The Long Review: Sleepless in Seattle: The Birth of Grunge

Apr 11, 2006 at 5:32 pm

Various Artists
(Livewire Recordings)

I am the advertisement. I am the commercial for the record industry, the stereotype, the representative sample. I am the convert.

 I was 11 years old when Nirvana’s Nevermind began its unprecedented ascent to the top brass of nearly every arbiter of early 1990s popular music. At that point, my musical tastes oscillated among The Beatles, Michael Jackson and Poison, though I was beginning to develop some sense of Guns N’ Roses and Metallica, the latter on the merits of the so-called Black Album — only in retrospect did I realize that doesn’t really count. My story is no different than the one told in nostalgic drunken bar conversations across the world even today. Nirvana changed my life. Specifically, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” seduced me to convince my parents — somehow — that despite the naked child on its cover, the album carried no “Parental Advisory” label, and therefore, under my rights as an American, I was entitled to have it.

 I have since been through three copies, and currently I only own the vinyl. No matter; I don’t really listen to it anymore. Having spent more than $60 on it in various forms over the years, I can no longer justify its purchase. I can summon a perfect rendition of any of those songs in my head whenever I want.

 The real importance of Nirvana, its legacy in real terms, is what it introduced to kids like me, who were in the process of inculcation by the mainstream when Grunge introduced us to reality. Grunge was dirty and disadvantaged, poor, angry, loud, articulate, revolutionary; it was muted social commentary, reactive and responsive art, and ultimately performance art. The ripped jeans and flannel would become fashion commodities; they represented the part of America that parents who buy Rod Stewart albums don’t want their children to see, and their very presence in the mainstream threatened Ronald Reagan and George Bush and all the fake bullshit that had percolated to the top of the great American drink. Culture needed a savior.

 The 20 bands on Sleepless in Seattle: The Birth of Grunge offer context to one of America’s most affecting — and short-lived — social movements. There is no Nirvana here, no Pearl Jam, nor any of the countless attempts by the record industry to recreate a unique moment in time. What’s here is empirical, historical documentation that a movement had been afoot long before Kurt Cobain’s sad, snarling blue eyes looked through you. There’s the post-New Wave joy of the Blackouts; the destructive heaviness of the Melvins; the pre-Pearl Jam melody of Green River; the buzzsaw guitars and throat of Mudhoney; Tad’s Northwestern proto-metal. There’s Skin Yard, The Gits, Love Battery, Seaweed, 7 Year Bitch, and the Supersuckers. The chorus in Gruntruck’s contribution, “Tribe,” captures the mood succinctly: I just want to fly my freak flag/Come on join our tribe.

 If your musical tastes moved underground after April 8, 1994 (just a scant 12 years ago last week), you understand intrinsically what this compilation holds. If you thought Jesus Lizard broke meaningful musical ground, you’ll hear who they ripped off. Same with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and so on.
 I am the advertisement. I am the commercial for the record industry, the stereotype, the representative sample. I am the convert.

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