Dispensing With Age

Mudhoney in 2023

As I waited for the band to come on stage at Tuscon’s Club Congress, I started to second-guess myself.

It's about the scene, not the band. Mudhoney, Seattle.

I’m getting old. And Mudhoney is older than me.

Did it make sense for me to spend an hour in the wake of their amplifiers, only to end up with ringing ears and aching feet?

Did it make sense for them to repeat the tired rituals that any long-time band must perform?

Then the concert started, and I instantly remembered why we were there.

The greatest testament to Mudhoney’s persistence is that they don’t have to follow the tired script preferred by most musicians who have been around for a long time.

Instead of leading with their new material, which is bound to be less familiar, and building to a crescendo of decades-old hits, they started with some of the songs they are known for best – “Tomorrow Hit Today”, “In ‘n’ Out of Grace” – and saved tracks from their excellent recent albums Digital Garbage and Plastic Eternity until later in the set.

That takes guts. In the venues the band plays these days, audiences tend to come and go, more concerned with socialising then what is happening on stage.

But Mudhoney held us rapt.

The B-side of their debut single from August 1988, “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More,” was an obvious highlight. Yet so was “Human Stock Capital” from this year.

If anything, the band’s newer material went over better than their never-quite-hits.

It was a valuable lesson for anybody, like me, who wonders whether it’s time to give up the ghost.

As musicians who came to prominence in a Seattle scene ravaged by heroin addiction and alcoholism, the members of Mudhoney keep going both because they can and because many of their friends and acquaintances can’t.

The band continues to ply their trade much as they did at the beginning of their career, purveyors of a gritty sound indulging heavy metal, ‘60s garage rock and hardcore punk. 

The mainstream press called it “grunge”.

In the early 1990s, now over three decades ago, that mix achieved a level of mainstream success that its creators found very hard to believe.

The Pacific Northwest of the United States went from being perceived as a backwater to a driving force in global youth culture.

“Seattle” became a synecdoche for everything that resisted the synthesiser-driven pop of the preceding decade.

Even the bands from there that came closest to conventional hard rock, like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, still differed greatly from the kind of music that had been playing on commercial radio.

Although Nirvana may have had melodic tunes, even their most pop-friendly songs had an edge that no amount of corporate polishing could dull.

But of the artists who achieved some measure of international fame, it was Mudhoney that best represented this regional aesthetic.

The A-side of their debut single, “Touch Me I’m Sick”, with Dan Peters’ no-holds-barred drumming, Steve Turner’s fuzzed-out guitars and Mark Arm’s snarling vocals, became a college radio sensation.

It helped that their independent label Sub Pop, with its clean black-and-white logo, perfectly offset the dirtiness of the music. This contrast made it clear to listeners far from Seattle that Mudhoney’s sound was no accident.

When Sub Pop invited British journalist Everett True to come report on the scene, it signaled that the label was doubling down on this messaging.

That gift for self-promotion didn’t sit well with Mudhoney, who had never aspired to the platinum-selling fame that both blessed and cursed their Seattle contemporaries.

As the song “I Like It Small” from their 2011 album Vanishing Point makes abundantly clear, Mudhoney recognised – if from a characteristically ironic distance – that economist E.F. Schumacher’s dictum that “small is beautiful” was a prescription for survival.

Although the band did follow Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden to a major label for a while, they never really felt comfortable in a world where corporate handlers seem to have control of everything.

In retrospect, it appears as though Mudhoney were biding their time in the mid-1990s until they could return to the level of success they could manage without destroying themselves, the kind that makes it possible for them to travel around the world playing to appreciative audiences, but rules out getting rich off their music.

Listening to their catalogue after the show I attended recently, I was struck by how remarkably consistent it is.

Some albums, such as 2002’s Since We’ve Become Translucent, incline more towards what guitarist Turner calls the band’s “swampy” sound in his excellent new memoir Mud Ride.

Others, such as their most recent Plastic Eternity, veer in the direction of hardcore punk.

When you play all their records on shuffle mode, though, it is devilishly hard to periodise their output.

In this regard, Mudhoney feels more like a blues band than the kind of popular music that resurfaces on TikTok.

On the one hand, the fact that you can’t reliably date their music means that they will forever be identified with their brief window of minor celebrity.

On the other hand, though, it means that their music literally never gets old, as I discovered at Club Congress.

I first saw Mudhoney in August 1989, over two years before Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – their equivalent to “Touch Me I’m Sick” – defined what Dave Markey’s documentary termed “the year punk broke”.

At the time, I knew little about the band. I was at their Berkeley Square show because my best friend’s younger brother, a high school radio DJ devoted to the underground punk scene, had invited me to join him.

I was blown away by the simple power of Mudhoney’s performance that night, even more stripped down than usual because their original bassist, Matt Lukin, missed the show due to trouble with the law.

The other day, I found a soundboard recording from that Berkeley Square show on YouTube.

It sounded every bit as good as I remembered it.

But it also sounded an awful lot like the band’s recent Club Congress show.

If Mudhoney already sounded old when they were young – much as Kurt Cobain did on Nirvana’s celebrated MTV Unplugged in New York special – they now sound young despite being old.

In a world where almost nothing seems fated to last, that kind of endurance is an inspiration.

Photograph courtesy of David Lee. Published under a Creative Commons license.