Something weird happened as I was reading this book: I began to kind of loathe grunge.
I wasn’t expecting that. I’m usually impressionable in the opposite direction: well-crafted musical histories leave me unreasonably enthused about their subjects. After Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s uproarious account of New York punk, I listened to nothing but Marquee Moon for a month, and Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise led to numerous hopeful but fruitless forays into mid-twentieth century dissonance. Jesus, I even bought Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1959-61). Yes, it seemed like a good idea at the time; no, I don’t know what a threnody is.
A week in the company of Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town, on the other hand, and I only returned to Nirvana and Pearl Jam out of a sense of duty when writing the review, not out of any desire to hear them again. Apparently, this stuff means nothing to me any more; not even In Utero, or Unplugged in New York. It’s not the fault of the book. Everybody Loves Our Town is a brilliantly put together, painstaking oral history, a worthy companion to Please Kill Me.
You could even say Everybody Loves Our Town is the definitive account of grunge, but the beauty of a good oral history – the book is comprised of 250 interviews, spliced to form a narrative, without other input from the author beyond a preface – is that you see firsthand that definitive unitary histories don’t exist. Memories are imperfect and there are agendas everywhere.
Often, two versions of the same story sit in adjacent paragraphs. Sometimes the disagreements are over nothing; sometimes they are over something fairly serious, like whether Buzz Osborne of the Melvins was once in the process of injecting Kurt Cobain with a lethal dose of heroin when Courtney Love burst in and saved the day. Courtney: “Buzz (was) about to fucking kill Kurt”; Buzz: “How do you know Courtney Love is lying? Her lips are moving.”
So this is all good knockabout fun: but the heroin and death are relentless in Everybody Loves Our Town. Duff McKagan, known to us through Guns ‘n Roses but a Seattle resident in the early eighties, says that all the Seattle musicians he knew were on heroin, and that did not change in subsequent years. The stories of four bands are the cornerstones of the book: Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and the Green River / Mother Love Bone / Pearl Jam triumvirate. Of these only Soundgarden were not at some point devastated by heroin. It becomes oppressive and even depressing; it makes you nostalgic for UK punk, where amphetamine was the Class A of choice. It makes you wish for a Seattle version of Johnny Rotten, speeded up, bouncing around and causing mayhem, when all Seattle seemed to produce was variants on Sid Vicious.
The question that lingered for me on finishing the book was straightforward: was grunge even that big a deal? To those of us who were around when it happened – those who remember ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ being banned from Thursday nights in McGonagles of South Anne St because it induced riots among the indie disco kids; those who remember exactly where we were when the news came through about Kurt – it seemed important at the time.
Certainly Seattle changed things for a while. Nevermind, closely followed by Ten, brought heavy American guitar music with a very particular post-punk, black-and-white, anti-artifice artistic integrity to a mass audience. The Seattle aesthetic was refreshing, even cleansing, in a world ruled by Bon Jovi. (Let’s forget for a moment that Bon Jovi rule the world again.)
But grunge was fatally limited. When the rules of a genre are so strict that key colours have to omitted from an artistic palette – humour, warmth, foolishness, and pretentiousness are out; unselfconciousness is unconscionable – what does that leave? A stifling seriousness and, often, an irritating, even enraging nihilism, particularly lyrically.
Remember that Pearl Jam’s breakthrough song, ‘Jeremy’ was the true story of a 16-year old who shot himself in front of his classmates. This must have been pretty 4 real at the time; I know that at 17, as I was in 1991, it was all about the bleakness for me. I’m just not sure now how good an artistic choice it was to dramatise that moment over all others. What was their point? Pearl Jam even argued the case for showing the child’s death explicitly in the video, but were prevented by MTV; maybe the only time I’ve agreed with MTV on anything. ‘Jeremy’ and its massively popular video, arguably glamorised a horrific personal and family tragedy, and may even have helped to normalise violent teenage suicide.
You need a good reason to turn teenage death into popular song; as you need a good reason to take metaphorical sexual violence to an audience of tens of millions (Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’). Could Cobain really have compared his experience in the recording industry to the experience of rape? Perhaps not; If there is a better, less stunningly solipsistic explanation, I’d love to hear it.
And what of the legacy of grunge? Great claims were and are made for it: that it “changed everything”; that it “launched an American movement on a par with punk and hip-hop”.
Hardly. Hip-hop transformed the cultural landscape East and West and its influence has not dimmed in thirty years. Punk foreshadowed hip-hop, indie and much of the mainstream rock that followed. Punk had rules – short songs, no solos, no stars – that were just as strict as those of grunge, but the punk rule book got ripped up. 1980s post-punk was able to exist because punk was an ethic – music is about the ideas that go into it. Simon Reynolds wrote in Rip It Up and Start Again that things only became interesting in the post-punk period when the formal strictures of punk were loosened. Thus, Cabaret Voltaire, Dexys, Scritti Politti, U2, Human League and R.E.M. could emerge, none of whom would have existed otherwise.
There was no analogous post-grunge period. It was an end not a beginning. 1991 was the year punk broke in that it was the year that the age-old ideas of Johnny Rotten and Tom Verlaine found their way into millions of homes via Kurt Cobain; it was a culmination and a cul de sac. It was a good time to be watching MTV, but it had nowhere to go. Stone Temple Pilots did well, though.
Of course, music isn’t all about legacy; it’s about how it makes you feel. I read this book because at one point Nirvana and some of the other bands here meant a lot to me, as they did to millions of other people, particularly during the post-Kurt catharsis. I doubt now whether these bands warranted the emotional investment they got. The bleakness, the screaming ennui – it all seems real until you remember how much heroin was being used as these songs were being written. You could give Rowlf from The Muppets heroin for four weeks and he would write I Hate Myself And I Want to Die. It was too much; it was like a Gaspar Noé film. Life is not as bad as this music made it out to be. I think that’s why I moved away from grunge: I felt tricked into thinking this was real life.
Listening to these bands now, there’s no nostalgia for old times being banned from jumping in McGonagles. I hope that if I were 17 again I would look elsewhere; that I’d listen hard to this music, hear the hopelessness, lifelessness and joylessness of it, and think: is that all there is?