With all of the buzz surrounding the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s breakthrough album Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s chart-topping debut Ten, it’s cool to have an additional perspective to balance the story of the two bands’ rise. Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, released this fall via Crown/Archetype, provides a hefty companion to those re-releases. In the words of those who were there, the book chronologically connects the dots from Seattle’s pre-grunge underground through the alt-rock world of the 1990s.
Everybody Loves Our Town is a 49-chapter, 580-page marathon of quotes, accusations, disgusting stories, and heartfelt tales. Yarm, a former senior editor at Blender magazine, smartly arranged each chapter from more than 250 interviews with musicians, scenesters, record label execs, journalists, and many others.
Nirvana and Pearl Jam fans shouldn’t expect too much fluff. Yarm digs deep into the scattered, drug-addled, boozed-up music scene, thanks in part to the anecdotes from members of nationally famous groups like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, the Screaming Trees, and Alice in Chains as well as underground indie acts like the Melvins, Skin Yard, U-Men, Malfunkshun, TAD, and Mudhoney (the book’s title is drawn from a Mudhoney song called “Overblown,” featured in the soundtrack of the film Singles). It’s an effective mix of voices.
There’s no analysis or direct editorial direction or criticism from the author, so the quotes tell the story. While the quotes are raw and unrefined, there’s a consistent flow and dynamic between chapters that’s unusual for the format. Keeping up with who’s who can be a little tricky, but the reader catches on.
Much of Everybody Loves Our Town describes life as a starving Seattle rock musician in general: the lack of money, the abundance of weed and beer, the filthy rehearsal spaces, the broken-down tour vans, and the backstage encounters. Yarm pays a lot of attention to the pre-Nevermind scene and the sense of mutual support, competition, rivalries, and alliances between colleagues and friends. There’s a lot of eyewitness accounts and “I remember meeting so-and-so when …” from chapter to chapter. Some of it can be tedious, coming off like bits of obnoxious gossip about backstabbing, infidelity, and lurid misbehavior in a cheap soap opera. Some of the quotes are so full of Northwestern stoner slang and slacker attitude, the reader can’t help but chuckle. The most upbeat entries, however, relate hilarious tales of pranks, drunken gaffes, and on-stage triumphs. Even a few sworn enemies (Courtney Love and Dave Grohl, for example) occasionally give each other props along the way.
A few chapters get fairly grim, especially the needle-filled accounts from friends and bandmates of Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley (of Alice in Chains), Andrew Wood (of Mother Love Bone), and others who died from overdoses or suicides. Depression and tragedy plays a big role in the story of grunge and Seattle.
Fortunately, not everything’s so heavy and sad. Everybody Loves Our Town treats readers to more than a few side stories about blowing chunks backstage, passing out in cardboard boxes on porches, losing gear, partying with fans, “grunge fashion,” and accusations of selling out. The book also spends time on the rise of indie label Sub Pop, one of the wild, rags-to-riches success stories of the scene. It also touches on the tangle of major labels clamoring to swoop in and sweep up grunge acts in the wake of Sub Pop’s hype.
By nature, books of oral history can often be jumpy, disconnected, and confusing. Not every quote can be substantive or insightful. Everybody Loves Our Town assembles what could have been a mad jumble into a revealing, funny, and, at times, disturbing assessment of a unique musical movement and band scene.
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