Music News

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.