It gradually occurred to me, as I was reading this excellent and enjoyable oral history, that I didn’t, still don’t really like Grunge, or at least, any of the acts that this jerry-rigged genre supposedly covers. I briefly entertained Pearl Jam, although it was a pretty standard bit of teenage bandwaggoning – they were hip, I was trying to be etc. Lots of friends were into them, enough that there was an 18th at the local football club that included a sort of 6th form college supergroup doing Pearl Jam covers. The same went for Nirvana, without the covers band; I suppose no-one felt like taking on Cobain’s howl.
I’d heard of Mudhoney, and Tad, but equally Melvins and the U-Men were new to me. Alice in Chains briefly snagged my interest with ‘Would ?’ but I don’t think my parents noticed me playing that dirge at high volume on MTV so it passed without incident. Soundgarden’s ‘Spoonman’ made me prick up my ears but again, the interest left as swiftly as it came. At that time, it was all about R.E.M., Tori Amos, and Crowded House for me. Even now, there’s not much attraction to the music – I own a couple of Nirvana tracks (including their ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ which is AWESOME – that guitar sound on the solo is spellbinding) and a Pearl Jam single (‘Given To Fly’ anyone ? God knows where that came from, although I don’t mind it).
Despite not really caring too much for the music, I really enjoyed this book. Mark Yarm has done a tremendous job in allowing the protagonists to tell the tale of their city, their relationships, their sounds. For me, he gives a great demonstration of the interviewer’s art, delivering the right balance of space and encouragement/provocation – the testimonies feel utterly personal and sincere. In that last sense they are very revealing of the characters involved – for example – surprise, surprise – Courtney Love comes across as someone you wouldn’t trust with a penny and whose recollections chime with pretty much nobody else’s. And that’s one of the most interesting recurring themes of the book – just how hazy and poorly-remembered so many events are, some of trifling import and others of great moment such as the first meeting between Love and Cobain. I guess that’s hardly surprising – there is a superhuman consumption of booze and drugs by pretty much everyone concerned. In fact I particularly enjoy how many of the main figures emphasise how little they took, and how much they didn’t really do any heroin….
The other major theme that runs through this weighty, impressive explosion of memory is that of the independents vs the majors, of those who felt themselves principled, true punk stalwarts vs those they saw as careerist, ambitious, self-interested bands who headed up-and-out. There’s a lot of bitching and backstabbing – and Nirvana cop a lot of flak from all sides for a perceived forgetting of their roots and friends; fortunately for everyone, along comes Candlebox at the arse end of the experience, a band that they can all unite in hatred of. The one band who, to my mind, come out of this with some sort of credit is Pearl Jam – a group who pretty quickly took themselves out of the merry-go-round and genuinely did things their way – not wilfully rooting in the gutter to remain credible, and not selling themselves short by sucking the corporate dick like some of their contemporaries.
Around all of that, however, you do get the genuine sense of the strong links between all of these many artists and acts and associates – however disparate their music actually was there were ties that bound them and there was a period, before the fall, before the strain got too great, when they had a riot, falling in and out of bands, collaborations, beds, parties and scrapes and that, for all the looking back and dissecting, it’s something that they are desperately proud, and sad for the passing, of.
Strong work, Mr Yarm.