It was the age of needy validation in music, fueled by MTV and massive major label deals that sprung from the newfound oasis of money that was the CD. Seattle became ground zero for expense account excess from industry players, and eventually the town became part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
The Seattle sound that initially took hold in the late 80s, though, had no sick, slick marketing muscle, no ponytailed A & R kids straight off of the college radio farm and no jonesing guitar slingers willing to play and say anything to avoid the otherwise inevitable minimum wage slave career.
That would come soon enough.
Seattle before the storm had the U-Men and the Melvins, the latter of whom sometimes got paid in weed, if they got paid at all, one of the tidbits readers will glean from Everybody Loves Our Town, author Mark Yarm’s well crafted oral history of a decade of music in the Pac Northwest.
The former editor at Blender delivers a wild ride that is in turns uplifting and tragic.
The city had the ascending corporations of Microsoft and Starbucks, creating products that were craved by the masses.
Then it had a subcurrent of unhinged music, which no one really wanted save for the savvy underground.
Sub Pop, a record label run by music nerds/wiseasses Jon Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, cruised through those times by the scruff of its 120-gram vinyl neck.
Seattle also had Mark Arm, the West Coast Thurston Moore who to this day should be a Big Star, even if he respectfully doesn’t want to be.
And it started with all innocence, with the spirit of righteously cynical smarm and creative freedom.
The U-Men? Just reading their stories make you smile.
Andrew Wood, the man who would lead Mother Love Bone before dying of a heroin overdose in 1990, comes through loud and clear even without uttering a word in the copy as a brilliant mind.
Cat Butt—what the fuck? Funny guys and the accounts of the tour with L7 are a magazine article alone.
Many others, including Pearl Jam, 7 Year Bitch, Nirvana and Alice in Chains, come across as power mad, mercenary at times and not having a good time of it.
The arc is the hook for Everybody: Empowered, inspired people making great music moves to other creative people making music in hopes of making a living from it moves to people making music that corporations like. Press the igniter on the dynamite and kill off an entire industry. It’s one of those tragic stories that should just be a crime story—everyone dies, or at least the angst in the storytelling makes it feel that way.
Yarm artfully weaves the not-so-knowns with the famous, and brings to light a basic reality—that the interviews for an oral history are a performance for the characters. The format is all about the hot spot talk, it’s the time for a star to shine or sin. It is truly honest in that it hands the mic over and lets it go. Band managers and publicists and fans frequently tell better, more frank stories than the major players, which makes them infinitely more interesting. Makes you wonder how some of these folks got “famous.”
The bodies fall in Everybody, and as in many tales of art; heroin is the murder weapon. It’s what puts life on the edge and it doesn’t take a whole lot of money to do, and any true artist is poor at some point.
The drug death list is an impressive roster—the mercurial Wood, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Stefanie Sargent from 7 Year Bitch.
The stories are the meat of any book like this, and Everybody succeeds in that regard as well, from rockbiz excess bullshit (Alice in Chains) to innocent ponderings about songwriting (Cobain on “Teen Spirit”: ‘Do you think it sounds too much like the Pixies?’—then recall he told an interviewer at one point that he was trying to write a Pixies song).
Yarm allows a number of contradictions and near-truths like this to hang out there, as he should. This is not an investigative story, it’s a tale of music in a town. Consistency is by nature a victim of the genre.
Then there is the villainess of the book, who can’t help herself: Courtney Love is the loudest, shrillest voice in the saga just as she was on the ground in early to mid 90s Seattle. While she may be tentatively connected, Love is the Queen of Quote. She makes her first appearance at page 215 in the US hardcover, and you just can’t wait until she comes back. Yarm shows admirable and maddening restraint while arranging the story around her savagely strange and savvy sound bites.
Really, you want a sample? Yea, I love crash scenes too.
* “Forget that I did heroin in the first trimester of my pregnancy, because I did, that’s no big deal. I didn’t do it knowingly of course.”
* (Of Seattle) “I felt like it was a dangerous place. It’s got death in it. For someone like you, it probably appears to be a nice town.”
* (about Kurt after an overdose in early 1994) “’…There was a definitely suicidal urge, to be gobbling and gobbling and gobbling. Goddamn , man. Even if I wasn’t in the mood. I should have just laid there for him. All he needed was to get laid.’
Yarm gives the readers an exhaustive and excellent documentation of what happened told by who was there in a 560-page time capsule. Everybody documents a city that was gleefully charming in its lack of self-consciousness. If you’ve studied this era, maybe you need more, but that seems doubtful after reading this one. But really, once you’ve finished this, move along to Greg Prato’s Grunge is Dead, published by ECW in 2009, which compliments well.
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