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Mudhoney memories

By Grant Alden

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  Once upon a time, Mudhoney were the best band in the world. Don't argue, I was there. Sonic Youth had been, and Nirvana would be. But in between -- from 1989 until 1991 -- there was Mudhoney, the band who most embodied Seattle's singular fusion of urban punk and suburban metal. Somebody called it grunge. Mudhoney were the first Seattlites to stir up the British press, and they became the group with whom the Sub Pop label was most intimately connected in the punk public's eye.

On a bad night Mudhoney could also be the worst band you ever saw: drunk, stoned, disengaged, their glorious shambles hopelessly askew, drifting. That was part of their genius too. "Overblown," they sang on the soundtrack to the 1992 grunge-generation flick Singles, the only gold record with which they were to be associated. And they meant it, man.

Ah, maybe you had to be there. It sure was fun while it lasted.

Now, every recorded reason Mudhoney mattered has been compiled and summarized on one CD -- the first half of the glorious new two-disc retrospective March to Fuzz (Sub Pop). The retrospective's second disc collects the "rarities," 30 stray tracks and digressions of less cogent purpose, less certain joy.

Mudhoney played recklessly, on shabby equipment; they recorded quickly in comparatively primitive studios and cultivated an air of indifference toward their art. But their best songs -- tightly coiled vignettes of fury, dark humor, and deceptively simple, bluntly memorable hooks -- suggested otherwise. "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More," "You Got It (Get It Outta My Face)," "Here Comes Sickness," "Who You Driving Now?", and a Dicks cover that would today doubtless prompt tabloid coverage, post-Columbine, "Hate the Police." March to Fuzz doesn't go to the trouble of placing these in chronological order. But since Mudhoney's sound rarely changed, that hardly matters, though it is odd to come upon their first and defining single, "Touch Me I'm Sick," at track 14. Odd, but oddly right, for it is the centerpiece of their career.

Still, Mudhoney's studio oeuvre is, at best, only half the story. Halloween night, after the 1989 CMJ convention closed, they opened for Gwar at a converted church in deepest Manhattan. Gwar did (maybe still do) a kind of papier-mâché alien pro-wrestling punk-rock shtick that's almost funny the first time, in a Saturday-morning-cartoon kind of way. Probably 800 kids standing, warm beer in cans, a sea of hand-lettered white T-shirts, and every single mouth open and singing, not just to the anthemic "Touch Me I'm Sick" but to every song Mudhoney played. The band barely made it to their next gig, at the Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill, and had, they said later, a much better show.

We camp followers flew home to Seattle, exultant, for Mudhoney were the best and brightest of a crop whose delights already had enriched our nights: Tad, Love Battery, Blood Circus, Nirvana, Soundgarden, maybe even Mother Love Bone, certainly the then-ubiquitous punk poet Steven Jesse Bernstein. We did not know how fast the time would pass, or what it would cost (three dead in just that short list), but we were all young then, and proud.

A few months later, Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner offered this advice to Guitar World: "When you start to lose it, hit the box! Roll around on the floor. Have no idea what you're playing? Hit the dirt! Stay low. Jump into the crowd. Throw your guitar in the air." It was my first nationally published piece of writing about music.

Mudhoney became the generation spokesmodels for grunge. They lied outrageously to the media, specialized in a kind of dry irony that rarely penetrated (or translated), and created -- or seemed to create -- the intellectual, aesthetic, and ethical underpinning to a musical movement they steadfastly denied existed. And then things changed, their friends became stars, their musical innovations were battered into clichés wielded by opportunists, and too little of their work lived up to the promise of those first few years. In 1992 they signed to Warner Bros. (dropped in 1999), as good a moment as any to mark the end of Seattle's creative spurt. Later, they would open stadium shows for their old friends in Pearl Jam. Although bassist Matt Lukin recently left the band, they persist to this day.

Mudhoney's first fans came from the same kinds of places the band did, well-educated kids from affluent suburbs, misfits. Well, half the band did -- Turner and vocalist Mark Arm. Drummer Dan Peters (the thoroughly underrated Ringo Starr of Seattle) and bassist Lukin (a one-time Melvin) came from rural working-class homes, and fewer pretensions. Hence the fusion of punk to metal. And we expected nothing, for nothing ever happened in Seattle (hell, I just wrote about this stuff from the sidelines), and for an instant, like the hippies before us, we won and lost the world. The memory still makes my blood boil and my eyes smile, but we paid a price. Once upon a time.

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