Almost exactly 25 years ago, pop culture was at Peak Grunge.
Nirvana and Pearl Jam released their blockbuster sophomore major-label albums (“In Utero” and “Vs.,” respectively) within weeks of each other in fall 1993. Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder became the reluctant voices of their generation. Seattle continued to be under siege by record-label scouts looking for the next batch of long-haired dudes playing guitars cloaked in distortion.
For the only time in their existence, grunge’s Big Four (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains) shared chart space with much-mocked rivals Stone Temple Pilots and Candlebox. Flannel-wearing Gen X-ers populated ads for Subaru and Pepsi (sales results were mixed) and inspired Marc Jacobs’ spring ’93 collection for Perry Ellis (he was fired). Things would never be that gloriously miserable again.
More than 20 people who were there as things were happening — musicians, managers, label reps, journalists — talked about what it was like when grunge was king.
Nirvana recorded “In Utero” in early 1993 and spent the latter part of the year on a series of increasingly chaotic tours. Dave Krusen, Pearl Jam’s original drummer, spent the year readjusting to civilian life after parting ways with the group. Soundgarden, the first of the Big Four to graduate to a major label and the last to become superstars, worked on what would become their 1994 breakout, “Superunknown.”
Krist Novoselic (bassist, Nirvana): You become really famous, right? Then you have dreams about being naked in public, like, “Oh my God, I’m in the middle of a store, and I don’t have any clothes on. Why didn’t I remember to put my clothes on?” And you feel exposed: “I wish I could find some pants or something.”
Dave Krusen (drummer, Pearl Jam): I had a lot of stress in my life and just stuff going on, and I couldn’t quit drinking, and they gave me every opportunity to get it together. Like, “Dave, maybe try and slow down.” I was like “Yeah, yeah, I’m getting it together.” I was such an alcoholic then. To this day, I wish I could’ve gotten it together and stopped drinking, and said something like, “You know what? I’ve gotta go to rehab for a few weeks and get my [life] together.”
Susan Silver (manager, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains): With the success came a pressure that is really difficult for a young person, especially a very artistic person, to deal with. That history is well documented, that drugs became a bigger and bigger coping mechanism. A great portion of our lives were focused on that.
Krusen: ’93 was extremely rough for me. At that point, they’re the biggest band on the planet, and I’m just struggling to make it through the day. The last gig I played with them, I was completely blacked out. I did go into rehab, actually. It did not last.
Kim Thayil (guitarist, Soundgarden): A lot of things go through your head, because you’re happy for the success of your peers. At the same time, you’re wondering, “Well, gee.” I guess it’s like being on [the playground], waiting around to get picked by the softball team. You’re wondering, “Okay, what is it about this that is particularly successful?” A lot of things [go through] your head.
As grunge got thoroughly absorbed by the mainstream, record labels scrambled to sign Seattle bands as trophies, although they were often unwilling to provide the necessary infrastructure and artist development. On the other side of the spectrum, the Big Four bands struggled with their monumental success.
Tim Sommer (former A&R executive, Atlantic Records): It was a mania. You could’ve been a crappy Sunset Strip hair-metal band, cut your hair, slapped on a flannel shirt, put a Tad sticker on your guitar, and you could’ve gotten signed in 1993.
Tyler Willman (frontman, Green Apple Quick Step): I remember people after shows giving me their cards, big A&R representatives. People would corner you. We had a bidding war with Madonna’s label, Maverick. We had meetings with Madonna. We had grown up on punk rock. Madonna was kind of the devil.
Matt Dresdner (bassist, the Gits): In ’92 and ’93, it felt like a new competitiveness, which was different. Prior to that, it felt like everybody was looking out for each other, bands would go to other bands’ shows. Through ’93, I wouldn’t say [it was] cutthroat, but more competitive and less supportive. . . . Some of that purity was dissipating.
Krusen: [Success] created more of an infighting kind of vibe. A lot of resentment, a lot of bitterness . . . not only toward the labels, but [the bands], like, “Well, you didn’t grow up down the street.” It’s literally, like, if you’re from the other side of Lake Washington, you’re from out of town. It continued for years. It probably took a decade for it to turn around again.
Barrett Jones (owner, Laundry Room Studio): At that point, all these bands had blown up. People were like, “Well, jeez, if I can do it, I’m gonna do it.” I saw a lot of bands get signed and then get completely crushed by the system, and then fall apart.
Willman: We were very close to being successful. At that time, it seemed like everyone got a record deal, that’s just the way it was. If you’re in a band, you went on the road, you went on tour. At 23, that’s what you did. I didn’t know any different.
Tad Doyle (frontman, Tad): We were on the road a lot, so I didn’t know what was going on back home, but it got to be annoying when you started seeing ads for clothing companies doing grunge looks, and you had the grunge guy ad for a phone company. That was pervading everything. It was the hip and happening thing.
Silver: Things certainly became more commercialized. The media turned it into a fashion statement, which was probably the funniest thing to all of us.
Janet Billig Rich (manager, Nirvana and Hole): You just don’t associate [Nirvana] with fun. But they weren’t fun even pre-fame. . . . It was all heavy. Everything with them was always heavy.
Novoselic: I would drink alcohol. A lot of pressure, a lot of things going on . . . but we got on really well and had this very solid connection. I still have it with Dave, we had it with Kurt. We would all just work together, just have a lot of fun, and know what to do musically. There was fun times.
Silver: It’s hard to say you don’t want [superstardom]. Soundgarden, philosophically they weren’t interested in the excess.
Thayil: I think we always had pretty good heads on our shoulders. Or we believed we did.
Lance Mercer (photographer): [Pearl Jam] definitely became more guarded, like any band would when that much notoriety happens that fast. The criticism Eddie was getting, I even was critical to a certain extent, but then I stepped back, like, I don’t know how I’d be affected if there’s that many people stalking you. The fandom was skyrocketing, and everybody wanted a piece of him. Who’s to say how you’d be affected?
As Nirvana and Pearl Jam prepared for their album releases, the press continued to play up the probably barely existent Cobain/Vedder rivalry.
Thayil: There’s definitely different ways that a band like Pearl Jam managed their success compared to how Nirvana did. What came out of that was our understanding of how well Pearl Jam managed their situation, to keep it within the bounds of where they would like to be in their career, to not let things get ahead of them, or let the situation become unmanageable.
Steve Turner (guitarist, Mudhoney): [Nirvana was] already kind of struggling when we toured with them. There didn’t seem to be anybody in charge. It didn’t seem like there was a lot of communication between management, band and the important people involved. It just seemed like it was kind of happening, regardless of what the guys wanted.
When we went on tour with Pearl Jam, it was kind of night and day. Pearl Jam was really organized and really friendly and fun, and they were really stoked with what was going on, and they surrounded themselves with good people. It made me look at the Nirvana thing even more like, “Man, it’s a shame they can’t get their [act] together like Pearl Jam.”
Billig Rich: Everybody thought they were like, against each other, and there was negativity, and that’s so not the case at all. They were all cut from the same cloth.
Novoselic: I don’t know if there was a rivalry. We just kind of did our own things.
Mercer: [Pearl Jam is] very humble, that’s the thing that was really interesting. You never really got a sense of how large they were based on their behavior. I would only notice it when we left Seattle.
Novoselic: 1991 to 1994, for me personally, what was that, three years, but it seems like a 10-year span, because there was so much going on, and then it ended in a disaster. I think of 1993, and I was in this bubble.
The success of the Big Four smoothed the path for the commercially viable alternative bands that came after, including Stone Temple Pilots, who hailed from Vedder’s adopted hometown of San Diego. Seattle band Candlebox issued their self-titled debut in July of 1993; the Smashing Pumpkins would release “Siamese Dream” the next week. Each sold over 4 million copies.
Kevin Martin (lead singer, Candlebox): We were kind of like the redheaded stepchild. We’d come around a few years after everybody else, we were about three to five years younger than most of the guys. I didn’t really get to be in the mix with all those bands. I wasn’t in (grunge forerunner) Green River, I wasn’t in Malfunkshun. I think everybody kind of looked at us like, “Who are these kids who moved to Seattle to get signed?” To release a record at the height of all that, it was a little nerve-racking.
Krusen: I remember people giving them [trouble] because they were from the east side. I felt like, if somebody dissed on them for that, then that’s pretty weak. You didn’t grow up down the street either, dude.
Mercer: People get protective, and camps are formed. Plus, let’s be honest, Kevin’s voice, that style of singing, they got a lot of flack for that. They weren’t super original. They did it well. Whatever they did, it worked.
Willman: Madonna’s label was courting Candlebox at the same time [as us], that was one of the reasons we didn’t go with them. We didn’t want to be associated with that.
Martin: [The Big Four] are the varsity team, and I’m the JV. It was clearly like that. Even though the guys were really cool, none of them were about to step out and say, “Hey, give Candlebox a shot.” It just wasn’t going to happen.
Mercer: You had all these bands popping up everywhere, just mimicking that formula. I photographed so many kids that just had the uniform, and we’d go out to the train tracks, or brick walls. Everything was formulaic.
On Oct. 25, 1993, Time magazine put Eddie Vedder on its cover, much to his band’s unhappiness. The cover further inflated the myth Pearl Jam had spent years attempting to tamp down, and Vedder hated the accompanying photo. The next month Nirvana filmed its transcendent and funereal “MTV Unplugged” acoustic special.
Christopher John Farley (writer of the Time story): There was a feeling that they both wanted the attention, and didn’t want to have the attention. They didn’t want to be seen as selling out.
Sean Kinney (drummer, Alice In Chains): For Ed to find himself on the cover of Time magazine, where they’re trying to make him the voice of a generation, and all Kurt’s going through, it was kind of a conflicting time. [I was] kind of relieved that that didn’t happen to us. There was no jealousy or anything. I just kind of felt for them.
Farley: I actually wanted to put both Pearl Jam and Nirvana on the cover. I think I gave a thought to putting Smashing Pumpkins on there, too. But Time had a tradition of going with one person. Back then, part of the power of Time was synthesizing the cultural moment and reducing it to a single face. I wanted the face to be Nirvana, but their handlers had played a little bit coy as to whether they would talk to me or not. I sort of got the feeling they were drawing things out so I wouldn’t put Pearl Jam on the cover.
Derrick Bostrom (drummer, Meat Puppets): We were on tour with Nirvana directly before those [“Unplugged”] shows. We all had read that Kurt was talking in a Spin article about maybe doing some Meat Puppets songs. Rather than teach Kurt the songs, somehow my guys persuaded him to let them on the show, which obviously was a shot in the arm for us, and it took a little bit of the burden off of him. Plus, it played into his agenda to stick it to MTV by bringing a bunch of nobodies onto the show.
Alex Coletti (producer, “MTV Unplugged”): They said, “Hey, we want to bring some guests out.” I think everyone at MTV thought, Oh, they’re going to bring Pearl Jam out, which was kind of funny, because they weren’t really that close. Then, when they said they wanted to bring the Meat Puppets out, everyone was like, “Oh. Really? Okay, sure.”
Curt Kirkwood (frontman, Meat Puppets): It was a straight-through show — I think they may have [recut] one song. It was odd by then for sure. There was, I wouldn’t even call it tension, but this is probably the most notorious band in the world, one of the most popular. Everything was real guarded. It was fun for me, anyway.
Coletti: Kurt came into the control room and he said to [director] Beth McCarthy and myself, “You know, my wife says I don’t smile enough, so try to get a shot of me smiling.” At the end of the first song, he does this kind of grimace-y smile, which I guess was like, “Here you go.”
Novoselic: I don’t know if it was luck, but because we had this musical connection, we channeled it, and it got us through it. I remember Kurt being really relieved, and I was relieved, too. Somehow it just came together. When it was released in 1994, it was kind of a requiem for Kurt, and it turned out to be this huge hit record.
Coletti: [Kurt] asked if we could get some stargazer lilies, and I wasn’t really quite sure what kind of flowers those were. He said, “You know, like at a funeral,” and I said, “Oh, yeah, the white ones. Sure, we’ll get them.” Of course, he was not in any way foreshadowing . . . but it did strike me after the fact that that was one of the few things he said to me. We obviously didn’t know at the time what was to come for that show.
Cobain’s suicide in spring 1994 marked the unofficial end of the Era of Grunge, which had already been on the wane. Alt-grunge bands would continue to rule the charts for years afterward, but Seattle was already in the mood for something less gloomy.
Silver: Everything has its season. With it came so much heartache that there definitely [needed] to be a regrouping at some point. Even Pearl Jam, who are by far the healthiest, went through their own difficult dance with success.
Martin: Probably ’96, ’97 was when that shiny polish on the car wears off, and you’re now having to wax it all the time to keep it shiny. It had a good five-to-seven year run of great bands. When the Presidents [of the United States of America] released their record, the city was starting to change. It was starting to get away from that “I don’t want to be a rock star,” to “I want to be famous.”
Turner: There was a strong reaction to the gloomy grunge tone, especially after Kurt’s death. I think that’s a real line in the sand. That’s kind of the end of that. It ended horribly, and I think people just wanted to, not forget, but move in a different direction. The next big band from Seattle was the Presidents of the United States of America, and [Harvey Danger]. Seattle kept having hit records, but it was decidedly happier in tone.
Willman: I made enough money to take care of myself for a long time. You know, not rich or anything. It goes away, and I’m not the type of person to end it. I can’t. I’m a singer, I’m not just going to stop and get a crappy job. That would kill me.
Mercer: My telltale sign [of the grunge apocalypse] was one of the bands, and I won’t mention who they are, that I had photographed, I went to a little corner store and [one of the members] was working the counter. He made my sandwich. I didn’t recognize him at first, and he was so embarrassed. They were being courted by a label at one point, and then he had to get a regular job. He had to put on an apron. But that’s life, that’s the way it goes.
Willman: If you weren’t continuing making music, you just went and had a family. You disappeared into the suburbs of the city, and you just lived that regular life. There’s a lot of different paths. . . . Nobody’s [as famous as] Eddie Vedder. He’s not even from here.