Grunge of Today

March 12, 2008

After Kurt Cobain’s death, the grunge began to fade out of the mainstream. Many bands broke up or went back to just playing shows in the Seattle area. Other bands evolved into something else as time went on.

Without a doubt, Pearl Jam has remained the biggest band to come out of the Seattle grunge scene that is still playing today. Many other grunge musicians have moved on to other things, like Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, who joined the supergroup Audioslave. Dave Grohl went on to start his own band Foo Fighters in addition to working with several other bands like Queens of the Stone Age and Nine Inch Nails. Even Alice in Chains is touring again, though without Layne Staley, who died of a drug overdose on April 5th 2002 (coincidentally, the same day that Kurt Cobain died eight years later).

The lasting impression of grunge on today’s music is immeasurable. But what we do know is that it has definitely influenced a lot of people.

And it’s almost come full circle: Mark Arm, formerly of Mudhoney, may be getting back together with his bandmates for a new Green River tour.

It’s hard to say if grunge really died or if it just evolved into something else. But if it did die, it happened on April 8th, 1994.

The success of grunge was taking its toll on all involved, and one of those most obviously affected by it was Kurt Cobain. Cobain, who had suffered from an undiagnosed stomach ailment for many years, began to self medicate with heroin in the late 80s to ease the pain. It didn’t take long for his use to become a problem; He would pass out during photo shoots and started to become less reliable at shows. After his marriage to Courtney Love and the realization that he would become a father, Cobain tried to get clean. It was during this time that Cobain looked worse than ever, having gone through withdrawls in addition to his stomach ailment. The mainstream press had a field day covering Cobain and Love, with stories about how their daughter Frances Bean was born addicted to heroin (she wasn’t) and Cobain’s drug problems (some of which were valid).

In late 1994, Love staged an intervention for Cobain with friends and recording associates. They convinced Cobain to go to rehab, which he did for a short while in Los Angles before escaping back to Seattle.

In late March of 1994, Cobain was hospitalized for a heroin overdose, and rumors were that he was dead. He had actually survived, but for bandmate Dave Grohl, it was an emotional and confusing time:

“So they called and said he’d passed in Rome, and I fucking freaked out. I just lost my mind and started wailing. As disconnected as our relationship had become, you just can’t imagine real tragedy in your life. Twenty minutes later someone called me and said, “Actually, no, he’s not dead, he’s awake.” How weird. That could have been the happiest moment of my life. When he came home, I talked to him on the phone. We tried to avoid the subject — we were talking about buying minibikes or something, and I told him, “Look, man, I was really scared.” He said, “I know. I’m really sorry. It was just an accident.” I was trying to reach out to him and tell him that I really cared about him, but it wasn’t enough. The time leading up to his death was really strange. He disappeared. He just seemed like he wanted to get away. He bailed. I honestly did not think he was going to kill himself. I just thought he was on someone’s floor in Olympia, listening to albums. Or something.”- (Rolling Stone, July 14th, 2005)

The conditions of Cobain’s death remain a bit of a mystery. What is known is that Cobain had gotten back on heroin and was very depressed. He was found dead by an electrician in his home on April 8th, 1994. The cause of death was ruled to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

News of Cobain’s death spread like wildfire. MTV ran 24 hour coverage of what was happening in Seattle following the news. Cable news channels like CNN carried the story. Conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh covered the story and chastised the grunge music. Cobain’s face even appeared on the cover of Newsweek.

Pearl Jam, who were on tour at the time, dedicated a show on April 8th to Cobain, with Vedder saying “Sometimes, whether you like it or not, people elevate you. It’s really easy to fall. I don’t think any of us would be here if it weren’t for Kurt Cobain.”

A memorial service for Cobain was held at the in downtown Seattle on April 10th, where about 10,000 people attended.

Cobain’s death marked the end of an era, and that was the era of grunge.

In the late 80s, grunge acts were starting to get some recognition outside of the Puget Sound area. Some of the big bands at this time included Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, Nirvana and Screaming Trees. It was in this time that the grunge sound that was to become mainstream was forged. Soundgarden, for example, had broken away from the high-pitched metal wail and went into a darker mode, one that would come to be on the album Badmotorfinger in 1991. Mother Love Bone could have been the big band to break grunge into the mainstream if not for lead singer Andrew Wood’s untimely heroin overdose and death on March 19th, 1990. Mother Love Bone’s Apple, released after Wood’s death, would prove to be formidable record, though due to Wood’s demise, its impact wasn’t felt far from Seattle. (The tribute to Wood, Temple of the Dog, would later become a spuergroup-esque release featuring Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder and guitarist Mike McCready.) Although it did reach former Chicagoan Eddie Vedder, who would join former Mother Love Bone members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard in Pearl Jam.

 

The true grunge explosion happened September 24th, 1991. Nirvana released the now landmark grunge album Nevermind, and became an overnight national success. Fueled by the hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana became the biggest band in America, knocking Michael Jackson out of the #1 spot on the Billboard Charts. With them, several other bands were also picked up. Pearl Jam released their first record Ten shortly before Nevermind, though record sales were sluggish until after Nirvana’s success. The same was true for Alice in Chains’ album Facelift, which was released in 1990 (followed by the Sap EP in 1992). Alice in Chains wasn’t like Nirvana or Pearl Jam, and their vocalist, Layne Staley, drove the songs with a unique voice that has, in recent years, become imitated. The other driving force in the band was guitarist Jerry Canterell

Bands like Soundgarden and Screaming Trees were getting recognized also. The Screaming Trees album Sweet Oblivion brought out a side of grunge with instrumentation similar to Mother Love bone but with vocals more like Kurt Cobain. Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanagan’s distinctive vocals really drive the album, and the raspy voice gives the songs a certain authority.

 

But with the musical success came some negatives. Once the mainstream media started reporting on this “grunge” phenomena, the markets of the world needed to know how to sell grunge. Part of this was in conjunction with a question asked by several media outlets of the early 90s: “What is today’s generation?” The new early 20s population didn’t have an identity that the market could latch onto. The big question was, “What do they want?” And the answer they got was “Nirvana.” But not specifically Nirvana the band, but the look and sound that came with grunge, which many people connected with Nirvana. The result is what Entertainment Weekly called the biggest “kind of exploitation of a subculture since the media discovered hippies in the ’60s.” The marketing for young people to grunge was overwhelming. Clothing designers in New York started making “The Grunge Look” and stores like Macy’s had flannel shirt sections. Grunge was being exploited to sell everything from clothes to cars to insurance. A dynamic shift had taken place. Film maker Cameron Crowe, who had set his latest film, “Singles,” in Seattle, went from pleading to producers to let the film be set there to being asked, “Is Nirvana in the movie?” (Nirvana was not, but the members of Pearl Jam were).

 

Pearl Jam released their Second album, Vs., in 1993. Vs. is considered by many fans to be the best Pearl Jam album released. While not a commercially successful as Ten, Vs. was a stripped down, more energetic album with more guitar distortion and more anger. The album was clearly less produced, which gave it a more natural feel than Ten.

Pearl Jam,TIME

As Pearl Jam got more popular, however, there came associations to the band from magazines like Time. Vedder was picture on the cover of Time (but declined to be interviewed) with the headline “All the Rage: Angry Young Rockers Like PEARL JAM Give Voice to the Passions and Fears of a Generation.” Eddie Vedder, was unhappy and responded:

 

“I think this is a whole bunch of crap. To look at it is very strange. It looks like one of those things you get at Magic Mountain for $10 or whatever where they impose your image on the cover of a magazine…This is my parents’ magazine, if I had parents…We’re on the cover as entertainment. Am I paranoid by thinking that we’re just a decoy? Do you know we’re declaring war on Haiti?” – (Loser,1995)

Certainly Pearl Jam was getting a lot of press. In fact, it would be less than a year before Pearl Jam would visit the White House and visit President Clinton to discuss one of the biggest events in grunge.

 

Video Links:

Stardog Champion – Mother Love Bone

Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana

Rusted Cage – Soundgarden

Hunger Strike – Temple of the Dog

Jeremy – Pearl Jam

I Nearly Lost You – Screaming Trees

Man in the Box – Alice in Chains

 

The Early Years

March 12, 2008

The term grunge was first used to describe music in 1981 by Mark Arm to describe his band Mr. Epp and the Calculations. Arm would also go on to be in several influential bands, including Green River and Mudhoney.

So it was out of the environment of rainy Seattle that grunge was born. And reborn, as it happens. In fact, grunge is one musical genre that is so inbred that it’s hard to distinguish who came up with what and when. Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard alone was involved in nine different bands between 1982 and 1994. The genre changed about as much as the bands and their line-ups did. As a result, the music scene was very much like a big dysfunctional family, one that could be described as the Partridge Family on downers. Still, it was a family that put together some great music.

As a genre, grunge is a mix of punk and metal, with a definite mix of early 60s rock in there too. It’s no secret that many bands were influenced by artists like Neil Young, and were big fans of Rust Never Sleeps. The lyric “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” is one embrace and/or questioned by several grunge musicians.

It makes sense to start talking about grunge by talking about Green River. Green River was a band that included several people that would go on to be very popular during the grunge explosion of the early 90s. These were, primarily, Jeff Ament, Mark Arm and Stone Gossard. Ament and Gossard would go on to play in Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam (among others) and Arm would later front the band Mudhoney. Green River’s sound came from a mix of dark rock with a punk feel. With some influence from metal bands, early Green River releases like 1985′s Come On Down represent this very well. And for much of the grunge scene at that point, this was the standard. Early Soundgarden sounded much more like Led Zeppelin than it did Superunknown.

The first big break for grunge artists was the Deep Six compilation. The compilation featured Green River, Soundgarden, The Melvins, Malfunkshun (featuring Andrew Wood, who would later front the band Mother Love Bone), Skinyard and The U-Men. It was released in March of 1986 and became the “grunge” album of the time. And while the compilation probably doesn’t sound like the grunge we think of, but it was definitely the basis (The Melvins, for example, sound more like just punk rock than grunge).

Another significant album was the first Nirvana album Bleach, which received very little attention outside of the Seattle area.

Introduction

March 12, 2008

In 1991, Nirvana released Nevermind, an album that would go on to become one of the 1990′s biggest and most influential records. To a then homeless Kurt Cobain, the massive exposure of grunge to the mainstream would be a dizzying few years. In fact, the grunge explosion that occurred following the record’s release really put Seattle on the musical map.

But Nirvana was far from the innovators of grunge. In fact, it was almost a decade earlier that the term “grunge” came into use, years before Nirvana was a band. Bands like Green River, Soundgarden and The Melvins enjoyed moderate local success, and some broke into the mainstream later.

So as for the history of grunge, a logical starting point would be in the early 1980s and the logical end point would be in 1994 with the death of Kurt Cobain.

Preface

March 11, 2008

This is a blog for my J387 class at the University of Oregon. This blog will discuss the grunge era and the media influence surrounding it. Later, this blog will go more in depth about the actual music of the time, influences, etc.

I hope you enjoy it.

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