Monday, December 19, 2011


A few things to get out of the way before we start this review. I didn't purchase this book, nor solicit it in any way. It was sent to me for review by its publisher, Crown Archetype. I assigned about a 25% chance to ever reading it once it arrived, and only dove into it as a respite from some much more intense books I'd just finished about the Holocaust and whatnot. Second - the journalist who wrote the book, the book about grunge, is named Mark Yarm. One of those strange coincidences of history, I suppose, that his name is nearly identical to one of the book's "prime movers", Mudhoney's Mark Arm. Finally, there's that word that everyone deservedly hates, "grunge". Yarm apologetically justifies it as a the all-purpose descriptor that, for worse or for better, came to describe heavy punk/metal/glam hybrid music that came from Seattle in the late 80s and early 90s, then allows the oral history participants to dispatch and denigrate it in a number of ways throughout the book. 

Knowing that this book showcases a style of music I truly ceased to listen to almost two decades ago, a style that has not worn particularly well, I hoped at least it would tell some good Mudhoney, Courtney Love & Nirvana drugs & drinking stories. I got that and then some - in fact, once I got rolling with "EVERYBODY LOVES OUR TOWN", I was totally on for the ride and really enjoyed it. Something about the oral history, especially a musical oral history about an era I either experienced firsthand or just missed, can be totally addicting. I've read the NY punk history ("Please Kill Me"); two LA punk histories; the San Francisco punk history; "American Hardcore", and I'm sure a few other oral histories of other scenes that I'm forgetting. This particular book, even with my previous caveats about the Seattle scene's overall musical worth, felt pretty close to home, as I know several of the people in the book personally and had brushed closely against many others during my time as a radio DJ, fanzine dork and frequent show-goer. Kurt Cobain even hung out at my house by happenstance one evening in 1991, which never ceases to impress people at my work or in any all-purpose occasions for scenester braggadocio.

Most of my involvement in this stuff came from having been a big GREEN RIVER fan during my college years. Then the colored-vinyl Sub Pop 45s started coming out – Soundgarden, Blood Circus, Swallow, and the granddaddy of them all, Mudhoney’s “Sweet Young Thing/Touch Me I’m Sick” single. These were all accompanied by over-the-top PR theatrics – everything from the amazing Charles Peterson photos showing Seattle fans of this stuff going bonkers and diving off stages (semi-manipulated by the photographer, as it turns out), to the limited-edition vinyl, to the PR one-sheets themselves. I was squarely an elitist indie-rock dork at the time, with my taste going for the loudest and rawest stuff I could hear. Sub Pop was more than all right for me, and as a 20-year-old with an underdeveloped bullshit detector, I fell right into their trap.

While a college radio DJ at KCSB-FM in Santa Barbara, I remember excitedly talking to Sub Pop head Jonathan Poneman about their upcoming “Singles Club”, a yearly 45s club where you paid up front for a record to be mailed to you each month. He was trying to sell me on the first one from a band called Nirvana, which bummed me out because I hadn’t heard of them yet. “They’re like Cheap Trick meets Kiss, it’s totally awesome, they’re going to be huge”, he said as I gagged on the other end of the line. I was totally a Mudhoney guy, instantly my favorite band from the time that first record came out. Some friends and I travelled to catch their 1988 Northern and Southern California shows with Sonic Youth across 5 different nights, one of which was live on my radio show because I politely asked them to since I knew they had a day off between San Francisco and LA, and they politely concurred. This began a friendship with the band and especially their manager Bob Whittaker that continues to this day, and helped open the door to me meeting some of the other folks quoted liberally throughout this book.

I graduated college in 1989, and some music-obsessed friends and I could think of nothing better than to reward ourselves with a driving trip up to Seattle for a week in June. Once there, we saw a couple live shows with Swallow, Cat Butt and the debut of “Dickless” at the long-gone Vogue club on 1st Avenue. Seattle friends were already then complaining of their town’s oversaturation in media, about “grunge” etc. And this was years before Nirvana-mania, the invention of Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and all that. But the excitement in the Vogue club that night was real – and jesus, it was just Cat Butt, Swallow and Dickless. Seems like the entire “scene” turned up – there goes Chris Cornell, there’s Mark Arm, there’s Bruce Pavitt etc. – and bodies really were being passed around, hair was flying and all that. Later, I’d see a 4-piece Nirvana open for Vomit Launch and Mudhoney at a tiny club in San Jose, CA; encounter Kurt & Courtney backstage in Los Angeles at a Mudhoney show there, and then almost plow into them in my car as they ran across the street arm-in-arm after the show; and get turned on to “microbrewed beer” by Chris Pugh of Swallow, who schooled me on the concept at the Virginia Inn over my first bottle of Red Hook.

Wait a minute, weren’t we reviewing a book here? Back to “EVERYBODY LOVES OUR TOWN” by Mark Yarm. Yarm sets up Seattle noise/voodoo band The U-Men as the prototypical fount of grunge, which is ridiculous on its face, but which has been repeated so often that it’s more or less true at this point. At any rate they were beloved by many who later went on to start the most celebrated of the Seattle bands, as were The Melvins, so both figure strongly in the early oral history chapters. Then thing really start rolling, and to my surprise, it was all quite interesting and extremely entertaining until the very end. You get Mark Arm admitting to some pretty intense heroin usage (with heretofore widely-unknown OD’s); Cobain’s slow, sad dissolution; some disgusting Cat Butt/L7 tour stories; a bizarre character named John Michael Amerika whom I need to learn more about; the Sub Pop financial implosion; jealousy; drug use; alcoholism; band feuds and best of all – COURTNEY LOVE – in spades. She is absolutely as batty as ever, is quoted multiple times in the present, and always the best chip-on-her-shoulder read in show business.

Rock and roll excess comes as no surprise to any of you, I’m sure, but the further away I am from this lifestyle, the more surprisingly graphic & pathetic the drugs and the drinking-to-stupor appear. I’m still naively surprised that bands I really liked were routinely shooting up before their shows. Of course, Seattle was famous for this even then, both in and out of the rocknroll milieu. Part of the reason I bonded so well with Bob Whittaker and the Mudhoney fellas is because they were such a blast to drink with. I’ll admit that I skipped all parts of this book that dealt with Alice In Chains, but I know there’s a sad junkie story in there somewhere. If you do read this book, do not skip the section on “Candlebox”, a post-Nirvana grunge band whom I have never heard but whom I knew to be popular at the time. Resentful, angry, and still hating each other, the band recounts how badly they were verbally beaten up on in the post-Cobain era by Seattleites and others who saw them as interlopers. It’s as good as any reality TV you’ll watch this week.

In fact that’s a pretty good way to sum up this book – the printed equivalent of some really decent reality TV. I absolutely expected to quit it after a quick brush through a couple of chapters, and there I was, three days later & having read every single word except the Alice in Chains, Mother Love Bone and most of the Pearl Jam stuff. (All right, I admit that’s not a small bit to skip, but I simply could not bring myself to care). What sounded somewhat preposterous when I first got the book – “the grunge book” – ended up being a pretty right-on read. Put on your wack slacks and catch it on the flippity flop right here.