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The Grunge Gold Rush

Jawbox. From left: drummer Zach Barocas; bassist Kim Coletta; guitarist Bill Barbot; singer and vocalist J. Robbins.
Courtesy of the artist
Jawbox. From left: drummer Zach Barocas; bassist Kim Coletta; guitarist Bill Barbot; singer and vocalist J. Robbins.

On the most humiliating day of Jawbox's career, guitarist Bill Barbot was wearing a colorfully striped cotton T-shirt, white Calvin Klein jeans and Persol sunglasses and standing in a suburban New Jersey grocery store. Underneath orange and purple balloons and a hand-printed "Juicy Cubed Beef 59 ¢ lb." sign, he held his guitar in the air, poised to smash it into a cart full of junk food. To Barbot's left were his bandmates: drummer Zach Barocas, in a cream-colored jacket, bassist Kim Coletta in an impeccable red dress and singer J. Robbins, upside-down, clutching a microphone, cord between his teeth.

Up to this point, in 1994, Barbot's Washington, D.C.-born hardcore band had spent all five years of its existence trying to live up to a certain punk-rock ethical standard set by Fugazi, Rites of Spring and other defiantly self-sufficient bands.

"We were part of a community that didn't get the attention or the notice from the music industry or the music press and major labels, and it galvanized us, and made us feel like, 'F*** everybody,'" Barbot recalls.

The self-managed Jawbox had the good fortune — or misfortune, as we'll learn — of sounding a bit like Nirvana. In January, 1992, 26 years ago now, Nevermind hit No. 1 on the Billboard album charts, displacing Michael Jackson's Dangerous, an event that fundamentally restructured the record business in ways still visible to the naked eye. (Would we have Five Seconds Of Summer without Kurt and Co.?) Every major record label suddenly needed its own Nirvana, and had plenty of cash to find one.

The Grunge Gold Rush was a unique three-year period, from roughly 1992 to 1995, when roaring, anti-everything bands such as Butthole Surfers, Foetus and Ween had benefactors who paid them hundreds of thousands, even millions, for doing what they'd always done. Swept up in the record industry's net during this time were lasting rock superstars (Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Tool) and commercial flops that never had any business being close to a major label (Cell, Quicksand, Steel Pole Bath Tub, Jawbox).

"You could make up a band, [and] make up a quote about them [that] Kurt Cobain said. The Melvins were the greatest example. Kurt liked The Melvins, so everybody had to go sign The Melvins," recalls Janet Billig Rich, who spent the early '90s managing bands like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Hole and the Lemonheads. "Everyone was a little shocked. Everything got really easy because it was this economy — Nirvana became an economy."

This new, grunge-centric economy instantly destroyed the careers of hair-metal stars, from Poison to Bon Jovi. "I remember distinctly watching one A&R woman hiding in an office because BulletBoys showed up and she wanted to drop them — and this was a band that, one or two years earlier, was selling a ton of records," recalls Larry Hardy, founder of indie label In The Red and a talent scout for major label Warner Bros. during the period. "Now everyone was looking for the next Nirvana, and she wouldn't even face them."

Polydor Records' Joe Bosso, a metal expert who had been a contributing editor to Guitar World, immediately subscribed to Maximum Rocknroll, a venerable (and still-publishing) punk-rock magazine. Bosso, an A&R scout, stopped paying attention to influential metal managers and lawyers who were "shopping something kind of tired" and emphasized grimy punk clubs like Brownies and CBGB in New York. "We started looking for bands with one-word titles, like Truckdriver," he recalls.

Mike Gitter, a punk-rock specialist who was starting out as an A&R man for major label Atlantic Records, home of hair-metal veterans White Lion, Ratt and Mr. Big, had been friendly with Jawbox singer Robbins and started hanging around the band's shows and, in 1993, offered up a record deal. With the help of an attorney and a Chicago concert promoter they knew, Jawbox negotiated a $100,000 advance to make its Atlantic debut, For Your Own Special Sweetheart, which everybody hoped would make them stars. After taxes and expenses, divided four ways, the advance turned into "walking-around money," Barbot recalls. Jawbox also received a $75,000 advance from song-publishing giant Warner/Chappell. "For them, it was like a rounding error, but for us, for like three weeks, we were rolling in cash," Barbot adds of the publishing money. Jawbox' members paid off college loans and credit-card debt.

"Everything felt right," recalls Ken Weinstein, Jawbox's Atlantic publicist at the time. "It was this big, big launch-pad moment."

As part of the launch pad, Weinstein signed off on the "Juicy Cubed Beef" shoot — for Details magazine — at an abandoned grocery store in Secaucus, New Jersey, with celebrity photographer David LaChapelle. Jawbox felt weird about the opportunity, but trusted Weinstein and agreed. The band left New York City in an RV at 9 p.m., more anxious and grumpy than usual because they were set to tour Europe the following day. New York-area traffic put them on the road for two hours, and when they arrived, they waited for four or five more hours as LaChapelle and his team prepped the store. A "bazillion people" were on hand, Barbot recalls, including camera and lighting techs and extras; the big-haired drag queen who portrayed a suburban shopper; a stoner dude cradling a salami. Robbins was so despondent about betraying his punk principles for a glossy photo shoot that he spent all of his downtime in a bar down the block.

Despite the big-time publicity, 1994's For Your Own Special Sweetheart, while hailed by critics, sold just 100,000 copies — a devastating flop in those days (but enough to debut at No. 1 in today's sales-depleted world).

Jawbox kept touring, but the band couldn't weather the lack of commercial success. It made one more poor-selling album for Atlantic — this time on the label's TAG subsidiary, which Jawbox nicknamed "Toe Tag Records" for its uncanny ability to ignore promising bands — before breaking up in 1997. Today, Robbins continues to make music (his first post-Jawbox album is almost defiantly non-melodic). Barbot does website development and design for nonprofit foundations. Coletta has been a teacher and librarian. Barocas went to film school and became a writer, director and musician.

"We had the chance to grab the brass ring," Barbot says today, "and we missed."

The search for the next Nirvana was similar to the time when record men in suits chased psychedelic-rock bands in the wake of the Grateful Dead in the late '60s, or when A&R scouts traveled the world for post-"My Sharona" bands with skinny ties in the late '70s. The difference between this era and those of "Dark Star" and "My Sharona" was that major labels were richer than ever, thanks to the combination of endlessly booming CD sales, MTV and revenue-generating pop megastars such as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. In 1992, the year Nevermind broke, total record sales increased to nearly 900 million and a value of more than $9 billion, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Hip-hop's lengthy bling period began around the same time, thanks to labels' fat marketing budgets, MTV and, most importantly, exciting new talent such as 2Pac, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg.

"You're at the very tail end of the real record-company largesse of the '80s," Billig Rich recalls. "You could still get, like, $10,000 in cash to take the band to Vegas — and somehow that was 'promotion.' There was a lot of money thrown around. It was un-f******-believable." Adds Atlantic's Gitter: "There were people helping to pay artists' rent."

Every major label sent platoons of A&R scouts all over the world, armed with yearly expense budgets of up to $100,000 to wine and dine every halfway-decent (or sometimes not-decent-at-all) band in flannel shirts making dissonant guitar noise. Helmet, an unknown band that had Nirvana's bludgeoning power but none of its radio-friendly melodies, signed to Interscope Records for a reported $1 million. Dave Katznelson, a Warner Bros. Records A&R vice president, paid In the Red Records' Larry Hardy $5,000 per band to simply alert him to new discoveries, such as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Virgin Records spent more than $1 million on Royal Trux, not realizing there were only two people in the band; Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty had to scramble to find musicians to back them so they could play a showcase at Los Angeles' Viper Room, on the Sunset Strip, for the many label scouts involved in that bidding war.

"Geffen was the first to call up," Herrema recalls. "They paid for everybody's flights, hotels for 10 to 12 days, per diems. They put us in a rehearsal space in Glendale. We were like, 'F***, somebody's going to finance a cool experiment for us.' We stayed at the Beverly Garland Hotel."

Some of the bands, like Royal Trux, managed to hang onto their windfalls long after their albums went bust and their labels dropped them. The members of Royal Trux retained their business manager, made sound investments — and live off the money to this day.

"I own a home," Herrema says. "We didn't really screw it up, as far as the money." Other bands learned quickly just how thin these label advances could be. While lawyers, producers, stylists and video directors got rich, bands often wound up with tiny stipends. The $1.5 million advance Geffen Records gave to Cell, a promising punk-rock band, for a seven-record deal turned into about $30,000 per member, enough for each to quit his day job — and regret it later. Its 1994 sophomore album, Living Room, tanked so hard the band soon broke up.

In addition to grunge, equally noisy punk and metal bands (and hip-hop acts... but that's a different story) were the subjects of elaborate bidding wars at the time. Or, as former Circle Jerks and Black Flag frontman Keith Morris calls them: sweepstakes. "Warner Bros. signs Green Day. We also have the Guns N' Roses sweepstakes. We also have the Nirvana sweepstakes. All these sweepstakes," says Morris, a punk-rock pioneer whose early-'90s band Bug Lamp received a $300,000 major-label offer, before the band disintegrated without ever making a record. "All of a sudden there's a lot of opportunity and these ultra-mega-corporate, bigger-than-God record labels are throwing around more money than Fort Knox."

Daniel Johnston performing in 1995.
Ebet Roberts / Redferns
Daniel Johnston performing in 1995.

Atlantic Records' first step into the Grunge Gold Rush was to promote Danny Goldberg — a fortysomething senior A&R vice president who'd spent much of the previous decade managing abrasive and noisy bands like Hole, Sonic Youth, The Beastie Boys and Nirvana itself — to president. "It was a moment when Atlantic needed to catch up with that era of rock 'n' roll," Goldberg says today. "There were people who had a more particular post-modern or alternative rock or punk or grunge background than I did, but there was no question that an affiliation with Nirvana was just a huge source of credibility in talking to a lot of the kinds of artists we tried to sign — and did sign — at Atlantic."

Goldberg immediately rearranged the furniture, emphasizing the new genre of "alternative rock" at the expense of its metal stars. On his first day on the job, A&R reps Jason Flom and Tom Carolan asked him to meet with a new band, Mighty Joe Young, which would soon change its name to Stone Temple Pilots. A number of rival labels were after the band, too, but Atlantic won out because of Goldberg's Nirvana connections. The Lemonheads, who'd sold just 30,000 copies of their 1990 album "Lovey," suddenly had an Atlantic Records marketing budget — soon "It's a Shame About Ray" was on the radio and singer Evan Dando was a superstar. Flom, a metal specialist, went with the flow, informing Goldberg of a weird song by one of the label's weirdest bands — King Missile's "Detachable Penis." Goldberg agreed it could be a hit in the bizarro pop landscape Nirvana had created. It surged on MTV.

Under Goldberg's leadership, Atlantic signed an artist with maybe the most minimal ability to sell records of anybody in the '90s, and possibly ever: Daniel Johnston, a talented singer-songwriter from Texas who struggled daily with bipolar disorder and other forms of mental illness. Johnston had moved from his family home in West Virginia to live on his own in Austin, Texas and in 1980 began to release self-produced cassettes of his endearingly high-pitched voice set to herky-jerky guitar-picking and the occasional tinny keyboard. "Hi, how are you!" he exults, in what sounds like a song recorded on a telephone answering machine, at the beginning of his 1983 album titled after the phrase. "Every morning, he got up," he sings, "dreading the moment he had to be awake." An independent label, Homestead, began to put out Johnston's music on actual records. Word spread about this brilliant but troubled songwriter, to the point that Nirvana's Kurt Cobain wore a Johnston shirt on MTV.

"That was like the watershed moment," recalls Jeff Tartakov, who befriended Johnston in 1985 and became his manager.

Yves Beauvais, Atlantic's longtime A&R man and jazz specialist, was a Johnston fan and wanted to take him on as a passion project. Beauvais was close with Atlantic's co-founder, the late Ahmet Ertegun, and he proposed giving Johnston a deal similar to that of a jazz musician. Maybe he'd just sell 25,000 to 50,000 albums, but it would still be worth it for the prestige of having a widely respected artist on the label. Atlantic offered Johnston a deal in the "low six figures" — less than $500,000, as one of his managers recalls — for seven albums. But Atlantic reserved the right to drop Johnston after any of the albums. He wound up making just one, 1994's Fun. Produced by kindred Austin spirit Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers, Fun was a focused and hard-rocking album, complete with spontaneous burping, which suggested, briefly and improbably, that Johnston really could be the next Nirvana. The album sold roughly 16,000 copies and Atlantic dropped him, but that money (as well as a lucrative publishing deal) still provides for Johnston.

"They started releasing these old tapes, you know?" Johnston, now 56, says of his Atlantic years, in a brief phone interview from his Texas home. "And they got very popular, and I'm a rich man because of it."

During the Grunge Gold Rush, Gitter, the Atlantic A&R man who signed Jawbox, couldn't believe how much money he was getting to do his job. He had an expense account of $25,000 to $30,000 a year, earmarked for taking Nirvana-ish bands to tony restaurants and bars. "We were all living pretty exciting, dynamic and well-fed lives," Gitter says. "It was 'let's have a meal with band A, B or C, let's go to the Zen Palate,' because we loved going to the Zen Palate. It was the usual record-company dinner, that went into the thousands." Gitter knew the noisy bands on Fugazi singer Ian MacKaye's independent label Dischord Records had automatic credibility with the Nirvana crowd and were capable of selling concert tickets. It didn't matter that MacKaye wouldn't go near a major label — executives approached MacKaye about "having lunch," and while some in the music business say they've heard rumors of multimillion-dollar offers, the singer says discussions never evolved to the point of numbers. "We were never hungry, or available," MacKaye says via e-mail.

During a September 1993 show at New York's Roseland Ballroom, Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun, "mysteriously appeared" in Fugazi's dressing room after the band finished playing, MacKaye says. He had no idea who Ertegun was, and when Ertegun said he ran Atlantic, MacKaye assumed he'd showed up to see Jawbox open the show, since they were signed to his label. But Ertegun appeared to have no idea who Jawbox was, and he made clear he'd come to see Fugazi. "He was a very pleasant guy," recalls MacKaye, adding that he didn't learn about Ertegun's history until afterwards. "Though we were clear that we weren't interested in working with Atlantic, I had hoped to get a chance to meet up with him again just to hear some of his stories."

Most bands, who had toiled for years in dingy clubs just to make a few hundred bucks a night, were not as tied to their principles as Fugazi (or even Jawbox). They were delighted with this newfound financial success. To woo Cop Shoot Cop, a political noise-rock band destined to never have a hit, Interscope Records put up its twentysomething members in the Mondrian hotel in West Hollywood, where the band partied all night in a Jacuzzi, later signing for $150,000.

For the most part, the Grunge Gold Rush was a harmless rock 'n' roll story, a redistribution of record-business wealth from one kind of band to another. But for some bands, unprepared for a sudden influx of money and fame, this period had dark and tragic consequences. Drugs had always been part of the underground rock scene, but the combination of drugs and money was too much for certain addicts in newly big-time bands.

The Meat Puppets were a cautionary tale. When Cobain brought them onstage as guest stars during Nirvana's "MTV Unplugged" performance, the hardworking, stringy-haired, improvisational punk-rock trio from Phoenix, Arizona instantly transformed into valuable rock stars. After that appearance, brothers Cris and Curt Kirkwood and drummer Derrick Bostrom showed up for a meeting at their major record label, PolyGram, in a Manhattan skyscraper. The band passed the massive security desk in the lobby and took an endless escalator in lieu of two flights of stairs. "As we're going up, there's open space and high ceilings, and on one wall, there's a gigantic picture of [rappers] Salt-N-Pepa on the wall, like 50 by 30 feet," bassist Cris Kirkwood recalls. "And on the other wall it was us. It was like, 'What the f***?' And it was like, 'Holy s***. Well, that's the biggest f*****' picture I've ever seen of myself,'" he continues. "All of a sudden, we were going to be the focus of that quarter and we were going to [anchor] their rock section."

PolyGram chose the band's catchy new single "Backwater" as the label's marketing focus and threw its promotions-and-publicity might onto MTV, magazines like Rolling Stone and SPIN, and rock radio. The plan worked. By Mariah Carey standards "Backwater" was a minor hit, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Album Rock chart, and the album Too High To Die merely went gold. Regardless, the experience changed the band's life forever. "We definitely got a little bit of money coming in when that happened," Kirkwood says.

The Meat Puppets had dabbled in recreational drugs for years, particularly pot and acid. In the late '90s, the Kirkwoods' mother, Vera Renstrom, died of cancer, and Cris' wife, Michelle Tardif, died of a drug overdose in the couple's Tempe, Arizona, home. Soon Cris was spending his time, as his brother Curt would tell the Phoenix New Times, "probing inside an abscess on his stomach with a needle, searching for a vein." It didn't help that PolyGram, one of the biggest record labels, had sent The Meat Puppets on tour all summer to open for Stone Temple Pilots, a band led by an addict of its own, singer Scott Weiland, who would die in 2015 of an accidental overdose.

"I absolutely sought solace in dope. For sure, the fact I had money at that point — more money than I'd ever had — contributed to that," Cris Kirkwood says today. "Actually getting better is easier to put off till tomorrow when you have the finances to keep at it today . . . Having more money made it easier to stay f***** up, and then things just got tragic right away. It got to the point where I wasn't functional." The long-stable Meat Puppets suddenly imploded. They broke up for several years as Cris struggled to subdue his addiction. Today, he has been clean for years and tours all the old punk clubs, reunited with his brother in the Meat Puppets, although the band replaced original drummer Bostrom with Ted Marcus.

The Grunge Gold Rush ended with a different kind of tragedy — and a new beginning.

Atlantic's Tim Sommer, one of Goldberg's trusted A&R men, wanted his next Nirvana to have the same rock 'n' roll spirit. In April 1993, he fell in love with The Gits, a punk band with a dynamic frontwoman, Mia Zapata. They'd formed in Ohio, but when Nirvana and Soundgarden began to take off, Zapata and her three bandmates moved to Seattle in an attempt to soak in the exploding scene. Sommer approached The Gits to be his first signing. He shook hands with them on a record deal in July.

Three days later, at 3:20 a.m. on 24th Avenue South in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle, Zapata, 27, was found dead after being assaulted, raped and strangled with her own sweatshirt cord. Zapata's death was a mystery for nearly 11 years, until a jury convicted a Florida fisherman, Jesus Mezquia, of first-degree murder in March 2004. "She was brilliant," the band's drummer, Steve Moriarty, Zapata's friend since their days at Antioch College in Ohio, told the Seattle Times. "She was a blues singer and a jazz singer and a punk singer all at once."

Like anyone who'd ever known Zapata, Sommer mourned. Then he went back to work.

Goldberg had put an EP on his desk in a stack with some other CDs recommended by Atlantic's sales department. It was a band from South Carolina, playing what Sommer termed the "mid-south college circuit" — a route focusing on college towns from Alabama through to Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina pioneered by R.E.M. and later utilized by The Dave Matthews Band. "A lot of bands who knew how to play that circuit, playing very regularly, were making a good living," Sommer says. "If you did well on that circuit, it was generally a good indicator you'd do well nationally."

Sommer listened to the EP. It didn't sound anything like Nirvana. He decided the band was worth checking out anyway. In August 1993, he flew to Charleston, South Carolina, to see Hootie and The Blowfish for the first time. "I knew instantly I wanted to sign them within half of the first song," he recalls.

The record industry was still obsessed with Cell and Medicine and Cop Shoot Cop and Royal Trux, but when Hootie's Cracked Rear View album sold 15 million copies, its genteel success opened a new lane, of softer pop and rock, with zero ear-shredding guitars. It pointed the way to the boy bands and Britneys who would dominate the final, pre-Napster, super-rich days of the business.

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Corrected: January 12, 2018 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story used reporting citing the band Cell as having had received a $15 million advance from its label. The band's manager later corrected the figure to $1.5 million.
Steve Knopper