Even if the term grunge makes you cringe as much as it does me and most of the musicians in this book, and even if you haven’t listened to Nirvana’s Bleach or Soundgarden’s Screaming Life in years, you’ll love Mark Yarm’s 550-plus pages of good rock-’n’-roll storytelling.
Want to know how someone chainsawed a hole in the wall of a punk club during a show to satisfy the fire department’s complaint that there weren’t enough fire exits? How U-Men played Bumbershoot and threw a lit broom into a stage-side pond filled with lighter fluid, shooting a fireball 20 feet in the air? Forget the marketing terminology and media oversaturation we’ve grown to associate with ’90s Seattle. You only need to appreciate tales of talent, ambition and youthful indiscretion to enjoy this wonderful book.
Published to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s debut Ten—two albums that forever changed rock music (and Seattle)—this definitive book on Seattle’s late-’80s/early-’90s musical landscape contains more than 250 interviews Yarm conducted. The author took the book’s title from a line in Mudhoney’s song “Overblown,” featured on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s pre-global-feeding-frenzy movie Singles. (Don’t let that fool you. It’s a killer song.)
Yarm gives us Sub Pop chapters, Mudhoney chapters, a Malfunktion chapter too, though the book proceeds chronologically from the pre-grunge band U-Men and covers everyone from Soundgarden to The Melvins to The Gits. For fans of these innovative bands, this book is the bar conversation that you’ve always dreamed of being a part of.
Soundgarden’s final bassist, Ben Shepard, toured with Nirvana as their second guitarist but never played, only sold merch and loaded equipment, because the band wasn’t playing the future Nevermind material he’d learned.
Faced with two interesting seven-inches, Courtney Love bought Cat Butt’s single over Nirvana’s “Love Buzz” because she didn’t like the Harley-Davidson shirt Cobain wore on the record sleeve.
L7’s singer Donita Sparks brought Cat Butt guitarist James Burdyshaw to a drugstore to buy him Depends because he had such bad stomach flu on their Swapping Fluids Across America Tour.
Dwarves bassist Salt Peter found a can of spray paint in the Sub Pop office and wrote on the floor YOU OWE DWARVES $.
Unfortunately, you have to hear the name Candlebox a few times in the process, but that’s worth the price of admission.
Yarm’s book works so well because it’s an oral history, not a narrative one. It isn’t analytical. It doesn’t offer insight into its subject by editorializing or trying to show its subject in a larger historical context. It’s not cultural criticism, like other stellar books such as Simon Reynold’s Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. Instead, it’s a collection of trimmed and sequenced quotations as raw as sashimi—just spoken words, a naked man on the street, telling it like it was.
Other writers have used oral history to great effect. Legs McNeil published his canonical Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk in1996. Brendan Mullen published the less-well-known but gripping Whores: An Oral Biography of Perry Farrell and Jane’s Addiction in 2005. John Cook’s recent Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records fits this category. The form isn’t new, either. The practice of oral history—of recording historically valuable information through formal interviews—dates to 5th-century Greece, when proto-historians Herodotus and Thucydides pioneered the practice of systematically, almost scientifically, gathering eyewitness accounts, then stringently analyzing their findings to record the details of significant events.
In more modern times, a few late 19th-century anthropologists recorded Native American folklore on phonograph cylinders. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration gathered spoken remembrances from ex-slaves and surviving witnesses of the Civil War. In the same decade, scouts for the Library of Congress recorded American folk music and folklore onto acetates—legendary musicologist John A. Lomax and his son Alan performed the bulk of that important work.
The advent of the audio tape recorder after World War II improved the quality and accuracy of oral record-keeping, and increased the scale of preservation efforts. It’s why the golden age of oral history is widely considered to have begun in the 1940s with the work of historian and journalist Allan Nevins, at Columbia University.
Yarm can be seen as Nevins’ journalistic heir, focusing efforts not on presidential biographies or the Civil War, but on preserving the details of an important arts movement. Before Nervermind and Ten, grunge was simply an alternative culture. After those albums, it was a lucrative, mainstream global phenomenon.
Oral history records this phenomenon with unique authority and color. It’s brutal work. Authors like Yarm conduct thousands of hours of interviews. They sift through tapes (or digital recordings today) to cull choice quotes, the ones that actually say something substantive or revealing. Not all sources give good quotes, and not everyone is a natural storyteller. Authors must cluster and order text, putting all the Green River tour quotes together, and all the quotes about the band’s one Detroit show together, and then arrange the gestalt chronologically, so that a story arc emerges.
It’s unfair when uninformed reviewers reduce an oral historian’s job to patronizing lines such as “stitched together a quilt of quotes” or “weaved together” a chronicle. Such comments subvert a valuable form of real, in-depth journalism, and demean the large-scale organizational intelligence required to create work that follows a timeline and has an overall arc composed of multiple component arcs…all the while keeping it entertaining.
Simply said—simple as a term like grunge, that means so much—oral historians do what the best anthologists and art gallery curators do. They create something new, vital and beautiful out of other people’s words and art.
Oral history is an art in itself. It’s why Everybody Loves Our Town will endure as a classic of monumental scale.
Aaron Gilbreath has written for the New York Times, The Believer, Paris Review, Portland Mercury, Yeti and Gettysburg Review. He lives in Portland, Oregon.