*in which the peerless Everett True heroically demolishes some straw men and lets slip that grunge was really all about him
First, a confession. I remember back in 1993 reading an Everett True review of a Pearl Jam gig in the NME, and wondered why the paper had despatched a reviewer so antipathetic to the band. (That, of course, was the point – music journos, eh? Lester Bangs has much to answer for.) So I’m not a fan of his journalism, not least because to me he epitomised the Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam nonsense prevalent at the time.
(Cobain’s dislike of PJ’s music – fair enough in itself, musical taste is subjective – extrapolated by headline-sniffing journos into a general dislike of the band for being ‘too corporate’, probably reflected a general unease that Nirvana had left Seattle’s own, beloved Sub Pop Records to sign for the major label Geffen, home amongst others of Guns’n’Roses. As Nirvana went stratospheric, the idea that Nirvana may have ‘sold out’ needled away and led to much defensive posturing from both the band and its acolytes in the press. They hadn’t sold out of course, nothing like. But that’s all for another post.)
Anyway, I digress. With September 2011 seeing the 20th anniversary of Nevermind’s release, True wrote an article about grunge for the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/aug/24/grunge-myths-nirvana-kurt-cobain. He’s used the ten myths as a framework to tell his story about grunge, although a whole quarter of the article is introductory text, an admixture of his clearly substantial knowledge of the grunge scene, hefty name-dropping and Zelig-like self-positioning in the narrative, overlaid with an onion skin of unconvincingly coy self-deprecation. Quite apart from his presentation of grunge solely within the boundaries of his own experiences and preferences (natural enough for a music journalist in reminiscent mood), one wonders how Cobain and those affable flannel-shirted musicians would have managed without his promotion and guidance.
Reading the article, it’s unclear to me where these myths come from and who expounds any of them. It takes only a small amount of thought and/or reading into grunge to realise they are largely straw men, readily knocked down to prove a point. Here’s my tuppence on these rather facile ‘myths’.
1. Grunge began in Seattle. The first of the straw men. Has anyone claimed that it did? As True indicates, grunge was a development of the American counterculture that flowered in the 50s with Burroughs and the beat generation, passing through the hippies, garage rock, punk, hardcore, and college rock before Seattle gave its own unique take on the wider, vibrant alt rock scene of the late 80s. (Both Vedder and Cobain were also influenced by the country blues of the 1920s and 1930s, itself another – vital – form of counterculture.) The etymology of the term ‘grunge’ has been much discussed; it wasn’t coined in Seattle in 1989, but the word struck a chord with what was happening there, and grunge as a musical movement rapidly became associated with the town.
As True also rightly points out, nor was grunge suburban metal, but then neither were/are Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains. (Arguably Pearl Jam’s last grunge album was 1994’s Vitalogy; the band have outgrown their grunge roots and developed into a classic rock band with a broader range of influences.) In 1989, suburban metal – a patronising but comprehensible tag – was the province of the likes of Mötley Crüe, Skid Row and Warrant, the bands that grunge blew away (albeit only temporarily, in some cases). In any case, the boundaries of musical influence have always been blurry. Some of the key grunge influences – Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin most obviously – were also key influences on metal. Like it or not, grunge was related to metal through these shared influences. Also, the application of musical tags carries a degree of subjective opinion; one can posit that Alice in Chains started out as a metal band before finding their sound in the classic, and undeniably grunge, album, Dirt.
2. Grunge was overwhelmingly male. Again, something of a straw man. Since its beginnings, rock music has sadly been heavily male-dominated, but whilst it’s hard to see the likes of Hole, L7 and Babes in Toyland as grunge bands per se, grunge was closely related to Riot Grrrl, not least in the relationship of Cobain and Love. Reflexive Courtney Love haters should consider whether their reaction to her isn’t typical of the latent misogyny evident in the largely brazenly sexist music industry.
3. Nirvana came from Seattle. No, it’s fairly well-known the band were from Aberdeen, WA, Dave Grohl excepted (replacing original drummer Chad Channing). However, Seattle was the nearest big town and it’s where Nirvana first looked to make a name for themselves. I’m not even sure what point ‘exploding this myth’ is attempting to demonstrate.
4. Kurt Cobain was murdered. Does anyone seriously believe this? See no.2 above about reflexive Courtney Love haters.
5. Cobain didn’t want to be famous. Again, well, duh. Why would someone sign to a major label if they craved obscurity? He was a songwriter and wanted people to hear his songs. Grunge is an intensely personal form of music, but as the hype became overblown, ever more people were listening to grunge who just didn’t get it, the very kids Cobain despised at school. Absurdly accelerated and exaggerated hype struck at the heart of grunge and its musicians; the pressures it placed on both Vedder and Cobain manifested itself clearly in their lyrics, and in Cobain’s changing drug use and eventual unravelling.
6. Cobain wrote most of Hole’s second album, Live Through This. See nos.2 and 4 above about reflexive Courtney Love haters. You mean, a woman can actually write songs? Unbelievable. True mentions a growing directness in Cobain’s lyrics by the time of In Utero; equally pertinent is Love’s growing skills as a songwriter. The pair clearly benefitted artistically from each other’s influences; the great sadness was that Love’s heroin addiction made it much harder for Cobain to kick his own addiction (aside from all the other pressures on him).
7. Nevermind was actually crap. As mentioned before, musical opinion is largely subjective, but this is widely acknowledged as a classic piece of music (of any genre). Anyone summarily dismissing it as crap is trying too hard to make a point about something else. But there is an interesting issue lurking here. Nevermind does sound noticeably different from Bleach, famously recorded as the latter was for $600. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the big sound and sleek mixing reflected the wishes of Geffen more than it did Cobain. Yes, Cobain loved a wide range of music – all the best musicians have broad palettes. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he wanted his own band to sound as glossy as it did on their major label debut, sensitive as he was to others’ and his own self-critical accusations of ‘selling out’, and his reaction to it – publicly wresting back greater control over how the next album, In Utero, would eventually sound – reflects his unhappiness with the final mix of Nevermind. Something similar happened with Pearl Jam: compare the big, reverb-drenched mix of Ten with the band’s evolving, more organic sound over Vs, Vitalogy and beyond.
8. Grunge was all dark, gloomy, woe-is-me music. Well, yes, it was, largely. Grunge is a heavy type of music, both lyrically and musically, though this didn’t mean a lightness of touch and a sense of humour (often dark or allusive) couldn’t find expression. True seems here to be confusing the nature of the music with the nature of the musicians. The two can be quite different. One charming impression of the Seattle grunge scene that manifested itself at the time was the willingness of the bands to rub along, to see themselves as part of something collaborative rather than in competition with each other for a limited slice of the rock star pie. (Compare and contrast with the viperous LA hairspray metal scene of the same time.) Maybe it was only media representation, but it seemed genuine, not least in Temple of the Dog, the tribute to Andrew Wood, and in the intertwined histories of Green River, Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. (Googling Nirvana’s first drummer, Chad Channing, I discovered that he was first in a band with Ben Shepherd, later of Soundgarden. Wheels within wheels.)
9. Cobain was grunge’s only casualty. Again, does anyone really think this? The most cursory reading into grunge – or a listen to ‘Say Hello 2 Heaven’, the first track on Temple of the Dog – would gainsay this ‘myth’.
10. Grunge had a great legacy. Contrary to True’s ‘myth’-busting, yes, it did. Leaving aside the fact that Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Alice in Chains have all recently reformed and are touring, those dreadful corporate sell-outs Pearl Jam have recently celebrated their twentieth anniversary together, with a hard core of devoted fans and a refusal to compromise on what the band means to them and what they wish to say. True may be wilfully dismissive of Vedder, but to many he is a thoughtful, articulate individual whose lyrics and actions continue to reach out to a large number of people on a personal level, and who consistently challenged Bush and his cronies during a dark decade for American politics.
Yes, some of grunge’s legacy is a bit naff, not least the often hagiographic treatment of Cobain. But that’s true for any musical movement’s legacy. It depends what you want to flag up, though blaming grunge for nu-metal is highly questionable. As a direct legacy, you can for starters point to the Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Sunny Day Real Estate, Mark Lanegan’s numerous side projects.
Or, more generally, you can recall that the American music scene was pretty bloody awful in 1991, from Bon Jovi to Michael Jackson via NKOTB and Vanilla Ice. Lazy, bloated, self-indulgent, cynical, misogynistic, disposable – grunge challenged all of these attitudes by creating music that was authentic, honest, raw, difficult, inspiring, cathartic, inclusive. This challenge may have been simply a reminder of the traditional values of good art, when confronted by crass commercialism, but it was no less welcome or valuable for it.
For some three glorious years, grunge turned the music industry upside down. In the end, in its confrontation of American business values, grunge was always going to lose. When the bubble burst in 1994, the music industry counted its profits and happily moved on to the next, more malleable trend. But, in the long term, it helped to bring the alternative into the mainstream, for better (broadcasting its values to a much wider audience) and worse (commercialising and diluting it). Almost all good rock music these days has been influenced, if not by the musical style of grunge, then by the values and attitudes it espoused and reaffirmed, in the primacy of the artist and the expression of his or her own authentic, personal art. And that is a remarkable legacy.