Monday, January 30, 2012

What A Strange Trip It's Been

Okay so quoting a Grateful Dead song title may seem a strange way of beginning a review of an oral history of 'grunge' music but Mark Yarm's 542 page oral history of Seattle's third most famous export (after computers and coffee shops) 'Everybody Loves Our Town'  is just that. It is a journey from small beginnings to world domination and then slow death.

Where this book differs from most tomes on music is that it is told from the insiders: the great, the good, the dangerous, the mad and those who fell by the wayside in the period from around 1985 to the late 1990's and whose music contributed immeasurably to popular culture at the end of the last century and the beginning of the current one.

When, in 1986, the Seattle label C/Z released a compilation of local bands under the title 'Deep Six' the featured bands: Soundgarden, Green River, Melvins, Malfunkshun, U-Men and Skin Yard were barely known beyond the city limits but between them they would provide musicians who would over the next eight to ten years have an impact on rock music around the world. Should Pete Frame have produced one of his legendary 'rock family trees' to accompany this book its branches would have included, in addition to those six bands mentioned above: Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Audioslave, Nirvana,  10 Minute Warning, Gruntruck, Mother Love Bone, Green River, Temple of The Dog, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, Tad and 7 Year Bitch to name a few.

There are two definite parts to the book and there are no points on offer for guessing the point at which the story changes and, as Courtney Love puts it, the rocket of success takes over. The moment that Nevermind goes global everything changes for ever and Seattle becomes fly paper for not only every music executive in the western world but seemingly every music journalist and stories ranging from the bizarre to the extremely disturbing, but that is some five years off when the story begins.

It takes some 286 pages before we get to Butch Vig (producer of Nevermind) remembering the first rehersals of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and those first 285 pages really lay the groundwork for what is to come. There are artists for whom it is fair to say that pre Nevermind they were more than happy with the small is beautiful idea but the explosion in interest after the success of Nevermind changed a whole lot of attitudes. The term 'grunge' seems to include, as far as the media are concerned, anybody from Seattle whether there musical roots are in punk, heavy metal or pop. There's a strong do it yourself ethos that overrides everything until bands started getting picked up by the majors but the book has plenty 'we travelled across the country by van' types of stories.

What is interesting is that of the three bands who made it biggest on a global scale: Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, the latter was the group that seemed to be the least aware of how to deal with the success. Pearl Jam appear before a congressional committee and are visitors at the White House as their dispute with Ticketmaster and then Bill Clinton's concern about the possibility of copy cat suicides take the story to surreal levels. Soundgarden are driven purely by the music and a singlemindedness that is ultimately the reason why the break-up but poor old Kurt can't cope with having what he always wanted and he becomes an increasingly desperate figure who simply collapses in on himself, he appears in the book not just through the memories of others but through his journals.

Two things come through the interviews, journal entries and quotes, the amount of drugs consumed by everybody in the book and the fact that Seattle wasn't just geographically isolated but culturally isolated as well before the big bang in 1991. The same names crop up in various line-ups, colloborations take place, careers take off or are stalled on the runway, there are deaths, overdoses, a murder and plenty of bitching and back biting. The story really starts and ends with British music influencing its beginnings and its closure, the early bands are fans of The Kinks, The Beatles and of course Black Sabbath who are responsible for the Drop D tuning which gives 'grunge' its distinctive sound. The riff of "Come As You Are" on the Nevermind album is actually The Killing Joke's "Eighties" slowed down, something I wasn't alone in noticing as the 'Joke' actually sued Nirvana, a legal activity I wasn't aware of until recently and which isn't mentioned in this book. The music worlds craving for the sound of Seattle is finally extinguished when Britpop comes on the scene and the blame is laid at the doors of Elastica, probably the most insipid of all Britpop groups.

As Courtney Love, whose presence in the second half of the book takes the form of the wicked witch of the west, says, "In the film industry people will tell you they love everybody, it's not the same in music," and she's right, and she's also the root cause of a lot of the trouble seemingly oblvious to the fact that her insecurities impact on and fracture nearly every relationship she stumbles across.

The term 'grunge' is lazy but I suppose journalists need a handle on which they can hang their, well hang-ups, the relationship between the media, the culture and the word itself as a description reaches its low point the morning after Kurt Cobain's suicide when Larry King calls a radio station in Seattle, whilst he himself is live on TV n New York and asks, "So what does Grunge music sound like?"

The book itself benefits from an index which lists all those involved and who exactly they were in the 'scene', there is also a lengthy reference section and acknowledgements. As an oral history of course it is only as good as the memories of those who were there and there are several conflicts throughout the book and one telling moment when one of the participants, in relation to a misquoted TV report, says that he wonders how reliable oral histories before the advent of television were.

There are overdoses, suicides and a murder but for me the saddest passage is in Chapter 48 "Lost Nine Friends We'll Never Know" with the description of the Pearl Jam concert at Roskilde, Denmark on July 15 2000, where nine fans are crushed to death and another thirty are hospitalised. The description of the crowd moving slowly backwards, on instructions from Eddie Vedder on stage, to alleviate the crush and reveal the nine dead bodies is the most moving piece of writing I have read for a long time.

One of the best quotes in the book comes from photographer Lance Mercer who when surveying the scene, in 1996, and the musicians who didn't know what to do with themselves after the interest had gone says, "I always say they had to either put on the orange apron, the green apron or the blue apron: Home Depot, Starbucks or Kinko's.

What the book has done for me though is to imbibe a wider knowledge of the music of the era, its depth and variety and the kick to go back and revisit a period of music some twenty years old. Some of it has stood the test of time, Pearl Jam and Nirvana still sound as good, some of the bands such as L7 and TAD could have been recorded any time over the last forty years and those bands such as Mother Love Bone and Green River who really were seminal in the history of the movement sound naive and dated.

A book I'd recommend to anybody with an interest in the music and artists that spearheaded 'grunge' at the back end of the twentieth century. And what's not to like about a music scene that produces a band called Lubricated Goat.


Span Ows said...

Nothing wrong with a lubricated Goat! Arab friends tell me.

As I have said before - and if all this is your own work - you are rather good at this review thing.

Paul said...

Thank you, it is indeed all my own work, took me three weeks to read the book and I started to miss it after I'd finished. I'm going to read something smaller next having read over 1,000 pages with this and Keef's book.

yarmyarm said...

Thanks for the kind words about ELOT! Glad you enjoyed. ~Mark

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