I hate that word grunge. It has nothing to do with anything. It’s fuckin’ concocted bullshit.
Ben Shepherd, Soundgarden
When talking about his exhaustive and wildly entertaining book Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge, the first thing journalist and author Mark Yarm usually makes clear is that the term ‘grunge’ is very loose and is widely rejected by many of the people to whom it’s been applied. The second thing is to clarify that he’s no relation to Mudhoney’s Mark Arm.
Everybody Loves Our Town started out in Blender magazine as a history of Sub Pop on the occasion of the seminal label’s 20th anniversary. From there, Yarm’s future agent suggested expanding it to a book-length history of the phenomenon of grunge itself. So began a three-year project, during which he would track down and interview virtually everyone who was anyone on the grunge scene. Some of these people you’ll be familiar with, some you won’t; all of them have stories worth telling.
So where do you start a definitive history of grunge? Well, Seattle obviously, but when? Yarm goes back to the Deep Six compilation which showcased six bands from the area and was released in 1986. The album featured Green River, Melvins, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, Soundgarden and The U-Men and showed the beginnings of the heavy guitar sound that would become grunge. Of course you know the Melvins and Soundgarden and that Green River spawned half of Mudhoney and half of Pearl Jam, but why should you care about the likes of The U-Men? Well, this is their guitarist Tom Price describing how they recruited John Bigley as their singer:
He’s a big guy, like six-three. Charlie and I had seen him around and saw him fall through the window and thought, Man, what a weird dude, we should get him to be our singer. We had no idea if he could actually sing or not, but of course, in those days that was just a complete nonissue.
They saw him fall out of a window, so naturally, asked him to sing. Stuff like that comes up throughout the book – a kind of foolhardy, teen-like desire to just make something fun happen, married to a supportive, incestuous scene, safe in the knowledge that whatever happened, nobody outside of the Washington State would ever hear about it, let alone give a shit. And that’s how it all started. The punks, junkies, hippies, maniacs, music nerds and rock stars that populate these pages perfectly describe the petri dish that allowed grunge to bring itself into being and spread itself around the world.
Aside from the big names like Mark Arm, Buzz Osborne, Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, Courtney Love, Tad Doyle, Mark Lanegan and Krist Novoselic – among many, many others – there are major contributions from other key players on the scene, like Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, master producer Jack Endino and Alice In Chains/Soundgarden manager Susan Silver, as well as Melody Maker critic Everett True and Kurt Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross. Another is filmmaker Doug Pray, who describes attempting to capture the tail-end of the scene for the documentary Hype!:
You could not have possibly put together a more cynical and media-wary – not just wary, but willing to fuck with the media – group of people than that group of bands and musicians and publicists.
I asked Mark Yarm if he too experienced any reluctance to talk when putting the book together.
I had something that Doug Pray did not have: the benefit of time. He was coming right at the end of the grunge explosion when feelings were rawest. I got people once they’d had 20 years to process the whole thing. And for the most part, everybody was extremely cool with talking about the past.
Reading Everybody Loves Our Town it certainly feels like people have recovered from the way their scene was invaded and ripped apart and are ready to reminisce. They talk fondly about the venues, the characters, specific gigs and bands and the stunts they pulled and paint a picture of an electric scene in which musicians constantly migrate from band to band with a view to making their own entertainment. Far from the doom-laden and depressive movement it’s often assumed to have been – “complaining set to a drop D tuning”, as Jeff Gilbert memorably describes grunge here – it’s portrayed as a vibrant and fun scene that anyone would want to be a part of. Even before it blew up, Seattle was attracting talent from across the country, sometimes for the oddest reasons, like Eddie Spaghetti of the Supersuckers:
A friend of ours was saying, “You guys should come up here. There’s like three bars to play at here and there’s only one to play at in Tucson, and you can wear your leather jacket well into May.” And we were thinking that sounded pretty dynamite because it’s so hot it kills cattle in Tucson.
With the help of the rare concentration of musical talent within the scene and the make-it-up-as-you-go marketing skills of Poneman and Pavitt over at Sub Pop, this chilly utopia received national attention, followed by international acclaim through John Peel and the British music press. Then came the mainstream success and the feeding frenzy and bitterness that followed. Then came the comedown. It’s all in here and it’s a fascinating read from start to finish, whether grunge is your jam or not.
The Bugsy Malone-style disappearing bar at a U-Men show, as told by Larry Reid, U-Men Manager
We had a show at the Meatlockers – it was exactly what it sounds like – and had a complete bar set up in a freight elevator, so when the cops did show up, we just raised the freight elevator up, shut the doors, and, “What bar? There’s no bar here.”
Locals protest the name Green River due to its connections to recent murders, as told by Mark Arm, Green River/Mudhoney singer/guitarist
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. Okay, it’s the DEAD KENNEDYS and the CRUCIFUCKS, and you’re picketing Green River?
Bands rated according to smell, as told by Sub Pop employee, Megan Jasper
L7 were on the list, but Babes in Toyland were the smelliest. Geoff actually followed them around one time with a Glade air-freshener, spraying them. Nirvana was also on the list. Those were the three biggies. It was mostly the drummer, Chad. One time it smelled so bad in the office when Nirvana was there – it was beyond a human smell.
The scramble for success after Nirvana broke through, as told by Tom Hazelmeyer, Amphetimine Reptile founder
Every band thought they could be Nirvana, and that was insufferable. The attitude was “Why aren’t I big yet?” It’s like, “Have you listened to your own fuckin’ record? It’s just like fuckin’ frog noises with a distorted guitar being smashed up. Are you kidding me?
Courtney goes ‘full Trump’, as told by Courtney Love, Hole singer/guitarist
Janet said to me, “You may never get another shot at Vanity Fair”, when I knew I’d get all the Vanity Fair covers I fuckin’ wanted. I’m gonna get 20 fuckin’ Vanity Fair covers if I want.
Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge is out now with a new UK paperback version published on 7th September 2017.