It was 1992 when Kurt Cobain posed with infant daughter Frances Bean wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with three words: grunge is dead. Of course it was a goof; at the time, the major labels were in full thrall with grunge, lustily courting greasy-haired Seattleites.
Years later, after Cobain took his own life, the phrase became an accepted truth. Labels started dropping grunge acts en masse. Bands imploded or slid into irrelevancy—few survived the decade.
Cut to 2012. Grunge’s influence has peppered popular culture for years, but the comeback began in earnest last fall with the hoopla surrounding the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s game-changer Nevermind and Pearl Jam, who celebrated two decades of Ten with a Cameron Crowe documentary, a best-selling retrospective book, and a festival in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin.
Of the Big Four grunge bands, three are active concerns working on new albums: Pearl Jam never went away; Soundgarden reunited in 2010 after a 13-year break; Alice in Chains have fully integrated singer William DuVall, who replaced the late Layne Staley. A Nirvana reunion is out of the question—replacing Cobain would be a crime against music—but Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and producer Butch Vig collaborated on the Foo Fighters’ Wasting Life last year.
In April, Vig tweeted that he’d spent the day recording with Grohl, Novoselic, and an unnamed “special guest” (the session was likely to do with Grohl’s forthcoming documentary on Sound City, the studio where Nevermind was recorded). After a surprise reunion at the Williamsburg after-party for the grunge-era rock documentary Hit So Hard, which chronicles the travails of Hole drummer Patty Schemel, the band’s guitarist, Eric Erlandson, hinted at the possibility of a “White Album” featuring unreleased Cobain solo material he hopes will someday see the light of day.
But it’s not all ’90s nostalgia. GrungeReport.net estimates 40 percent of readers are under 20, some of whom weren’t even born when Kurt Cobain killed himself. Patty Schemel, for one, witnessed the younger generation’s grunge love firsthand as she traveled the country promoting Hit So Hard. “Maybe it’s a backlash to what’s going on with pop music today—everything is so packaged and slick. Something dirty needs to show up,” Schemel says. “It’s weird seeing a Nirvana T-shirt in H&M. For kids, Nirvana are what Jimi Hendrix was to me. Grunge has become classic rock.”