There aren’t nearly as many books on grunge as there are on, say, Elvis or the Beatles. But more are being published every year (at least six in 2011 alone), so before you get completely overwhelmed, here’s a quick look at what’s emerged both pre- and postgrunge.
Instant Litter: Concert Posters from Seattle Punk Culture
Art Chantry, 1985
What it is Invaluable collection of posters documenting the music scene that laid the groundwork for what was to come, not only spotlighting key bands (the Blackouts, the U-Men), but also the often overlooked designers and illustrators (Lynda Barry, Charles Burns).
Who should read it Those interested in a visual depiction of the calm before the storm.
Buddy Does Seattle: The Complete Buddy Bradley Stories from “Hate” Comics Vol. 1 (1990–94)
Peter Bagge, 2005
What it is An unvarnished view of the grunge “lifestyle” as experienced by most nonfamous Seattleites; yes, we really did spend our time working at used bookstores, shopping at Fallout Records, drinking Ballard Bitter, and seeing rock bands whose members were all named Kurt.
Who should read it People looking for a refreshing contrast to the cutesiness of Singles.
Charles Peterson, 1995
What it is Though Peterson prefers the finer reproduction in his subsequent Touch Me I’m Sick, his first book has more photos, a looser, freewheeling quality, and more of Peterson’s own comments on his pictures.
Who should read it Those unfortunate folks who didn’t see any of these shows, as well as readers who appreciate that words can’t always tell the whole story.
Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story
Clark Humphrey, 1995 (updated 1999)
What it is Humphrey is a Northwest booster to a fault (despite his claims, Seattle’s first punk show wasn’t before London’s). But he leaves no stone unturned in his thorough—near obsessive—documentation of regional rock. It was never a story that began (or ended) with grunge, and Humphrey understands that, making this one of the broadest studies on the subject.
Who should read it People interested in the bands that didn’t make it big, plus a few that did. If you need listening suggestions, the discography offers nearly 1,000 entries.
Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain
Charles R. Cross, 2001
What it is Possibly the best-selling book on Northwest rock by a Northwest author, Cross (former editor of local music magazine The Rocket) was given more access to Kurt Cobain’s private effects than any other writer, before or since. Unless they someday publish Cobain’s diaries in their entirety, you’ll never get more of an up-close-and-personal look inside the man’s head.
Who should read it The kind of Cobain obsessives who need to know exactly how old their hero was when his first tooth appeared.
Nirvana: The Biography
Everett True, 2007
What it is Less a biography and more a memoir, True comes out swinging, taking on all critics and biographers he has issues with (and there’s more than a few). But if you were a journalist who toured, performed, and stayed with Nirvana (and numerous other Northwest bands), both before and during the height of their fame, you’d certainly have some tales to tell.
Who should read it Those seeking an insider’s account who aren’t afraid of writers with strong opinions, and who look back fondly at the days when True was music editor of The Stranger.
Justin Henderson, 2010
What it is The author of several architecture and interior design books tackles grunge, with poor results. This brief overview of the scene adds little that’s new, and makes questionable assertions like: “Grunge may have been the whitest rock-and-roll movement in history” (unlike, say, the 1960s British Invasion?).
Who should read it Those who find it a challenge to read books longer than 107 pages.
Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind
Jacob McMurray, 2011
What it is A selective trawling through the Experience Music Project’s extensive archives. Part catalogue, part oral history, the mainstreaming of punk is told via artifacts, from a 1971 poster for Ze Whiz Kidz to a piano used by Elliott Smith in 1999. And there’s so much info they had to provide a supplemental DVD to fit everything in.
Who should read it People who really, really need to have a picture of Reciprocal Recording’s mixing desk. And Kurt Cobain’s 1981 yearbook photo.
Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music
Greg Prato, 2009
Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge
Mark Yarm, 2011
What they are Two oral histories that cover the same time period and talk to many of the same people are bound to overlap—but there are a few key differences. Prato’s quotes tend to be longer and more thoughtful; Yarm goes for shorter and punchier, with more laugh-out-loud moments. Prato gives Riot Grrrl its own chapter; Yarm has more on the death of Mia Zapata and the trial of her killer. But Yarm’s book will probably capture more attention due to the outrageousness provided by (who else?) Courtney Love.
Who should read them If you believe there’s always more than one side to any story, you won’t be satisfied unless you read them both.
Gillian G. Gaar is the author of The Rough Guide to Nirvana and a former senior editor of The Rocket.