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One day after the sad and grisly details of Kurt Cobain's suicide first spread across the nation like a rolling blackout, Mudhoney -- the legendary Seattle-based underground grunge band that gave neighboring Aberdeen's Nirvana its first opening slot in the soggy Emerald City -- found itself in the most unlikely of places: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., where the band was being led around by a crew of Secret Service agents.
"They took us behind the ropes to the Situation Room, which is apparently hardly ever seen by non-government personnel," recalls 39-year-old guitarist/vocalist Mark Arm, a former Eagle Scout born Mark McLaughlin. "It was pretty cool. It was a lot smaller than I would have thought. It wasn't as big as the war room in, say, Dr. Strangelove.
"At the time, they had three TVs in there and two people monitoring the TVs all of the time. One channel was on CNN. They were flipping through international news channels to see if something was being sparked somewhere in the world."
Arm's excuse for being in the White House that early April afternoon in 1994, along with drummer Dan Peters, bassist Matt Lukin and lead guitarist Steve Turner, came from glomming onto Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. Following a show the night before in Fairfax, Virginia -- a double bill featuring Pearl Jam and Mudhoney -- Vedder and his bandmates received word that Bill Clinton had asked to meet with them.
Mudhoney managed to ride Vedder's coattails into the executive homestead, where the group encountered, as Peters remembers, "a buncha people wantin' our autographs not knowing who the hell we were. They split the bands up, because Pearl Jam actually got to meet the president. They didn't want us longhairs stragglin' along -- a bunch of dirtbags all hung over from the night before."
"The most worrisome thing to me was sort of like, 'Here's the leader of the free world, and he's got time to meet with Pearl Jam?'" Arm says. "What the fuck are they gonna talk about?"
Arm's recollection of Vedder's insider account reveals less of a photo opportunity than a brief "tell-me-what-the-young-people-are-thinking" kind of bull session; Vedder would later confide with his pals that Clinton had asked, "Now, who are the Mudhoneys? Are they popular with the MTV?"
Considering how Clinton's aggressive campaign in 1992 included efforts to "Rock the Vote" through youth culture, the whirlwind visit gave Mudhoney a cynical glimpse of politics up close and personal, especially when corpulent tour organizer Craig Livingstone bared part of his soul to both bands. (As Clinton's former security personnel director, Livingstone would later resign during the Whitewater hearings, after revelations surfaced that his office had improperly obtained the FBI files of over 700 political opponents, including Linda Tripp.) "After we were all together, we went to lunch in some restaurant. And I remember [Livingstone] saying, 'You know, we lost one of our own, too,' referring to Vince Foster, right? Vince Foster's suicide? And he's saying, 'You gotta just keep talking about it; you can't keep this bottled up.' Just spewing all of these platitudes that I found really offensive."
Fast-forwarding some seven years from that bizarre afternoon, Mudhoney's members remain as wary of today's political machinery as they do of their own notoriety as founding fathers of the grunge phenomenon -- that short-lived, nihilistic outburst that combined the slower tempos of '70s heavy metal with the brutal intensity of Reagan-baiting hardcore from the '80s. Combining bashing drums, caustic screaming and a drudging bass throb, the music's most basic characteristic (besides an often-comical tendency toward exaggerated self-loathing) was its pure, ear-splitting volume. Grunge brought simplicity back to rock and roll. By daring to be thuggish and ugly (taking the torch from punk), it was another roundhouse slap in the face of MTV, another gleeful knee to the groin of FM radio. It was an excuse for bored, white slackers on MDA (Ecstasy's chemical cousin) to celebrate the utter banality of another overcast day at an underpaid job.
And goddamn if it didn't launch one of the biggest commercial juggernauts this side of Michael Jackson.
"It's always been for shits and giggles," Peters admits. "Just to get it back to that is a good thing."
Mudhoney's current outing -- sarcastically dubbed "the greatest-hits tour" by Peters -- culminates thirteen years' worth of sludge and fury from a bygone era. Featuring three of the original members (Lukin, now a full-time woodworker, has been replaced by Aussie bassist Guy Maddison, late of Bloodloss and Lubricated Goat), the band still grinds out music that doesn't depend on rainy-day nostalgia to be appreciated. Mudhoney's loose, fuzzy, head-through-the-windshield sound helped launch a signing frenzy in the Pacific Northwest, after all, back when there was grunge in them thar hills! They not only brought international credibility and brand loyalty to an obscure indie label called Sub Pop (founded by Bruce Pavitt and his partner Jonathan Poneman), but it paved the way for far more commercially successful groups, including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and, especially, Nirvana.
"The fact that we've sold far less records than our comrades has nothing to do with what we started out doing," Peters says. "Which was just to play music and have a good time." (And, as Peter Fonda once elucidated in a cheesy biker flick called The Wild Angels, "to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man.")