Could a grunge revival be on the horizon, 15 years after Kurt Cobain shot himself in his Washington State home? There’s some evidence that we might be on the cusp.
Pearl Jam has just re-released their landmark 1991 album Ten in a deluxe edition to much ballyhoo, and Alice in Chains reportedly have a new album with a new lead singer and guitarist (after former lead singer Layne Staley died of a drug overdose in 2002) that’s set to drop this summer. Into this mix comes a new book about the so-called grunge era by music journalist Greg Prato ominously called Grunge Is Dead, presumably named after a T-shirt that Cobain used to wear circa 1992.
Culled from an impressive more than 130 interviews, Prato offers up an oral history of the era and the Seattle scene, reaching as far back as garage-y formative groups from the late ‘50s in interviewing his subjects. The book follows the trajectory of the Seattle music scene from bands that had to basically leave the Pacific Northwest if they wanted to be heard in the ‘60s, to the club and alternative newspaper scene (and zines) that sprung up in the ‘80s that allowed bands to foster a scene and an identity. (And you probably wouldn’t know it unless you read this book, but Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses fame started out as a punker playing in the Seattle underground scene of the early ‘80s.)
Of course, thrown into the mix is the formation of Seattle record labels like the now-legendary Sub Pop Records, K Records, and C/Z Records. Prato also takes a detour into the Riot Grrrl movement, then delves into how the mainstream record companies capitalized on the grunge scene, before exploring how grunge died out, primarily due to the drugs that were available at the time (namely heroin).
Books that are oral histories can be dicey as they can be disjointed and are merely a bunch of quotes spewed on the page. But Prato does a deft job in making the transitions between interview subjects appear seamless. One minor quibble is that Prato doesn’t introduce his interviewees, leaving only a cast of characters at the back of the book to awkwardly flip to when you want to know the significance of who is talking.
Prato has lined up a mostly impressive list of people to interview, however, most notably Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, which the book’s back cover points out is the first ever interview by the vocalist to talk extensively about that band’s history. Prato also converses with Staley’s mom about his drug addiction and his death, the founders of Sub Pop, Cobain’s ex-girlfriend Tracy Marander, and various other hangers-on in the scene throughout the last 60 or so years. Prato leans particularly a lot on Green River and Mudhoney guitarist/singer Mark Arm, whose comments are liberally sprinkled throughout the book, as well as Susan Silver, who managed Soundgarden and Alice in Chains.
There are a number of vignettes scattered around the book that are either hilarious—how a Sub Pop receptionist made up a grunge vocabulary about the Seattle scene when pressed by a journalist—or tragic, such as how Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood succumbed to a drug overdose, as well as dedicating two chapters to the loss of Cobain. The book also looks into how the various musicians of the grunge era (circa 1990 to 1994) deal with the increasing pressures of fame. Vedder, in particular, talks about how he was freaked out the first time he saw his picture on the side of a bus.
The book is mostly a fawning account of reminiscences of the scene, with dissenting voices cropping up every now and then to talk about how smelly some of the bars were, or how Courtney Love is viewed as a Yoko Ono figure in the Seattle music community. (Love really gets little love thrown at her in this book, and is strangely not interviewed.)
There are a few glaring omissions from the book that serve to make it a somewhat incomplete history. For one, either vocalist Chris Cornell of Soundgarden was unavailable or uninterested in talking about his experiences, and it causes a bit of a hole in the sections about said band, even though Prato interviews pretty much all of the former members of the group. Same goes for the main players in Nirvana: bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl are nowhere to be found.
Also, in composing a history of Seattle rock music, as the title indicates, it would have been nice to include more about famous Seattle resident Jimi Hendrix rather than a passing reference in the first chapter. Consider that Hendrix was included in that 1992 seminal grunge compilation known as the Singles soundtrack, one is rather mystified that Prato didn’t wind up calling some of the guitar god’s former associates.
The title of the book is a bit of a misnomer as well, as the book isn’t really about Seattle rock scene as it is about the underground rock scene. Most of the first 150 pages or so is reserved for bands that you’ve probably never heard of, like Malfunkshun, Blackouts, U-Men, and Mr. Epp and the Calculations. It would have been nice, license rights notwithstanding, to have a bit of a compilation CD to include with the book just to know what some of this music sounded like.
Still, Grunge Is Dead is a mostly impressive book, full of great insights into what made Seattle such an important backwater in the formation of a music genre that is sometimes looked upon with derision, even from some of the players who were there at the time, as the book points out offhandedly. It may make one misty eyed for the good ol’ days, when flannel was the fashion and sludge rock was king.
It may also make you want to hit up the used CD shop to hunt down some of the bands featured in this book, and not just the more famous grunge groups. (I’m thinking Tad, the Melvins, and Screaming Trees.) It may have some flaws, but Prato’s book is probably the most complete time capsule of a particular era in music history that has been penned to date. Will it encourage a re-examination of grunge? Who knows? But you know that there’s that new Alice in Chains disc coming in only a few scant months.
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