The Seattle scene of the late eighties and early nineties produced some of the most beloved rock bands not just of the last twenty years, but of all-time. The influence and impact that acts like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains had on the world of music, both artistically and commercially, cannot really be overstated. However, there is far more to the “grunge” story than just the rise and fall of these four bands, as author Mark Yarm goes to very impressive lengths to chronicle is his new book Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History Of Grunge (now available in handy paperback form!)
Over the course of three years and change, Yarm interviewed over 250 key players in the Seattle scene of that now historic era, everyone from superstars like Chris Cornell (Soundgarden) and Courtney Love, to the owners of the storied Sub Pop record label, to bands like the U-Men and the Melvins that were very influential in the scene but never quite broke on a national level in the way that the Big Four did. The book was named one of the Top Ten Nonfiction Books of 2011 by no less an authority than Time Magazine, and is full of so many entertaining stories and thrilling anecdotes that we have read it cover-to-cover TWICE. You should do the same!
We recently sat down with ELOT author Mark Yarm over a cocktail or two in Brooklyn and talked about many subjects relating to the book, everything ranging from what it’s like to receive manic phone calls from Courtney Love, to Seattle’s well-documented infatuation with heroin, to the “missed opportunity” that was Cameron Crowe‘s Pearl Jam Twenty.
VH1: One of the things that everyone, including myself, finds so impressive about this book is the comprehensiveness. You talked to virtually every major player in the Seattle scene. How did you go about convincing people that you were the person who could tackle this story?
Mark Yarm: The general rule of thumb was that the further away from the white hot epicenter of the grunge explosion of the early nineties, the easier it was. I had the Blender piece that this emerged from, which was an oral history of Sub-Pop on the occasion of their 20th anniversary in 2008. I had already spoken to a lot of the players, and that was a good calling card for me. Some people didn’t talk to me, most notably Pearl Jam since they had their own book coming out. They’re usually not the most accessible guys, anyway. I had spoken to Jeff [Ament] and Stone [Gossard] for the Blender piece, and I also talked to Matt Cameron through the Soundgarden people. I spoke to all their previous drummers, who, if you’ve seen the Cameron Crowe documentary [PJ20], they didn’t bother talking to those guys. They just kind of gloss over them in a funny interstitial.
Chris Cornell is one of the figures in the book that gets some crap because he was always ripping his shirt off. A lot of people, including people in his own band, didn’t like that he presented himself in that way. What was your sense of him, and did he ever tell you why he chose to be the shirtless guy?
There was a Mudhoney song, the song that this book gets its title after, called “Overblown.” It takes kind of a veiled jab at him (“And you’re up there, shirtless and flexin’ / Display of a macho freak”). I asked him about that song, and it didn’t really bother him. If you’re gonna be The Shirtless Guy, you gotta own it, I guess?
I don’t know, I’ve never been The Shirtless Guy!
Me neither! Not since infancy. But yeah, it was a small bone of contention because it was so ostentatious, and this was a scene that in many ways —not all ways, but in many ways— rejected that as “rock star behavior.”
Buzz Osborne of the Melvins says in your book that the Seattle bands that really took off, specifically Nirvana and Soundgarden, did so because they had attractive frontmen. Was there a Seattle band that you felt should’ve taken off but maybe didn’t because of superficial reasons?
The perfect example is the band Tad, led by Tad Doyle, who is described as being a 300 lb. butcher from Boise, Idaho. He’s not conventionally attractive and obviously very heavy-set. That’s definitely a harder sell [for the major labels] than a Layne Staley or a Chris Cornell. Tad had this video called “Wood Goblins”, where they were out in the woods with chainsaws, out in the woods looking like serial killers. The word they had got back was that MTV had rejected it on the basis that they were “too ugly.”
The death of Andrew Wood was the first of many giant shocks to the Seattle scene. From talking to people, what was your sense (and their sense) of the potential of Mother Love Bone as a commercial entity?
Andrew Wood was an incredibly flamboyant and outgoing frontman. There are stories in the book that even when there were ten people in the audience, he would perform as if they were in a stadium setting, doing the “Hello, Seattle!” thing and singing to the rafters. They had a little bit of a Guns N’ Roses thing going, a very glam look. And the guys in that band (Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament) went on to form Pearl Jam, so there’s no doubt they could’ve been huge.
Courtney Love is one of the central figures of this book. What were your interviews with her like? At times, she seemed very forthcoming, other times very standoffish.
I spoke to her four or five times, I think? It was all over the phone, even though she lives in New York. I like to call her “predictably unpredictable”; you’ll ask her a question, and an hour later, she’ll actually get around to answering it. At times, she’s very byzantine and hard to understand —she spent a lot of time telling me about the fraud she’s underwent when it comes to the Nirvana fortune, which didn’t make the book— at other times, she’s very charming. I had to call her once to get her reaction to a scene in the book where Mark Arm [of Mudhoney] overdoses in a hotel room while her, Kurt [Cobain] and a guy from the Supersuckers are present. She didn’t remember it, as is not unusual for people who did a lot of drugs back then.
People have differing views of how she comes across in the book. Basically, it’s a litmus test about how people feel about Courtney: If you hate Courtney, you’ll find lots to hate about her. If you like her, there is stuff in here that you’ll like. I give her credit for talking to me and I appreciate it. I think the book portrays her fairly, as it’s in her own words. That said, she was not particularly well liked in the scene, and I think that’s reflected in the book.
Speaking of which, one of the most fantastical stories in the book comes from Courtney. She talks about having saved Kurt from what she thought was going to be a lethal injection of heroin at the hands of Buzz Osbourne. I had never heard that story before!
She had actually posted that story on her MySpace blog —which, admittedly, dates it— ages ago. She really wanted to get it on the record, but it never would’ve gotten in the book had Buzz not addressed it. As he explained, that story was f***ing ridiculous, because why would he try to kill the band’s biggest supporter? He had obviously heard that before, and was very glad to take the opportunity to address that. There are still very hard feelings between those two.
You sort of present Candlebox as sympathetic figures in this book, even though they have come to be one of the most loathed rock bands of the last 20 years or so. What is your take on the band and what “the machine” did to them?
The Candlebox guys were great. Actually, they were one of the first bands to sign on for this project. There was so much jealousy about their success from the original bands in the scene when they made it big. They were quite frank about their intraband clashes. Not only are they a band that other people dislike, they dislike each other!
Some people have asked me, “Why did you include Candlebox, they suuuuuck?” Candlebox, to me, is a great case study; they’re a band that benefited immensely from the attention focused on Seattle. It was a pretty colorful story, too, especially with the stories of Madonna hitting on [Candlebox lead singer] Kevin Martin. No matter what you think of them, there are a couple of songs on that first album that are real, fist-pumping arena classics.
Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips, in particular, REALLY didn’t seem to care for them.
Well, as he says in the book, “Candlebox wasn’t just the nail in the coffin of grunge. To me, they arrived as the coffin of grunge music.” That was a very pivotal point for The Lips, when “She Don’t Use Jelly” was breaking. Obviously, the Flaming Lips —even though they agreed to be on 90210— are a band that’s concerned with integrity. And Wayne Coyne, obviously, is not afraid of bad mouthing bands. He’s done it to Beck and Arcade Fire, too. He’s pretty honest in a very amiable way.
It could be argued that the main character of your book is heroin. Most people seem fairly unrepentant about the drug and the choices that they made while on the drug. Of course, drugs are often associated with certain musical eras, be that acid in the late Sixties or coke on the Sunset Strip metal scene, but what was it about Seattle that made such a powerful and dangerous narcotic like heroin the drug of choice?
A lot of people argue that there are only a very small number of people those days who were doing heroin, but they just happened to be the most famous ones, whether that’s Kurt Cobain, Mark Arm, Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees…
Or Layne Staley.
Exactly. And even Andy Wood, too. Three of those people ended up dying from it. Part of it is that Seattle is a port town with easy access [to heroin], but the truth lies somewhere in the middle. So many people didn’t do it, and many people told me that they had never seen anyone do heroin. But if you’re in that circle, you’re in that circle. I was very delicate with the treatment of heroin, if someone was willing to go on the record and admit to doing it, I wrote it in the book.
What was your take on Cameron Crowe’s documentary film, Pearl Jam Twenty? I thought that your book presented a much fairer look at the situation that went down with their drummer Dave.
I like Cameron Crowe. I mean, the guy wrote Fast Times At Ridgemont High, which is AWESOME. I just watched Almost Famous recently, too, and really enjoyed that. But with PJ20, I was really disappointed. I thought it was a real missed opportunity, a little too reverential. They had all this incredible archival footage, that’s the best part of it, like there’s footage from the MTV Singles party with Eddie Vedder drunk, and there’s footage from a Temple Of The Dog show with Vedder and Chris Cornell rutting each other in a homoerotic way. But there were a lot of structural issues I had, particularly with how it presented historical facts. Not only with how they treated the drummers, but it didn’t even mention that Jeff and Stone had been in Green River with Mark Arm, a band that some would say was the very first “grunge” brand.
I didn’t learn anything from it. I didn’t see how they interacted together as a group, what their dynamic was, because they were all interviewed separately. To me, it was a real missed opportunity. If you’re gonna watch a film about the grunge era, there are so many better options, like Hype! or Malfunkshuns: The Andrew Wood Story.
One thing that we don’t really get a sense of from this book is your personal opinion on the era. As a music fan, what were your favorite bands, albums, and songs of the era?
I really like Mudhoney, in particular. I listen to a lot of it for pleasure to this day, like Dirt by Alice In Chains. That album is just incredible. I was never a huge Pearl Jam fan, but I’ve grown to appreciate them more. The Nirvana albums. If you listen to something like the Sub Pop 200, which was a compilation of the bands on their roster, it’s very representative of the era. There’s a lot of great stuff from those years that people don’t really know about, and I hope this book can introduce them to it. I didn’t want to just cover the Big Four, but I wanted to cover the Tads, the Malfunkshun, the U-Men.
And the Cat Butts.
Yes, and Cat Butt. I hope people will give each of these groups a listen and decide on their own as to their merit.
Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History Of Grunge is now available from Three Rivers Press in paperback. If you live in the New York City area, Mark Yarm will be conducting an interview with Hole cofounder Eric Erlandson, author of the new book Letters to Kurt, at BookCourt in Brooklyn tonight, Friday, April 6, at 7 p.m. BookCourt is located in Cobble Hill, at 163 Court St. (get directions).
[Photos: ELOT cover via Three Rivers Press, everything else from Getty Images]