Book Review: “Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music”
It’s hard to believe (for those of us who lived it, anyway) that it’s been fifteen years since Kurt Cobain committed suicide. On April 5th, 1994, the Seattle native left the world with the same cold-water shock his band Nirvana had on the world when the album Nevermind broke in 1991.
Some people saw Cobain’s death as inevitable; the signs were certainly there: There was the working title for 1994’s In Utero (a.k.a. I Hate Myself and I Want to Die). The lyrics for “All Apologies.” A prophetic MTV Unplugged set list (the caterwaul dÃ©nouement in “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” still sends chills up the spine). A near-fatal drug/alcohol overdose in Rome during a European tour. Those Courtney Love divorce rumblings. Quite a hit parade.
But to a larger degree, Cobain’s death has become a coda-like representation in our pop culture vernacular as the beginning of the end for the “grunge” era in Seattle. Greg Prato’s new book Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music disagrees. The book attempts to set this (and gads of other misnomers perpetuated by “so-called experts, who didn’t show up until the ‘90s, as Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament has said) straight.
Prato’s nearly 500-page digest does what no other documentary on the subject has before—it leaves the reflection to those who lived it, in their own words, without a filter. To that end, this is a truly great oral history.
The author conducted over 130 original interviews for the book during a three-year period. No outside interviews were included in his manuscript; his hope clearly was to capture the essence of the Seattle music scene from the point of view of the musicians, managers, photographers, producers and indie label-types in a true first-person narrative.
It (and he) succeeds admirably. Prato starts in the 60s and works his way through the grimy underground salad days, through the mainstream emergence of bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. His subjects point to the underappreciated acts like Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, Malfunkshun, Green River and the Melvins. The drugs, the overdoses, derailments, tour stories and insiders’ perspective that Grunge is Dead offers is all priceless stuff.
Prato’s examinations are hung together in like subjects, with mental threads subconsciously holding the story together; his questions had to be great to illicit such fully engaged responses; great nuggetsÂ from Eddie Vedder and Jeff Ament (Pearl Jam); Jerry Cantrell (Alice In Chains), Kim Thayil (Soundgarden) are a critical part of the book.
We even come to find out little-known tidbits. For all his combative vocal histrionics, Layne Staley was a really quiet guy, but that even he was pushed to the brink when he and Alice in Chains were pummeled by fans of Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth at the “Clash of the Titans” Red Rocks tour stop. Readers also get a sense of the surreal nature Soundgarden experienced with their label as they hit the road with Guns N’ Roses. That juxtaposition of intellectually-based rock reinvention paired with its polar opposite is yet one important more facet to the story.
And then there’s Nirvana, the reflections of which this reviewer won’t spoil. What the band meant to the scene on a number of levels, for good and for ill, is really engaging stuff.
And that’s just the beginning of a great retrospective; the selection of photos only serve to augment the “being there” experience that Grunge is Dead conveys. It’s historical, no doubt, but it never feels like dry, boring historical narrative. Prato wisely doesn’t get in the way of the subject matter, which is refreshingly opposite of rock journos like Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs author Chuck Klosterman—whose high profile U2 interview a couple years ago was about anything but U2.
This tome is heavy and honorable, like a tombstone. If grunge is dead now (and by all accounts it is, despite its ongoing impact on rock music today) it was most certainly was alive. The life that Prato—a New York-based journalist whose bylines have appeared in the All Music Guide, Classic Rock Magazine, and Goldmine—allows to shine through in this book is candid and rousing. And the ground he covers explains everything that came before it. Quite a feat, indeed.