Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge is the second oral history focusing on the Northwest music scene to be published in recent years (the other is Greg Prato’s Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, published in 2009). Over the course of 544 pages, more than 250 of those who were actually there reminisce, blow off steam, and nurse long-festering grudges. It’s a look back that’s both wildly subjective and highly entertaining.
One thing that becomes immediately apparent is how unreliable eyewitness testimony actually is. Everybody Loves Our Town might be dubbed the Seattle music scene’s own version of Rashomon, as time and again the same event is recounted in a contradictory fashion. “Wow, his memory is off,” is Mark Arm’s (Mudhoney) response to Alex Shumway’s story of how the two met, to cite just one example. And you can expect most stories coming from Courtney Love to be challenged, most contentiously by Buzz Osborne (The Melvins). Interviewees also take issue with previous biographers, as well as each other; though more than one Nirvana biography says early Melvins fans were dubbed “Cling-Ons,” Melvins drummer Dale Crover is quoted as saying “Whoever says we called the people who hung with us the ‘Cling-Ons’ is completely full of sh*t.”
Yarm begins the story back in the pre-grunge days of the early-mid ‘80s, when the biggest bands in Seattle were the U-Men and Green River; the U-Men’s John Bigley is even the last to speak in the book, bringing the story to a sad conclusion. Interviewees include many of the main players; in other cases (chiefly the members of Nirvana and Pearl Jam), Yarm draws from other sources to fill in the gaps. But for every band that did make it big, there are at least three that didn’t (or never intended to). So you also hear stories from members of 7 Year Bitch, the Thrown Ups, Cat Butt, Blood Circus, and Seaweed, among many others. Not to mention quotes from folks who worked behind the scenes; record label owners, bookers, publicists, and others. All of which helps provide a more well-rounded view of the period, and the hard work involved on everyone’s part.
Aside from Yarm’s introduction, the book is given over entirely to the interviewees. It’s their own story, told in their own words, with no journalist providing a supplementary interpretation. It’s an approach that has its pluses and minuses, though here at least, given the book’s length, there’s plenty of context provided (something essential to making sense of a story). And because there’s no omniscient narrator who has to decide out who’s correct and who’s not, you’re free to make up your own mind, without that narrator telling you what you’re “supposed” to think.
But while the many hilarious anecdotes belie the stereotype that grunge was all doom and gloom, there’s also a constant, underlying sadness, due to the fact that every major band (Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains) and many of the lesser ones all grappled with some type of substance abuse. It makes for dispiriting reading, as yet another band breaks up, and yet another person dies, due to over-indulgence. It’s a cautionary tale with a powerful anti-drug message that’s all the stronger because the book isn’t trying to make such a statement.
By and large, when the mainstream media discovered “grunge,” the stories proved to be incredibly inaccurate (e.g. the totally media-created trend of Seattle’s “grunge fashion” look, which didn’t exist — really). Everybody Loves Our Town gets those intermediaries out of the way and lets the scene’s participants tell their own stories at length. And they clearly have a great time in doing so, a key factor in making this book such an enjoyable read.
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