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

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Courtesy
of the artist

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

Courtesy
of the artist

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
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Ebet
Roberts/Redferns

Daniel Johnston performing in 1995.

Ebet
Roberts/Redferns

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 in 1994. From left: drummer Derrick
Bostrom; singer and guitarist Curt Kirkwood; bassist
Cris Kirkwood. Tim Mosenfelder/Corbis via Getty
Images
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Tim
Mosenfelder/Corbis via Getty Images

The Meat Puppets in 1994. From left: drummer Derrick
Bostrom; singer and guitarist Curt Kirkwood; bassist Cris
Kirkwood.

Tim
Mosenfelder/Corbis via Getty Images

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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