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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Five Amazing Grunge Artifacts That Time (and You) Forgot

Posted By on Tue, Sep 27, 2011 at 6:00 AM

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You stopped scrawling "World Domination" on the backs of school notebooks. You swapped your Pearl Jam Christmas singles for some Warp Records vinyl when you were graciously informed that this was the next big thing. You didn't recognize Kim Thayil in that recent photograph, what with his navel-length, raven-black beard now nattily trimmed and sprinkled with gray. Your mom donated your flannel shirts and "wack slacks" to Goodwill, but you didn't give a rat's breath because grunge had gone belly up long ago.

And anyway, wasn't it hopelessly similar to just about every other much ballyhooed music movement? The climax went unnoticed. Its signifiers were borrowed. (John Fogerty and Mike Watt want their flannel back.) There were moments that felt utterly contrived. There were artists who glommed on and artists not quite good enough to glom on and artists who spent their careers running away from the label. There were tiresome schoolyard squabbles and phony alliances and a case of the old guard predictably clashing with the new.

Of course, there were also moments you wanted to wrap your arms around and never let go. And there was brilliance, and transcendent brilliance, and underappreciated brilliance, and even a ditty about a "Half Ass Monkey Boy." Okay, we take it back: Grunge wasn't so prosaic after all.

This week, Universal is celebrating where it all seemingly began by releasing a 20th anniversary box set of Nirvana's Nevermind. Along with a remastered version of the landmark album, the multidisc package will offer demos, B-sides, alternate mixes, and a live show. In honor of this release and the genre's 20th birthday, we'll chronicle some of the grunge artifacts that -- unlike those flannel shirts and ripped jeans -- the one-time enthusiasts just can't let go.

5. Sub Pop's "Touch Me I'm Sick" T-shirt

VIA

The title to Mudhoney's 1988 debut single, "Touch Me I'm Sick," ultimately became one of the movement's go-to slogans. The phrase was emblazoned across the vendor detritus (T-shirts, buttons, bumper stickers, etc.) typically hawked at summer festivals. It was taunting, it was full of self-loathing -- it was perfect. However, your "Touch Me I'm Sick" tee has been relegated to the deep recesses of your closet, as wearing it in today's contagious disease-obsessed world would likely get you quarantined and a hospital mate named Gwyneth.

4. That TAD promo poster

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From Mark Yarm's Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge:

"Have you seen that poster? I don't know who did it," said onetime TAD bassist Kurt Danielson. "It was somebody in connection with the European tour. It was a black- and-white photograph of Bill Clinton making a speech. And his hand gestures and facial gestures were perfect for the insertion of a fake joint, and there was a quote on the bottom saying 'THIS IS HEAVY SHIT,' referring to TAD's music, of course. It was hilarious."

However, your significant other doesn't agree, and so Slick Willie is currently toking up all by himself in the attic.

3. That slip of paper containing Eddie Vedder's phone number

During an October of 1993 interview on the nationally syndicated radio show Rockline, the Pearl Jam frontman unexpectedly gave out his home phone number. "Are we still on?" he exclaimed as the show was drawing to a close. "If you want to call the house it's (206) 283-3916. You got that. It's Eddie's house at (206) 283-3916. If you couldn't get through tonight." It was reported that Vedder then spent three hours a day for the next 10 chatting with fans and singing improvised tunes like "Don't Pick Up That Fork." You hastily scrawled the number on a Post-it note (you know, back before one could just save a new contact in the iPhone) and it occasionally comes out of your wallet, usually late at night when you're tipsy and listening to "Release Me" in the dark. You still harbor fantasies of Eddie answering the phone and maybe inviting you over to help hang some drapes or clean out the gutters.

2. That framed photograph of Kurt Cobain

The iconic black-and-white shot was snapped by Charles Peterson during a Nirvana show at the Seattle Center Coliseum in 1992. It shows Cobain on stage, his back to the camera, facing impenetrable darkness. He's illuminated by a spotlight, disheveled, alone, leaning like he may topple over at any moment. It's similarly tragic and tacky, playing on every tortured-artist stereotype ever associated with Cobain. It hung in your home office until your teenage nephew asked, "Is this a photo of that little dude who was in the Police?"

1. That music video for Candlebox's "Far Behind"

The music video for "Far Behind" is so beastly and yet so marvelous, an effect only the truly gifted can accomplish. The song rips off Nirvana's quiet/loud dynamic. It's built on a melody that's meandering and repetitive, yet it will inevitably burrow into your brain and remain there for weeks. Visually, there's heavy-handed symbolism found in countless other videos (i.e., empty in-ground swimming pools, red paint being splashed on walls). However, the video is also shameless in how it sells Candlebox as a legitimate part of the grunge scene (the band was indeed from Seattle, but often regarded as party crashers). Consider the shots of the band -- looking simultaneously dolled-up and dingy -- walking through the forest, their Doc Martens crushing dead leaves. It all ends with a close-up of a light bulb, and as the shot stretches on, you can't help but focus on the words "white" and "soft" -- two adjectives that pretty much encapsulate grunge.

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Ryan Foley

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