March 29, 2012


10 Insane Grunge Tales: Cobain & Vedder Slow Dance & More

Paul Bergen/redferns
Paul Bergen/redferns

If the continuum of 1990s music had to be condensed to a single word, it would be, for better or worse, grunge. As Mark Yarm, author of Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, writes, it's "the term that bedeviled and, let's face it, benefited (at least temporarily) many a Seattle rock musician." Yarm spent more than three years researching this definitive tome, interviewing more than 250 of the major and obscure figures of the scene. We don't have enough space to share all the amazing stories in the book, so we forced Yarm at flannel-point to share his 10 best in his own words. From bloody tampons to murder accusations, he did not disappoint.

Related: Listen to our Obscure Grunge Spotify Playlist and check out our Classic Grunge Photo Gallery    

10. The U-Men Light a Moat on Fire
The U-Men at the time started in the early 1980s in Seattle and were one of the bands that other groups looked up to. They were big players in the scene for a while and had a crazy manager who would dream up these stunts like wrestling or handing out barf bags. You never knew what might happen at a given show. They performed at the Bumbershoot Festival in 1985 and there was a moat and they put lighter fluid in the water and lit it on fire. [Singer] John Bigley came out with a torch and the flames were pretty impressive. You can see pictures in the book. Bigley said there were arrests and people screaming, and they had to hightail it out of there in this converted school bus that was pink and phallic-looking. It’s gone down as one of the all-time great stunts in Seattle punk rock.

9. Kurt Cobain Gets Pushed Out at Reading Festival in Wheelchair
Everett True was the journalist that Sub Pop famously flew over in 1989 to document the scene. They got him drunk and he wrote what they told him to write and he admits now that he didn’t have journalistic chops at the time. He was happy to buy into the myth of Sub Pop that all these guys were backwoodsman, uncultured brutes making this primal music. At 1992’s Reading Festival, he ended up pushing Kurt out in a wheelchair with Kurt wearing a hospital smock with a blonde wig, which was Everett’s. There were so many rumors about Kurt's condition and life—his daughter Francis was an addict baby; he was dying or a hopeless junkie—it was a reaction to the health scare and spoke to the sense of humor of the scene. Everyone in the band said that performance made things better for a while. It was transcendent.

8. Madonna Hits on Candlebox’s Lead Singer
I have to give Candlebox a lot of credit. Those guys were great. In many ways, though, they were the biggest of the Seattle punching bags. I can’t tell you how many times people badmouth Candlebox in my discussions. They were kind of the case-study of what everyone was so against; this “grunge-lite.” A lot of people say, “I never thought I would be saying this, but I’m sympathetic towards Candlebox.” Lead singer Kevin Martin was dating a woman at Maverick who essentially worked for Madonna. Apparently she fancied Martin and was hitting on him when the group went over to her lavish Central Park West apartment. At the end of the evening, when the rest of band was leaving, she was like “And you stay” to Kevin. He goes, “No, I have to go to bed early. I’m going to be playing Madison Square Garden with Rush tomorrow.” He said “No” to Madonna which, as he said, was like, “You don’t tell Tony Soprano ‘No’.” But he's like, “I do.” I don’t want to give too much away, though. Read the book [laughs]. Let’s just say his wife knew that this happened and it came into play when they were getting a divorce.

7. Eddie Vedder Slow Dances With Kurt Cobain at Video Music Awards
Eric Erlandson of Hole filmed this and held onto the video footage until Pearl Jam 20 came out. The rivalry between Nirvana and Pearl Jam was this big story and well documented by many people. All these years later, it seems silly, but at that time, Pearl Jam were the “corporate pop rockers” according to Cobain and Nirvana had more indie or alternative credibility. So there was a war of words between these bands and at the 1992 VMAs, Eric Clapton is playing “Tears in Heaven” on stage and offstage, Kurt and Eddie are slow dancing. It’s a very touching moment; these two figureheads of grunge making up. (Start at 3:31 to see the clip.)

6. Mudhoney’s Mark Arm ODs with Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love
Mark Arm was, by his admission, a junkie. A functioning junkie, but you know… On New Year’s Eve, 1992, he went back with one of the members of the Supersuckers to Kurt and Courtney’s Seattle hotel and they were all doing heroin. Supersuckers’ Ron Heathman recalls Courtney being on the phone with Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop Records being like “What should I do? One of the guys on your label is ODing.” He wasn’t even on Sub Pop at that point [laughs]. They were all under great media scrutiny because of the Vanity Fair piece and didn’t want to be caught in some drug scandal.  Eventually, greater wisdom prevailed and Heathman called an ambulance and Arm was saved. That is when he really started distancing himself from them. I went back and asked Courtney about the incident and she doesn’t remember it for obvious reasons. According to Heathman, [Kurt and Courtney’s daughter] Francis Bean was sleeping on the bed. It’s kind of a sad portrait of what was going on with Kurt and Courtney at the time and all the craziness swirling around them.

5. Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan Goes Crazy at Roskilde Festival
Mark Lanegan’s reputation was brooding and scary, but at this particular festival in 1992, he was a wild man. There had been a lot of drinking going on in the band and Lanegan was quite intoxicated. He’s trying to do the song and it’s not going well; the sound’s not right. So he starts kicking over monitors and destroying $50,000 TV cameras. He trashes the stage and you see him almost getting into these fights with people on stage. They’re putting up their dukes, running around; it’s very chaotic and established Screaming Trees as this brutish band that was into fighting. Lanegan leaves and, according to his manager, was banned from the premises. But he put on a wool cap and jacket disguise because he wanted to see some bands.

4. Axl Rose Boots Geffen A&R/Courtney Love Boyfriend From Chinese Democracy Session
Courtney Love had famously mocked Axl Rose at the 1992 VMAs saying, “I want you to be the godfather of our child.” There was a yelling match that went on between them and Kurt was involved as well and it became a bit of a scary situation. Axl really loved and respected Nirvana and wanted to tour with them, but he didn’t quite see that he stood for what these grunge bands were against: the L.A. cock rock scene. There was a lot of tension between them and of course, Axl had some nasty things to say about Courtney and her child-rearing skills. Years later, post-Kurt’s death, [Geffen A&R] Jim Barber was dating Courtney and was in the studio with Axl during the beginning of what ultimately became Chinese Democracy. Nobody knew Jim and Courtney were dating at this point, but Axl was able to intuit and felt this Courtney Love energy coming off Jim’s head. According to [Geffen Records publicity head] Bryn Bridenthal, Axl was very intuitive and unbelievably spiritual in a way you wouldn’t suspect and after that, he booted Barber from the project. One of many hiccups in the long history of Chinese Democracy.

3. L7’s Donita Sparks Throws a Bloody Tampon into the Crowd
L7 took a lot of pride in being—I don’t mean this in a bad way—as nasty as the male bands. Someone described them as the smelliest of the grunge bands. They prided themselves on urinating in public and dropping trou on TV shows. They could definitely be pretty raw. At Reading Festival ’92, someone threw mud at them and Donita decided to take out her bloody tampon and throw it into the crowd. That became the most famous thing they ever did and they became known for that as much as their music, even though their music is great. [Bassist] Jennifer Finch told me that driving up to someone and throwing a bloody tampon at their car window was something they used to do as teenagers as the ultimate “F**k you.” 

2. Eddie Vedder Accidentally Becomes White House Advisor
The day after Kurt Cobain’s body was found, Pearl Jam coincidentally had been invited to the White House about possibly performing at decommissioned military bases. President Clinton called them in, most likely because of Cobain’s suicide. They made some small talk about basketball and things like that and at one point, Clinton called Eddie aside and talks privately with him in the oval office and said, “Should I address the nation?” Apparently, they were considering doing an address to the nation about Kurt’s suicide. According to Pearl Jam’s manager Kelly Curtis, Eddie thought that would be encouraging copycat suicides and ultimately, Clinton didn’t address it. He spoke about it on MTV on a town hall not too long after, but he never took to the airwaves to address it directly. They took Mudhoney and while Eddie Vedder is handling this weighty question, Mudhoney are just wandering the halls stoned out of their gourds. They weren’t the political ones, to say the least.

1. Courtney Love Accuses the Melvins’ Buzz Osborne of Trying to Kill Kurt Cobain
This is an allegation that Courtney put on her MySpace blog a while back and then deleted, but it got out there. Kurt was producing The Melvins’ Houdini album, which was their major label debut. He wasn’t very effective as a producer because he was nodding out a lot in the studio and ultimately Buzz got him kicked off as producer. Courtney says around Christmastime, she left Kurt with Buzz and came back to find Buzz shooting Kurt up with what would have been a lethal dose of heroin. I was surprised that Buzz was very willing to address it. He said, “If you believe anything that is coming out of Courtney Love’s mouth, you need to have your head examined.” Those two hate each other in many ways and are the most vocal and polar opposite figures in the book. Did it happen? I inserted both views and leave that for the reader to decide.

Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge is available now. For more info, follow Mark Yarm on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.