Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Book Report: “Grunge Seattle” by Justin Henderson

I was a graduate student sweating at the lab bench, trying to wrap my head around an experiment, feeling as if I were forcing a round peg into a square hole. Our amusingly spacey, long haired janitor was making his rounds and asked if we heard the news. As he tosses our trash into his supersized bin, he announced coldly that Kurt Cobain was dead. Suicide. I figured he was joking or had his facts wrong. Kurt Cobain dead? No way…he just revolutionized music.

The new book “Grunge Seattle” by Justin Henderson is a concise and easy read that paints a new perspective on the musical blitzkrieg that destroyed glam, pop metal, and the Spandex and hairspray industries in a single swoop. Henderson does not rehash the rise and demise of grunge, Nirvana and their brethren – enough has been written on those subjects to fill the Space Needle. Instead, he provides a unique look at the role Seattle played in shaping the bands that define the era, which had its origins in the late 1980s. Four archetype bands are covered extensively (Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden), with props given to lesser known – yet just as important - outfits along the way (Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, and more).

Henderson knows Seattle – his book is focused and to the point, describing the very neighborhoods (complete with maps!) that spawned the grunge musicians. He explains how this atmosphere made it inevitable that these musicians would converge to write gritty and dirty material, which somehow emerged to strike a chord with millions of people beyond Jet City. Henderson also sheds light on why so many of the band members were destined for self-destruction. Fans of the grunge bands will delight in the trivia and Henderson’s revelations about the town that gave birth to them. The wider audience of music fans will appreciate Henderson’s take on how astute marketers can form a movement centered on a certain ineffable “sound”. The Seattle bands are often lumped together as “grunge”, yet had remarkably different musical influences (Nirvana borrowed heavily from The Pixies and Soundgarden wanted to be the next Led Zeppelin). Regardless, the brooding and dark material provided a common thread to tie them altogether.

Cobain’s death is often cited as the end of the short-lived grunge genre itself - another round peg that tried to fit into a square hole. But as Henderson implies, the mark left on the rock and roll landscape is permanent. Whether you despise the grunge movement or think it was the best thing to even happen to music, “Grunge Seattle” is informative and entertaining.

“Grunge Seattle” is a volume from the MusicPlace Series by Roaring Forties Press ( For more books in this series, including “Jimi Hendrix London”, check out the web site.