In the decade that’s passed since Mudhoney emerged as the Seattle beer barons of garage swing, grunge has shot through the charts and shot itself in the foot, the head and the arm. After three years of semi-retirement, Mudhoney reunites, playing to empty seats on the Pearl Jam tour. MAGNET tags along to share the last laugh. By Jonathan Valania
Mudhoney is due to hit the stage in 30 seconds, and singer/guitarist Mark Arm is in the shitter. The rest of the band pull on their special stage costumes for this series of gigs with Pearl Jam: matching football jerseys that spell out M-U-D-H-O-N-E-Y when they stand side by side. The shirts are a response to Billy Corgan’s crack that the members of Mudhoney were probably jocks in high school. Guitarist Steve Turner glances down at his skinny-ass frame as if to say, “Not fucking likely!” Arm outs himself as a noseguard in high school. Drummer Dan Peters feigns a look of betrayal.
Onstage, in the yawning emptiness of the gigantic amphitheater, the members of Mudhoney are shorter than they look on television. They play the bulk of their new album, Tomorrow Hit Today (Reprise), with dour precision. They hit all the marks, dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s. They are sober and professional, playing music that demands a touch of the drunken and amateurish. Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard whoots in support from the side of the stage. One guy in the front row bobs his head in approval. The only other movement from the perimeter of the stage is the girl next to him fanning herself. Arm tries to fill the vacuum with a joke. “When we started out, they said you’ll never play Camden, N.J. It took us 10 years, but here we are.” (To appreciate this remark you have to understand that Camden is a violent, crack-riddled shithole across the river from Philadelphia, with a murder rate that soars higher than the Dow on a record day.) Up on the hill, on the grassy knoll of general seating located a football field away from the stage, the joke is lost on the crowd, which cheers the fact Mudhoney has finally arrived. Like low-beam headlights, sarcasm only travels about 100 feet, which may explain why Mudhoney never got huge.
Back in the dressing room after their set, bassist Matt Lukin is rolling a fatty. He used to look like he was separated at birth from Spinal Tap’s Viv Savage, but these days he’s very thin and his hair has gone gray. He doesn’t quite seem like the have-a-good-time-all-the-time guy of yore, even when he shows me the fake Cruex jock-itch spray can he uses to hide his weed. He used to have a fake Coca-Cola can, but somebody mistook it for the real thing, baby, and threw it into the cooler in the van one tour. Best he can figure, somebody drank his weed by mistake and tossed the can.
Through the piney haze, the band trades half-hearted comments on its performance and concludes that it was at least better than the last time they tried to rock Philly—sandwiched between Run-DMC and Cypress Hill, playing to a gymnasium full of rowdy rap fans for some college spring-break event. Not surprisingly, Mudhoney received the collective middle finger from the crowd. Never one to squander an opportunity to make a bad situation worse, Turner perched himself on the lip of the stage and taunted the audience with a cock-rock burlesque of mock-fretboard pyrotechnics. They would have killed him if they could have gotten their hands on him, he reckons. Gossard saunters in, and everyone pauses to ponder the possibility that Monica Lewinsky was interning when Mudhoney visited the White House with Pearl Jam a few years back.
Iggy Pop and his entourage walk past the open door on the way to the stage. His wiry frame clad only in leather pants and Cuban heels, Pop’s prissy gait and simian posture make him look like a hard-ass hairdresser. He is shorter than he looks on television. His band’s live sound is muddy and diffuse, and Pop compensates by jumping around like the firecrackers in his pants just went off. The crowd seems utterly confused by this old, longhaired dude until “Lust For Life.” The teenage girls react immediately, breaking into that patented teenage white-girl dance. Soon, a wave of recognition passes over the crowd. At this point, Pop proves why he’s still worth a million in prizes. Midway through the song, he jumps off stage into the front row. His son, a younger version of his dad, cheers him on. A sweet young thing, probably not even a spermatozoon in her daddy’s vas deferens when Pop wrote the song, slinks up and bumps and grinds with The Idiot. He puts his hand on her ass. The crowd swarms around him, ecstatic to be so close to this guy who’s famous for some reason or another. The song ends as Pop climbs back onstage and bids the crowd adieu in his own special way: “Thanks a lot, cocksuckers!” A rock ‘n’ roll animal in an era of music-biz pets.
Mudhoney leaves for its hotel. By the time I get to my seat, Pearl Jam is soaring through “Given To Fly.” I leave my indie-rock elitism beneath my seat with the empty beer cups and peanut shells and admit, without guilt or shame, that Pearl Jam is a great rock ‘n’ roll band in a time when great rock ‘n’ roll bands are no longer a dime a dozen. Get over it.
As the song rings out, Eddie Vedder addresses the crowd, “We’re band No. 3. I sure liked band No. 1, and band No. 2 is a legend. We haven’t gotten around to writing a song for band No. 2, but we did write this one for band No. 1.” With this, Pearl Jam tears into “Lukin,” a thrashy ode to the make-milk-shoot-out-your-nose antics of Mudhoney’s bassist. When the death threats and stalkers staking out Vedder’s house got to be too much, he used to hide out at Lukin’s pad, drinking beer and shooting the shit. It’s a thank-you song.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
On its day off from the Pearl Jam tour, Mudhoney headlines a club show at the Cat’s Cradle. The band soundchecks with “Overblown,” a rusty needle of a song intended to pop the bubble of Seattle hype. It was written for the soundtrack to Singles, Cameron Crowe’s treacly love letter to the Emerald City, and back in the day, the accusatory finger of the lyrics pointed elsewhere. All these years later, when Arm sings, “Everybody’s getting’ older/Can’t hold a normal job/Long live rock ‘n’ roll,” the finger may well be pointing in the mirror.
1998 marks the 10th anniversary of Mudhoney, a band made to be broken. Arm is 36 years old, Turner 33. Lukin is 34, but claims that when he shaves his gray stubble (which is rarely), he still gets carded for cigarettes. At 31, Peters is the baby in the band. In the three years since My Brother The Cow, all the members of Mudhoney, save the thrifty Turner, have been forced to get day jobs. Lukin did carpentry and construction. Peters served subpoenas with Tad bassist Kurt Danielson. Arm worked in the office of what Turner refers to as a “slumlord.” Says Arm somewhat defensively, “It was the only job I could get without filling out an application. What do you put on an application when they ask what you’ve been doing for the last 10 years?”
In the dressing room, the group lays odds on whether Superchunk will show. Lukin recalls the time Mudhoney played with the North Carolina band and he threw up in front of Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance in the dressing-room shower. Somehow this story reminds him of the time he shit his pants—a fart gone horribly wrong, Lukin says. “I went to wash my pants out in the shower,” he says, “but my roommate had this really long hair that clogged the drain, and the tub filled up with shit water.” Groans of grinning disgust all around. Then there was the time that Spin called Lukin for an interview, and he told them to fuck off and hung up. “I thought they were trying to get me to subscribe,” he says. “I told them, ‘I don’t read your shitty magazine, and I never will.'”
By show time, the dressing room is filled with old friends and well-wishers. Three-quarters of Superchunk show up—Ballance, Mac McCaughan and Jon Wurster. Vedder and Gossard magically appear through some secret backdoor. Arm pulls Wurster aside with a wink and nudge; he wants to fuck with the crowd, a portion of which he’s sure is only here on the off chance that Pearl Jam may show up. In low, conspiratorial tones, Arm lays out his scheme: Midway through the show, he will announce a special guest is in the audience, the real Jeremy, all grown up. At that point, Wurster is to jump onstage and pretend to be the inspiration for Pearl Jam’s last big video hit. Wurster nervously agrees.
Turner passes a bottle of Bushmills to Gossard. “OK,” Gossard says, taking the bottle, “but you better be prepared to make out with me.” Mudhoney heads to the stage, and the dressing room empties out. Now it’s just Vedder and me. He is also shorter than he looks on television. There is the graceless pause of two strangers bumping into each other. I’m not quite sure how to play it, as it has never been made absolutely clear to the media-shy Vedder that I’m a journalist. Vedder grabs a Heineken and clinks my bottle. “This is gonna be great,” he says, clearly excited after months of touring big halls to be going to a shitty little punk show to see one of his favorite bands.
There’s an audible gasp of recognition as Vedder strolls out of the dressing room. The crowd swarms around him as he makes his way to the front of the stage, and just when it looks like they will bury him, somebody yells to Arm to take his shirt off. Arm screams, “No!” and Mudhoney kicks into “Overblown.” “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More” gets a few fists of recognition pumping in the air. As the last notes fade away, Arm says, “It’s great to take a trip down memory lane such a sad and lonely street.” Turner chimes in with, “How do I look now?” All I can think of is how Turner told me that when Mudhoney played with Pearl Jam in Hawaii earlier this year, he went to a post-show party wearing nothing but a Speedo and his glasses, no doubt striking Devo-esque, geek-love poses. A dozen songs later, Mudhoney rips into “You Got It” and a few stray moshers beat up on each other for old time’s sake.
Arm announces that the real Jeremy is in the house tonight and asks him to come on stage, but Wurster never shows his face. There’s an uncomfortable pause as Vedder shoots Turner a confused look. “Am I Jeremy?” Vedder mouths in a stage whisper, wondering if he’s expected to jump on stage, not sure if Mudhoney is laughing with him or at him. Arm gives up on the prank, and the band lurches into “Beneath The Valley Of The Underdog,” which devolves into lengthy, plodding feedback until Arm walks offstage. Backstage, he’s clearly pissed and embarrassed about the Jeremy stunt. He apologizes to Vedder and tries to explain. Wurster shows up an hour later and offers some lame excuse about having to take his girlfriend home.
I tell Vedder that the crowd seemed to respect his personal space. “Those guys around me were real cool,” he enthuses. “We were talking about guitars, and later I turned to go to the bar and get another beer and asked them if they needed one. The one guy says, ‘I’m under,’ and I thought he meant he was out of money. I tell him, ‘Don’t worry, I got you covered.’ I come back with three beers, and the minute they take a sip, a security guard grabs [the kids] and throws them out I feel so bad—they were singing along to every song.” One of the kids turns up later, and Vedder apologizes, gets their names and promises them backstage passes for the show tomorrow night.
By now, the dressing room is filled with the usual assortment of hangers-on: the pathetic, the confused and the star-struck. I feel like all three. One guy has been following Mudhoney around all tour, videotaping every show; he’s apparently been following them around for years. Another guy tells Arm that he has seen Hype! a thousand times and he can’t believe Mudhoney finally made it to his town. “You guys never play Chapel Hill!” he says.
“We just played here last year,” counters Arm.
The guy looks down at his feet and slouches out.
Another fan, the kind of person who insists you call him “dude,” complains about all the grunge poseurs and Johnny-come-latelies. “I got into it when I saw Hype!,” he says with all seriousness. Arm rolls his eyes. After Dude complains endlessly about how lame his seats are for tomorrow’s show, Vedder takes his name and promises him a ticket upgrade will be waiting at Will Call.
Turner is annoyed that no Warner Bros. reps are showing up at the band’s shows. “That’s a bad sign—that means the higher ups don’t see it as a priority,” he says. “We have a new record and nobody gives a shit.”
Like that scene in Animal House when Belushi is trying to cheer up Flounder after the Delta boys have trashed his brother’s car on a road trip, Peters sidles up, puts his arm around him and says with mock-reassurance, “You want me to put in a call?”
“You know,” says Gossard, “opening for Pearl Jam is the death slot.”
The members of Mudhoney are sitting around a picnic table, the canopy of the hospitality tent shielding their sore heads from the strong Carolina sun. Vedder walks over, escorting the kids who got thrown out of the club last night. They seem more thrilled to see Mudhoney than to be hobnobbing with Pearl Jam.
Arm is very pleased to see that the Mudhoney dressing room is stocked with Sierra Nevada beer. Peters is refusing to wear his jersey tonight. A woman from Tannis Root, the T-shirt company that handles Mudhoney’s merchandise, is trying to guilt him into wearing the shirt she designed. “The problem is,” says Peters, “I still have a little pride left.”
During Mudhoney’s set, Gossard, Mike McCready and Matt Cameron (formerly of Soundgarden and now playing drums for Pearl Jam) watch from the side of the stage. Despite all his protest, Peters is wearing his jersey. The band turns in a tight yet joyless set. Once again, the reserved seating in front of the stage is nearly empty, illustrating the disconnect between Mudhoney and the Pearl Jam fans they’re playing to more succinctly than the polite smattering of applause that greets the end of each song. Pearl Jam’s music is tied to high-school and college memories, slow dances and car sex. Mudhoney’s audience is—or, maybe more appropriately, was—record collectors, cranky cultists and self-righteous indie kids, the malingerers lurking beneath the valley of the underdog. Pearl Jam fans went to their prom; Mudhoney fans went to a kegger in the woods.
Back in the dressing room, the toilet overflows and Lukin is called in to do plumbing chores. One of Pearl Jam’s staff is regaling Arm and Turner with stories about her days working for Axl Rose. They chortle with contempt as the dirty laundry list of backstage excess, misogyny, egomania and stupidity unfurls.
Onstage, Vedder is relaying the tale about the kids he inadvertently got kicked out at the Cat’s Cradle, because “some celebrity asshole bought them a beer Tonight, they have backstage passes and a beer.”
Mudhoney catches a ride on Pearl Jam’s chartered luxury jet. All around the backstage area, the word “bonzo” is posted (as in “tonight, we bonzo”), meaning the minute the last note rings out, Pearl Jam is hustled to a series of vans that take the band directly to the airport where a plane is waiting on the tarmac. Arm is impressed that Michael Jackson once used the same plane. The Gloved One is the subject of sordid fascination for Arm. Last Christmas, Arm gave friends copies of the tawdry tell-all, I Was Michael Jackson’s Lover.
Mudhoney’s rock ‘n’ roll motor is burning clean. “I don’t want to gloat, but we made this little girl in the front row cry,” says Arm at the end of “Oblivion” (a song inspired by an eyewitness account of a woman in a wheelchair, Kahlua and cream in hand, “singing the shit out of” ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”). The band motors through its new album with conviction, and the crowd rewards Mudhoney with a hearty round of applause that echoes across the vast amphitheater in SenSurround. “Thanks for letting us stand in front of you for 45 minutes,” says Arm.
Backstage, as the band members towel off and slip out of their jerseys, there’s a knock at the door. It’s Vedder’s assistant, who reportedly used to work for Joey Ramone. He hands Lukin a mysterious package wrapped in newspaper. Closing the door and tearing back the newsprint, he pulls out a brand new bong and holds it aloft with the pride of an Academy Award winner. “Excellent,” Lukin says, with his trademark scratchy voice. It seems Vedder’s assistant has an endorsement deal with the Graphic Boy Bong Company.
“Cool,” says Peters with a surfer-dude drawl. “Let’s roast a bowl!”
Wafting away the clouds of sweet, skunky smoke that now envelop the dressing room, Arm fields my questions about Tomorrow Hit Today. The LP is the final option on the band’s contract with its label and, as such, different rules applied this time. In the past, the band would get a budget of $150,000, record for $10,000 and pocket the rest. Not this time. “What we don’t spend goes back to the record company, so we figured, ‘Why not spend the money?'” he says with a shrug.
For the first time in its career, Mudhoney hired the services of a name producer. For $25,000, the band got Memphis swamp-rock guru Jim Dickinson, the man who recorded Big Star’s Sister Lovers and the Replacements’ Pleased To Meet Me and played piano on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” Another $25,000 went toward Dave Bianco’s mixing services. The L.A. studio where the final mixes were done had its own hot tub. But the remaining $100,000 clearly went into the tracks. The songs are taut, lucid and fully developed. Tomorrow Hit Today is easily the best record the band has put out since its “Touch Me I’m Sick” single. But a decade later, with grunge but a gray-sky flannel memory, will anyone care?
“I would be happy with anything more than indifference,” says Arm.
Is this Mudhoney’s last hurrah?
“The first single was the last hurrah,” says Arm. “Every record since has been the last hurrah. It’s the last hurrah that keeps going.”