Soundgarden's Chris Cornell in his element.Karen Mason-Blair
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Devon Gummersall and Jared Leto during their My So-Called Life days, before Leto's love of grunge inspired him to make music of his own.
Dec. 2, 1994. Los Angeles, California.Facebook
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Alice In Chains posing in flannel while catching the holiday spirit.
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Mother Love Bone was yet another hugely promising act to come out of the burgeoning Seattle grunge scene. Tragically, frontman Andrew Wood died only a few days before the band's debut album Apple was set for release.
Two of the band's members, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, subsequently formed Temple of the Dog with Soundgarden's Chris Cornell. Cornell even recruited Eddie Vedder — then an up-and-coming musician — to join. It was after this tumultuous reorganization that Vedder finally formed Pearl Jam with Gossard and Ament, and broke out into mainstream success.
"Rocking those colorful thrift shop threads!" Karen Mason-Blair recalled. "These publicity photos were for the upcoming Apple album."
March 1990. Seattle, Washington.Karen Mason-Blair
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Mother Love Bone on stage at The Vogue.
"We never dressed up more than when we were going to the Vogue," recalled photographer Karen Mason-Blair. "It was always packed, and often you would see the owner in a dress dancing on the bar!"
1990. Seattle, Washington. Karen Mason-Blair
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Everybody wants to be left alone once in a while, including Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
Mid-1990s. Seattle, Washington.Reddit
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Believe it or not, these three iconic bands toured together for one week in December 1991. From L.A. and San Francisco to Arizona and New York City, a few thousand lucky fans saw Pearl Jam and Nirvana open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
1991. Salem, Oregon.Facebook
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Soundgarden is not impressed with the anti-grunge sentiment ebbing into the mainstream.
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Alice In Chains' Layne Staley singing his heart out, a little over a decade before he died of an overdose in his Seattle home.
"Classic Layne," recalled photographer Karen Mason-Blair. "This is how I’ll always remember him. Just another night in Seattle."
1990. Seattle, Washington.Karen Mason-Blair
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The light shines on a young Kurt Cobain performing at The Paramount a few years before his death.
"The greatness of Kurt, and the loneliness of being Kurt," said Karen Mason-Blair. "We miss you, friend."
1991. Seattle, Washington.Karen Mason-Blair
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An iconic photo captured during the making of 1992's grunge-centric romantic comedy Singles in Seattle. From left to right: Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament, Matt Dillon, Alice In Chains' Layne Staley, and director Cameron Crowe.
1992. Seattle, Washington.Reddit
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By 1993, grunge had already taken over the globe — as evidenced by the masses of grunge fans at this north London festival.
May 9, 1993. Stoke Newington, England.Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Three skater girls sticking it to the man in typical '90s fashion.
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Eddie Vedder's first public appearance as lead singer of Pearl Jam.
"I remember thinking it must be really hard to be the follow up to Andrew Wood, but he did it!" Karen Mason-Blair recalled. "When I heard 'Black' that night, I thought, 'This guy can really sing, and he sings from his heart!'"
Gods of the genre like Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain called Suzi Gardner (left) and her grunge band L7 their peers.
The band was often raunchier than their male counterparts, as well — with Donita Sparks (right) throwing her bloody tampon at a Reading Festival fan who threw mud onstage.
1990. Suzi Gardner
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Alice In Chains during their Facelift years — which became the first grunge album to be certified gold on Sept. 11, 1991.
"The forever famous Seattle layered look was so good," recalled photographer Karen Mason-Blair. "The service elevator soon became iconic to grunge era photos. This one went viral! You can’t search Alice in Chains and not find it. So much so, that my attorney gave up chasing it down!"
1990. Seattle, Washington.Karen Mason-Blair
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Kurt Cobain and Kim Gordon having lunch during Sonic Youth's 1991 tour across Europe. The experience was chronicled in Dave Markey's 1991: The Year Punk Broke documentary.
1991. London, England.Tara Films
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The Screaming Trees at Pioneer Square in Seattle.
"This is an outtake from the photo session for the album Sweet Oblivion," explained photographer Karen Mason-Blair. "'Shadow of the Season' is one of my favorite songs ever."
1992. Seattle, Washington.Karen Mason-Blair
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With a lineup from Mudhoney and L7 to the Melvins and Nirvana, the 20th Reading Festival was a grunge fan's dream.
Aug. 28 to Aug. 30, 1992. Reading, England.Twitter
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Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland giving Lori Barbero of Babes In Toyland a backstage smooch.
Aug. 10, 1994. St. Paul, Minnesota.Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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"I think this might have been at the RCK CNDY, a popular Seattle night club," recalled photographer Karen Mason-Blair. "Jerry, Mike, and Layne [of Alice In Chains] were always goofing off. It was hard to believe that they were signed to a major label and going on a national tour! The rest was history, too."Karen Mason-Blair
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Before he was Tyrion Lannister, Peter Dinklage sang in a band called Whizzy — and regularly performed in bars across New York City.
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"We were all on this wild ride, none of us knowing what would happen next," recalled Karen Mason-Blair while photographing Chris Cornell. "When we made eye contact in this shot, I felt like that is what his look said to me."
1991. Seattle, Washington.Karen Mason-Blair
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When two reigniting grunge bands clash — they casually hang out and have fun. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden clearly enjoyed their time backstage together at Lollapalooza.
July 1992. Irvine, California.Reddit
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Drew Barrymore welcomes Courtney Love's embrace, with both women having survived harrowing childhoods.
1990.Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images
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An icon to countless rock, punk, pop, grunge, and alternative artists, Kim Gordon and Sonic Youth started in the 1980s — and were already legends when grunge took off.
1991. Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty Images
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Mudhoney rocking the show as openers for Soundgarden at The I-Beam.
Feb. 13, 1989. San Francisco, California.Instagram
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While Nevermind skyrocketed Nirvana into global stardom, the band's 1989 release Bleach saw a cult following spread from Aberdeen, Washington throughout the emerging grunge scene as a whole.
Early 1990s.Wikimedia Commons
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Grunge fans squeeze together at the Off Ramp Cafe to catch a show.
1991. Seattle, Washington.Instagram
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Kiss guitarist and singer Gene Simmons grimacing for the camera with mischievous Stone Temple Pilot, Scott Weiland.
April 1993. Los Angeles, California.Lindsay Brice/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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Sonic Youth's performance at Castaic Lake Natural Amphitheater ended with Kim Gordon playing on her back as friends of the band watch from backstage.
Kurt and Courtney celebrating the festive December 1992 holiday season by attending a Mudhoney concert.
Dec. 4, 1992. Los Angeles, California.Lindsay Brice/Getty Images
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Nirvana had just released their 1989 debut Bleach, with Soundgarden's Chris Cornell a clear fan. Left to right: Cornell, Andy Wood of Seattle grunge band Mother Love Bone, and Ian Astbury of British hard rock group The Cult.
1989. Seattle, Washington.Facebook
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Pond performing at The Oz in Seattle.
1992-1993. Seattle, Washington.Instagram
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Seattle was unquestionably the birthplace of grunge, with numerous successful groups vying for the spotlight. Despite their apparent competition, Dave Abbruzzese (left) and Stone Gossard (right) of Pearl Jam got along swimmingly with Jerry Cantrell (center) of Alice In Chains.
December 1993. Los Angeles, California.Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic via Getty Images
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Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, well aware that a proper rock show must end with a bang.
Aug. 25, 1991. Hasselt, Belgium.Niels van Iperen/Getty Images
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Eddie Vedder is pulled back onstage after hurling himself into the crowd.
Sept. 20, 1992. Seattle, Washington.Instagram
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While partying with Kurt Cobain on New Year's Eve, Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm (left) OD'd. A frantic Courtney Love called Sub Pop Record's Jonathan Poneman and yelled, "What should I do? One of the guys on your label is OD'ing." Fortunately, Arm was saved by paramedics.
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L7's Suzi Gardner and Donita Sparks would purposefully urinate in public or drop their pants to make it clear they weren't a tame grunge act.
1991. Seattle, Washington.
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Grunge fashion was a common sight on mainstream TV shows like My So-Called Life starring Jared Leto.
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Mudhoney's Mark Arm (left) being thoroughly appreciated by fellow band member Steve Turner.
1993. Seattle, Washington.Instagram
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A highly amused Dave Grohl smiles for the camera as drag queen RuPaul holds Kurt Cobain's daughter, Frances Bean.
Sept. 2, 1993. Los Angeles, California.Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc./Getty Images
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Cobain stage diving at the University of Washington ballroom — with the masses in sweat-soaked flannels below preparing for what's to come.
Jan. 6, 1990. Seattle, Washington.Instagram
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Red Hot Chili Pepper guitarist Flea hanging out with Kurt Cobain. Cobain's shirt is inspired by an album from one of the most cherished singers and visual artists of the alternative music scene — Daniel Johnston.
Sept. 9, 1992. Los Angeles, California.Kevin.Mazur/INACTIVE/Getty Images
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Just over a month before Kurt Cobain's death shocked the world, Pearl Jam is rocking the Fox Theater in Atlanta.
March 4, 1994. Atlanta, Georgia.Reddit
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Grunge king Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love.
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Depending on who you ask, grunge was just as political as punk or hip-hop. At least, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder didn't seem to mind announcing his distaste for George H.W. Bush.
A '90s triumvirate hanging out with unpredictable results: Jerry Cantrell of Alice In Chains licks Red Hot Chili Pepper guitarist Flea's chest as Krist Novoselic of Nirvana silently begs for help.
April 5, 1993. Los Angeles, California.Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images
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Kurt Cobain admitted there was just "no way I couldn’t have let the Melvins influence me, they’re just such a great band." Hailing from just outside of Seattle like Cobain, the Melvins were seminal in the creation of both grunge and sludge metal.
1991. London, England.David Corio/Getty Images
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After a solid decade with Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon formed alternative rock group Free Kitten. They're seen here at an English venue called The Charlotte, one year after forming.
1993. Leicester, England.Flickr
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Though celebrated like a god by his grunge disciples, Kurt Cobain nonetheless checks his wallet chain while crowdsurfing.
Chris Cornell bringing energy to a Rip Magazine show as the frontman of Soundgarden — one of the most seminal grunge bands of the genre.
October 1991. Los Angeles, California.Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images
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Pearl Jam performing at the Off Ramp Cafe in Seattle. Foundational in bringing grunge to the masses, the group's debut album Ten dropped a few weeks before Nirvana's — and has since sold more than 10 million copies.
55 Grunge Pictures That Capture The Height Of Generation X
With the 1990s receding ever further from memory, it's a good time to stop the clock for a second and reflect. The grunge pictures in this gallery explore the emergence of the music genre in the early '90s — and its impact on everything from fashion to pop culture to society at large.
From flannel shirts and ripped jeans to unkempt hair and indoor smoking, grunge was just as much a lifestyle as it was a genre. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain arguably embodied that ethos the most. While grunge was born before Nirvana, it definitely started in Cobain's native Seattle.
Karen Mason-Blair was right in the thick of this exciting new movement. The young Seattle native managed to go from an eager face in the crowd to a professional photographer that captured some of the most iconic imagery of the era. Her award-winning work is compiled in a collection of previously unreleased images, The Flannel Years, with some of the most engaging ones included in our gallery.
The alternative scene soon took America by storm, and ultimately became a mainstream form of entertainment around the world. From Jared Leto's flannels on My So-Called Life to Nirvana's legion of devoted youths, '90s grunge was unspeakably influential. Here's how it all began.
The Story Behind The Iconic Grunge Pictures
YouTubePearl Jam at the Off Ramp Cafe in Seattle on Oct. 22, 1990. This is just one of many grunge pictures from the era.
"You gotta understand Seattle," said Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan. "It's grungy. People are into rock and roll and into noise, and they're building airplanes all the time, and there's a lot of noise, and there's rain and musty garages. Musty garages create a certain noise."
Grunge as a term was coined in 1987, when Sub Pop Records founder Bruce Pavitt described his client Green River's music as "ultra-loose grunge that destroyed the morals of a generation." The five-letter word's connotation of dirt and trash certainly blended in with the angry state of Seattle's disillusioned and creative youths.
With local acts like Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Nirvana, Sub Pop's 1988 debut featured celebrities who would be heralded as legends within a handful of years. In those days, it was a network of college radio stations, indie distributors, and fanzines that allowed the music to spread.
"Jone Poneman and Bruce Pavitt were the first people that ever told me that this scene was going to be huge," said Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell.
By the time Nirvana released its debut album Bleach in 1989, the Seattle music scene had become a bonafide phenomenon. It seemed as though every night there'd be another fledgling supergroup on the Off Ramp Cafe stage ready to deepen and expand grunge's sound and aesthetic.
"There are no brakes on the hype at this point," said Pavitt. "It's just going through the roof."
'90s Grunge Goes Mainstream
Kurt Cobain's thoughts on the grunge movement and what it means to him.
"We have a pretty big role in spreading something from the underground to the heartland," said John Canelli, MTV's senior vice president of music. "We're always looking for whatever the next thing is."
The next thing was undoubtedly Nirvana — chaotic but melodic, internalized but expressive, experimental but intensely appealing. The band's sensibilities, sometimes expressed in their music, were progressive and helped foster notions of gender equality among its impressionable fans.
Cobain made his beliefs especially clear in 1992, in a direct appeal to the people listening to his music: "If any of you, in any way, hate homosexuals, people of a different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the f*ck alone. Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records."
While grunge music doesn't have a reputation for being quite as political as other genres, it's clear that Cobain's views resonated with many of his fans — and his words are often admired to this day.
"Kurt Cobain was the antithesis of the macho American man," said Alex Frank of The Fader. "He was an avowed feminist and confronted gender politics in his lyrics. At a time when a body-conscious silhouette was the defining look, he made it cooler to look slouchy and loose, no matter if you were a boy or a girl. And I think he still represents a romantic ideal for a lot of women."
By the time Nirvana's Nevermind was released, Cobain's statements were just as consequential as his music and style of dress. Cobain's love of thrift-store attire often reflected the aesthetic seen in grunge pictures.
"Kurt Cobain was just too lazy to shampoo," said Cobain biographer Charles Cross. Sup Pop founder Jonathan Poneman said Cobain was "dirt poor" and looked like a guy who slept on friend's couches.
And yet America loved this look. From flannel-clad Matt Dillon in Cameron Crowe's Seattle-based Singles to Jared Leto on My So-Called Life, the '90s grunge look spread far and wide in American culture. Ironically, countless young people were embracing a dress code that was originally born out of simple convenience.
"This stuff is cheap, it's durable, and it's kind of timeless," said Poneman. "It also runs against the grain of the whole flashy esthetic that existed in the '80s."
The Legacy Of A Subculture
Chris Cornell reflects on the '90s grunge movement, drugs, and Kurt Cobain's death.
While promising acts like Mother Love Bone disbanded and bands like Pond were relegated to the underground, Nirvana broke records and dominated MTV. In 1994, Cobain was even thanked in the liner notes of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction soundtrack.
That same year, Cobain reflected on just how far he'd come: "I just hope I don't become so blissful I become boring. I think I'll always be neurotic enough to do something weird."
For millions of casual music fans, Nirvana remains at the very forefront of '90s grunge. But without Seattle's nurturing musical scene, none of it would have happened.
In the early days, influential Seattle acts like The Melvins influenced Green River — which, in turn, helped Sub Pop Records become successful. And without Soundgarden helping a fledgling Alice In Chains with managerial issues, who knows what would have become of the group?
Grunge is responsible for hundreds of millions of records sold to date, and setting global fashion, music, and film trends throughout the early 1990s. And it was all borne out of a drizzly Pacific Northwest town where local acts helped each other.
Tragically, it all ended there too — at least for Kurt Cobain. His growing heroin addiction had purportedly gotten the better of him, along with his alleged depression. After Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head on April 8, 1994, the cultural movement that he helped promote soon faded and died out as well.
Reflecting on the grunge era, Poneman noted, "Some say that what happened in Seattle was just dumb luck. But the thing that's wonderful about dumb luck is that it will happen again. Right now, there's a new scene being born somewhere."