How the Provincial Seattle Grunge Scene Was Misunderstood
When I moved to Seattle, WA, in 1990 from Los Angeles, the Grunge scene was in full effect. You could turn a corner and run into Jeff Ament & Mike McCready leaving a local bar or sit next to Chris Cornell eating breakfast at the OK Hotel in Pioneer Square.
Working in downtown Pioneer Square where a lot of artists lived and played, I knew I was witnessing a musical period that rivaled growing up in Huntington Beach and watching the Southern California punk scene blast into being in the mid 1970s — early 8Os. Bands like Red Kross, Black Flag, Youth Brigade, The Vandals and Agent Orange.
In So Cal, youth were pushing back against a conservative, Republican Orange County. Suburban teens found commonality, identity and a place to mosh in community centers and punk bars like the Cuckoo’s Nest around town. (The Vandals in 1980, attracted punk rockers’ attention along with the HB police and found themselves banned from local clubs. Their song “Urban Struggle,” was an intentional middle finger pointed at their country music neighbor, Zubie’s, a long-gone Costa Mesa cowboy bar located next door to the beloved Cuckoo’s Nest.)
Rents were relatively cheap in Seattle circa 1990 and you could find an “artist’s loft” to rent with friends in Pioneer Square for a reasonable price. Some musicians were fluid and flowed from band to band depending on their friendships (ex: Temple of the Dog). And their musical preferences: The Melvins, Heart, The Vaselines, The Dead Kennedys, Meat Puppets, Metallica, etc, were cherished.
Local record label, SubPop, was taking off and Nirvana’s stellar recording “Bleach” took flight righteously and with unexpected longevity.
Seattle was & still is a strange brew of personal integrity & lame local politics. City council members and business development leaders look the other way while older Victorian houses in Capital Hill are demolished and replaced by cookie cutter townhouses. Historical buildings in Pioneer Square are plundered and demolished by greedy, greedy developers.
Two local business owners & developers doing well in Seattle these days are Jeff Bezos with his highly organized Amazon team buying up blocks of the South Lake Union neighborhood for an ever-expanding “campus” and Paul Allen, formerly of Microsoft, also in South Lake Union, building his High Density Housing Dream and shelving any form of Low Income Housing.
Washington state, with it’s plentiful number of Rural Republicans and short-sighted Democrats, has a cultural history of using up/exploiting the state’s natural resources: Native Americans, Old Growth trees, Salmon and even the mighty Columbia River was diverted to cool hot radioactive pipes at the Hanford Nuclear plant in Richland, WA (one of the biggest HazMat sites in the US.)
The Grunge fashion of wearing flannel shirts, t-shirts and chain wallets represented a “locals only” sensibility along with the long history of loggers and timber giants, like Weyerhauser, clear-cutting PNW forests for their own profit. Aberdeen, WA, home to Kurt Cobain, was negatively affected by a declining timber economy and fishing industry.
I recently found this timely quote from Bethlehem Shoals on DeadSpin: “Nirvana was a cultural event; Soundgarden, frightening intense; Alice in Chains might steal your wallet (right off the wallet chain.) Pearl Jam were the everyman rockers who hung around the right crowd, enthusiastic, up to their necks in gear..”
It was a scene that hated being labeled. It was a time before Miley Cyrus and her gang of show-offs.
If you were cool and down in the local music scene, you didn’t try hard to get media attention and you didn’t gossip about the other band members that you knew.
You maintained a sense of confidentiality and loyalty to your band and your friends who were your family.
Seattle was private. Seattle was provincial and still is in some ways. But it’s changing rapidly as the tech companies (ex: Amazon, Google, Adobe, Microsoft, PopCap, Big Fish Games, Zillow) keep coming in hot and scorching the runways.
I was lucky enough to see Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, Nirvana twice, Tad, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Temple of the Dog, L7, Bikini Kill, 7 Year Bitch and Sleator Kinney in the early to mid nineties. (I was psyched to see Nirvana play in an industrial warehouse on the waterfront, Halloween, 1993. Good times. Ssshhh.)