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Come Back Grunge, all is Forgiven

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PEARL JAM FAITHFULL
Dogfish Head

While flying home from a visit to the UK recently I found myself sat next to a fireman from Newcastle on the Minneapolis to Seattle leg of the journey. During the three-hour flight, the newly-wed twenty-something chatted excitedly about Seattle's music scene as he reeled off the list of bands he loved and sites he planned to visit with his new wife on this the couple's honeymoon.

He couldn't have been more than four when his favourite band Pearl Jam got together, and was perhaps nine when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Yet he'd spent his teenage years and early twenties dreaming of making this pilgrimage to the home of all his most beloved groups and managed to persuade his bride to spend early autumn in dull, drizzly Seattle, when by rights they should have been rutting like bunnies in the sunnier climes of Bali.

As the happy couple walked off to the baggage claim hand in hand, I was quite shocked to figure out that I'd not listened to an album by Pearl Jam in more than 11 years since 2000's Binaural. (And I could only manage that once all the way through, as a courtesy, because one of them gave me it.)

It's intriguing (and sad) because, for the longest time, they and fellow 'grungers' Nirvana, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, Tad and all those other plaid-wearing losers were pretty much all I listened to.

Pearl Jam are probably the only band I've ever known before they were famous. I had worn out tapes of the demos of their first and second albums months before release, followed them round the UK and US on several tours, drank with them, interviewed the band members many times and regularly wrote news stories about them for magazines around the world. I even had tickets to see them (back when they were still called Mookie Blaylock, trivia fans) on my wedding night, for crying out loud.

Yes, I guess you could say I was a fan. I mention all this not just to shamelessly namedrop, bask in reflected glory and desperately attempt to stoke your envy, but because I realised, after sitting through Cameron Crowe's two-hour documentary which airs at 9pm on BBC Four tonight, that they are indeed a great rock band and that I've barely given them - or any of their Seattle grunge brethren - much more than a passing thought in at least a decade.

Yet if I was going to be melodramatic and prone to overblown hyperbole, I could quite accurately say "grunge changed my life". It took me away from a career filing court copy on ruddy-faced East Anglian shoplifters and inbred closing-time brawlers to the (cough) glitzy, exciting world of rock journalism; from the flat Fens to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

And let's face it, whether you consider it still vital or not today, grunge just rocked. An amalgam, as the name suggests, of punk and garage, it was (as one UK rock critic wrote at the time) the "heavy metal it's okay to like."

While its popularity sounded the death knell for the preening poodle glam metal bands of LA, it somewhat ironically also made heavy rock music acceptable to indie and alternative music fans in a way that it never had been before (in the UK, at least.) It was heavy, dirty, exciting and loud.

Some bands - Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden - even had some top tunes while others - Tad, The Melvins - treated the concept of melody in much the same way that fellow local ne'er-do-well Ted Bundy handled sorority girls.

Contrast this with Seattle's music scene of today. Twenty years ago the bands had Stooges albums, long hair, 'fuck-you' attitudes, bellies full of budget beer and arms full of cheap smack.

Nowadays they're all folking beardies with sensitive emotions who look like they've just come from a C.A.M.R.A convention. "I want to fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck you" caterwauled a shirtless Chris Cornell on Soundgarden's Big Dumb Sex back in 1989 (albeit somewhat tongue in cheek.) Can you imagine Death Cab for Cutie, or the Fleet Foxes, or the Head and the Heart coming up with that? Sorry but "I would very much like to hold your hand and gently stroke your hair while we contemplate sensitive, reciprocal lovemaking" just does not have the same, er, fucking, ring to it.

While grunge had the star-crossed car crash that was Kurt and Courtney, sensitive Seattle of today has sensible shoe-wearers Ben (Gibbard) and Zooey (Deschanel). Earlier this month the couple announced their separation after two whole years of marriage. Kurt and Courtney's soap opera ups and downs helped give us the raw and tortured, blistered and blood-flecked In Utero and Live Through This.

Gibbard and Deschanel's parting will no doubt inspire overwrought full-lengths of introspective tweeness and winsome mea culpas from both Death Cab for Cutie and She and Him. And who can stay awake for that? Not me and certainly not my new Geordie friend.

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