Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Book Review: Everybody Loves Our Town - Mark Yarm

There isn't any shortage of documentation of Rock music history. There is no shortage of books, films, magazine articles or detailed compilation albums of the history of every scene in every town that has ever had a few bands play there. While this is a wonderful thing for the completists, historians and nerds it can leave a casual observer somewhat overwhelmed as each different document has a different take on each story, often influenced by the opinions of the writer. How are you to know what the real story is? Well unless you were there you probably never will know all the details. Mark Yarm's Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History Of Grunge brings you the real story from the mouths of those that were there. Whilst not the first book of its kind (see last year’s Grunge Is Dead by Greg Prato) it is far more detailed than most.
Everybody Loves Our Town is very thorough in its coverage of the punk scene in the northwest of America. Starting with the U-Men, it covers the more influential acts that started in what was a rather desolate corner of the country in the late 1970's and early 80's. When Grunge took over the airwaves in the early 90's it would be easy to think that you couldn't throw a stone without hitting a fan of the music of Seattle but just 10 years earlier, there really were almost no punk-rock bands in that area. If you wanted to be part of any “scene” you would have had have headed south to LA, as some people like Duff McKagan (who had played in various bands, including The Fastbacks) did.
However the seeds of the scene had started to sprout roots and were growing rather rapidly.
Mark Yarm goes to great lengths to cover all aspects of the grunge scene, talking to people who are usually forgotten about, whilst still focusing on the 4 bands that made it really big (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains) as the centrepiece. The book includes interviews from members of lesser known acts like TAD and the Gits as well as the bands that didn't get much recognition at all like Seaweed and The Fluid. As well as these much loved but obscure bands, Yarm makes the rather brave move of devoting a significant amount of time to one of the most reviled bands from Seattle. Candlebox. They were labelled as “Grunge Lite”, generally detested by the other bands from the Northwest and now have a reputation for being a lame copycat band but they sold millions of albums and took many of the more obscure and more credible northwest bands on tour with them. Though they don't come across as well as bands like The Screaming Trees or TAD in the book, Candlebox aren't totally deserving of all the hatred poured upon them and credit must go to Mark Yarm for including them in a story that they are often left out of. Devoting time to bands that aren't fondly remembered shows his commitment to telling the story as a whole rather than turning the book into another joint biography of Pearl Jam and Nirvana.
The Gits, Seven Year Bitch and TAD all had some degree of success in the media explosion around the Grunge scene but are relatively obscured in the subsequent histories of it all. It's really these bands that have the far more interesting stories than the big 4, mainly because they haven’t been covered in such detail. Both The Gits and Seven Year Bitch are truly punk in both attitude and style and both had very tragic stories, each involving the death of a band member. What becomes apparent is that there are so many acts like this throughout the Seattle scene. Bands that had their own sound, own attitude and produced some wonderful records yet were either destroyed by the grunge boom or completely forgotten about as the hype died down. One of the main things you take away from the book is the rather terrible tragedies that befell a lot of these bands and how early on it all started. Heroin, which started to take a hold of the scene long before the mass media attention, caused at least 4 deaths, destroyed dozens of bands and probably ruined a great deal more lives of those involved. The story of Andrew Wood, the singer for Mother Love Bone, is heart-breaking and sad but it seems like the start of a long line of tragedy that wrapped itself around a lot of different bands, with the results being felt as recent as this year with the death of Mike Starr, the original bass player for Alice In Chains.
Whist most of the misadventures in the book are the result of drug abuse, the murder of singer Mia Zapata in 1993 had nothing to do with drugs and was all the more crushing and shocking for it. It also seemed to have a more profound effect within the community than most of the others, perhaps only behind the death of Andy Wood and, of course, Kurt Cobain's death in 1994, with a tribute album being made by Joan Jett and Pearl Jam helping to set up a charity in Mia’s name. However there is a lighter side to it all. Some stories from the early days of these bands are very, very funny and many people go to great lengths to dispel the myths of “tortured artists” like Kurt Cobain (who at one point is labelled “a funny motherfucker”). A great deal of the interviews in the book are made up of fond memories with an overall tone of astonishment at the insane journey these musicians endured.
As this is an oral history made up of quotes from a wide cast of characters, there is no real writing style as such rather than an editing style. That said, the book flows perfectly with each quote lined up to give a good flowing narrative of each event, as well as the different recollections of each person involved. It's very similar to a documentary style way of editing and really helps to build up an image of what went on. It's easy to follow the story of each band as they progress and the stories are separated up enough so that you're not confused as to which band is being discussed or in what era the action is taking place.
My one criticism of the book is that there is little coverage of some of the smaller labels in the Northwest. Sub Pop were by far the biggest of the Seattle indies and their (interesting and important) story is covered in great detail here and C/Z records also gets a good amount of coverage. However, Conrad Uno's Pop Llama label is almost totally overlooked, despite being home to bands like The Young Fresh Fellows who, whilst not strictly grunge, were very important in the early days of the northwest punk scene. Conrad Uno was also the producer on most of Mudhoney's early records, which is a huge contribution to the sound of grunge. Yet he is hardly featured at all. As well as this is the surprising absence of K Records from Olympia whose founder, Calvin Johnson, was not only a major force in independent music in that corner of the world but also a significant influence on Kurt Cobain. So much so that Cobain even had a homemade K tattoo on his arm. I understand the need to be concise and that straying from Seattle to the neighbouring cities would take up space and time in a book that is on the whole, thorough and fully realised. However I can’t help but feel that those two labels in particular are all too often overlooked. That said, the book covers some virgin ground as well by detailing the careers of bands like Skin Yard and Cat Butt, who are hardly ever covered in any sort of detail, and it follows them through to the end.
Mark Yarm has written a book that wonderfully explains where grunge came from, what it was (and wasn’t) and how things started to crumble around some people whilst others survived. It is by far the most in depth history of the genre available even to the point of covering the acts that no one wants to talk about. This is a must read for any fan.
Have a look at Mark's tumblr for various tracks, images and stories related to both the book and the scene in general.

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