Two things relating to the music I liked back then happenend in 1994 that left a deep impression on teenage me. In April, Kurt Cobain died, and I was absolutely shocked and remained glued to MTV for days. Like so many others, I had become a grunge fan when I discovered Nevermind, and I could not quite grasp that he had shot himself. A few weeks later I bought Soundgarden’s Superunknown which just blew my mind with the insane guitar tunings they used, the incredible drumming, and Chris Cornell’s lyrics and voice. It would instantly become my favourite album and stay that way for many years.
So when I saw the Nostalgia square for Bingo I went looking for a book on this music genre that I had loved so much as a teen, and I found this book. Mark Yarm compiled excerpts from more than 250 interviews that he had conducted with musicians, record executives, producers, managers, club owners, and many more into an excellent history of a unique genre that is firmly tied to a certain time and place. I do think that this book is more compelling to readers that have at least some knowledge about grunge and its protagonists and important events because there are, for instance, no explanations by the author on the subject of the individual chapters, and everything has to be gleaned from the interviews, which is sometimes a little confusing until what’s being talked about becomes clear. It is also a long book that casts its net wide, so some sections are not as interesting as others and cover occurrences or people that are more or less on the fringe. Overall, however, and due to the many different voices, it is an engaging and honest account that does not glamourize what was going on in any way.
Grunge’s heyday was in the 90s but its beginnings can be traced back to the early 80s and bands like the U-Men, and this is where the book starts. I was not as familiar with many of the bands and people of these early years, but I think that Yarm does an exceptional job of bringing this era and its atmosphere to life. Everyone’s drinking and doing drugs, some working dead-end jobs, while also making music and being part of a rather small community where everybody sort of knew each other. The record label Sub Pop was founded and suffered from a constant lack of money, but tried to popularize the music. This first half has a very friendly and darkly funny feel to it, despite the abundant drug and alcohol abuse. Then Andy Wood dies of an overdose in 1990, and Nirvana hits the jackpot in 1991 with Nevermind, and the atmosphere not only of the grunge scene, but of the book seemingly changes.
The music that is put out is amazing, but grunge had grown up and became a very unlikeable adult. A gold rush begins, egos are getting too big, a lot of resentments and competitive feelings pop up between and even within bands, the drug use becomes even more rampant, and people die because of it. Courtney Love enters the stage and she is not only a difficult and divisive character, but someone that is always looking for the brightest spotlight. She is not alone, however, fame turns many exactly into what they claimed they would never become. Then the decline starts in the back end of the 90s, and grunge slowly fizzles out. It ends on a sad note with the death of Layne Staley, and him dying alone and strung-out is a fitting end for the era and the book, because grunge always had a dark and depressing feel, even if there was often some irony or dark humour involved, and Staley and Cobain were by far not alone in struggling with addiction fuelled by depression or other mental health issues.
As a teenager I didn’t really see or understand the dark and destructive side of the culture, back then I enjoyed the music, but also put the artists on a pedestal. The book does a good job of taking off any rose-coloured glasses any reader might be wearing by letting everyone speak for themselves, which may change opinions one might have about some people, because a few come off terribly unlikeable while others unexpectedly elicit a lot of sympathy. In any case, reading about grunge now, especially because it is only in the words of the people involved, was very enjoyable and made me nostalgic enough to look for some albums that I haven’t listened to in many years, and I think that some of them have held up remarkably well, and there was a ton of talent involved. Eddie Vedder probably put it best when he said, “Worship the music, not the musicians.” That is of course sound advice, and not only when it comes to grunge.
CBR12 Bingo: Nostalgia