Portland-via-Seattle musician Steve Turner has led a semi-charmed life. He's made a decent living in the music business without succumbing to substance abuse and without his personal life descending into tabloidy drama. He's had ample time to indulge in his main hobbies—skateboarding, collecting fuzz boxes, and accruing and selling records. Oh, and he played a major role in creating the grunge phenomenon with the bands Green River and Mudhoney without suffering the tragic destinies of fellow Seattle grunge icons Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, and Layne Staley.
Turner made it through the music-biz grinder and grunge mania with his wits intact and, what do you know, he's a damn good writer. Anyone who read his liner notes for the Mudhoney's March to Fuzz compilation could glean that Turner possessed wit and facility for turning a phrase. Now he's written a clear-eyed, engrossing memoir that details his musical and personal journey while providing a subjective mini-history of Seattle's underground-rock scene and his bands' role in it.
Mud Ride: A Messy Trip Through the Grunge Explosion (written with Adem Tepedelen and publishing in June by Chronicle Prism) is Turner's insider account of how Seattle went from isolated incubator of interesting yet largely ignored music to global phenomenon. Championed by Sub Pop Records and a few other smaller indie labels, grunge eventually garnered a TIME magazine cover story, became the catalyst of a Hollywood movie (Cameron Crowe's Singles), and spawned several books, most of them about Nirvana. To this day, grunge is the first thing people's minds flit upon when the topic of Seattle's music scene arises, just nudging out Jimi Hendrix, Sir Mix-a-Lot, and Macklemore.
The irony is, nobody in the grunge movement really wanted to be associated with the word. And nobody in Turner's circle of friends lusted after the fame and popularity that grunge gifted to a select handful of acts. Initially, he and his band mates in Green River—including future Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm, Stone Gossard, and Jeff Ament—were in the game simply to have fun, though the latter two musicians later became superstars with Pearl Jam. (Gossard's foreword in Mud Ride is at once reverent and snide toward its author, and Turner gets off some good-natured ribbing of his more affluent buddy later in the book.)
Some of Mud Ride's most fascinating passages involve the chapters on Turner's childhood rebelling against his staunchly Catholic family and his burgeoning interest in skateboarding, BMX bike racing, and hardcore. His parents barely had any music in the house, so Turner got hip to punk through his high-school friends and skater mags such as Thrasher. Perhaps the most punk things Turner did in his adolescence were voicing his profound skepticism about God to his religious teacher and refusing to get confirmed. Those acts transcend a lifetime's worth of slam dancing and stage diving.
It's also interesting to hear Turner recount his initial floundering forays in the Seattle music scene with the Ducky Boys, Mr. Epp and the Calculations, the Thrown Ups, Limp Richerds, and finally his entry into proto-grunge bruisers Green River, as it reveals how even seemingly commanding musicians often suffer false starts and crises of confidence in the studio and onstage. As a bonus, Turner also vividly portrays the local '80s underground-rock scene. Fans of low-profile groups such as 10 Minute Warning, U-Men, the Refuzors, Malfunkshun, and Extreme Hate will get twinges of nostalgia while reading Mud Ride.
The meat of the book, obviously, is the career of Mudhoney, who are still going strong, as their great forthcoming album, Plastic Eternity, proves. Outsold and overshadowed by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains, Mudhoney nevertheless weathered Arm's heroin addiction, Sub Pop's business precarity, major-label apathy, and ill-fated encounters with Hollywood soundtrack coordinators to maintain a 35-year career full of musical thrills. They've played before tens of thousands at international music festivals, graced the cover of influential UK music zine Melody Maker, became the only band to play on top of the Space Needle, and, most importantly, they had a tunnel-boring machine named after them.
Hardcore Mudhoney fans will appreciate the detailed accounts of the band's recordings (most with Jack Endino and Johnny Sangster), their most momentous tours (including a miserable one with Nirvana), their encounters with the British music press (who pegged Mudhoney as inauthentic grungesters because Turner and Arm had attended college), their frustrating dalliance with Reprise Records, and Turner's fuzz-box collection. They may also be amused to read that Rolling Stone dubbed Turner “the Eric Clapton of grunge.” Guh.
Mud Ride's section dealing with Cobain's death, which happened while Mudhoney were on an East Coast tour with Pearl Jam, leads to the revelation that during a tour of the White House bestowed to PJ and Mudhoney, President Clinton asked Eddie Vedder if he should address the nation about the tragedy. We also learn that Courtney Love offered to give Turner one of Kurt's signature Fender Jag-Stang guitars, now worth about $200,000. Steve declined and instead grabbed a cheesy '60s axe with no strings. Regrettable! Many such anecdotes pepper Mud Ride's pages and even superfans will learn something new.
With the mid to late '90s bringing disenchantment with the album/tour/album grind, Turner indulged his long-suppressed love of singer-songwriter/folkie music with various solo projects and his unabashed zest for garage rock with Monkeywrench.
Nineteen-ninety-nine ushered in doubts about Turner's future; his boutique label, Super Electro, folded and Mudhoney bassist Matt Lukin quit. At that point, it looked like the grunge standard-bearers were on the verge of retiring their SuperFuzz and Big Muff FX pedals. The massive March to Fuzz singles and rarities collection on Sub Pop carried the whiff of a career summary.
But, of course, Mudhoney persevered. Lubricated Goat bassist Guy Maddison replaced Lukin and Mudhoney returned with 2002's Since We've Become Translucent, and they've been kicking ass on and off ever since. Turner's 21st-century life became more domesticated with children and home-owning and a move to Portland in 2007 that's resulted in a more relaxed schedule of hobbyist bands (Cheap Flight, Phantom Ships, etc.) and dealing obscure used vinyl (he once sold an original edition of Skip Spence's Oar for $500). Turner's inclination to always seek the roots of any particular genre and search for its obscure specimens has served him well in the latter endeavor. Not surprisingly, the section of the book covering the last 15 years lacks the urgency and excitement of the preceding pages, but interesting tidbits do occur.
To this day, Turner remains surprised by Mudhoney's success, as he'd considered the band a lark. He writes: “I'd never felt like this was my calling... I thought we were succeeding because... we didn't care that much about succeeding... And always in the back of my mind was the promise I'd made to my parents that once I did this for a couple of years, I'd go back to school... Our devil-may-care attitude seemed to fuel our popularity.”
Turner's admission that he's an accidental rock star (at least in Australia and Brazil, where Mudhoney are worshipped) shows that indifference to those trappings can result in world-historical accomplishments. Stop caring so much about “making it,” musicians, and you might just gain immortality.
Dave Segal moderates a reading and discussion with Steve Turner and Matthew Goody, author of Needles & Plastic: Flying Nun Records, 1981-1988, at 6:30 pm on March 11 at Hex Enduction Records & Books. Free, all ages.