least a hundred years, to pick one of a handful) does nothing to diminish the patience with which he has assembled these stories, and the skill with which he has linked them together.
It’s part of why I left in 1995.
And, yes, I am painfully aware that some in the alt.country community battled demons, and that I wrote about them.
The thing Peter Blackstock and I always said still stands: It’s about the music.
The rest of it is bullshit and mythology.
But, yes, apparently Seattle, viewed through the correct lens, was all about heroin and I didn’t see it, didn’t want to see it, didn’t know what it looked like. Never wrote about it. Didn’t hear it in the music.
Blind and in denial?
The very last thing I wished to be a part of was mythologizing somebody else’s demons to the point where kids would move to town and seek to embrace those demons.
Which, of course, they did.
Mark Yarm’s book isn’t about the music, it’s about the people who made the music. Some of the people. The people who made a certain kind of music around which one could draw a line and plausibly say, This is grunge. This leaves out many who were important and didn’t play that style of music, or didn’t live in Seattle. It leaves out the Walkabouts and the Picketts, Sir Mix-A-Lot (the only artist to hang a gold album in The Rocket office while I worked there), the Posies and the Young Fresh Fellows (who at least get mentioned in passing), Queensryche and Forced Entry and the Accused and Panic, the whole metal scene vibrating alongside what came to be grunge. Plus the entire Nettwerk Records world three hours north in Vancouver, B.C., and most of what happened three hours south in Portland, Oregon (see: Poison Idea, the Dharma Bums, the Dan Reed Network, Elliot Smith, Dead Moon, the Spinanes). Plus K Records and Kill Rock Stars and Girl Trouble, and all the rest.
Mr. Yarm knows all that. It’s a book, not an encyclopedia.
All the rest, and I wonder now how many more died.
Art is what the audience makes of it. I made of grunge a catharsis, a blues, a release. Maybe the songs were more about smack than I heard. Probably they were. But they’re songs, they’re about whatever the listener hears, just as poems mean whatever the reader brings to the page, just as I am certain not to have said here exactly what I mean, or think, or feel. It’s the feeling part that’s the hardest, the part grunge did best.