Menu

Remembering the Grunge Years with author Mark Yarm

  • Written by Karin Hopper
Once upon a time, I was a small part of the Seattle grunge scene. People laugh when I tell them that I once saw Alice in Chains perform at the Redmond VFW. (A rainy night in 1989 with thirty people in attendance.) Or that I once went to a 7-11 in Seattle with AIC’s late singer Layne Staley. We sat down on a curb and talked about the meaning of life for about forty minutes.
 
(Three years later, Alice in Chains would be playing the Praça da Apoteose in Brazil to 40,000 fans.)
 
everybody loves our townThe cover of Mark Yarm’s book. (Courtesy photo) I also love the memory of seeing Mother Love Bone at the Legends Club in Tacoma. I went there with a girl named Vikki McGraw. Due to a misunderstanding, lead singer Andy Wood flipped me the middle finger and shouted something rhyming with “Duck Shoe.”
 
Weeks later, Wood died of a heroin overdose which devastated the Seattle music scene. The tragedy derailed Mother Love Bone’s ascent to stardom. But the core of that band morphed into Pearl Jam.
While on a recent vacation, I devoured a book called Everybody Loves Our Town. It’s an oral history of the Seattle grunge scene of the 1980s and 1990s. I called up Mark Yarm, the author. The 48-year old Brooklyn resident says it’s a running joke to mention he’s not related to Mudhoney singer Mark Arm.
 
Yarm used to write for the music magazine Blunder. He wrote an oral history about the Seattle-based record label Sub Pop. “A guy who became my agent reached out and asked if I would like to write a book about it,” Yarm said. “And I foolishly said yes. It was much more work than I had imagined.”
 
The resulting book details those rollicking times. How bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam exploded in popularity. But Yarm also focused on lesser-known acts like The U-Men, Mudhoney, The Melvins, and many more.  
 
That explosive era spawned great music. But tragedy was a byproduct. “Hearing about the heroin usage and abuses, especially since I would do a lot of the interviews late at night, it would be haunting and harrowing sometimes. About two-thirds of the way through the book, there was a certain amount of sadness. We know how things turned out for many of them… It didn’t end happily for a lot of people.”
 
The book brings to life the charisma of Mother Love Bone’s Andy Wood – but also his tragic downfall due to heroin.
 
“Mother Love Bone was obviously one of the first deaths that reverberated through the scene,” Yarm said. “And it’s really quite remarkable among the Big Four [bands], three of the lead singers have died. Kurt Cobain [Nirvana], Layne Staley [Alice in Chains], Chris Cornell [Soundgarden]. And pretty much by their own hand. Only Eddie Vedder [Pearl Jam] is still alive. That’s kind of sobering.” 
 
753b7842c0c59d4ba0d33a2a1e0c4e97Alice in Chains: Sean Kinney (top), the late Mike Starr (left), the late Layne Staley (right), and Jerry Cantrell (bottom). (Photo by Paul Hernandez)Yarm interviewed Woodinville resident Nancy Wilson, who was a founding member of the band Heart. At one point, Wilson expressed gratitude that the younger grunge scene embraced her and her sister Ann. 
 
“Alice in Chains and the Soundgarden guys, they viewed the Wilson sisters as the older sisters of that scene,” Yarm said. “And obviously Nancy was married to Cameron Crowe, who made the movie Singles. So there was a close-knit community there.”
 
Back in the day, many grunge fans thought Mudhoney might emerge as the region’s preeminent band. But on September 24, 1991, Nirvana released the album Nevermind. By that Christmas, two million copies had sold. As of today, it’s well over 30 million.
 
One of Yarm’s favorite Nirvana stories came backstage at Saturday Night Live.  
 
“There was a funny part where Bruce Pavitt of Subpop was backstage talking to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana,” Yarm said. “And Kurt said he wanted to open up a petting zoo. That was something I hadn’t heard before.... And who knows? Maybe he would be running an outstanding petting zoo today were he alive.”
 
Yarm’s book delves into Cobain’s controversial death. He was asked about his interviews with Cobain’s widow Courtney Love.
 
“Courtney Love was a bit difficult,” Yarm said. “She yelled at me a little bit. At one point she hung up on me for asking what I thought was an innocuous question. But she was actually a pretty good sport in the end. The fact that she spoke to me and addressed a lot of the issues. Whoever was handling her at the time told me she was not going to talk about Kurt Cobain. But of course, right away she was talking about Kurt Cobain. It was a little bit of a roller coaster ride. She could be difficult. But I talked to her over a number of conversations, and she was supportive in that regard.”
 
As Yarm reflected on his book, he cited one major misconception of the grunge scene.
 
“With all those singers, Kurt, Eddie, Chris Cornell and Layne, there was a perception of them as brooding and angry. That these were long-haired, dour-faced guys with no sense of humor. But from everyone I’ve spoken to, Layne had a bright sense of humor -- albeit a little bit twisted. He was a very pleasant, funny self-effacing guy. Kurt Cobain was a funny guy by all accounts. Even Chris Cornell, who had a serious and humorless reputation, was a funny guy.”
 
Yarm concluded by reflecting on the passage of time.
 
“What has changed is the internet,” he said. “Now it has pretty much eliminated scenes like Seattle [from coming into prominence]. Back then, people had all those rainy days inside with nothing else to do but practice music. It allowed their talent and style to incubate for all those years before it exploded. You don’t get that nowadays. You can record something on SoundCloud and you can uploaded it in an hour. The idea of a geographical scene, we don’t really have that much anymore. It’s a very different era now. I don’t know if we’ll see a geographical music scene like Seattle again.” 
 
Everybody Loves Our Town is available on Amazon and BN.com.
 
Derek Johnson can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.;
 
 

Share this post

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter