Review: “Everybody Loves Our Town,” Mark Yarm

Mudhoney at the Croc, 2000

I moved to Seattle in March of 1995. I had to get out of New York City, and it was Seattle over Chicago or San Francisco because I had a friend offering me a free room in her house. I was a jaded New Yorker who knew that living in Seattle didn’t mean I was going to run into Chris Cornell shopping for green beans any more that living in New York meant you ran into Lou Reed when you went out to buy milk. It was post-grunge, post-Nirvana, post-Everett True. It was two years after Mia Zapata was murdered and not even a year after Kurt killed himself. It was before they routed Pine Street through Westlake Park (and that will only mean something if you have lived there long enough to remember the difference), it was still quiet and dark and odd in that very Northwest, very Seattle way.

I explain all of this to give you background why I was so interested in, and thrilled by, Mark Yarm’s oral history of the scene, “Everybody Loves Our Town”. I have to admit that I was dubious when I heard about the book originally; lots of people have traveled to Seattle over the years and tried to put together the pieces and figure out how musician A ended up in Band W, and most of them have gotten quite a lot of it wrong, or just plain didn’t get it. I am not a grunge insider by any stretch of the imagination, but there is a sense of things you get by being at shows night after night and reading the local papers and hearing the local gossip in real time that you can’t just get remotely or by arriving 15 years later and trying to put the pieces together. Add to that a scene that was insular by nature and by geography, which was then exploited internationally, and people just don’t want to talk, and if they do want to talk, they certainly don’t want to tell you the truth. Somehow, Mark Yarm got people to tell him the truth, or at least enough of the truth that he could find the rest of the pieces from someone else and put them together in a form that told the story of the Seattle scene.

The book is almost 600 pages of intricate, painstaking storytelling and research that tells what I would agree is the backbone of the story, the assertion that the Seattle music scene starts back with the U men, and that all roads lead back, through and around there. It’s a less sexy story than focusing on ALL NIRVANA ALL THE TIME, which isn’t true or accurate anyway, and overshadows everything else that happened, much of which was incredibly interesting and compelling. “Everybody Loves Our Town” is, I think, the right story, it’s the story that needed to be captured and chronicled once and for all, before people forgot, died, or just stopped caring completely.

I wondered how on earth Yarm, as an outsider, was going to get people to talk, and how he would parse his way through the politics and the inside baseball. I think that being an outsider actually worked in his favor – he wasn’t part of anyone’s camp, but had trusted individuals who crossed borders speaking up for him. He repaid that trust by not taking sides and letting people tell all of the stories, not just the famous ones or the good ones or the ones with the happy endings.

My litmus test these days with an oral history is whether or not I feel like all of the rumors were quelled or the loose threads were tied up and if all of the legends were told. I don’t need to learn something new but I want to feel like someone else who knows nothing about the subject will be able to acquire what I consider to be the essential basis of knowledge. I was definitely going to learn something new from “Everybody Loves Our Town” just on the basis of not having been there for the years that proceeded the scene. While I wouldn’t have traded my years of sitting on the edge of the stage at CBGB’s for being down front at Gorilla Gardens, Seattle deserves more props than it actually gets. If I had a dime for every person that dismissed “grunge” without actually knowing anything about it (including the fact that it was a media label), I would be a very rich woman. This is not about Eddie Vedder’s love life. This is a story about a scene that doesn’t exist any more, about the way people used to connect and listen to music that has vanished.

This isn’t a quick read. This isn’t an easy read. But it is a fun and interesting one. Oral history gets thrown around a lot these days, and in some cases becomes a substitute for actual writing or actual research. There is a skill to listening, to remembering, to finding the thread that someone you talked to a year ago brought up in a conversation you’re having with someone else now. It’s easy to be sloppy and think that it doesn’t matter, especially when you’re dealing with the history of pop music. Mark Yarm is not sloppy, and I found the scholarship of this book to be impeccable, to the point where I would suggest this book be considered part of the unofficial rock book canon. If you think grunge was bullshit and you hated the Pearl Jams and the Nirvanas and the Candleboxes, I would tell you to read it anyway, because Mark Lanegan is the best book club ever, because I clearly never gave Ben Shepherd enough credit, because of a million other things that you will get out of it that I didn’t or wouldn’t. You will be engulfed by this book and the 592 pages will fly by.

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