Grunge was always more of a construct than an actual movement — acatch-all term that never accounted for the fact that the bands insaid scene had little in common besides an eardrum-crushingappreciation for volume. The Zeppelinesque riffs ofSoundgarden’s Screaming Life stood miles apart fromthe Stooges-style posturings of Mudhoney’s SuperfuzzBigmuff, which was, in turn, oceans away from the roughed-upLennon/McCartney melodies of Nirvana’s Bleach.
Itwas the work of photographer Charles Peterson that stamped thesedisparate acts with an unmistakable iconography. His gritty,black-and-white pictures offered a view of 1980s and ’90s Seattle as anetherworld populated by rock Sasquatches who subsisted on cheap beer,potent drugs, and power chords; his energetic photographic styletransformed them into champions. The 39-year-old Peterson’s new book, Touch Me I’m Sick(powerHouse Books), a collection of his most memorable photos, not onlydocuments the sights of the grunge era, but also somehow telegraphs thesounds and the smells of its hard-working rock bands. Built aroundpictures of Peterson’s “big four” — Mudhoney, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, andSoundgarden — the book also offers glimpses of rabid scenesters andOlympia riot grrrls and a presurgery peek at a Courtney Love nostril.Captions are nonexistent, with excerpts from period fanzines providingthe loosest of narratives (though, for those who need it, the book hasa handy index).
On just the sort of dreary, rain-sozzled Seattle night thatfirst inspired some of the city’s finest to plug into amplifiers,Peterson brought a trio of luminaries — Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil,Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder — to his CapitolHill home to put words to his pictures.
MARK ARM: Before MTV took full-on root and startedshowing videos with stage diving, the rituals were completely differentin each town. The more isolated the town, the weirder it was. On theeastern seaboard, you’d have all these skinhead, punk-rock, intolerantsort of guys. Up in Seattle, you had guys and girls on MDA, rollingaround with smiles on their faces. It was a totally different vibe. Iremember going to England for the first time in 1989, and there was nosuch thing as stage diving. The next time we came through, people hadfigured it out. And — this is so British — they had this littleplatform in front of the stage where people would line up one at a timeand politely plunge into the audience.
KIM THAYIL: Charles’ photos also influenced bands. Ithink people would see Mudhoney or Nirvana record [jackets], and bandsstarted behaving likewise. Bands that might have been more shoegazingand static became more animated on stage when they saw the potentialpresented in his work.
EDDIE VEDDER: It put pressure on us to be moreexciting than we wanted to. We couldn’t just stand at the mic. You hadto create some movement there. Charles showed everything had to beexciting.
THAYIL: MTV didn’t pick up on stage diving until probably your “Alive” video.
VEDDER: I wasn’t going to bring that up.
ARM: It was in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, too.
THAYIL: Well, I want to give Eddie credit. [Laughs]
VEDDER: I don’t want the credit. I feel apologetic.
THAYIL: What are you apologizing for? Starting a dance movement?
VEDDER: I’m apologizing to [Minor Threat and Fugazi’s]Ian MacKaye for every time he’s had to stop a show, and I’ve been atmany of them.
THAYIL: Charles, you were part of the audience, but you were also part of the stage.
VEDDER: All the other photographers got kicked out after three songs.
CHARLES PETERSON: Sometimes other photographers get in my way, and I’m more than happy to see them escorted out.
ARM: In a large percentage of these photos I assumethat (a) you were drunk off your butt and that (b) the camera wasnowhere near your eye. [Laughs]
PETERSON: Yeah, we were all drunk off our butts.
ARM: I remember being at shows where you’d stick your camera in the air in the general direction of the fans and take a shot.
THAYIL: It was like guerrilla journalism. It’s notlike you were being commissioned by Black Flag or the Meat Puppets.Most of the people you were shooting were friends.
PETERSON: A large part of that was where I wasworking. From ’86 through ’89 or ’90, I was printing the littlepictures of cars and trucks for Auto Trader magazine. One of myjobs was to bulk-load 100-foot rolls of film. So many of these pictureswere taken courtesy of Auto Trader’s film.
THAYIL: One of my favorites is the sequence of Kurt[Cobain] jumping on [original Nirvana drummer] Chad [Channing]’s drumset. You capture the speed and emotion. I can’t imagine another visualimage for the music that we were making back then.
PETERSON: People always laid me with this tag: theblurry photographer. But, really, not many of my shots are that blurry.I think it’s part of enjoying the music and moving to the music.
ARM: I really like these weird audience shots from the ’80s. It blows my mind how gothic people looked at that point.
THAYIL: That’s because they’re black-and-white photos. Hey, there’s a slimming effect to being goth.
ARM: But the music didn’t sound like that at all.
THAYIL: Remember when Black Flag came in here in,like, ’83? That’s when the punk-rock guys started to grow their hairout. The polarity between punk rock and metal was disintegrating. Atour shows, we got the flannel guys, the goth guys, the metal guys, someglam people.
ARM: If you see pictures of hardcore shows fromBoston or New York or D.C., it’s all these dudes with shaved heads wholook exactly the same. Here there were always dudes with, like,mustaches. It was an all-inclusive weirdo freak scene. Ultimately,there weren’t enough people involved where you could have a scene ofall one thing. If you only wanted to play to the hardcore skinheads,you’d have ten people at your show. And if you only wanted to play forpeople with triple Mohawks, you’d have one person at your show.
PETERSON: We tried to design the book for someone who’d never been to a rock show before and hadn’t experienced any of that.
THAYIL: Do you think they would look at this? Will it end up on someone’s coffee table?
VEDDER: Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson’s. [Laughs, then looks at a photo of himself, sitting alone on a bus in Spain in 1996] I’m trying to think of the Bon Jovi song that was playing there.
ARM: If you played one show in front of ten people oryou played the sports arena in Madrid, you can relate to that. You’veseen a million faces, and you’ve rocked them all. No matter how bigyour band is.
VEDDER: I was watching R.E.M. play a street festivalin San Diego just last weekend. I realized it was a reminder that we’renot going to ever play again in situations where people aren’t seated,after what happened in Denmark [where nine fans were crushed to deathduring Pearl Jam’s performance at the Roskilde Festival in 2000].People could handle themselves in the situations Charles documented.For all the madness and chaos happening in these photos, no one died.
ARM: The new blood that comes to see our bands getsto be less and less and less. And the audience gets old with us. Ithink it’s going to be safe to take down the chairs eventually. Butthen the audience will probably demand the chairs back.
THAYIL: Ed, do you believe that [the Roskilde] situation might be analogous to a grunge Altamont?
VEDDER: In having dissected that situation so manytimes — you know, I think about it every week, every day. It’sunbearable enough to have just been standing there at the time. If wehad been responsible for it, I don’t think I could be talking about itnow. All the families that were affected and knowing some of thosepeople and communicating with them — it’s a reminder that you won’t beable to re-create that [sense of security].
THAYIL: Are kids not like that today? At Lollapalooza?
VEDDER: I think the Vans Warped Tour is similar to that.
ARM: I’m so out of touch with what the kids are into today. And I don’t really give a shit. [Laughs] I was out of touch with what the kids were into when I was a kid.
PETERSON: Ed, in your introduction [to the book], you talk about being bothered that you aren’t more photogenic.
THAYIL: Yeah, what the fuck are you talking about?
ARM: Oh, that’s just Ed being humble. You’ve got those eyes!
THAYIL: That voice!
VEDDER: I’d like to go with the voice. I was justuncomfortable with the whole deal. The bigger issue is trust. We alwaysfelt like we could trust Charles. There were all kinds of people wedidn’t know and ?didn’t like making money off us.
THAYIL: They weren’t taking your money — they were making their money by exploiting you.
VEDDER: Right, right. You think, “Who are thesepeople?” Then you find out who they are, and you don’t like them.You’re like, “How do I remove myself from this situation?” That’s whenyou pull back from everything, but people don’t understand, and theythink you’re a prick.
ARM: You know, we’re still waiting to be fully exploited.