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B-Side: The Unfamiliar Faces of Grunge

A new book from rock photographer Michael Lavine breathes life into that word we are tired of hearing.

There is something incredibly unsatisfying about opening a padded manila envelope and discovering a book titled Grunge inside. It’s hard not to look at the cover of the book by New York photographer Michael Lavine (right), featuring a photo of a relaxed Kurt Cobain, sitting in a chair, frowning slightly, and not think, Another one? Really? Fifteen years ago, Cobain’s face filled me with queasy wonder. Now it just bores me.

In those fifteen years, grunge’s hold on the American psyche has only grown. In the last few months alone we have seen controversy brew over the likeness of the late Cobain appearing in the Rock Band video game, while new Nirvana albums have recently been released, including Live at Reading ,a recording of the band’s legendary performance at the Reading Festival in 1992, and a twentieth anniversary reissue of its debut album, Bleach. Alice in Chains resurfaced in September with a new album and new singer who only reminded fans of the sad death of old lead singer Layne Staley. And Pearl Jam has soldiered on relentlessly, releasing Backspacer independently, but also kicking up a little dust by striking a distribution deal with the Target corporation.

As grunge becomes history, its history has become definite. And as the culture that bucked against formality is formalized, it has become strictly defi ned by its antagonistic image. But that antagonism has been sapped of all its blood; arguments over the wishes and intents of Cobain are now strictly academic.

It was with great surprise, then, that I opened up Lavine’s Grunge to find something new. After muddling through an essay by Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore about “grunge” — “On one hand that word was ridiculous, horrible, completely straight-up dumb, and on the other hand, just beautiful: a smart and amusing shrug within the American scream dream” — I flipped to the first photo and found a cluster of unfamiliar faces. Titled “Sir Plus, Seattle, 1983,” the image captures six teenagers — four boys and two girls — standing in front of the Sir Plus Army & Navy Store, passing time. The boys, in Converse All-Stars, look to the side, while the girls look directly into the lens of Lavine’s camera. One girl is waving and smiling, her flannel shirt unbuttoned, her jeans ripped and defaced by words written in black marker. She is grunge — eight years before the term took hold. But the other kids around her are not wearing flannel: one wears a leather jacket, a punk; another sports a trench coat, a mod. The image is defined by diversity — the world, Lavine seems to be telling us, from which grunge was born.

Lavine reveals seventy-eight pages of intimate portraits like this one, which he recently rediscovered when, at the behest of Thurston Moore, he dug some early work out of his closet. He found photos of the kids who populated Olympia and Seattle in the ’80s. None of the subjects are notable and they don’t fit any particular classification. Shrouded in the various uniforms of their countercultural identities — leather jackets, trenchcoats, goth hawks, anarchy pins, skateboards, cigarettes — they all look directly into Lavine’s camera with cool certainty, sometimes with goofy smiles. These are not rock stars; but they mug like they are.

Lavine arrived in Olympia from Colorado in the early ’80s to attend Evergreen State College. An outsider with a camera, he spent much of his time walking the streets of the Washington state capitol or driving up to University Avenue in Seattle, searching for interesting subjects. He found them; and he shot them, developing a style of portraiture that he would bring to his later professional work: shooting the bands that helped define grunge culture. It is that body of work, including photos of U-Men, Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden, that fi lls the last eighty pages of Grunge. Technically, these images are sound — fitting for any music magazine or alternative weekly. But in this collection, they take a back seat to the new history of grunge captured in those photos that Lavine fi shed out of his closet.

“The fun part was seeing how there were little threads that infl uenced the music in those old photos,” Lavine told me from his New York home. “The idea that grunge is anything at all is questioned in the book. This book is not a historic referendum on grunge; it’s not a defi nitive history. This book is a personal experience.” And that is exactly what grunge needs. At least, it’s what I need from grunge.

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