Saturday, November 14, 2009


I moved to Seattle in the the late summer of 1991 just when the town exploded and changed the world for one brief shining moment. I hit the Emerald City just a few weeks before Nirvana released "Nevermind" and the sounds that had been brewing for years in the Pacific Northwest finally cracked the mainstream. It was an exciting time to head to Seattle, and a million kids did the same thing. They swarmed the city, especially Capitol Hill, in a flurry of green hair and tattoos and guitar cases. They sprawled on Broadwat, ate burgers at Dick's, spare-changed shoppers leaving the QFC, and tried to squeeze into shows at the Crocodile. Right on their tail, breathing down their necks. were a thousand scouts from record companies all over trying to repeat the success of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains, 7 Year Bitch...not to mention Bikini Kill and those riot girrrls from Olympia. Sub Pop Records, which first signed Nirvana, Mudhoney, and Soundgarden back in the 80s, was suddenly cooler than any record company in New York or Los Angeles.

You know these guys

Before long, Paris runway models were sporting "le Grunge," Matt Dillon was wearing a longhaired wig in a Hollywood movie about Seattle grunge, sit-coms popped up with Seattle this and that--and this western outpost--long scorned by New York and LA--was suddenly cool and those trendsetting cities hopelessly outre.

Matt Dillon and Bridget Fonda play "Grunge" in a Hollywood version of Seattle in the early 90s: Seattle was suddenly "in" and there was money in it.

"Touch Me I'm Sick" by Mudhoney

Fine. Anything great from the Northwest--microbrews, the coffee revolution, music--came about when people ignored the so-called capitols of taste (and their grip on distribution and production) and did it for themselves. This was real--sludgy and loud and not compromising to commercial tastes of the time. This was indie noise that somehow broke through the radio stations that had been playing Journey and Foghat way longer than they should have. People were suddenly "sleepless in Seattle" scurrying after contracts.

"Le Grunge" on the Paris runway. Tres chic!

Before long, the Northwest uniform of Pendleton flannel, blue jeans, and big knobby boots (which we'd been wearing in the NW forever) became the cool outfit around the world. As I mentioned, haute couture tried to cash in, and expensive designers were copying "le Grunge," the look that originally came out of thrift stores and the Goodwill.

"Alive" by Pearl Jam.

Some people hated Pearl Jam right off the bat, or felt they were in competition with the more truly "punk" Nirvana, but Pearl Jam were definitely part of the Seattle scene. I saw them for free at the park. See if you can spot me in the crowd.

And often overlooked trashy artform was reborn in the creative stewpot of Seattle in the 1990s. Fantagraphics spearheaded a movement of new, intelligent alternative comics with a crew of genre-stretching artists that included Xaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Peter Bagge, Jim Woodring and Dan Clowes, producing such notable comics as Ghost World, Hate, Frank, Eightball, and Love and Rockets.

Larry Reid, instrumental in spreading the Seattle comix revolution, reads a Peter Bagge comic, "Buddy Does Seattle," in his Fantagraphics Bookstore.

The music was the thing that hit everyone, though. And like all subcultures, the mainstream had its fun with its stereotypes and jokes--the tattoos and hair providing an easy target for square America. Copycat bands like "Stone Temple Pilots" sprung up, pretending to be from Seattle, and hardcore bands on the Lower East Side sported "Sonics" sweats and "Seattle's Best" T-shirts. And of course, some bands with good pedigrees thought they'd cater to the mainstream copying the hits, and some of the music suffered. Still, it was an exciting place for a while when even the warm-up bands were making cool, creative, formerly non-mainstream music. People knew they were in on something. And when the New York Times called Megan Jasper at Sub Pop Records for inside information on the phenomenon, Megan gave them an entirely bogus dictionary of "grunge terms" that they ran as gospel truth. She went on and on, and The Times ate it up with a spoon. The journal of record thought they had cracked the code, and they ran the piece in its entirety as "The Lexicon of Grunge."

MTV frequently visited Seattle, Here an all-star show at the pier on New Year's Eve started with The Breeders. Here they perform "Divine Hammer" and "Cannonball," two alternative hits, as they warm up the crowd for Nirvana.

The "Behind the Music" obligatory moral. Okay. Scenes come and go. Heroin and success took its toll on some of the bands, and that murky dead-eyed look became pretty common. Of course, everyone knows that kid from Aberdeen, Kurt took his final shot of smack and blew his brains out with a shotgun one rainy day in his house on Lake Washington. People come from all over to pay their respects. The end of an era.

Nirvana in concert.

Now it's all ancient history. The trend is toward fey ironic pop (listen to the popular "Juno" soundtrack and retch) and "indie" has devolved to nothing more than a marketing strategy for major corporations and dull mainstream music. Oh, there is still an underground music scene, some really creative stuff exists in a subterranean world outside the MTV spotlight, but you have to seek it out. Once again. Trade your mixtapes. Keep an eye open.

Still, after all is said and done, watching these clips makes me nostalgic. You couldn't beat these kids from the muddy banks of the Wishkaw. Under their wall of ragged noise is sheer heart and melody. Here we are now. Entertain us. Something stupid and contagious.

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