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Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History Of Grunge by Mark Yarm

Washington State, with its gray skies and aura of wet gloom, was the natural birthplace of the unrelentingly bleak music that came to be known as grunge. A sound based on resonant power chords and growling vocals, practiced nearly exclusively by white guys in lumberjack shirts, it began as an amalgamation of punk and glam, blending the former’s raw power with the latter’s deliberate stage presence and lengthy, complicated song structure, adding a few top notes of heavy metal. Journalist Jeff Gilbert memorably dubbed it “complaining set to a drop D tuning.”

No one seems to know who coined the term (it may have originated with Mark Arm of Mudhoney, who used the word in a letter to a fanzine in 1981), and all the musicians associated with the scene claim to hate it. But the word “grunge,” if not beloved, does accurately describe the music’s sense of loss, frustration, and anger and the depth of the magically evocative drop D power chord, which you hear in songs like Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and “Man in the Box” by Alice in Chains. Everybody Loves Our Town by Mark Yarm tells the story of how this hostile, anti-pop sound from a smallish city briefly became the most popular music in the world.

Modeled on “Please Kill Me,” the classic oral history of punk by Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain, Yarm’s book draws on 250 interviews with fascinating, profane, occasionally insightful and ultimately kinda sad scenesters, including members of Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Green River, U-Men, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Everybody Loves Our Town is a Carnegie Deli sandwich, overstuffed and overwhelming. But its best passages make you wish you had been at the Sub Pop Lamefest in London, with TAD, Mudhoney and Nirvana.

The author skillfully paints a portrait of a scene that began in 1979, when Bruce Pavitt arrived in Olympia, Wash., and began a fanzine called Subterranean Pop. Within a couple years, his Sub Pop label was putting out compilation tapes. In 1983, Pavitt and Sub Pop cofounder Jonathan Poneman moved to Seattle. When the latter saw a Soundgarden show there in 1985, he heard what he calls “the sense of inevitability.” “The die is cast,” he recalls thinking as lead singer Chris Cornell rumbled, screeched and ripped off one of many tear-away shirts. “This band is going to take over the world.”

Soundgarden eventually would notch a No. 1 album, but it was Nirvana that took over the world. Seattle was filled with groups that sought to top one another in total heaviosity and down-and-out authenticity, turning out songs like Mudhoney’s “Touch Me, I’m Sick.” Soundgarden was a weighty band, with a double guitar, growling vocals and a thuddingly slow bass and drums. But Nirvana was special: not really a grunge band at all but a Beatles-Monkees-Raspberries pop band that happened to play grunge and was powered by the most gifted songwriter of his era and a once-in-a-generation rhythm section.

The scene began in 1979, when Bruce Pavitt arrived in Olympia, Wash., and began a fanzine called Subterranean Pop.

Despite the moroseness of the music, the people who made it could be a fun bunch. Dwarves bassist Salt Peter once went into the Sub Pop office and spray painted “You Owe Dwarves $” on the floor. For the Video Music Awards in 1992, MTV insisted that Nirvana perform one of its hits. The boys agreed to play “Lithium,” but when they went on stage instead echoed Elvis Costello’s infamous “Radio Radio” stunt by playing the distinctive first notes of “Rape Me” before jumping back into the agreed-upon song. The whole grunge manner of dress—Screaming Trees bassist Van Conner describes the style as Matt Dillon’s in the movie “Over the Edge”: “jeans jacket, stringy hair”—was a goof on what rock stars at the time were supposed to look like. (TAD was rejected by MTV because the band was considered too ugly.)

Mudhoney singer Mark Arm in São Paulo, Brasil. (Daigo Oliva)

Perhaps the best story in the entire book is about Sub Pop receptionist Megan Jasper’s interview with the New York Times in 1992, during which Ms. Jasper goofed on the stuffy paper of record by sharing all the lingo these wacky grunge kids in Seattle were supposedly using, including such gems as “cob nobbler” and “lamestain.” The Times reporter, Rick Marin, was just lamestain enough to report it all as fact.

Music scenes are usually a sticky mess of beer, sex and drugs, and even before the scene broke out in a big way, heroin had entered the veins of Seattle. Lily Milic, owner of a local record store, recalls: “When the junkie scene started taking over in Seattle by ’88, ’89, I noticed people weren’t trying to steal my beer as often, ’cause they were nodding out.” Andy Wood of Mother Love Bone (one of the forerunners of Pearl Jam) died in 1990, and people were instantly trying to find Wood’s dealer so they could shoot some of what they presumed would be extra-strong heroin.

Heroin would claim more victims. Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch died in 1992, and Kristen Pfaff of Hole died in 1994. (Two members of Alice in Chains would overdose years later: singer Layne Staley in 2002 and bassist Mike Starr during the writing of Yarm’s book.) The drug also destroyed Cobain and, with his suicide in 1994, grunge’s popularity began to wane as well.

Yarm’s outstanding interviews document Cobain’s erratic life and tragic death. He even introduces a new conspiracy from Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, about his death. For Nirvana, all of 1993 seems to have been a miasma of drugs, touring and intramural arguments. Mudhoney’s Mark Arm describes New Year’s Day that year, which he spent with the band: “I did some dope, and I decided I wasn’t high enough and went to do some more.” Arm overdosed, and the many musicians in the room fell into a panic. Courtney Love called Poneman at Sub Pop for advice, Cobain gave Arm CPR; others hid the drugs. Only at long last, the paramedics were called.

Ron Heathman of the Supersuckers has the coda. Referring to Kurt and Courtney’s infant daughter, he recalls: “The saddest part about the whole thing is that the whole time, Frances Bean was asleep on the hotel bed.”

Yarm’s book is a comprehensive and often fascinating assessment of the Seattle scene, a music revolution that ate its own children. But grunge was not limited to the Emerald City’s borders, and this book does not seek to evaluate the contributions of the many important bands outside the Pacific Northwest that influenced and were influenced by grunge, such as Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and even Australia’s Beasts of Bourbon, whose “Hard for You” might be the single best pure grunge song, period.

Still, just as surely as Detroit, Liverpool, New Orleans and Chicago are forever linked to a particular music, Seattle was the creative hub of a style that for a couple of years dominated pop’s consciousness. Yarm’s pointed, poignant history reminds rock fans how those power chords resonate. Some 15 years after grunge’s moment passed, with rock barely able to get on the airwaves—New York City lost its last major station that played new rock music when K-Rock went to a lamestain format called “Contemporary Hit Radio” in 2009—it’s impossible not to think that today’s autotuned, interchangeable pop stars could learn something by listening to those awesome vinyl Sub Pop singles.

Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History Of Grunge by Mark Yarm (Crown, 567 pages, $25)

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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of Sea of Reeds Media. He is the former editor in chief of the New York Observer and also founded Green Magazine and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

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