Exclusive Mudhoney Bio Excerpt: Nirvana and Pearl Jam Tours, Cobain’s Death
The high-water mark — and tragic end — of the grunge era, as captured in Keith Cameron's biography
The world is rife with rock biographies these days, and the wise reader chooses carefully. Yet Keith Cameron’s highly entertaining and thoroughly researched Mudhoney: The Sound and the Fury From Seattle (out March 21 on Voyageur) is not only one of the best in recent memory, it’s essential to any fan of rock from the era, whether they’re a Mudlover or not. The group, of course, was spawned from Green River — the fountainhead of grunge, the first major Seattle band of the ’80s, and the source of Pearl Jam and Mother Love Bone — and was near the epicenter of every major event of the era.
In this excerpt spanning the end of grunge’s golden era (Fall 1993 to Fall 1994), we have Mudhoney opening arena tours first for Nirvana and then Pearl Jam — the latter of which is shattered by Kurt Cobain’s suicide — and joining Vedder & co. for a tour of the White House, during which President Bill Clinton meets with Eddie Vedder to discuss whether or not he should address the nation about Cobain’s suicide. “I remember being almost troubled that the President of the United States of America is taking the time to meet Eddie Vedder,” Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner says. “Like, that’s top of today’s agenda? Really?!”
True to character at the time, Mudhoney bassist Matt Lukin warmed up by smoking a joint en route to the White House.
Ten days after returning from Australia, Mudhoney played a gig in Seattle, an all-ages event at the Oddfellows Hall on Capitol Hill. (It was shut down early by the police, citing the ever-preposterous Teen Dance Ordinance; the point at which City Hall would sense the benefits of a thriving local music industry was still some way off.)
Three weeks later they were in Hawaii supporting Sonic Youth, and a month after that a U.S. tour began. Indeed, there would only be one month in the whole of 1993 when the band weren’t on the road somewhere in the world.
Amid this busy schedule, the band members were slowly recalibrating their lives. All four began the process of investing their grunge windfall by putting down payments on houses. Steve was first, purchasing a $189,000 property on Capitol Hill with an incredible view of the Olympic mountains. They were buying at just the right time: in a couple of years Seattle real estate prices would be among the highest in the U.S., as the city surfed the high-tech industry boom. Dan and his wife bought a place in Ballard, while the newly married Matt Lukin settled down in West Seattle. As for Mark, in August he and Emily Rieman started going out once more. It was a crossroads moment in his life.
“She goes, ‘So, are you ever gonna do heroin again?’ And I gave this wishy-washy answer: ‘Weeeell… you never know what the future holds.’ I wasn’t totally prepared, I guess, to say: I will never do this again. Because up until that point I had still been doing it, actually, on occasion. Emily just looked at me and goes: ‘If you ever do it again, I am out of here.’ That was enough of a push that I needed to go, ‘OK.’ That made up my mind.”
There was no recourse to a rehab facility, or Narcotics Anonymous, or a 12-step program. Mark knew what he had to do and he did it privately, without fuss.
The Five Dollar Bob’s Mock Cooter Stew EP was released in the last week of October, just as Mudhoney completed their first arena tour. Not that they were headlining; having hitherto turned down invitations to play large venues opening up for other bands, they finally accepted an offer to join Nirvana on the opening Midwest leg of the In Utero tour. For good measure, they were then booked to do likewise for Pearl Jam a month later.
These engagements with the twin commercial spearheads of the grunge phenomenon seemed an acceptable compromise, inasmuch as Mudhoney had shared history with both bands. Of the two it was the Nirvana tour they were looking forward to, and not just because of the likelihood that Nirvana’s audience would be more receptive to Mudhoney’s sensibilities. Mark Arm had barely seen Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard since the breakup of Green River and they certainly hadn’t spoken at any length. Doubtless mindful of Mudhoney’s iron-clad integrity, Kurt Cobain had maintained visible links with his erstwhile Sub Pop labelmates—Nirvana were the unannounced support band for two Mudhoney shows in October 1992—while going out of his way to badmouth Pearl Jam in the press for vague crimes against alternative rock. So the prospect of lingering awkwardness was very real.
“You didn’t really know what the other one thought,” says Arm. “You could make up all sorts of stuff in your head that might or might not be true. The perception at the time was that Pearl Jam was a sellout major label band and Nirvana was the band that came up through punk rock—which was a crazy myth, but that’s the way things were. Jeff was in a hardcore band, he had a fanzine, he was more involved in the punk rock and hardcore scene than Kurt Cobain ever was. And Stone and Jeff were in Green River, which was on Sub Pop. The roots are just as deep.”
In fact it was the Nirvana tour that turned out to be a nightmare.
Uneasy personal interaction had been a part of Nirvana’s DNA from the very beginning, but now the band was a million-dollar industry dependent on a vulnerable, depressed drug addict. Craig Montgomery, who had been mixing Nirvana’s live sound since 1989, was dismissed on the eve of the tour after Cobain heard adverse reports of the band’s recent Saturday Night Live appearance. Paranoia stalked the corridors backstage at the tour’s various convention centers and sports halls, as Nirvana employees feared for their jobs. Mudhoney were completely unprepared for what lay in store.
“It was dark and depressing,” says Lukin. “Jeez, you guys do this every day?! No wonder you don’t like it. Nirvana were the opposite of nirvana. They were quite dull. In fact, I felt we were just annoying them by being there and having a good time. They’d become the opposite of what I thought they’d started out to be.”
The dysfunctional culture of the Nirvana organization was exemplified by a decision to keep the backstage areas alcohol-free—as if Cobain’s problem at this point was booze. No sane person’s first choice as the ideal support band on a dry tour, after much haggling between Bob Whittaker and Nirvana’s management, Mudhoney were permitted beer in their dressing room.
“So Nirvana would come into our room and drink our beer,” says Mark. “Even their fucking manager asked us for a beer! It was absurd.”
In Chicago, where both bands had lots of friends on the guest list, Mudhoney’s dressing room was the place to be. Soon the beer ran out and Phillip Hertz, a former drummer with The Scientists, went to the catering area and took a case of 12 bottles. The reaction was as if Fort Knox had been ram-raided. It took Whittaker three conference calls involving Nirvana’s tour manager and manager to prevent Mudhoney being kicked off the tour.
Having endured seven shows with their “cool” friends, thoughts now turned to the prospect of six shows with their “uncool” counterparts — how uncool was the uncool tour going to be? The auguries weren’t good. If pressure was a numbers game, then Pearl Jam at the end of November 1993 knew its exact coordinates. Propelled by the frenzied mainstream crossover of their debut album, Ten, their new album, Vs, had sold over 950,000 copies during its first week of release in the U.S. alone. But while Nirvana dutifully submitted to the industrial strictures of the music business—the expensive videos, the Rolling Stone front cover—Pearl Jam got militant. They would make no videos, they would give no interviews. And they would take Mudhoney on tour and have fun.
The notion of reuniting the estranged Green River camps came from Eddie Vedder, who brought an outsider’s perspective to the situation. “Ed asked Stone and I, ‘Hey, what do you think about Mudhoney for the tour?'” says Jeff Ament. “It seemed like the right time to reach across the aisle and say, ‘Let’s bury the hatchet.’ Because there was still a bit of tension in the air. I think it started to subside a little bit, and then Kurt Cobain started saying shit again. Basically he was just saying what Mark had said a few years previous. I mean, Kurt didn’t know us. He didn’t really have any real basis for what he said other than the fact that he hated our music. Well, that’s one thing. But it was more of a personal attack, and I think a lot of that was just Kurt mimicking Mark—which I think he did a lot. You listen to early Nirvana and there’s a lot of Mudhoney in that. So those wounds stayed open longer than they should have. Once we were on tour it was like, ‘Fuck, I can’t believe that we didn’t do this sooner.’ It made me remember how much I liked those guys.”
For Mudhoney, touring with Pearl Jam was the flipside of their Nirvana experience. Crowds were indifferent to them, but the congenial atmosphere behind the scenes more than compensated.
“Our shows suck,” says Dan. “We have a good time, but the audience don’t wanna see anybody except for Eddie. Fair enough. They didn’t boo us by any means, but they just sit there and politely wait for their Eddie to come out. But that tour was a gas. Pearl Jam’s a band you could look at as a model of how to do things properly in the rock world. They treat people with respect, they surround themselves with straight-up, honest people.”
So successful were the backstage bonding sessions—group meals, ping-pong, skateboarding—that by the third date, in Las Vegas, Pearl Jam’s set ended with a Green River reunion—or as close as was possible, given that Alex Shumway now lived in Japan. Arm and Turner joined Ament and Gossard, plus Chuck Treece from openers Urge Overkill on drums, to play “Swallow My Pride” and “Ain’t Nothing to Do.” There was a similar finale to the tour closer in Reno, this time with Dan Peters and Pearl Jam drummer Dave Abbruzzese joining the fun.
For Mudhoney, touring with Pearl Jam illustrated that commercial success needn’t be incompatible with civility. That the Nirvana tour should have suggested the opposite was a timely reminder that espousing the egalitarian values of punk meant nothing unless values were underpinned by deeds. In this regard, reuniting their old band had special resonance: on June 26, 1986, Green River opened for Public Image Ltd. at the Paramount Theatre and were shabbily treated in the old-school rock tradition that the punk movement had supposedly renounced (though Green River did return the favor, trashing PiL’s dressing room while the band played). And while Mother Love Bone had acquiesced to the excesses of corporate rock culture, when Ament and Gossard put Pearl Jam together they took a different approach.
“By the time Mudhoney came on tour with us, every single person on our crew was a friend,” says Ament. “Pearl Jam was an opportunity to do things the way that Mudhoney do it.”
The links between the two bands would only strengthen in the years ahead. They were on tour together again four months later, playing 10,000-capacity arenas on the East Coast, when the news broke on April 8, 1994, that Kurt Cobain was dead. In the Washington, D.C. hotel room he was sharing with Matt Lukin, Dan Peters woke to the sound of the telephone. It was his wife: “She said, ‘Have you seen the news? You should turn it on.’ So I did. Matt was in the shower when I saw it: ‘Aw, Jeez.’ So I waited for Matt to come out of the shower and told him what had happened. Everybody was in a daze.”
That evening’s show at the Fairfax Patriot Center went ahead, but in an atmosphere of collective shock. Backstage, Eddie Vedder was talking to the Fugazi and former Minor Threat singer Ian MacKaye. Ordinarily, Steve Turner would have been there too, chatting to the man who was both a peer and a childhood musical hero, but this was not the time.
“It was a rough night,” he says. “Everybody was so bummed, the crowd was bummed . . . Kurt’s death didn’t surprise us, really. It was just numbing. God, what a waste.”
Things got weirder the next day. Pearl Jam were due at the White House for a meeting with President Clinton’s special policy adviser, George Stephanopoulos, about the possibility of playing gigs in communities affected by military base closures; now they also invited Mudhoney to come along.
Before getting in the shuttle bus that would take them to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Lukin shared a joint with Arm and Peters. He had another in his pocket but thought it best not to smoke it in front of an official White House driver, especially as that driver was telling them about the stringent Secret Service checkpoint they would soon be going through.
“Next thing I know we’re pulling into the White House compound,” says Lukin. “Fuck, I’ve got this joint on me, what do I do with it?! I ended up eating it! I don’t think you can really get that high from eating it; I just didn’t want it to go to waste. I’m sitting there eating this dry joint. Already stoned from the one I’d smoked. So I’m walking around all baked and I remember this guy being introduced to us as “the strongest drug-free policeman”—he’d won some weightlifting competition amongst all the policemen in the country. Of course, when they said “drug-free” they meant “steroid-free” . . . but what I was thinking they meant was that he was the strongest DEA agent—like he’s hot stuff and he’s going to arrest me for being stoned! Fuck!”
Soon after arriving at the White House, the two bands got separated by officials. Pearl Jam were ushered into the Oval Office to meet Bill Clinton, which hadn’t been part of the original plan—apparently, the president wanted to seek advice on whether he should address the nation in the wake of Cobain’s suicide.
Mudhoney, meanwhile, were assigned a Secret Service agent who gave them a behind-the-scenes tour of the White House. As they were ushered past the velvet ropes, tourists waiting in line for a regular tour ran up and asked for autographs.
“Obviously word had got around that Pearl Jam was in the House, but these old ladies didn’t know what Pearl Jam looked like,” says Peters. “We’re saying, ‘Yeah, we’re not Pearl Jam.’ And they were like, ‘Ha ha! Just give us your autograph.’ Still, it was a nice diversion from the whole Kurt-blowing-his-head-off thing.”
The two bands’ paths eventually crossed in the White House Press Room, where Arm and Vedder had their picture taken shaking hands over the presidential seal on the podium.
“It was a great private tour,” says Turner. “The Secret Service guy was telling us about the different people that have been killed on the White House lawn. There was one guy dressed in full ninja gear who thought he was invisible, coming across the lawn. They finally just shot him. I don’t recall hearing about that on the news! It was a surreal day. I remember being almost troubled that the President of the United States of America is taking the time to meet Eddie Vedder. Like, that’s top of today’s agenda? Really?!”
As the world reeled in shock at Cobain’s death, Mudhoney were thankful to be far away from the soap opera of its aftermath in Seattle: public vigil, memorial service, rival wakes, etc. The tour ran until April 17. The final show, at the Paramount Theatre in New York’s Madison Square Garden, ended with Mark Arm joining Pearl Jam for a livid version of The Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer.” The contrast between this smarting underdog anthem, a declaration of self-worth against an indifferent world—with its suddenly pointed refrain “ain’t no loser”—and the media-churned beatification of a punk-rock casualty was very apt.
One night, during their brief, miserable tour with Nirvana the previous autumn, Mudhoney had given their crew the run of the van and hitched a ride on Nirvana’s luxurious tour bus. As they drove between Davenport, Iowa, and Chicago, Kurt Cobain asked Mark Arm how he’d been able to stop doing heroin.
“I said I just wanted to stop bad enough,” says Mark. “It wasn’t any fun anymore, I wasn’t having a good time . . . I wanted to stop bad enough and I stopped. And the one thing that I held back from saying—which I really wish I had said—was that I’d stopped hanging around with my friends who were junkies and I fucking broke up with my junkie girlfriend.”
For the remainder of 1994, Mudhoney kept a low public profile. But this was not a band in retreat. With a new practice room in the basement of Mark and Emily’s house in West Seattle, they wrote and rehearsed, completing the long, slow process of regrouping after the Piece of Cake misfire.
Additionally, Mark was enjoying playing guitar in Bloodloss, a band of ex-pat Australians featuring former members of Lubricated Goat: drummer Martin Bland, bassist Guy Maddison, and saxophone-toting frontman Eric Reynolds, a.k.a. Renestair E. J., a.k.a. Ren. Thanks to the rich contributions from all concerned, Bloodloss’s deep-broiled Beefheart skronk had immense character.
Come October, Mudhoney were ready and loaded their gear downstairs at The Storeroom Tavern in Eastlake, which had a very basic basement space known as The Ranch. They also brought Jack Endino with them and a rented 24-track recording machine. With delicious contrariness, just as the media were declaring grunge dead in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the band that originally synthesized its component parts were reuniting with the form’s sonic architect. It was the first time they had worked with Endino since 1989.
“Right from the get-go it was clear some things had changed,” he says. “The band’s whole vibe had improved, for specific reasons that are best explained by Mark himself. The band wanted to experiment a bitwith sounds and instrumentation. And of course, by then I had six more years of experience under my belt.”
The recording session was happy and productive, in spite (or because) of taking place beneath a pub. A typical day’s work would end upstairs at the bar, plying dollars into the Store Room’s legendary jukebox— where Western swing king Bob Wills shared needle-time with Fear, Nick Cave, and The Crucifucks. With the tavern a mere half-mile down Capitol Hill from his house, Steve Turner could simply ride his bike there each morning and wobble home at night.
“We were having a good time,” he testifies. “Mark was cleaned up and doing great. I think being in Bloodloss was a big influence on his guitar playing. We were all just more together.”
The team spirit was sufficiently robust to withstand both guest musicians and guest instruments. Dan Peters dragged his newly purchased marimba into the studio and wielded the mallets in tribute to The Flesh Eaters’ DJ Bonebrake. John Wahl from Clawhammer, a California band that Bob Whittaker was also managing, blew some harmonica, while Ren added tenor sax to “1995,” an apocalyptic rumination upon The Stooges’ “1969.” With the band fully engaged with each other and their music, the creative climate was a marked contrast to the inertia that clouded Piece of Cake.
“I was definitely more involved and trying to make a good record,” says Arm. “I was more confident in what the band was doing.” When David Katznelson heard the rough mixes of the album, he was stunned not just by how sharp the material sounded, but the specific content of the songs. Although telephone conversations had proved to him how Mark Arm was refocused (“he was like a different person, someone you could have a normal conversation with”), what took the Warners A&R man’s breath away was the pointed clarity of these new lyrics.
“What happened?” he reflects. “Well, Kurt died. And Mudhoney, being a fabulously reactive punk band, wrote a rock opera—although if they ever heard me say that I’d probably lose my testicles—about the impact Nirvana’s fame had on both Kurt and the Seattle movement in general. They sent me the demo and I was just floored. Truly amazed.”
One song in particular, a vituperative spasm of rage at the madness that had befallen Seattle, proved to be Mudhoney’s very own “Sonic Reducer.” The song was called “Into Yer Shtik,” and even before it was released it would land Mudhoney in trouble.