Here Comes the Sickness
In 1989, zoologist Mark Carwardine and author Douglas Adams (the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series) traveled around the world, taking pictures of species on the verge of extinction. Poaching, hunting, industrial fallout, rampant disease and a variety of other influences were cutting into herd sizes and forever altering ecological structures on all seven continents. The book that grew out of that journey, published in 1990, was titled Last Chance to See, and it was a moving and beautifully illustrated testament to the slow demise of rarely seen animals native to specific regions. Since time was limited (went the logic), and since not everyone was going to be able to fly all the way to Belize just to see a butterfly, the book would provide a full-color document of hundreds of relatively small portions of the world's surface, and the unique creatures that inhabited them, before those creatures disappeared entirely from the face of the Earth, for one reason or another.
In 1991, Geffen Records released Nirvana's Nevermind. Interviewed by Rolling Stone a couple of years on, Henry Rollins theorized that Nevermind "shot the tops off the poodles," that Nirvana annihilated the hair bands like Whitesnake, Poison, and Bon Jovi that had sat astride the charts relatively unopposed for nigh unto a decade. It wasn't a single-handed destruction -- 1991 delivered a torrent of strong releases by musicians everywhere across the country -- but one area's music community in particular found itself at the center of an inordinate amount of attention as a direct result of that album breaking as big as it did. For a brief span of time, every record company executive in America was looking to the Pacific Northwest, wondering how in the hell they'd missed it for so long.
Read it off and it sounds like a genealogy listing from the Old Testament: Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains and the Gits and Green River and Mother Love Bone and there was seemingly no end to the amount of music coming out of Seattle, a town that Bill Cosby once said was notable primarily because it got rain 360 days of the year. Nirvana found itself the bearer of a unique trajectory of musical inspiration in contemporary rock, citing the Meat Puppets, the Vaselines and Thee Headcoatees as often as the Beatles. Pearl Jam wrote songs about confusing family romances and children committing suicide in the classroom. Alice in Chains worked the line "when the dogs begin to smell her" into heavy rotation on MTV, historically not the most inviting venue for disturbing images like that.
"Did you know 1991 was the year punk broke?" Kim Gordon asked Sonic Youth's audience in the documentary film of the same name. And indeed it was. For years, young, alienated kids had been listening to the Stooges, Black Flag, Bad Religion, the Melvins, Hüsker Dü, the Ramones, and a boatload of other bands, messing around in their bedrooms with a cheap guitar and a shitty little amp, learning how to play "Gimme Gimme Gimme" and "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" to the best of their limited ability. And over the years those kids got better, more creative, faster, weirder, stronger. By 1991 or thereabouts, the whole thing had simply reached critical mass.
Of course the record companies had missed it; you'd have had to be hiding under a thousand sloppy beds in a thousand messy bedrooms, late at night, to hear that kind of ugly angst coming from a thousand kids at once. It's hard to pick up on that solitary sound unless you recognize it instinctively, and people who marketed Tiffany and David Coverdale weren't constitutionally attuned to those vibrations.
Now it's a decade later, an eternity by the standards of the industry machine, which measures what it knows in terms of what it can package. Kurt Cobain killed himself. Mia Zapata of the Gits was murdered. Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam tried to take on Ticketmaster, a daring and laudable idea that ended up badly executed. We still haven't gotten rid of Mötley Crüe (though we did successfully run Jon Bon Jovi out to Hollywood, which is punishment enough for both parties). Most of the musicians who received national exposure when Seattle's music scene got targeted are still working, still producing worthwhile noise; but as in every other era, the machine moves forward, new places get scouted, and different sounds get the attention. Band members quit, get replaced, go solo, go into rehab, escape, and go back. The primary musical sound of the 1990s is a historical reality now, "dead" only in the sense that hard-core punk is "dead" -- it's everywhere.
Strangely enough, one of the few bands to emerge whole, 12 years after its inception and 10 years after the big grunge blowup, turns out to be an outfit that never received as much of the serious ink-spilling attention as its brethren did. Mudhoney, a loud fuzzbox of a garage punk band named after a 1965 Russ Meyer jiggle flick, remains intact, with the same roster and with very few pauses in the action, more than a decade after forming.
But on the strength of a double-disc, career-spanning compilation called March to Fuzz, Mudhoney has decided to hang it up -- at least under that name, in that lineup. Before they do, though, they're taking a last loop south through California and Arizona, five shows, quick and dirty, before they head back to Seattle to play the gig that will sew it, or this part of it, all up.
So here it comes, punk: Last Chance to See.
Mudhoney formed in 1988, on the very first day of the year. Guitarist Steve Turner recalls the date with pinpoint accuracy: "That was the first day Matt [Lukin] came up to play with us." Turner and Mark Arm, who'd played together for a few years in a variety of settings, had been borrowing drummer Dan Peters from the host of bands Peters was playing with. On January 1, Lukin drove up from Aberdeen, the coastal town about a hundred miles southwest of Seattle where he was living, to play bass. Mudhoney didn't waste any time during that first year; in 1988, it produced two 45s and the Superfuzz Bigmuff EP, all while Lukin was making that God-awful commute, followed in November 1989 by its self-titled full-length debut.
Mudhoney's first single, "Touch Me I'm Sick/Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More," was also an early release from Sub Pop, a regional label you might have heard of. As such, it arguably lays claim to being the very first grunge recording, and Mudhoney's records in fact kept that label in business long before Nirvana's success turned a brighter spotlight on it. Almost from the day of its first release, Mudhoney was being celebrated, not just by Seattle locals but by bands like Sonic Youth, who took the band along on the U.K. tour that introduced Seattle's kinda-sorta progressive hard rock to international audiences.
Among the first bands to record for Sub Pop, Mudhoney was also one of the last to leave, signing with Reprise in 1992; and by the time it made the move, the industry was scrambling to recover from having had its blindfold tugged. "There was this really brief period where the record companies finally had to admit they didn't have a clue what was happening," says Turner. "So they signed all these bands, they signed people . . . well, they signed bands like us," he continues after a pause, "and they not only signed us, they left us alone. We'd go record and bring them the master tapes, and they said, 'We don't know what this is or why it sells, but just go do it and bring it back and we'll release it.' Of course, they got control again, really quick. It didn't take long until they got to where they thought they understood it."
"That was a really weird, funny time," says Arm, who is reluctant to compare the resultant feeding frenzy to any previous model. "At the time, I just wanted to hear something different from the screechy falsetto voice that it seemed like every '80s rock band was doing, or bands that were just copying hard-core punk, like, 'Here's another Minor Threat Xerox band.'" So, to all appearances, did everybody else in the country. But even after Nirvana and Pearl Jam achieved mainstream fame, after a half-dozen Seattle bands had done solid major-label work and hundreds of copycat bands had risen up around them, Mudhoney still came across as something of a wild card.
Consider: Mudhoney's ambiance was always more garage punk than dour hard rock, and they had trouble taking themselves (as opposed to the music) too seriously. Where Pearl Jam performed "Rockin' in the Free World" with Neil Young, Mudhoney collaborated with Sir Mix-a-Lot on the rock-meets-rap Judgment Night soundtrack for the song "Freak Momma," a freewheeling, hilarious cut on an otherwise serious project. The screamingly funny Billy Corgan once snidely remarked that Mudhoney's members were probably jocks in high school; Mudhoney thereafter took to performing in warm-up shirts that spelled out the band name in cheerleader lettering. Asked to contribute to the soundtrack of Cameron Crowe's syrupy grunge-ode film Singles, Mudhoney delivered "Overblown," which opened with the couplet "Everybody loves us, everybody loves our town/That's why I'm thinking lately, time for leavin' is now." Tapped to write accompaniment for a main character's mad dash across the landscape in the film With Honors, they worked up two versions of a track called "Run Shithead Run." Eddie Vedder filled in for Jim Morrison in a Doors reunion performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Mark Arm wrote a memoir of Mudhoney's trip to the White House for the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal magazine titled "The Executive Branch of the United States of America vs. Mudhoney" (GR Fall 1994).
Mudhoney, in sum, never quite fit the mold, much less the idiot media stereotype of grunge's brooding, coffee-fueled flannel-jockey poster boy. "If you're not having fun," asks Arm rhetorically, "what's the point? Even on albums of ours that I thought were darker than the rest, we still had a good time. That's the whole idea."
The intense focus on Seattle in the early 1990s was like very little that had happened previously in rock. Athens, Georgia, was probably the last place to have received any kind of geographically based scrutiny, but it didn't last much past the B-52's and R.E.M., and to nowhere near the same intensity. Seattle, by contrast, was supposed to lead rock music entirely out of the doldrums. Not surprisingly, the locals didn't buy it.
"Nobody [in Seattle] ever romanticized that notion, or the scene overall," says Turner emphatically. "The funny thing was, it peaked at different times. By 1990 it had peaked here, and by that time, really, I was sick of it. And then it peaked again, nationally, in '91, '92. . . . It was really weird to see all these people, my friends, having such a strong impact on the musical culture. Every time I thought it couldn't get any weirder, it would.
"But I think that by the time Cobain shot himself, that was it, that was when everybody had had enough. People were so sick of the whole Seattle thing . . . the record companies had recovered from the shock, they'd wrestled back control. They got cynical about it, the public got cynical about it. That was it."
Nonetheless, Mudhoney plowed through the remainder of the '90s with a string of good records rooted in the garage-punk tradition in which it'd always worked best: 1991's Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge was its last recording for Sub Pop. Piece of Cake and My Brother the Cow followed on Reprise, and in 1998 Mudhoney teamed up with Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, who'd helmed Big Star's legendary Third sessions, to record the excellent Tomorrow Hit Today.
Mudhoney's last live show, until very recently, was played in the year of that last release, in Portland. "We never broke up," reports Turner; but still and all, time passes, and new priorities arise. "Matt decided that he didn't want to play music anymore, and Dan's wife just passed the bar exam. Dan and his wife also just had a baby, so he's going to be doing house-husband duties for a while." Discussions with Sub Pop about assembling a best-of collection soon mutated into a projected "best-of and rarities" set, which is how March to Fuzz is subtitled, spanning the group's work for Sub Pop and Reprise.
"Since Warner Bros. is a major stockholder in Sub Pop, we had access to everything, and finally we decided to pull the B-sides, the compilation tracks, and as much uncollected stuff as we could, and we figured, well, we can do a whole career on one release," says Turner. "We tried to take into account what people would want to hear, as well as the stuff we wanted to include. Mark and I worked really hard on the list; we had a great time."
"We tried to arrange the songs on the first disc like we would if we were doing them live," adds Arm, "so that first disc isn't chronological by any means." Nonetheless, the best-of portion of March to Fuzz is admirably comprehensive despite the chronological seesawing, including both sides of the band's very first single as well as a hefty portion of songs from equally represented phases of Mudhoney's career. "You can even hear it, listen to it like a live set, with the last song and then the encore," Arm says, laughing. But it's the second disc that's the real kicker here, offering rare or uncollected tracks, soundtrack work, and (in an inspired block early in the disc) a selection of primal covers ranging from Elvis Costello and the Angry Samoans to Black Flag and Billy Childish. It's a remarkable performance not because Mudhoney reproduces "Fix Me" or "Pump it Up" note-for-note -- they don't -- but because embedded in each track is a small thread of the musical history from which Mudhoney drew its own art.
"We're a rock band," says Arm flatly. "We're not pretending we're absolutely unique. I really hate bands who try to come on like they're doing this wonderful thing that's never been done before. Not that we're trying to copycat. . . . I hope we have our own sound that comes across, and we are trying to do something that is somewhat unique, but at the same time we're all aware of our history, of what's come before us."
"We were all hard-core fans from the beginning," says Turner. "That was what really brought us together, was that common interest. Black Flag was like the second band I ever saw."
"We had actually thought about doing a punk 'covers album' several years back," Arm relates. "The first time we went into Conrad Uno's studio [Egg Studios, in Seattle], we played nothing but covers of punk songs. But then we heard that Guns n' Roses was doing the same thing [The Spaghetti Incident?, eventually released in 1993], and we didn't want to be even remotely connected to that, in any way. So we dropped the idea."
Assembling a career compilation sounds like it would be a dangerous project for a band that was always so committed to waving away any whiff of hype, but Arm reports that it wasn't a nostalgic process at all: "Going back through the music, listening to all the stuff we did before in preparation for the compilation . . . I think it does kind of feel like we're capping an era. Of course, when you do something like that, some memories are going to come back while you're listening, but I didn't at all feel like I was dwelling on the past."
"This is only the end of the first 12 years," Turner says.
So out came March to Fuzz in 2000, and in its wake Matt Lukin decided he wouldn't be averse to playing a last handful of shows before Mudhoney officially called it quits. In December they picked up a year and a half later, right where they'd left off, in Portland.
"The response was really good," says Arm. "We hadn't played together for a long time by that point. I guess the people who came out are the people who would be into it anyway, but it felt great."
"Even Matt was having a good time, I think. In spite of himself," Turner says, laughing.
Five shows later, Mudhoney will play its last concert in the original four-man lineup. In February it'll head to Brazil, minus Lukin. "We're not real comfortable with that part of it yet," reports Turner. "It's an experiment. We have no idea what we'll even call ourselves, or anything. We're still planning on recording, definitely -- at this point, me and Mark are kind of stuck together forever, I think -- but we're all looking forward to this short part, playing as Mudhoney again."
"Having a good time again," says Arm. "Connecting up with good friends."
Ten years on, Mark Arm reports that he really can't see much of whatever influence he or his contemporaries might have had on mainstream music, apart from a superficial comparison: "I just keep thinking, when I hear these bands like Matchbox 20 or that guy in Creed, 'Man, stop singing in that strained register.' Just like the falsetto thing in the '80s." Most likely, though, Mudhoney's modern emulators are currently the same fucked-up kids they themselves were in the early 1980s; very likely there's some baggy-eyed naif strangling the chords to "Touch Me I'm Sick" in a suburban bedroom in Ohio somewhere, developing his chops far off the map.
At least, a lot of us hope so. But at any rate, part of the beauty of such things is that no one, thank God, can predict where the next uprising is going to come from.
"I think you have these moments in the culture from time to time," Turner muses. "Mostly it's the same-old same-old, the status quo. But you do get these short, shining moments of freedom before the culture reaches out and swallows it up, before it gets run into the ground."
He laughs. "There for a little while the inmates had control. It happens from time to time. It'll happen again."
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