The Rock ’n’ Roll Casualty Who Became a War Hero

July 2nd, 2013

Ian Allen for The New York Times

I asked if he ever talked about it. Jason shook his head no. Did they find out anyway? “Always.”

The first time was at Fort Benning in 1994, in the middle of the hell of basic training. The ex-cop recruits in boot camp with him said that prisoners had more freedom than they did. There were guys who faked suicide attempts to get out of basic. But Everman never had any doubts. “I was 100 percent,” he told me. “If I wasn’t, there was no way I’d get through it.”

He had three drill sergeants, two of whom were sadists. Thank God it was the easygoing one who saw it. He was reading a magazine, when he slowly looked up and stared at Everman. Then the sergeant walked over, pointing to a page in the magazine. “Is this you?” It was a photo of the biggest band in the world, Nirvana. Kurt Cobain had just killed himself, and this was a story about his suicide. Next to Cobain was the band’s onetime second guitarist. A guy with long, strawberry blond curls. “Is this you?”

Everman exhaled. “Yes, Drill Sergeant.”

And that was only half of it. Jason Everman has the unique distinction of being the guy who was kicked out of Nirvana and Soundgarden, two rock bands that would sell roughly 100 million records combined. At 26, he wasn’t just Pete Best, the guy the Beatles left behind. He was Pete Best twice.

Then again, he wasn’t remotely. What Everman did afterward put him far outside the category of rock’n’roll footnote. He became an elite member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, one of those bearded guys riding around on horseback in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban.

I’ve known Jason Everman since we played rock shows together nearly 25 years ago. What happened to him was almost inexplicable, a cruel combination of good luck, bad luck and the kind of disappointment that would have overwhelmed me even at my most brashly defiant. After having not seen him since the early ’90s, I ended up hanging out with him in his apartment in Brooklyn last summer. We had drinks, retraced steps. We once were in the same place in our lives. But mine had since quietly transitioned from rock to parenthood. My changes were glacial. His were violent.

None of it is easy for him to talk about. Jason is one of the most guarded people I have ever met. But when I pulled up to his remote A-frame cabin near Puget Sound last winter, there he was, a sturdy, tall figure in a Black Flag sweatshirt holding a glass of red wine. This was his private place, and he was letting me into it.

Books and action figures covered one wall. Guitars and drums were scattered on the floor. But the far wall almost looked like a memorial: medals, artifacts, war photos. I took it all in, asking about a hand-decorated gun on the fireplace. “That’s how the Taliban trick out their weapons,” he said. Then I picked up his Army helmet. It seemed heavy to me. “Dude, that’s light,” he said. “That’s state of the art.” It had his blood type still written on the side: O positive.

The first time I met Everman was also the first time I ever stepped foot on a tour bus. It was 1989, which was a confusing time to be in a rock band. My band, Bullet LaVolta, had been on tour with the Seattle group we admired most, Mudhoney. They were role models to us. They didn’t just have a sense of the punk-rock rules of the day; they pretty much set them. Just as it does now, the grown-up economy seemed to have little use for 20-somethings like us. The mainstream music business didn’t, either. Our kind of punk rock was all about creating your own place, doing music for its own sake, usually the opposite of what was popular. If you wanted to “make it,” you played pandering cheese-metal like Warrant or Slaughter, the bands on MTV. They were bad. We were good. It was all so cut and dried.

The next-to-last show of our Mudhoney tour was in Chicago, where both bands were to open for Soundgarden at the Cabaret Metro, the biggest venue of the trip. Soundgarden was a much bigger deal in music circles than Nirvana at the time. As crazy as this may sound, Nirvana was a joke to all of us — a generic grunge band with a terrible name. Soundgarden had signed a big contract with A&M Records. People in the music business believed it was the one band that would break through. We didn’t know what to think. We were threatened, jealous, judgmental. As Dan Peters, Mudhoney’s drummer, remembered: “We were both showing up in vans, and they had a big old bus. It was weird.”

Soundgarden was the most professional rock operation I’d ever seen. They had a full crew, the full major-label push and 16 different T-shirts for sale. They also happened to be exceedingly nice, inviting us onto their bus. When the doors hissed open, we dropped silent in awe. It had a minifridge. A card table with a faux marble base. It had a bathroom.

We made it past the bunks to the lounge. And there he was: Soundgarden’s bassist, Jason Everman. You couldn’t look more “rock dude” than he did: all that hair, the dour expression. It was an imposing energy to encounter in tubular mood lighting. And he was the first person I ever met with a nose ring. At the time, I read it as a flashing sign that said, “I will have unbearable attitude.” But he didn’t at all. In fact, he was smart and had a dry wit. He offered me Funyuns.

Clay Tarver is a screenwriter, director and musician. His last article for the magazine was about his secret life as a rock dad. He lives in Los Angeles.

Editor: Wm. Ferguson

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