"It Was More About The Effort To Survive": A Chat About Everybody Loves Our Town
Mark Blankenship joins me to talk about Mark Yarm's oral history of grunge.
Mark Yarm's oral history of grunge, Everybody Loves Our Town, is a fantastic and informative overview of the genre — which nobody involved is interested in calling "grunge," in fact — and I wasn't more than a few dozen pages into it before ordering it to my esteemed colleague Mark Blankenship's house. We talked earlier this week about Candlebox, Kurts Loder and Cobain, and how nobody loved their youth.
Sarah D. Bunting: I really didn't know that much about grunge before I picked up Everybody Loves Our Town — no more than anyone else would, having lived through the early '90s — but I didn't get far into it before knowing that you, Mark, should also read it.
Mark Blankenship: And you were correct! I loved this thing. As a pop music nerd of the highest order, I've certainly been aware of grunge music for decades now, and back in the day Pearl Jam and Hole found their way into my car's CD player alongside Tori Amos and whatever Madonna album had just come out. But despite knowing the chart peaks of many grunge albums, I knew almost nothing that this book taught me. And then there was also the kick of remembering all these feuds and concert meltdowns that I remember Kurt Loder reporting on. Things I vaguely knew about but never quite had a full picture of.
I don't think I even remember Candlebox, much less that they were the universally agreed-upon punching bag of "the scene."
Oh man, Candlebox! I feel for those guys. Because they come across as dudes who were just happy to be jamming, then got sucked into this marketing vortex. They were damned from the beginning because they had success without being cool, but they don't seem like jerks. You can still feel the lead singer's hurt feelings, which made me sympathize.
But they didn't get bitter about it, which is nice.
Thinking about the Candlebox segment also underlines what a great job Mark Yarm does here. The way he selects and orders his quotes lets us see Candlebox from all sides, yet he only needs a few pages to make his point.
Which artist(s) did you think the book served best here, in terms of them being interesting to you?
I would say Pearl Jam, actually. I still don't care for their music — probably because goddamn "Jeremy" was always playing somewhere my entire junior year and I just could not after a while (and…still can't) — and I still think Vedder is kind of a pill, but I feel like my understanding of how he was shaped into said pill is better, and I'm more sympathetic to his point of view on controlling their exposure and not making videos and blah dee blah.
I agree! When I was a teenager, I thought it was ridiculously dickish to sign a major label deal and then bitch about the consequences, and to some extent, I guess, I still do, but this book clarifies that for the people inside the hurricane, it was more about the effort to survive. It's hard to hate on Pearl Jam's reticence when you hear them talk about what was happening to all their friends.
Exactly. And we forget how young they were at the time.
Which leads to my primary takeaway here… It's incredibly sad that almost no one in this entire successful scene ever seemed to enjoy it.
If they even survived it!
I do want to talk, speaking of casualties, of how you felt the book did with the elephant in the room, namely Cobain. I admire how balanced Yarm's end product is, because let's face it: a lot of people — myself included, inspired by the Montage Of Heck doc on HBO — are reading in no small part to get the dirt on Kurt. And I think those people may not be satisfied, because in the end, how well can anyone know one guy who kind of didn't want to be known. But the book has a really hard job of not letting him take over as a subject, and Yarm pulls it off, I think.
Agreed. To my taste, Montage of Heck gets awfully close to hagiography with its portrait of a victimized genius, and one way Yarm keeps Cobain in perspective is by including quotes about how he (a) might have been tortured but also wanted to succeed and (b) was very much an instrument in his own life. Which to me makes him seem more human, frankly. So that when you get to the story about the record execs not stopping to congratulate him on the Unplugged performance before they start insisting he do photo shoots and shit, it comes across as a more complex and sad example of Cobain as a gifted young person who wanted what he got without knowing what it was.
And also as a junkie who was being used by everyone around him, but that's hardly a revelation, I guess.
Which brings us, inexorably, to Courtney Love. What are your thoughts on her role here?
First, I'll observe that this is the perfect format in which to meet her. Yarm is so good at capturing the flavor of her speech and how she thinks, which is always the best part of oral histories, to me. Second, I was going to say in response to your thoughts on Cobain that Love's take on him at this distance — kind of "I love him still and he was the best, but my God what a junkie pain in the ass he was, and so was I" — is very refreshing. I feel like generally in our culture, widows and widowers have to Be A Certain Way, like forever, and of course she's the last person who's going to subscribe to that.
But her relationship with him 20 years after his death feels so genuine to me. And I think some of the comments about her are mostly about the men making them, though I don't doubt that she had an agenda with Cobain. I'm just not sure it was the only thing she felt or was.
I agree with you. And the reason we can both have that perspective, I think, is because Yarm does do such a good job of letting everyone talk. You hear Love's voice, and you hear a bunch of other people contradicting her, and you (or at least I) get left with the sense that she was just as young and gifted and misguided as the rest of them. And now as a survivor of that entire crazy experience, she seems reasonably clear on everything, including her role in it. Man…once again, I'm thinking about how none of the people in the book ever talk about having a good time. Or like…very rarely. It really does seem like this entire scene was driven by misery and addiction, which I was too young at the time to really appreciate.
I was in college and I still don't think, even after Cobain's death, that I comprehended what it might have been like.
No! I think I had heard of her but I didn't remember from where. The book did send me down several Google rabbitholes: always a good sign!
Similarly, I went to my Billboard chart books to look up albums by bands like Mudhoney and 7 Year Bitch. If only I'd been a little bit cooler, maybe their music could've made me sad, too!
For a mainstream-pop girl like me, this was very informative; I'd gotten most of my information about those bands from Singles, a project it seemed like most of them wanted to shit on in-depth, but it kind of got blown past. Still, a very satisfying read overall and an outstanding use of the form by Mark Yarm.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can offer his work is that for the entire time I was reading the book, I kept using grunge bands as examples of things. "Oh yeah…this shoe store is like that concert where Pearl Jam went crazy!"
Well, I'm glad we could have this discussion so that we could stop annoying our husbands with nonstop references to it.
You've seen Mark Blankenship around these parts before, shouldering some of the burden in the Dog Days Of Summer Movies section. Check out his new video series, Pour Me Another, featuring pink champagne and real talk about the theater.
Tags: 7 Year Bitch books Candlebox Courtney Love Eddie Vedder Everybody Loves Our Town friends Hole Kurt Cobain Kurt Loder Mark Blankenship Mark Yarm Mia Zapata Montage Of Heck Mudhoney music oral histories Pearl Jam The Gits