I wrote about World War Z as a fictional oral history of a zombie apocalypse. In that post, I talked about Studs Terkel’s oral histories and still recommend books of his like The Good War and Working. That’s got me to reading other oral histories and I wanted to talk about one today, just to show everyone this type of journalism or history writing can cover any subject. I want to talk about Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge.
Don’t ask me why I wanted to read a book about the grunge music scene. I wouldn’t even consider myself a huge fan of grunge or even 90s music in general. That was a decade I lived through and I was a young man in those years, so I’m familiar with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam and I had plenty of friends that loved it. When this book was released in September 2011, I saw it on a list of new releases from Amazon and thought it would be worth reading.
I was curious to see who the grunge people were, what they went through, and what they’re like today. I also wanted to compare a book like that against the fictional oral history I’d read around the same time and see if the method of recording events worked for each. I’ll say from the start: it worked for me.
The book itself is full of photos of the various bands that are interviewed. You’ll get a couple of photographs of the big acts and the surviving bands, while the lesser known grunge bands are given a representative photo. Some of the musicians turns up in several pictures, because they switched bands. The dust cover on the hardcover edition is a photograph of Kurt Cobain in the pit at the Reading Festival on August 24, 1991. The photo was taken by Ed Sirrs and struck me, because it’s the classic Kurt Cobain pose, but the kids in the crowd look like they could be from any one of about four decades of rock. Tell me if you think differently.
The title of the book is taken from a sarcastic tune written by the guys from Mudhoney about America’s and the world’s fascination with Seattle back in the early 1990s.
Everybody Loves Our Town doesn’t just get the story from the band members of the “Big Four” Seattle bands: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice ‘N Chains. Most of the book includes interviews with members of Seattle bands that were either considered one-hit wonders, had cult followings, or had disappointing sales. Some of the bands didn’t stay together long enough to be signed by a big label, which every Seattle band seems to have done after Smells Like Teen Spirit got huge. Bands as diverse as The Screaming Trees, The Melvins, Mudhoney, and Candlebox were interviewed.
I came away knowing a lot more about the genre than I ever expected to. Before I started reading the book, I had no idea who the Big Four were. I had no idea what Sub Pop Records was and had only a vague idea that bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots weren’t from Seattle (and therefore weren’t interviewed–or much). I also came away thinking most of these bands had little to do with one another music-wise, though I guess many of them knew each other from the scene or even played together in other bands. They all came from Seattle and that was the main thread that tied them together.
The interviews were effective in bringing out the background of the Seattle scene. You’ll learn how a regional sports hero and apparel company owner may have influenced the plaid look of the grunge scene (and other oddities like that).
If you get bored hearing about rock musicians’ antics, you’ll tune out in plenty of places, especially in the early chapters, since the early stories are about the bands being rockers before they became rock stars.
I liked reading about the Music Bank in those early chapters. The Music Bank was this weird place underneath the Ballard Bridge where local musicians could rent a room for next to nothing (or maybe live for free–I’m not sure). Whatever the case, 100 different wannabe bands lived at the Music Bank at any one time. You’d have the guys who went on to become Alice ‘N Chains (then called Diamond Lie, originally Sleaze) living with the guys from Coffin Break and in the same building with the guys from Cat Butt. Everyone shared one or two bathrooms. The whole thing sounded rancid.
You definitely get the personality of these bands from the interviews. You read that girls liked Alice ‘N Chains even when they lived at the Music Bank. Readers learn that Chris Cornell had shirts prepared beforehand so he could rip them off dramatically onstage, and this may have led the original bass player to leave the band. You learn from one of The Melvins that the guys from Nirvana were already big-timing them before they ever got big, wanting to headline the show and take more of the money.
I was surprised to learn that the Cameron Crowe film “Singles” was made before grunge got huge. I should have known that, but I didn’t. Other myths are busted, such as the idea that the guys from Candlebox were posers from Los Angeles who came to Seattle after Smells Like Teen Spirit. I remember hating Candlebox (not for that reason), but in fact, all of them had lived in the Seattle area their whole lives.
Anyone who remembers all the talk out of Seattle at the time get the answer to some old questions. I remember everyone who was supposed to be cool saying, “Mudhoney is the real deal. Wait’ll you hear Mudhoney,” and stuff like that, but I never heard Mudhoney. In fact, the little I vaguely knew about them made me hate them, because I was like, “Who do these guys think they are?”
Sure enough, the guys from that band come off in the interviews as some of the most sensible, likable guys in the scene. Mudhoney seems to have never had much commercial success because they stuck closer to their punk roots than the successful bands. Maybe they just have more sense in the interviews because they never became big rock stars.
Anyway, I don’t want to spoil all the fun, so I’ll let you form your own opinions on the decline and fall of Nirvana and whether Pearl Jam were sensible musicians who never lost touch or were pretentious grunge rockers who took themselves too seriously. I’ll say this much: even the people who were friends with Courtney Love (and there weren’t many) made her look bad. If you’re a big fan of Courtney Love, you probably don’t want to read this book, though she’s one of the hundreds of people interviewed.
Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge was way different than reading a Studs Terkel history of World War II or a fictional account of a zombie war history like World War Z, but the method of storytelling works fine for telling about one of rock-n-roll’s most famous and infamous eras. Anyone with even a little bit of interest in that era of music will come away feeling like they know the Seattle music scene and its stars a little better.