When Grunge Made Blue-Collar Culture Cool
There were many reasons for a 16-year-old boy to love the noisy, brooding music known as grunge, but here’s a personal one: The bushy-bearded, drowsy-eyed guitarist for Soundgarden, Kim Thayil, looked like my uncle George.
My father’s younger brother had been a sporadically employed welder and pot smoker who wore a ponytail, which was a mild embarrassment to the family. He was still those things, but now, in 1992, he also resembled a rock star whose face I saw on MTV.
More than its fresh sound — a fusing of metal with punk — more than articulating a generation’s disillusionment with capitalist culture, the appeal of grunge, for me, was this: It reflected and ennobled the blue-collar world I knew.
The Pacific Northwest may have been 2,600 miles and virtually an entire continent from my home in central Pennsylvania, but to go by Seattle’s musicians, the regions were strikingly similar. Chris Cornell’s lace-up Dr. Martens, worn on stage at Lollapalooza ’92, were a version of the work boots my father wore to his job as an engine mechanic.
Eddie Vedder’s plaid flannel shirts could have come from the Woolrich mill, the local outdoor clothier, whose main clientele were deer hunters. The music video for “Wood Goblins,” a song by the band Tad, showed its slovenly members operating chain saws, chugging canned beer and building a fire — the most accurate media depiction of a backwoods Saturday afternoon I’d ever seen.
And when Rolling Stone described Kurt Cobain’s hometown, Aberdeen, Wash., as “a depressed logging town” where “pervasive unemployment” and “a gray climate” have led to “rampant alcoholism,” I thought: replace timber with the railroad and it sounds like home!
The male rock stars who immediately preceded these grunge heroes were glamorous creatures in zebra-print spandex, like Bret Michaels, the Poison frontman. Mr. Michaels was actually another blue-collar boy (from central Pennsylvania, no less), but he had ditched the heartland for West Hollywood, and now he had his hair professionally peroxided.
The ugly cardigans and ratty Army jackets of grunge were a costume, too, of course, but it could be gotten cheaply at a thrift store. The dour face came even cheaper — free with adolescence.
It was strange indeed to ultimately see upper-income suburban kids and runway models dressed like lumberjacks and truckers, as seen on the latter in the Perry Ellis Spring 1993 collection and the December ’92 pages of Vogue. It was the first (and only) time my relatives and neighbors were objects of class envy.
There had been working-class idols before grunge, too. Merle Haggard. Bob Seger. Bruce Springsteen. But the cover of “Born in the U.S.A.,” an iconic image of Mr. Springsteen in bluejeans and a crisp white T-shirt with an American flag behind him, looked like a Madison Avenue version of a hunky factory worker.
Grunge, with its heavy, murky sound and sallow musicians, got at something darker about living in a fractured land. Where many Springsteen songs were enlivened by hope, this music captured the deadbeat side of America. If grunge songs didn’t directly address the concerns of working people, it was nevertheless recessionary music, made by underemployed slackers.
You heard songs like “Down in a Hole” (Alice in Chains) or “Something in the Way” (Nirvana) and you pictured idle 20-somethings passing a rainy afternoon in a crappy apartment, getting high. Before becoming the so-called voice of his generation and a rich rock star, Kurt Cobain was a child of divorce and a high-school dropout who worked as a janitor. Layne Staley, the singer of Alice in Chains, battled depression and used heroin, the anti-good-time drug, the drug of self-obliteration.
As someone growing up in a community hollowed out by dying industry, I’d been in those apartments; I knew those guys. And seeing recognizable versions of them on MTV made my friends and me feel proud.
Here were people I could relate to, and I wonder if some of that same sense of your own life suddenly writ large suffused kids in south Los Angeles when, also in 1992, Dr. Dre’s album “The Chronic” gave shout-outs to South Central and the Slauson Swap Meet. Those songs also emerged from an economically depressed area and put it on the cultural map.
Fandom takes you to other places than pride, of course. For me they included a grunge-inspired “photo shoot” for which a friend and I posed in front of an abandoned house and channeled all our teen angst; a favorite Salvation Army flannel that was three sizes too big and stained with a stranger’s body odor.
There were, too, notebooks of overwrought lyrics. Those are now kept safely locked in storage, like radioactive material. Some things don’t have to be revisited.
Steven Kurutz joined The Times in 2011 and wrote for the City and Home sections before joining Style. He was previously a reporter at The Wall Street Journal and Details. @skurutz
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