Examining The Uneasy Marriage Of Grunge And Classic Rock With Author Mark Yarm
The book 'Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge' couldn’t come at a more apropos time, what with both Nirvana’s 'Nevermind' and the band Pearl Jam turning 20 years old. But the hefty 592-page tome, which was written by former Blender magazine senior editor Mark Yarm, is far more than just a rehash of those two acts: It’s a Seattle music-history lesson. From the city’s early proto-grunge and punk bands to the groups such as Mother Love Bone and Green River which came directly before the flannel-clad explosion, Yarm traces how and why the grunge phenomenon came to be.
Of course, 'Everybody Loves Our Town' covers rock titans Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana in fascinating, exhaustive detail -- and, in many cases, somehow manages to reveal things about the bands that haven’t surfaced before. But what’s most intriguing about the book is how thorough it is. Through interviews with all of the scene’s major players (and plenty of lesser-known musicians, business associates and scenesters, too), readers get a complete sense of what it was really like in Seattle during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Yarm recently called Ultimate Classic Rock from his Brooklyn home to discuss the book.
We’ve heard so many of the stories included in 'Everybody Loves Our Town' before, but when they were told in the book, there was always a little bit of something new in each of them. In all of the interviews that you conducted, who or what surprised you the most?
There were some real surprises there, I think -- especially when I came to Nirvana. [I was surprised] there was anything new to uncover. There are so many books written about Nirvana -- only a handful of them are good, but there have been a lot -- and especially now with the [20th] anniversary [of 'Nevermind'], there's been so much ink spilled on them. But [there were] little moments, like [Seattle record label Sub Pop co-founder] Bruce Pavitt telling me about Kurt Cobain backstage at Nirvana's first 'Saturday Night Live' [appearance, and how] Cobain was musing about opening a petting zoo. Amusing little anecdotes like that, that somehow have never been spoken of before.
We’ve all heard, obviously, that before his ultimately successful suicide attempt [Cobain had] tried to kill himself in Rome -- and then [Courtney Love] said that he had tried to kill himself and left a note in December of the previous year, which has not been written about in other Nirvana books. And Pearl Jam's visit to the White House [the day after Cobain’s body was found] -- I had heard parts of that story, but it always intrigued me. Like, what did Eddie Vedder and President Clinton discuss on that day? It turns out that according to Kelly Curtis, who is Pearl Jam's manager, Bill Clinton asked Eddie Vedder if he should address the nation to talk about Kurt's suicide. Vedder apparently was of the opinion that [the gesture] would just encourage copycats, giving it such a high profile. President Clinton never did actually address the nation regarding that. I don't know if he was the one who swayed Clinton not to do it entirely or not, but he may have altered the course of politics, as far as grunge goes.
It's weird hearing those things now. Grunge had so much mythology around it, even when it was happening. So much about the genre was blown up and hyped, and you never knew what was true or not. Reading the book really deconstructed a lot of those myths for me, but not in a bad way; it made everything more real. The characters seemed a lot more human.
Well, that's been the problem with a lot of the previous grunge books, maybe some of the ones on Nirvana in particular. There [may have been articles], way back in the beginning, in which somebody stated something that wasn't necessarily true, and it just becomes fact because it was cited in a magazine or book or an interview somewhere. Because I was going back and not relying on other printed sources, I was asking people to tell me these stories -- and often, they would differ from the conventional wisdom on the early years of Nirvana, or any other band. Certainly, there was the deconstructing of these myths -- but also, you never know how truthful people are being [in an oral history in particular]. There were some [myths] that [were] created as well [in this book], so it's tearing them down and building them at the same time.
I was very pleased to see the inclusion of Heart in the book, because I think Ann and Nancy Wilson are two of the more underrated musicians to ever come from Pacific Northwest. After talking to them and doing research, what role did you see Heart playing in Seattle's overall music history?
I talked to Nancy, who was actually pretty integral in some ways. First of all, she and Ann were kind of elder stateswomen and very influential on bands, Alice in Chains in particular, who were probably a little bit more open to a classic-rock-style band. But [until recently] Nancy was married to Cameron Crowe, and she was kind of the connection that brought him to Seattle and introduced him to some of these musicians. So there was a very strong link. And she's very grateful: There's a quote of hers in the book, that she's just glad these bands didn't see Heart as dinosaurs, and she embraced this music. In the '80s, it was the hairspray era [and] I think all of the singles the record company wanted them to release, they wanted them to only do songs written by other people. They felt very disenfranchised by the system then. And then this younger generation of Seattle bands came up and kind of upended that. [Heart] were really important and obviously close with a lot of these bands. I think Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam are two in particular.
One thing that struck me in the book is that the bands had a really love / hate relationship with classic rock.
Well, apparently Black Sabbath was a key influence. In the book, I trace how the Melvins learned this drop-D [guitar tuning] trick from a friend who had learned it from Black Sabbath and then passed it on to Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, who passes it on to Jerry Cantrell. But for all intents and purposes, Pearl Jam is a very classic-rock-sounding band. Mike McCready was in a Stevie Ray Vaughan-esque band right before he was in Pearl Jam, and obviously, Eddie Vedder is a big fan of the Who. So they wore their classic rock influences on their sleeve. I guess there's the infamous Kurt Cobain quote about wanting to make a tie-dye T-shirt out of the blood of Jerry Garcia and the urine of Phil Collins or something like that, so there's this kind of disrespect for certain classic rockers, certainly.
But a lot of the grunge guys, even though a lot of them were punk rockers, they did have this respect for Creedence [Clearwater Revival], Black Sabbath [and] Neil Young, of course, the godfather of grunge. I guess maybe certain classic rock bands were cool and certain were contemptible in some of these guys' minds. But I guess now they're all classic rock. I guess that's an inevitable rite of passage for any band: Eventually, you stick around long enough [and you become classic rock]. I don't know what the margin is, but I guess 20 years definitely makes you classic rock.
Look at the Foo Fighters -- they've been around 15, 16 years, they're almost there. Sure, they're still on modern rock radio, but they're creeping in there. Give them another 5 years.
At some point, the lines blur and I don't know when a classic radio station decides [a group is classic rock]. It would be interesting to hear the thinking behind that. When does Nirvana become classic rock? Is it when it's part of an accepted canon or when the people who are listening to it turn a certain age? I don't know. At some point, you turn on classic rock radio and there's Soundgarden, so it happens.
When everything was happening, I know I certainly never would have expected that these bands would become the classic rock guard. Now, looking back, it makes total sense, but when it was happening, it felt so vibrant and contemporary.
I think all of the divides of 20 years ago, a lot of them have melted. Back then, there was obviously this rivalry between Nirvana and Pearl Jam, which seems kind of silly in retrospect. At the time for most people, either you liked Nirvana, who were seen as more punk and more “authentic,” and then you had Pearl Jam, who were supposedly the corporate sellouts. And perception of the bands has changed over time and obviously Pearl Jam have persevered and are seen as an important band, one that played by their own rules and didn't cave in. [They] fought Ticketmaster and did their band their way on a scale that made them comfortable [and] pulled back from press and things like that. Definitely, the perceptions of the time were kind of skewed in the thick of it. Now, it doesn't seem like a big deal to like both Pearl Jam and Nirvana. You don't have to choose a side anymore.