I was first flown out to Seattle at the start of 1989. I'd been asked by Melody Maker to write a cover story on Sub Pop Records and its flagship band Mudhoney. It was my first time in the US. It seemed like the Emerald City to me, but instead of Munchkins there were scores of long-haired, hard-rocking, heavy-drinking folk influenced by early Black Sabbath and 60s garage rock. I drank cheap Mexican beer with affable flannel-shirted musicians in Pike Place Market, and fell in love with the place.
A few days after I arrived, there was a label showcase at Seattle University – Girl Trouble, Skin Yard, Nirvana and the Fluid. Nirvana had just released their debut single Love Buzz. I was a performer – hadn't I released the first (much-derided) single on Alan McGee's Creation label? – and so I demanded to play as well. So it was that I found myself on stage, alone, as 800 hardcore kids bellowed back the words to Arthur Conley's Sweet Soul Music at me.
Upon returning home, my story on Sub Pop helped launch the label and its roster on the road to (temporary) world domination; and every time I bumped into one of their bands after that, they'd be like: "Hey, why not jump on stage with us tonight and do that crazy thing you did in Seattle?"
So it was that, years later, I found myself performing Nirvana's encores for them on their final tour of the US, and pushing Kurt Cobain on stage in a wheelchair at Reading festival 1992 for their last UK show, 19 years ago; the gig will be screened at the festival this weekend. It's also rumoured I introduced Cobain to his wife Courtney Love, but that's a whole other story.
There's been a lot of talk about grunge since Cobain's death in 1994. How it put Seattle on the map. How it revitalised rock music. How it was just a media-created fad. As Nirvana's breakthrough album Nevermind approaches its 20th anniversary next month, it's time to explode some myths.
1. Grunge began in Seattle
It didn't. Sub Pop used the word in 1988 to promote a Green River album – "gritty vocals, roaring Marshall amps, ultra-loose GRUNGE that destroyed the morals of a generation" – but the word had been around as a description for decades. It shows up in 1957, on the back sleeve to a Johnny Burnette rockabilly album. Lester Bangs was using it in April 1972.
When Mudhoney singer Mark Arm referred to "the streets of Seattle being paved with grunge" in my cover story, he was using the term disparagingly. Grunge: the opposite of gold. Worthless.
There's more of an argument to be had for grunge beginning in Australia with the Scientists and their scrawny punk ilk. Grunge wasn't suburban metal, despite what Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam would have us believe. It was stripped-back primeval rock music, no artifice, just SWEAT and BEER and heads banging in bass speakers.
2. Grunge was overwhelmingly male
Women were totally represented. L7, Lunachicks, Dickless, STP, 7 Year Bitch. Courtney Love. Babes in Toyland – the all-female Minneapolis band whose first two albums are among the greatest of the era. Grunge was also inextricably linked with Riot Grrrl.
3. Nirvana came from Seattle
Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, the two founder members of Nirvana, grew up in the depressed logging town of Aberdeen, WA. Dave Grohl is from Washington DC. As soon as they could, Krist and Kurt moved: not to Seattle but to the nearby towns of Olympia and Tacoma, because the rent was cheaper. Right up to the point when Nevermind hit No 1 on the Billboard chart in December 1991, Kurt was living in Olympia. He then moved to LA before ending up in Seattle.
Suicide's very nature leaves it wide open to conspiracy theories. No one else is present – not usually. Kurt killed himself. He was screwed up, and full of rage and despair: at his record company, who he thought were placing undue pressure on him; with his bandmates, who he didn't want to play with; with himself, for being such a moody bastard. He was screwed up and full of rage and despair, when all he wanted to be was fucked up.
5. Cobain didn't want to be famous
He just had no idea what fame would entail. He was proud of his music. He wanted it to be heard by as many people as possible, but he was also conflicted. Kurt had received his schooling from people like K Records' founder Calvin Johnson, and his former girlfriend Tobi Vail, who fervently believed in doing it for yourself, away from the corporate machine. He wanted to sell. He just didn't want to sell out.
6. Cobain wrote most of Hole's second album, Live Through This
Kurt sang backing vocals on two songs. He wrote one B-side for Hole (Old Age), uncredited. And that was it. It would be just as accurate – and misleading – to say that Courtney Love wrote most of Nirvana's third album, In Utero: you can certainly see her influence in Kurt's lyrics. Before the pair met, it was often guesswork as to his intentions. Afterwards, his lyrics were far more direct.
7. Nevermind was actually crap
Some folk reckon Butch Vig's gleaming production was a betrayal of Nirvana's roots. Listen up: Cobain loved the Bay City Rollers as much as he loved the punk rock of Half Japanese and Beat Happening. He loved the chest-beating swagger of Black Flag, the cute girl pop of Shonen Knife, the hair-flailing noise of his Sub Pop contemporaries, and Abba.
I suspect most people who claim Nevermind to be not a million miles adrift from Mötley Crüe have never heard Mötley Crüe. Likewise those who have noted the similarity of Smells Like Teen Spirit to Boston's More Than a Feeling.
You're missing the point. Great bands transcend their influences.
8. Grunge was all dark, gloomy, woe-is-me music
Sure, Soundgarden were moody. Sure, Kurt Cobain could be a pissy bastard. Sure, it rained in Seattle a lot. The man-behemoth Tad Doyle (of Nirvana's touring buddies Tad), however, was as genial as he was scary-looking. Mark Arm, meanwhile, is perhaps the funniest man in the Pacific northwest. During the 1992 Reading festival, it poured down. Mud formed. During the Sunday, bands got pelted with reams of the stuff. Artists reacted in different ways. Donita from L7 hurled a used tampon into the crowd. Mudhoney downed their instruments and started pelting the audience back.
"You guys can't throw," taunted Mark Arm. "You're used to playing soccer and kicking balls with your feet." Just then a sizeable lump of Berkshire hit him smack in the face. "That'll learn me," he remarked afterwards. "Never taunt an armed audience."
9. Cobain was grunge's only casualty
Andrew Wood from Mother Love Bone. Mia Zapata from the Gits. Kristen Pfaff from Hole. Layne Staley from Alice in Chains. Poet Steven "Jesse" Bernstein. RIP.
10. Grunge had a great legacy
Smashing Pumpkins. Puddle of Mudd. Silverchair. Bush. Muse. Ash. Courtney Love. Better Than Ezra. Pearl Jam. Stone Temple Pilots. Live. Staind. Creed. Candlebox. Some legacy!