So many books have been written about grunge music and its impact on society that it would be understandable to think there is nothing more to be said.
From books and articles about the genre’s mainstays — Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden — to retrospective essays about how the Seattle sound was able to turn the music industry on its head in the early 1990s, nearly everything anyone would want to know about the scene and its bands has probably been written.
Which is why it makes sense that anything still of interest can only be said not by journalists, but by the people who were there. “Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge” is a refreshingly novel book that succeeds simply by being so simple. Essentially a collection of quotations from band members, managers, label heads, as well as a few other rarely remembered but equally important figures who were there, the nearly 600-page book reflects the spirit of the 2009 book “Grunge Is Dead” (itself a satisfying 478 pages).
But “Everybody Loves Our Town” does one better by diving deeper into the lesser-known (and generally less appreciated) beginnings of grunge. It also balances the genre’s image as depressing rock music with the lesser-known acerbic sense of humor of its key figures, including the Melvins’ Buzz Osborne and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, which is also characteristic of grunge.
Author Mark Yarm starts the book on a punkish note, recounting when the post-punk band that is arguably grunge’s progenitor, the U-Men, set fire to a concert venue during a show. The way the band members — who are now in their 50s — recount the incident puts the book on the right track. Vocalist John Bigley, guitarist Tom Price and bassist Jim Tillman speak with a carefree candor that is equally caustic and self-aware. Even if grunge “died” with Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, its pioneers, for the most part, still carry an integrity-laden attitude that the book shares. It also provides a compelling narrative of Seattle as the city that symbolically bred these bands.
Other underappreciated bands from the scene, such as Cat Butt, the Dwarves and Gruntruck, also have a chance to tell their stories — and they provide equal wit, while also giving an absorbing narrative of grunge’s complex and humble beginnings. Since these bands never reached the level of commercial success of some of their peers, their misadventures and tragedies feel even more transfixing and tangible than the genre’s myth-shaping moments, like Cobain’s suicide and Pearl Jam’s war with concert giant Ticketmaster in the mid-1990s. There’s no VH1 behind-the-scenes angle here, even during moments that could easily invite such sentiment, and the book benefits from it.
Yarm’s book unravels patiently, dedicating a few hundred pages to the older and lesser-known bands, before diving fully into the grunge giants’ arena. When he does, however, the book is still engaging. Yarm smartly picks quotes in which his subjects — many of whom are arguably global rock stars, such as Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder — talk with a refreshing informality and unself-consciousness. Well-known tales such as Pearl Jam’s difficulty in adjusting to fame and the harsh conditions under which its second album was recorded are handled well, with honest and undramatic quotes from the band’s members.
Even as he delves into Cobain’s tragic end, Yarm offers quotes and tales from the late Nirvana frontman’s closest friends that feel raw in their anger, bitterness and confusion. We learn that the Melvins’ Osborne, Cobain’s friend since high school, bitterly scoffed at the band manager’s suggestion that they send flowers to the funeral, instead soldiering on with a concert in order to show how “that stuff just doesn’t work,” referring to Cobain’s drug use and dive into the mainstream.
The book’s addictive, acerbic tone results from its effective choice of interviewees. Yarm never strays into the romantic tone that many other grunge books are guilty of.
One of the book’s best quotes also comes from Osborne: “Cobain had the wounded-junkie look that for some reason women watching MTV think is really cool. I’ve said this before: If Kurt Cobain looked like [Bill Cosby’s obese cartoon character] Fat Albert — same songs, everything — it wouldn’t have worked. Same with Soundgarden. If Chris Cornell looked like Fat Albert, a 500-pound black guy, nobody would have given a s***.”
Even at 592 pages, the story seems surprisingly incomplete, mostly due to the fresh perspective offered by the interviewees. Readers may find themselves itching for more detail on the history of grunge’s signature indie label, Sub Pop, and Soundgarden’s inexplicable end. It’s not that the book lacks information, it’s just that even as grunge aficionados think that they know everything the genre has to tell, the book proves otherwise. Grunge, it turns out, still has a lot to say.
‘Everybody Loves Our Town’
By Mark Yarm
Published by Crown Archetype