Why Grunge Matters (part 1)

Twenty five years ago, grunge took over the world of pop music and put Seattle on the cultural map. It rode out the wave of popularity with a wall of noise for a few years then disappeared, replaced by new trends in the recording industry. The reason for the waning of the grunge movement is hard to pin down. The possible culprits are many. Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) killed himself. Layne Staley (Alice In Chains) and Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots) both lost themselves to drugs. Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins) went crazy. Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) boycotted Ticketmaster and effectively removed his band from American markets. In 2009, ECW Press released the fatal prognosis with their book, 'Grunge Is Dead.'

The genre may have faded from regular radio rotation, but I reject the notion that it died. Instead, grunge has evolved and I believe it is as essential to our modern landscape as it was in in the first half of the 90's. While classic rock stations are beginning to play some of grunge's most accessible tunes - evoking both feelings of nostalgia and 'holy crap I'm getting old,' this last weekend reminded me a vibrancy within the genre that will never grow up and will never die of old age.

During a performance in Gothenburg, Sweden last Friday, Dave Grohl fell off of the stage and broke his leg. After getting medical attention, a cast, and some crutches, he returned to the venue and finished performing his band's set. In the process, he reminded us all how to rock n roll properly. His playing though pain was also a great lesson in fulfilling commitments - even when it might be personally inconvenient.

If you're not familiar with Dave Grohl, he is a vocalist, guitarist, songwriter, and possibly one of the hardest working men in modern music. However, when I was in junior high, Grohl was the drummer for another band - Nirvana. This placed him right in the center of the hype of the grunge explosion. After Cobain's suicide, Nirvana disbanded and Grohl formed his own group: Foo Fighters. Their debut album was released 20 years ago at the tail end of grunge's dominance; since then, they have released another seven LPs. Between those albums, a handful of EPs, and some contributions to movie soundtracks, they have released a grand total of 32 singles - one of which (Times Like These) is on the lullaby playlist on my daughter's mp3 player.

I was listening to Foo Fighters Saturday afternoon when Zu asked "Are they one of your favorite bands?" I answered affirmatively. JJ asked me what style of music that they played and I told him that it was alternative rock. JJ responded, "Daddy, you know that's my favorite kind of music, right?" If my kids are any indicator of the world around us, Dave Grohl is now influencing and inspiring a second generation of fans.

The reminders of grunge's impact didn't end with news about Grohl's injury. On Sunday, I heard a familiar melody while walking through the WinCo parking lot. As the drum beat and guitar riff became louder and more defined, I eventually found the source and realized why the song sounded so familiar. An older gentleman, roughly my dad's age, drove by in an older Chevy pickup. Windows down, music up, the old man was bobbing his head along to Pearl Jam's Evenflow. These songs carry meaning for more than just the gen-x kids that were in junior high and high school when these songs were first released. Even our parent's generation appreciates the soundtracks to our rebellious years.

Then yesterday, one of my favorite cartoonists (The Oatmeal) released some artwork paying tribute to another Pearl Jam song: Black. (see it HERE) Seeing that panel with one short lyrical snippet got the tune stuck in my head and I soon found myself humming that line "I know someday you'll have a beautiful life, I know you'll be a star in somebody else's sky."

These haunting words are a permanent fixture of my memory. I will loudly sing along with every word anytime it is played on the radio or takes its turn in one of my iTunes playlists. No shame. But as with any song that digs its way into constant mental replay, the only remedy is to listen to it for real. Which I did. I played the track from Ten. Then the acoustic version from their appearance on MTV Unplugged. Then the version from Live on Two Legs. Yeah, I'm a little obsessive at times.

From there, I stumbled upon a recording of Black from their set at the 1992 Pinkpop Festival in the Netherlands. Rather than listen to the one song, I listened to the entire 45 minute set. In the middle of the show, Eddie marveled at the sea of people in front of him. He said that they were the band’s biggest audience yet (60,000 people attended the festival). “We never played for this many people before. Never thought we’d ever play for this many people.” In hindsight, his commentary is laughable. They were one of the biggest bands of the 90’s – of course they would play for huge audiences.

But this was the beginning of a movement. This is when their first album, Ten, was less than a year old. This was their first summer tour with massive festivals. This was a young band staring into the face of the future.

image found on pinterest

As I listened to the music of Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters these last few days, I found myself pondering the impact of an era that is now a part of the history books my kids study at school. The end of the cold war, the LA riots, American military in Somalia, and the rise and collapse of a musical force that captured everyone’s attention.

My parent’s generation, my generation, and now my kids’ generation. Each of us impacted and influenced in different ways. And today, grunge is still needed. Still vital. Still alive. ("You’re still alive she said. Do I deserve to be? Is that the question? If so, who answers?")

Of course, the answers are complicated than generational appeal. And I am only scratching the surface.

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