“Mudhoney Likes the Brown Acid - Veteran Rockers Play Festival Exploring the Secret Legacy of the ’60s”
The following article was originally written by Josh Wilson for High Times magazine, but since virtually nobody reading this would have seen it, and because it gives a unique and somewhat different insight into both Mudhoney, their apparently controversial appearance at Terrastock II in San Francisco (which seemed to come as a surprise to all but Mudhoney themselves and the more knowing Terrascope faithful) and an interesting outsider’s perspective on the Terrastock festivals, I thought it would be fun to run it here. Besides which, it was a good excuse to feature one or two of the better photographs from the event. Mudhoney’s Mark Arm had minor reservations, remarking “Not to pick nits, but I would think that most Terrascope readers are a bit more savy than your average High Times subscriber and are probably quite aware that ‘Grunge’ was nothing more than a marketing sham and are probably not all that interested at this point. But don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a well written article and does hit most of the right buttons concerning T2 & Mudhoney” – so with that rider, and with apologies in advance for any offence caused by cringe-making neologisms such as “lovefest” which are buried in the following text, we’ll head on out into the mainstream:
What the hell was a loud and menacing band like Mudhoney doing in hippy-dippy San Francisco this past April, playing at the second annual neo-psychedelic lovefest known as Terrastock? Getting back to their roots.
“When we started out Mudhoney was influenced by the badass psychedelic music of the ’60s, The Stooges and Blue Cheer,” admits frontman Mark Arm. True to that spirit, Terrastock was three-day orgy of reverb, fuzz, and drug-induced musical experimentation. By turns rockin’, arty, and just plain far-out, it was an off-the-scales weekend. Mudhoney fit in just fine.
“Thank you ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the bummer of your trip,” cracked Arm as he and the boys took to the stage, laying down a closing-night set soaked in distorted slide guitar and head-stretching wah-wah. Cubbyholed by critics as a “grunge” band, and playing material exclusively from their [then] forthcoming album [‘Tomorrow Hits Today’ on Reprise, reviewed last issue], Mudhoney nevertheless revealed their decidedly retro-roots that evening. One new tune, heavy with dark bluesy riffing, even quoted Black Sabbath, the evil wizards of rock and heroes to alienated stoners the world over.
“That’s in there. I dunno if we’re channelling shit or what. The first Sabbath album is really psychedelic in a bad-trip way,” Arm said a few days after the fest. “I don’t wish this on anyone, but I was kinda hoping there’d be a bad-trip tent. Like, ‘Oh wow, this is a very psychedelic-festival happening.’ Not that I’d enjoy watching people have a bad time!” he laughs. “But you know what I mean.”
In fact, there were no freakouts at all, even with plenty of other dark and scary bands on the bill, like doomsday rockers Brother JT & Vibrolux, interstellar mutants Subarachnoid Space, and a maniacal Theramin trio known as the Lothars. Stark contrast to your average happy-hippy music fest, which usually features a medical tent for acid casualties and other emergencies. “Maybe bands like It’s A Beautiful Day make people have bad trips,” deadpans Arm, referring to one of the more saccharine-coated flowerchild acts of the ‘60s.
Corporate rock still sucks
Terrastock — named for Ptolemaic Terrascope, a specialty ‘zine catering to fans of psychedelia in all its guises — was a remarkable celebration of music that, while historic and international in scope, has been largely marginalized by a mainstream entertainment industry hungry for commodities and cash cows. It’s a familiar problem to Mudhoney, who have a unique perspective as both the forefathers and orphans of the early-90s grunge feeding-frenzy. With the passing of those giddy days, the “Seattle sound” — once a juggernaut of vitriol and fuzz — has been emasculated, and now meekly produces music according to target-market demographics. Most of the biggest acts have broken up, faded away, or nimbly morphed into compelling but ordinary stadium rockers.
Once upon a time — say, the early ’80s — Seattle was just another American metropolis, notable for its rainy, chilly Pacific Northwest climate. Perched on the edge of the Puget Sound, and bracketed by the densely forested Cascade and Olympic mountains, residents wore flannel to stay warm, and clomped around in hiking boots because it was a good way to keep their feet dry. Most of the kids up there were pretty typical. You had your stoners and nerds and metalheads and greasers. They formed high school bands for the same reason any other kid would: Because it was fun, because they were smarter than their guidance counsellors, because [latterday] Fleetwood Mac was boring and sucked. Maybe they had some dreams of stardom as well. Little did they know.
Mark Arm’s high school band, Mr. Epp and the Calculations, was named in typical class-clown fashion for one of his math teachers. Mr. Epp, and another Arm venture of that day, the Limp Richerds, enjoyed tremendously bad reputations. By ’84 Arm had helped form Green River — a waterway notorious as the haunt of a serial killer — with future Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner, and other area luminaries. In ’88 Mudhoney itself took shape. It was a fertile period for local music, with area label Sub Pop releasing truckloads of vinyl as current and future members of bands like Sound Garden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and sludgemonsters The Melvins all floated about, recombining their musical DNA in various ways, and engaging in all sorts of raucous shenannigans. In ’92, when Kurt ’n Co. blew the lid of the commercial jackpot with Nevermind, all the local bands got an extraordinary boost, some becoming genuine megastars.
But it was a fleeting moment, and damnably disingenuous at that: Music critics and marketing hacks began bandying about the word “grunge” as a catch-all for the regional sound, in the process turning it into a pre-chewed media commodity. Clothing models in magazines sported flannel-n-boots, pushing a new hipster uniform to legions of clueless kids who equate rebellion with purchasing power. Perhaps the nadir of this gluttenous trend-mongering was when, on November 15, 1992, the New York Times — the staid, seemingly omniscient and decidedly Establishment daily — published a glossary of “grunge speak,” straight from the streets of Seattle. Doubtless, it was an attempt to maintain credibility as arbiters of style. Too bad their source, Megan Jasper of Sub Pop Records, was feeding them nine yards of bullshit. While on tour in England, says Arm, someone showed them a reprint of the article in a teen magazine. “We hadn’t even heard of this thing that Meghan had done ... we’re cracking up, reading this list of how people talk in Seattle. And so all the interviews we did in England for that tour, we threw in as many of those phrases as possible.” The prank was eventually revealed, and the Gray Lady wiped the egg off her face. But it didn’t matter: the mass-media phenomenon of “grunge” had become a sickly distortion of the truth.
By the time 1995’s “My Brother The Cow” came out, Arm says, “we knew it was already long gone and over ... ‘Grunge’ was always used in this household to describe a nasty-sounding record, nasty guitar sounds, screaming vocals. Most of the stuff that came out of Seattle and is called grunge doesn’t sound all that dirty to me,” said Arm.
The beast reborn
Take heart, lover of filth. “Grunge” — as a coinage of the music-industry marketing engine — isn’t just dead. It has putrefied and turned back into soil. And you should be glad. Out of rot springs new growth, and as usual the field is thick with the corpses of concocted genres and cookie cutter clone bands. It’s fertile ground, and something interesting has taken root there — Terrastock, a shambling swamp-thing of a music festival, a lumbering assemblage of long-buried musical detritus knitted together by vigorous but twisted new growth. That’s why Mudhoney came to San Francisco: to get a bit closer to a burgeoning but defiantly nonmainstream community of music lovers.
“I really liked the attitude behind it,” says Arm. “It was an honor to be asked to play.”
Although the show was sold out several months early, with well over 900 attendees flying in from as far as Europe and Asia, Terrastock was notable for its near-total lack of Top-40 appeal, or music-industry profiteering. Like the other 36 bands on the bill, Mudhoney donated their time, and the promoters just about broke even after putting most of the ticket money into the event’s impressive facilities (three sumptuous soundstages deep in San Francisco’s warehouse district).
“I didn’t get there until Saturday afternoon at about 3, 3:30. I missed [Japanese space-rockers] Ghost, and as we were pulling up these people were all out front going, ‘Oh my GOD,’ “ said Arm, referring to the guitarist Kurihara’s apocalyptic, wah-wah-supremo soloing.
Terrastock featured a truly breathtaking array of unknown legends, underground heroes, and up-and-coming fringe superstars. Performers included psychedelic-guitar-meister The Bevis Frond; thunderous Philadelphia fuzzmonsters Bardo Pond; New Zealand’s ambient-guitar ubermensch Roy Montgomery; veteran punk goofballs the Young Fresh Fellows; and bonafide ’60s legends Mick Farren of the Deviants, Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine, and the Silver Apples — to name but a few.
“I really enjoyed the Alchemysts, Neutral Milk Hotel, Tom Rapp — that was really really great; Brother JT was AMAZING,” says Arm. “Our interest in music is very broad. Between the four of us it’s pretty deep, too,” says Arm. “All kinds of stuff gets thrown in the stew. Some people might not see it, but they definitely taste it.”
©1998-99 by Josh Wilson. Introduction and editing by Phil McMullen, (c) Ptolemaic Terrascope. With special thanks to Mark Arm and Steve Turner.