Everybody loves us
Everybody loves our town
That’s why I’m thinking lately
The time for leaving is now
When Mudhoney’s song “Overblown” appeared in the soundtrack of Cameron Crowe’s film Singles, grunge had already become a global phenomenon. Everybody was talking about Seattle. How did it all start? How did a former logging town in the Pacific Northwest manage to suddenly become the epicentre of rock ’n’ roll?
Everybody Loves Our Town, written by former Blender magazine editor Mark Yarm, may well have the answers. Compiled in the form of an oral history, this 592-page tome is an attempt to understand how it all happened—and why.
Tracing an arc from the early days in the dingy, smoky, beer-soaked clubs of Seattle, the book charts a complete trajectory of grunge. Yarm takes us all the way to sold-out arenas and multimillion-dollar record deals, down to the scene’s inevitable implosion, replete with numerous casualties along the way.
Unlike other books attempting to explain the grunge phenomenon, Everybody Loves Our Town tells the story through the voices of those who were actually there. Instead of a writer’s retrospective socio-anthropological musings, readers are treated to the equivalent of a long night out sharing a drink or ten with the survivors and listening to their recollections—conveniently woven together by Yarm in chronological order in a superb delivery of rock ’n’ roll storytelling. Some of the material will already be familiar to the most devoted grunge aficionados, but the author used both existing and new interviews, creating a far more comprehensive account of those days than what a series of recent, retrospective interviews could have achieved. The result is not fragmented, but instead forms a tapestry of two decades’ worth of firsthand accounts expertly interwoven into an almost seamless conversation. It must have been a mammoth task—but also, we suspect, a labour of love.
MultiMediaMouth: Mark, forgive us the obvious question, but do you consider yourself a fan of grunge?
Mark Yarm: Yes, I consider myself a fan—though after working for three years on a book like this, sometimes grunge is the last thing I want to hear. Still, I still find myself listening to Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff Plus Early Singles for pleasure quite often.
So, why another book on grunge now? After all, there have been several attempts to explain and describe the scene, from biographies on individual artists or bands, like Charles Cross’ Heavier Than Heaven on Kurt Cobain, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana by Michael Azerrad, to the more recent Greg Prato work Grunge is Dead—which, like Everybody Loves Our Town, is also written in interview form. Everybody Loves Our Town was published in the autumn of 2011, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind album and an inevitable revival of all things grunge. It only took two years to write—which, considering the amount of material spanning over a decade, does not seem very long at all.
MMM: Was Everybody Loves Our Town always going to be a combination of new and old material? How did you go about putting everything together? Did you turn your office into one big grunge control room? We’re thinking of a huge whiteboard with the main suspects with arrows pointing towards each other, like something out of The Wire, only with the U-Men at the top of the tree.
MY: My goal was to get as much original material as possible. I’d say about 90 percent of the quotes are from interviews I conducted personally. In instances where I couldn’t get someone to talk to me, I’d use archival material (and, in some cases, previously unpublished interviews conducted by other journalists who were gracious enough to help me out). I did pin up index cards detailing each chapter in my office space, but I’m afraid it was not as elaborate as something out of a police procedural.
The story starts in 1985, with the U-Men’s account of how they set fire to the stage on Labor Day weekend of that year. I must admit to not knowing the band at all, but still got drawn into the tales of punk rock and pyromania. The Melvins, Cobain’s muses-to-be, are next, and, chapter after chapter, the archaeology of the Seattle scene begins to be uncovered. If you have visited the “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses” exhibit at the Seattle Experience Music Project, you might agree with our choice of the word archaeology to define the days of mixed cassette tapes, grainy black-and-white flyers and home-produced fanzines. Photocopied posters, disseminated around the city, were cheaper than getting a telephone line connected. Our present time of social networks, smartphones and music downloads truly seems futuristic in comparison.
Since then, the internet has changed things so much that everything seems to be simultaneously more fragmented and more within reach. The evolution of a music scene spawned by the cultural and geographical isolation of a pre-Microsoft Seattle is now unimaginable. If Kurt Cobain was a 16-year-old kid from Aberdeen now, he might still hate the place but would probably pour out his angst on Tumblr and upload his demos on SoundCloud.
MMM: Have you visited the Experience Music Project exhibition? Would you agree that looking back at the demo tapes and old black-and-white flyers feels a bit like Howard Carter walking into Tutankhamen’s tomb?
MY: I visited the [museum] on a number of occasions, the last of which was in November, when I did an Everybody Loves Our Town promotional event there. During the course of working on the book, I got to know the museum’s senior curator, Jacob McMurray, who was immensely helpful when it came to, say, fact-checking the spelling of a club’s name or when a certain show happened. (The relationship was mutually beneficial: I actually helped out on their excellent Nirvana exhibit, which opened in April of last year.) And, yes, their collection is pretty amazing—there’s so much more in their archives than they can actually put on display.
The Experience Music Project Exhibition
Whilst the Experience Music Project’s own publication of a “Taking Punk to the Masses” catalogue does an excellent job of gathering these “grunge artifacts” in one place, its purpose was probably to document rather than to entertain. Everybody Loves Our Town, on the other hand, is a pleasure to read; every chapter is a collection of testimonials and soundbites from band members, producers, soundmen, girlfriends and odd hangers-on. Yarm gives every character—however minor—the chance to tell his or her story, and often what follows is a direct rebuttal of the previous statement by someone who was also there at the time. Alcohol and drugs have probably taken their toll on the memory of a lot these people, making their versions of events rather unreliable, and the result is often very funny. (Somewhat unsurprisingly, Courtney Love’s recollections rarely coincide with anyone else’s.)
All the time, Yarm keeps his own voice firmly muted, but one cannot help but form an opinion eventually. It is impossible, for instance, not to notice Buzz Osborne’s resentment at Nirvana’s success, considering that Cobain saw the Melvins as his mentors; equally, one is left with a strong impression that Pearl Jam’s “overnight success” changed Eddie Vedder more than he would readily admit. Courtney Love—undoubtedly the most controversial figure in the entire history of grunge—is, almost unanimously, depicted in unflattering tones.
MMM: Did you encounter any difficulties in getting people to co-operate with the project, or was there a willingness to try and finally set the record straight and explain what grunge really was?
MY: Some people were incredibly forthcoming and incredibly giving of their time. Typically, the further a person was from the white-hot spotlight of ‘90s grunge mania, the happier [the person would] be that someone was interested in [his or her] story. But there were plenty of difficulties. Pearl Jam weren’t available to me, presumably because they were working on their own book and movie at the time, though I did get material from them: I’d interviewed Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard for the Blender magazine piece the book grew out of, and I got to speak with Matt Cameron through the Soundgarden organisation. And I dug deep, interviewing all of the band’s former drummers—something Cameron Crowe did not do in his Pearl Jam Twenty documentary.
The grunge phenomenon was perhaps the last time a music scene was so successfully hijacked by media and industry to be mass marketed to the world. Some 20 years later, there seems to be hardly any trace in Seattle that grunge ever existed, Sure, some of the bands are still together—such as the newly reformed Soundgarden—but the city itself seems to have tried to rid itself of the memory of those long-gone hyped-up days. Some of the venues still exist, but only just. Outside Cobain’s former house in an upscale Lake Washington neighbourhood, in a tiny green space called Viretta Park, two wooden benches, graffitied with tributes to Kurt and acting as the only memorial (and an unofficial one at that) are regularly cleaned and repainted by the local authorities. Save for the Nirvana exhibition at the Experience Music Project—running through early spring of 2013—one wouldn’t know that Nirvana ever existed.
The Viretta Park Bench
MMM: Why, in your opinion, does Seattle seem so determined to forget grunge?
MY: People who were involved with the scene seem to go through phases of not wanting to talk about it, then feeling that it’s OK to discuss it again. I guess I’d also get pretty sick of talking over and over again about something I did 20 years ago.
Those directly involved might be sick of talking about it, but most fans of grunge will never tire of reading about it. And they will, without a doubt, devour this book. Rock histories and biographies almost invariably fall within two categories: shameless, fan-driven hagiographies, or tedious, impenetrable bricks about chords and guitar models. Everybody Loves Our Town, we are glad to report, is neither. As well as acting as a definitive document to posterity, before the fragile collective memory of that era fades away forever, it is also, without a doubt, the most compelling book on grunge written to date.
MMM: One last question. If you had to mention a single album of that time, which would you choose?
MY: I’d say the aforementioned Superfuzz Bigmuff Plus Early Singles. If you do not own it already, pick it up post-haste.
Everybody Loves Our Town is published by Faber and can be purchased here
Send any feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or in the comments below