November 14, 2012
“Anytime you’re playing music for the crowd instead of yourself … you’re fucked.” … Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, in I’m Now.
Who the hell is Mudhoney?
I asked that same question of my students. I teach American history and music at a small college near Philadelphia. Last week, before mentioning Mudhoney, I asked the 18 to 20 year-olds if they had heard of Pearl Jam. Nearly every hand went up. I then inquired about their familiarity with Mudhoney. Blank stares. So, as with my students, I will provide you with a little Grunge 101.
Grunge did not begin in 1991 with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Rather, the genre’s actual opening salvo occurred three years earlier with Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick.” “Mark [Arm] and Steve [Turner, both in Mudhoney] made up grunge in my mind,” Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard told me in a 2009 interview. “That first Mudhoney record…the sound of that record. That was it. That describes perfectly grunge. I think in the long run Pearl Jam was lumped into grunge, but it was never really a grunge band.”
Instantly defining Mudhoney’s sound, “Touch Me I’m Sick” features buzzing amplifiers, Arm’s anguished wail, Turner’s fuzzy guitar lines, and Dan Peters’ distinctively frenetic drum roll. The song’s dirty display of punk rock provided the template for grunge. This stylistic approach paved the way for Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s success. Mudhoney—not their more famous peers—deserves credit for putting Seattle and grunge on the map.
I’m Now, directed by Adam Pease and Ryan Short, richly documents the band’s storied and mercurial career, beginning with its back story. Mudhoney and Pearl Jam emerged from Green River’s 1987 breakup, a band that had split into two factions: those who wanted to become famous (Gossard and Jeff Ament, who formed Pearl Jam); and those who desired to stay punk (Arm and Turner, who created Mudhoney). Perhaps ironically, these two bands remain among a handful of continuously surviving acts from that original Seattle grunge era. I’m Now manages to effectively tell Mudhoney’s prehistory while avoiding the exhaustive tedium that has mired similar rock docs.
Unlike the typical rock act, however, Mudhoney presents anything but an obvious hook for a documentary…no big tragedies, no celebrity feuds (with one exception involving an incident with Courtney Love, but I’ll leave that for the film.) While accompanying the band on a Japanese tour, Short quickly found his angle as he experienced the group’s infectious enthusiasm and powerful kinship. “The Mudhoney theme is friendship,” Short told me. “…We had a story of survival and friendship. That’s the story there.”
Short and Pease present a warm, humorous, and honest portrayal of a band that provided a key, if somewhat forgotten role in rock music history. Mudhoney’s irreverent attitude and humor become evident early in the film, when the band was asked to contribute a song to the 1994 movie With Honors. The soundtrack featured “serious” selections from mainstream acts like Duran Duran and Madonna. Mudhoney being Mudhoney, they wrote a song called “Run Shithead Run.” “We were kinda being smartasses…” Peters told me. “And unfortunately, [that was] the last time we were offered a soundtrack.”
The band’s characteristically Seattle sense of humor continues throughout I’m Now. In one sequence filmed during a 1989 European tour, Mudhoney manager Bob Whittaker asks the band members how they can overcome the language barrier. “Well,” Mark responds, “I think the penis is international.” (When I mentioned that excerpt to Mark, he said to me: “So you watch that movie and you walk away with ‘the penis is international?’” [laughs])
Besides the humor, the film also subtly weaves in an intellectual bent, which not only enveloped Mudhoney, but characterized the rest of the Seattle scene. I remember Arm calling me last year to discuss my then upcoming book on Seattle music history…and he used the word “pedantic.” I had to look it up. “[He is] a Ph.D. punk rocker,” Short told me.
The film also keeps the viewer’s interest by interspersing clips of old cheesy B movies…which makes sense since the band name came from one. The clips perfectly match Mudhoney’s tongue-in-cheek motif. “Mudhoney itself is named after a B movie,” Short told me, “so there’s a great sort of connection there.”
I’m Now takes us through Mudhoney’s early days, when the band came together with Arm, Turner, Peters, and former Melvins bassist Matt Lukin joining forces following Green River’s demise. Initially, Mudhoney had no plan other than to put out a single, with little initial inclination about making serious money. “I remember going on our first tour,” Peters told me, “and we all came back with ten bucks in our pocket. And that was a huge success for us.”
Mudhoney’s association with the then fledgling Sub Pop record label led to a mutually beneficial partnership, as label executives Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman recount in the film. Sub Pop would quickly sign TAD and Nirvana, and hype grunge to hip music writers in the UK like Everett True. As a result of True’s efforts, and indie rock stalwarts Sonic Youth, Mudhoney quickly became a British fan favorite.
I’m Now features some prominent story tellers including Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke, Sub Pop’s Pavitt and Poneman, Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, and Pearl Jam’s Gossard and Ament. The testimony from well-known Seattle bands offers a glimpse into the closeness that characterizes the Northwest music community. Despite Soundgarden and Pearl Jam’s legendary status, they continue to support their less famous peers. “I mean, you know, we’re all old friends,” Arm told me.
The film also hints at something quite significant and endearing about the Seattle music scene: no one separated themselves by economic strata. Bands like Mudhoney, TAD—or even Pearl Jam for that matter—featured a mix of nerdy college kids and tough working class folks. Mudhoney would discover a completely different world view when they first toured the UK. British music fans were actually disappointed when they found out that most of the band members hailed from middle class backgrounds. “They [UK music fans] were kinda bummed out,” Arm told me. “They had this idea that we were like working class numb nuts.”
Short and Pease also do a great job of humanizing the musicians, especially Lukin (later replaced by Guy Maddison.) Mudhoney’s bass player comes across as the genuine article, a likeable if unvarnished figure who occasionally unleashes off-color remarks. At the end of the film, members of the band Claw Hammer recall a story whereby one of them handed a phone to the Mudhoney bassist and asked him to say hello to a girlfriend. Lukin, who had never met the woman, picked up the phone and blurted out: “How big is your pussy?” “[Matt] doesn’t have that self-edit button,” Peters told me. “He just says what he says and thinks it’s funny and doesn’t realize that, ‘Wow, you just like literally offended a lot of people.’” (laughs)
With grungemania hitting a peak in the early ’90s, Mudhoney had its shot at commercial success via the major label route. But as the film tells it, the band refused to modify its raw, unkempt sound to obtain a larger audience. “It wasn’t like…‘Oh, I’ll try to write a shitty power ballad to make some money,’” Arm told me. “You know, that wasn’t anything that I was interested in.”
“Some bands will claim that: ‘Oh, you know, it’s not about the money. It’s the art,’” Short mentioned to me. “…But they’d never even been in a situation where real money’s at stake like Mudhoney has, and just said, ‘Fuck you. We’re doin’ our own thing.’”
The film wraps up with Mudhoney at middle age, a band that exists today as a hobby around its members’ career and family responsibilities. I’m Now provides a testament to a band that survived by not compromising identity and remaining friends along the way. If there is a secret to their longevity, Mudhoney can point to a collaborative songwriting approach, and an equal sharing of credit and money. “It’s a problem solver. Maybe one lesson I’d give [to] a young band: share songwriting credit,” Turner said to me.
Unlike some of their peers who run from the grunge stereotype for fear of becoming a nostalgia act, Mudhoney has learned to embrace the label. The film tells a story of a band comfortable with its past. “I pretty much put my foot down,” Turner told me. “Yeah, we’re fucking grunge. If anybody is, we are.” (laughs)
Final note: In the film, I’m thrilled that Sub Pop’s Poneman heaps high praise on Mudhoney’s 1991 album, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. That record was unfortunately overshadowed by classic major label albums released that year by Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. In some ways, though, Fudge surpasses all of them in terms of its creative authenticity.
For information on how to view the movie or pick up your own copy, check out the movie’s homepage: http://www.mudhoneymovie.com/