Territorial Pissings: Seven Weirdest Moments In Grunge
04. THE LAME LIST: WHAT'S WEAK THIS WEEK
As grunge took over national magazine covers and fashion runways, the word became a punchline in Seattle. Nowhere was it skewered more than on Seattle’s sketch-comedy television show Almost Live, which aired on a local station in the slot before Saturday Night Live.
In 1990, Almost Live debuted a skit titled “The Lame List: What’s Weak This Week.” It featured a half-dozen rocker types, shaking their hair and shouting “Lame,” as a voiceover by host John Keister announced the news headlines of the week. Example: Voiceover says, “Breast Reduction Surgery.” Headbanger response: “Lame! Lame! Lame!” Voiceover: “European economic reforms.” Headbanger response: A puzzled, raised eyebrow and a muted, “Lame?”
The original cast of rockers in the Lame List were taped in 1990, and that same footage was used over and over during the next decade, but with the headlines of the current week read before the usual shouts of “Lame.” And though some of the humor was local, much of it translated even when Comedy Central picked up Almost Live and ran it nationally. Yet, as the Nineties went on and viewers all over America tuned into Almost Live on Comedy Central, many said to themselves, “Doesn’t that one guy look familiar?” They were recognizing Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, who was the “Lame List” headbanger with the beard.
“We didn’t even ask Kim,” recalls host Keister. “I just asked Jeff Gilbert [then writing for the Rocket and Guitar World], to gather up a bunch of headbanger guys, and Kim ended up being one of them.” A few of the other lame listers included members of the bands Forced Entry and Gruntruck.
Later, all four members of Soundgarden would do a special-edition “Lame List” where they all shook their hair and shouted “Lame!” to everything suggested. But the band were famous by then, and seeing Chris Cornell shaking his hair was a dead giveaway that the band was in on the joke at that point. Just search YouTube for “Lame List” and you can see the evidence for yourself.
Almost Live had one other classic grunge moment with the skit “Rock Star Fantasy Camp.” This bit included Thayil again but also Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl. “Come to the Rock Star Fantasy Camp, and you too can learn the tricks of the trade,” Grohl boasted in the clip, while McCready demonstrated how to smash a guitar. “We had no idea later that someone would actually create a real ‘rock star fantasy camp’ and charge people thousands for it,” Keister says.
But the best bit of “Rock Star Fantasy Camp” would be familiar to any readers of this magazine. Grohl, McCready and Thayil demonstrated different “rock star poses,” where they made serious faces for a still camera. Included were “Album Cover,” “Rock Video,” “Heavy Metal Magazine” and, finally, “Guitar Face.” Even without seeing the skit, the readers of this magazine should find it pretty easy to imagine “Guitar Face.”
05. IS THAT A MOUSE IN YOUR MOUTH, OR ARE YOU JUST GLAD TO SEE ME?
If there was a forerunner to Seattle grunge, it came in the form of the Eighties punk scene, and in that milieu Steven “Jesse” Bernstein was one of the true godfathers. He was a poet rather than a musician, but his performance art had a big effect on the music scene, and he counted among his fans many musicians who would later become grunge headliners. Bernstein was bipolar and tortured, and sadly, he committed suicide in 1991, one year before Sub Pop released his classic Prison album. He is now the subject of a recently released documentary titled I Am Secretly an Important Man, which will no doubt further his reputation.
Bernstein’s oversize personality made an indelible impression on anyone who encountered him, and if you hung out with him for very long, eventually your life would be endangered in one way or another. I was once with Jesse in a tavern when the plate-glass window suddenly shattered and cascaded upon us. A former flame had thrown a brick at the window after seeing Jesse inside.
But it was Bernstein’s edgy live shows that would inspire soon-to-be grunge rock stars to ensure their concerts were exciting things to witness. At one poetry reading, Bernstein performed with a live mouse inside his mouth. His words were garbled, but it was memorable reading nonetheless, particularly for the mouse.
off!” and Bernstein realized his gambit hadAt another show that I witnessed, Jesse became disturbed after a few people in the crowd left while he was reading. He grabbed a switchblade from his pocket, pulled his penis out of his pants and put the sharp edge of the blade against his member. “If anyone leaves, I’m cutting it off,” he threatened. Someone immediately left. The crowd began to chant, “Cut it gone terribly wrong. He shifted gears and threatened to urinate on the next person who left, but when someone did leave, he only managed to pee on an innocent crowd member. Finally, he settled on a more effective restraint. “I’m going to stab the next person who leaves or talks,” he announced. The crowd remained silent for the rest of the reading. At the same reading, Bernstein stuck his finger in his anus, pulled it out and asked the crowd to sniff it.
Kurt Cobain was most likely at this particular reading, though at the time he would have been just an anonymous teenager. As the night went on, I delicately moved toward the back of the crowd, away from the pee, switchblade and smelly finger. But I like to think that Kurt might have been one of the kids in the front row moving forward to smell Bernstein’s stinky pinkie.