Territorial Pissings: Seven Weirdest Moments In Grunge
01. SUB POP PUNKS THE NEW YORK TIMES
This infamous chapter of grunge mania may be the most widely reported on this list—it boasts its own Wikipedia entry under “Grunge Speak,” if you want to look it up. But it deserves repeating, if only because no other single event in that time so directly illustrates how absurd it was to watch the national media cover the Seattle scene.
In November 1992, a reporter for the New York Times was assigned to write about “grunge culture,” and this reporter began pestering Seattle music folks for “the inside scoop.” Megan Jasper was answering phones for Sub Pop then, and like many in Seattle, she had had just about enough of these inquiries. She fallaciously told the reporter that grunge had its own language and then proceeded to make that language up on the spot. She spewed out more than a dozen “code words” that she told the reporter were “grunge speak.”
The New York Times printed the list, thinking it finally had its grunge scoop. Among the terms were “lamestain,” a derogatory term for an “uncool person”; “wack slacks,” the inside name for old ripped jeans; and “cob nobbler,” which was the grunge code for “loser.” Readers of the staid New York–based newspaper might have been shocked to hear that rockers in Seattle used the term “swingin’ on the flippity-flop,” when they wanted to say they were “hanging out.” The Times had not only failed to fact check the list with anyone who actually lived in Seattle but also miscredited Jasper as working at Caroline Records.
Yet in that pre-internet age, the Times grunge-speak hoax wasn’t even disclosed outside of Seattle until a few weeks later. It was then that a writer for the Chicago magazine the Baffler pointed out the joke in print. But when that article appeared, another twist made this chapter even more bizarre: rather than admit it had erred, the Times declared that the Baffler was wrong and had been hoaxed, and that the grunge-speak list was real. The Times went so far as to demand that the Baffler apologize. It didn’t of course, but it’s worth noting that the New York Times has never run a correction, and the list is still up on the newspaper’s web archive. Apparently, the Times is standing by its assertion that “big bag of bloatation” is how a Seattleite would refer to a “drunk.” It was actually the grunge-speak list that was the “big bag of bloatation.”
Everyone in Seattle cackled when the list ran and cackles still when it is brought up. Jasper has gone on to become vice president of Sub Pop, where she has signed a number of important bands, but she is still best known locally as the creator of grunge-speak. Mudhoney eventually printed up T-shirts that read “Lamestain.” Even those are now collector’s items.
02. THERE'S A RIOT GOIN' ON
On the subject of media idiots, I had more than a few encounters of my own, but none greater than a phone call in 1992, around the time the New York Times was writing about “lamestains.” I answered the phone in our office late at night. It was the wire editor from an East Coast newspaper. He claimed that an article had come over the newswire about how so many thousands of kids were expected to descend on Seattle that summer (think Summer of Love redux but with kids in shorts and Doc Martens) and that police had already begun installing barricades. I laughed and said, “Try again.”
But this wasn’t a hoax. At least this guy wasn’t a hoaxster, just an overzealous editor thinking he too had stumbled onto his own grunge scoop. He begged me to “look out the window” to see if there were legions of flannel-shirted kids amassing at that very moment. He claimed the wire piece predicted half a million kids on Seattle’s streets, and he figured many of them were probably already in place. “Seattle’s entire population is only half a million,” I told him. “This is ridiculous.”
The guy pleaded that I look out the window, just in case I had somehow missed a huge crowd gathering below.
I put the phone down and glanced outside. I saw a typical Seattle street scene, with a few drunks near the liquor store, and not much more. I went back to the phone. “There’s nothing,” I told him. “Someone is pulling your leg.”
He didn’t hesitate for a moment: “Is there another window you can look out of?”
03. THE $300 FLANNEL SHIRT
In Fall 1992, in an era when Nirvana’s Nevermind was selling a million copies every three months, even the fashion industry decided it needed a piece of grunge. Designer Marc Jacobs, then working for Perry Ellis, put together his spring 1993 line, which he called the Grunge Collection. Its debut featured models wearing combat boots parading around in thousand-dollar torn smocks. But the crème de la crème of the collection was a flannel shirt that sold for more than $300. It looked almost identical to one you could buy at any sporting goods or army surplus store for $10, minus the designer label.
Jacobs explained, not unsurprisingly to the same New York Times reporter who broke the grunge-speak scoop, “I found a two-dollar flannel shirt on St. Mark’s Place, and I sent it off to Italy and had it made into a $300-a-yard plaid silk.”
The Grunge Collection bombed in high-fashion circles, as models in wool caps and unlaced boots failed to move product. The line did earn a lot of press attention, however, and gained Mr. Jacobs the nickname “the Guru of Grunge.” But in another twist that seems typical of the era, the high-fashion grunge clothes sold so poorly that if you happened to own a mint article from the line, any fashion museum in the land would gladly take it off your hands for a pretty penny.