Godfather of grunge: How the tragic story of a self-destructive glam-metaller inspired the Seattle rock movement

Andrew Wood of the band Mother Love Bone died young but his influence and the tragedy of his death foreshadowed grunge’s mainstream explosion, 30 years ago, says Ed Power

Sunday 03 January 2021 08:03 GMT
<p>Wood bore a passing resemblance to Meat Loaf and sang like Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose, had Axl Rose spent his adolescence wanting to sound like Bowie</p>

Wood bore a passing resemblance to Meat Loaf and sang like Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose, had Axl Rose spent his adolescence wanting to sound like Bowie

On 19 March 1990, Chris Cornell flew home to Seattle, birthplace of grunge, to watch his best friend die. The frontman of brooding rockers Soundgarden was out of town when his flatmate Andrew Wood was discovered unconscious after overdosing on heroin at the age of 24. Wood, the blond-haired singer and guiding light of Mother Love Bone, was now connected to a life support machine in hospital. He had suffered irreversible brain damage due to lack of oxygen. As soon as Cornell made it back and said his farewells, the machine would be switched off.

“That was the death of the innocence of the scene,” Cornell would later tell Scot Barbour in his 2005 documentary Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story. “It wasn’t later when people surmised that Kurt blowing his head off was the end of the innocence. It was that,” he says of Wood in hospital. “It was walking into that room.”

“It was the untimely passing of Andy Wood that most decisively impacted the trajectory of Seattle music – and not, as most people believe, the death of Kurt Cobain, four years later,” Ronen Givony, author of Not for You: Pearl Jam and the Present Tense, concurs by email. “Indeed, it’s fascinating to ponder, both in the city and at large, what might have happened if Andy Wood had lived, and if Mother Love Bone had been able to tour, make videos, and so on.”

Fascinating it is. The year ahead marks the 30th anniversary of grunge’s conquest of mainstream rock and the attendant death of Eighties hair metal, two spheres that Mother Love Bone’s glam rock bridged. Nirvana recorded “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in May 1991, releasing it that September and becoming international grunge posterboys. Soundgarden would put out breakthrough LP Badmotorfinger the same month. Pearl Jam’s debut album Ten had come out weeks earlier, a record that eventually reached number two in the Billboard charts.

Mother Love Bone’s music may have well been among them. But instead the band laid the groundwork for their peers’ rise to cultural dominance – and would be reborn, after a fashion, as the aforementioned Pearl Jam. They alerted the record industry to the fact that the Pacific Northwest was bubbling with talent. And Wood’s death not only impacted the music emerging from Seattle and wider Washington State (Nirvana were from tiny Aberdeen, 100 miles south) but foreshadowed the tragedies bound up with grunge – all the drug addiction, self-destruction and death to follow.

Kurt Cobain onstage with Nirvana at London’s Astoria Theatre, 5 November 1991

“Mother Love Bone were a vital piece of the puzzle that made Seattle and the greater Pacific Northwest the epicentre of the rock world in the early 1990s,” says Glen Casebeer, editor of the Northwest Music Scene blog, “but beyond the well-documented hype, this band remains one of the most beloved of them all.”

Back in the spring of 1990, Kurt Cobain was just another scruffy indie musician mooching around the state in a rusty tour van. Wood, by contrast, was already an arriving superstar. The previous year, PolyGram had signed Mother Love Bone to the biggest ever deal for a Seattle band. Their frontman’s lifelong desire to headline arenas and behave outrageously was about to become reality.

Cobain and Wood’s stories intersect, however, a little further back than that. The former, with a sad smile, would regale journalists during the later Nirvana years with a story of the time he had slipped into a stupor watching Wood’s first band, Malfunkshun, play Olympia, Washington, the indie hotbed 60 miles south of Seattle.

“I fell asleep in my chair,” said Cobain, who claimed to be an undiagnosed narcoleptic. “Andrew sang to me all night, and danced around me, and made fun of me. I felt like a heel when I woke up.”

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Wood – who grew up in Bainbridge Island on the outskirts of Seattle – had started Malfunkshun in 1980 with his older brother Kevin. Malfunkshun never really disbanded but Wood and the band’s Regan Hagar eventually started jamming with guitarist Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, recently emerged from the wreckage of Green River, an early Sub Pop signing and the first group to whom the epithet “grunge” was applied in 1987.

In Wood, Gossard and Ament found a kindred spirit. “What was happening with commercial hard rock was it was eating itself,” Cornell told Barbour of the music industry at the time. “Nobody cared about songs. You had to look a certain way, sound a certain way. Mother Love Bone – they fit into this genre. [But] they were real. It was like a band stepping out of 1976. It was that genuine.”

Indeed, though geographically at the locus of what would become known as “grunge”, Mother Love Bone were in many ways very different. They were weirder, wilder, perhaps naffer, than the grunge bands. As frontman Wood was a sort of anti-Kurt Cobain. He bore a passing resemblance to Meat Loaf and sang like Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose, had Axl Rose spent his adolescence wanting to sound like Bowie.

Seattle had given the world Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones and Heart. Nonetheless, by the late 1980s, it was perceived as a backwater. So when Mother Love Bone began to attract major label attention there was a sense that they were breaking new ground.

“Interestingly – I’m not sure this is widely known – when Mother Love Bone signed to PolyGram, in, I believe, 1988, it was the most lucrative signing/deal for a Seattle rock band, up to that point,” says Givony. At the time, there was clearly a lot of enthusiasm among the major labels for flamboyant, theatrical, Guns N’ Roses-type heavy metal.”

With PolyGram’s support, Mother Love Bone released a debut EP, Shine, in March 1989 – almost precisely a year before Wood’s death. It contained the track widely considered their masterpiece, the eight-minute “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” (immortalised on the Singles soundtrack). Mother Love Bone came out of Shine with genuine momentum. Later that year they went to The Plant studio in Sausalito (where Fleetwood Mac made Rumours and Guns N’ Roses Appetite For Destruction). There, they recorded what would be their only album, Apple.

To describe Apple as proto-grunge would be a reach. Gossard and Ament were certainly working towards the murky onslaught of Pearl Jam. Apple was nonetheless still arena rock – and universes removed from the alternative scene in which Kurt Cobain, for instance, had grown up. What can be stated with certainty is that Mother Love Bone were as utterly themselves as were Nirvana. On Apple there are even flourishes of Elton John-style orchestral pop (“Gentle Groove”).

‘Mother Love Bone’, containing material from the EP ‘Shine’ (1989) and the album ‘Apple’ (1990), was released two years after Wood’s death

Yet as Mother Love Bone seemed to hurtle towards their manifest destiny as the first Seattle band of their generation to make a mark beyond the Northwest, the sensitive Wood was quietly unravelling. He’d been just 12 when he started drinking and smoking marijuana. At 15, he had graduated to acid and mushrooms. By his early twenties, he was a semi-regular user of heroin.

Even when sober, he felt daunted by his ambitious and hyper-competent bandmates. “He looked at Stone and Jeff as being really organised and knowing what they were doing,” said Cornell. “That intimidated and scared him.” Gossard, in the film Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story, agreed.  “It was a difficult band for him to be in,” he said. “Mother Love Bone was filled with people trying to carve a niche out for themselves. There was a lot of competition, a lot of tension.”

On the precipice of fame, Wood’s addictions started to spiral. Following a family intervention at Thanksgiving, he had checked himself into rehab at Valley General Hospital in Monroe, northeast of Seattle. The rest of Mother Love Bone had supported him but their eyes were also fixed on the prize. When Wood’s girlfriend, Xana La Fuente, told them that he had fallen off the wagon in early 1990, they reportedly didn’t pay as much attention as they should have.

“He was coming home, cry crying crying… ‘please help me stop, I’m going to die’,” she told Barbour. “I’d tell them [the rest of Mother Love Bone], ‘we need to talk about this’. All they wanted to hear about was the record deal. It was like the twilight zone. They didn’t want to hear about it.”

The band never did confront Wood about his addictions. On the day he died, Wood and Ament had arranged to go to the gym. Ament cancelled because he was feeling unwell. So Wood went back to his apartment and shot up. La Fuente, arriving home from work at just after 10pm, found him unconscious. Three days later, he was declared dead. On 19 July, Apple was released: in its review of the LP, The New York Times posthumously crowned Stone “the first of the big league Seattle rock stars”.

Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (right) and bassist Jeff Ament at London’s Brixton Academy, July 1993

Traumatised by Wood’s passing, Ament and Stone stopped playing music for a while. But then, several months later, Cornell suggested they come together and make a tribute record for the fallen frontman. That November they assembled at Seattle’s London Bridge Studios to record what would become the Temple of the Dog album (named for a line from Mother Love Bone’s “Man of Golden Words”). With Stone and Ament was out-of-towner Eddie Vedder, who’d attracted their attention when he submitted a tape with vocals and lyrics for several of their demos for their next project.

And that next project was Pearl Jam, by which time Stone and Ament, with Vedder as their new singer, had already started working on Ten. Grunge was about to happen. Indeed, much of the material on Ten began as jams intended for Mother Love Bone. And that record’s cover image of the musicians – among them Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament of course – standing together with arms raised could be read as a gesture of defiance in the face of the horror of Wood’s death.

Not everyone was happy with how these musicians were moving on. “I remember hearing Ten and feeling cheated because I know Andy had written at least 25 per cent of the melodies and the songs [with Stone] on there,” La Fuente would tell Another Man magazine. “It was a weird feeling watching them become the biggest band in the world.”

Yet Wood’s death soon faded into irrelevance as Pearl Jam turned into one of the best-selling artists of all time. A Mother Love Bone compilation put out by PolyGram in September 1992 was received by many PJ fans almost as a novelty item. There was little appreciation of how central Wood was to the story of Pearl Jam and of grunge more generally.

That wasn’t the end of the tragedy. Cobain infamously died by suicide in April 1994. And over two decades later, on 18 May 2017, aged 52, Cornell ended his own life too. It would be too simplistic to draw a parallel between the deaths of these three grunge frontmen but it is instructive to note that, even before grunge became a phenomenon, misfortune and misadventure was encoded into its DNA.

Thirty years later, however, it’s time Mother Love Bone finally received their due. They were neither as seismic nor as subversive as Nirvana – the arena rock band who loathed arena rock. But they represented a missing link between hair metal and grunge – and raised a glorious ruckus along the way.

“They were so far ahead of the curve,” is how Michael Goldstone, the A&R man who signed them to PolyGram, characterised Mother Love Bone’s appeal in an interview with Barbour. “There was nothing small about what that band did. They were always bigger than life.”

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