Sunday, September 4, 2011

Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge

Posted by Kurt

I nearly gave up on this book shortly after I started it. I was born in late 1980, so I was only ten years old when Nevermind hit the stores and brought grunge into mainstream America, so during the years that grunge was vital and relevant, I was a little too young to connect with it. My friends’ cool older siblings liked Soundgarden and Nirvana and Pearl Jam (although the fourth big grunge band is consistently listed as Alice in Chains, I have never had a personal relationship with anyone interested in that band), and I had a couple of Pearl Jam CDs on my shelf collecting dust (because my mom had heard somewhere that all the cool kids liked Pearl Jam, and she wasn’t going to tolerate a kid who wouldn’t even try to be cool), but I was never really an active grunge fan. I mean, I liked flannel because it was a style that was kind to fat kids, but I didn’t personally connect to the music. Even today, I generally reference Kurt Cobain when I’m helping people who want clarification on how I spell my name, but I’m certainly not a devoted Nirvana fan. And the first 100-150 pages of this book are largely concerned with the regional roots of grunge. Many vapid observations about bands you’ve probably never heard of: “Man, I went to that U-Men show at that venue, and I was sooooo drunk...” “Yeah, there was a dead cat at that one show, and it was crazy...” “Yeah, I met this member of my new band in my high school, and we smoked pot at his mom’s house, then I met this other member of my new band in my high school and we smoked pot at my mom’s house...” It was a bunch of people telling inane stories about when they used to be cool in their hometown. And with no connection, I was prepared to give up on the book and write a polite review about how it’s only geared toward those who are already intense grunge fans.

And then Courtney Love showed up.

Into a world of rational observations and shallow analysis, Yarm starts sharing quotes from Courtney Love, who thunders in like a hostile unicorn stomping around in an uncovered septic tank. She spills her trash-mouthed crazy sauce all over the pages of this book and turns it into something amazing.

I recognize that Love’s portrayal is generally negative, with different figures complaining about her toxic influence, and her own quotes being almost unfailingly agitated and disrespectful. And in the context of the whole book, she has a small role, only a few quotes and a few more references to her by other participants in the project. Still, the book changes at a fundamental level when she appears. It gets wild and unpredictable, especially since that’s about the point where the narrative picks up speed. Bands start taking off on a national level, and the sources interviewed start sharing not only their thoughts but also their responses to the ways they were portrayed at the time. The book develops a sense of purpose, an epic scale like a collection of Shakespearean tragedies, and a grand historical perspective, and Yarm’s gifts as an historian really begin to shine.

Yarm is, by all the evidence in this book, a phenomenal historian. The range of perspectives is simply astounding - nearly every member of every significant band, plus the music executives, the venue owners, the roadies, the random fans... In a few haunting moments, Kurt Cobain even speaks, as Yarm shares contextually appropriate excerpts from Cobain’s suicide note and his journals. Yarm also shows a great deal of precision and care as he takes disconnected interviews and weaves them together to make clear moments and clear timelines. Yarm’s sense of humor is wicked and brilliant, as he often juxtaposes contradictory memories or allows his stars to laugh about what their friends have said about them. 

After the first rough couple of hundred pages, I loved this book at a level I can’t really explain. I was excited for band members who would enjoy things that they did well, and when tragedy would occasionally strike, usually in the form of an overdose and a gripping memorial service (beautifully captured with reverent memories of the participants, sharing pain that hasn’t really gone away in twenty years), I almost always had to put the book down and walk around the house for a while before I could get centered enough to return to the story. Band members still mourn the emotional wounds inflicted by their record companies, and producers still regret the hard choices that they had to make. Some people still nurse grudges, but most have grown enough to try to forgive those who hurt them twenty years ago. This book was honest and it was wise and it was powerful, and I recommend it to anyone. The long introduction is really only for fans of grunge and its origins, but the rest of the book is for fans of humanity, and this book is a treasure.

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