On the evening of the day I landed at SeaTac airport, an airline groundskeeper stole a plane and flew it around the Olympic Peninsula, so the powers that be had to close all airspace around Seattle: every airport, every runway, every traveler, grounded, for fear of accidents. The incident ended tragically, but objectively speaking, I liked the idea of the Seattle area being closed off to the rest of the world for a few hours like that. With Pearl Jam playing at SafeCo Field, and Sub Pop’s 30th birthday celebrations at the Mural and on Alki Beach, it was a good time for this beautiful city to just close ranks.
I barely slipped in under the wire before the gates of the emerald city clanged shut on fandom, and that befits my role in this story as well. I’ve always been the observer, outside looking in, never one of the in-crowd but oh, so close to the action, and always, always, so admiring. From the very first moment I came here, sometime in the 1980s, I felt like I had found my people. I knew I would never be a real Seattle-an, but I wanted to be near them and absorb their very particular, very dark, very dry angst. I drew strength and courage from that, as have so many others in my wake; they allowed us all to feel that we were, in Pierre Nora’s terms, “participating emotionally in history.” I wanted to bear witness, and that is what I did.
Sub Pop Records plays a huge role in my career, so coming to their 30th Anniversary party was a bit of a no brainer for me. The celebration took place on August 11 at Alki Beach in West Seattle, to which I bicycled from my friend Jay’s house up the hill. Half way there it started to rain lightly, so I bought a baseball cap at the merch booth and put it on backwards, and it was exactly like putting on one of those mythical talismans you read about it in fairy stories or Harry Potter, like a ring that makes you invisible or a cape that makes you brave. From the moment I had it on, everything was magical. The sun came out, and the bands went on, and I walked down the cement walk by the stages, and ran smack into my old friend Kim Warnick, and we hugged like there was no tomorrow. Both of us have experienced times when it felt like there wasn’t. But there was. And this was it.
And so Kim and I sat down on the verge of the beach, because Kim said she hates sand, and tried to catch up, but it was hard to do when there was so much to catch up on — and when Kim is the most popular person in Seattle. Walking around with her is like walking around with a Seattle Seahawk, everyone stops her and high fives her. Still, we tried to catch a few other bands — Metz, Clipping (Hamilton star Daveed Diggs band), Bully, and so on — before wandering over to the 57thstreet stage to check out the food and art. The band on stage was School of Rock, playing Sub Pops greatest hits, and as we walked toward them, they burst into “In the Summer” — one of the poppiest songs by Kim’s band the Fastbacks. We both screamed, I think, and rushed the stage like idiots…it was such an incredible thing, so synchronicitous. I think Kim cried a little bit, watching those fifteen year olds sing her song.
It was that kind of a day though, a day of the super feels; a day when our mutual respect came due, and we all of us paid it back in one big lump sum. Later on I saw on FB that Charles Peterson ran into a man who had one of his iconic photos tattooed on his forearm, and I imagine the feeling was the same. Children singing your songs, teenagers blasting your images onto their very flesh…what a time it was to be alive, and what thing to have created! And yet, such are the vagaries of fame in America, that I am not sure those outside the magic circle — or those who didn’t make it to Alki Beach — quite understand what a great thing it was that the people of Sub Pop did, not just for grunge and for the city of Seattle, but for generations of youth, who still, after all these years, can’t hack the mainstream and its cruelty and violence, who long to escape from the banality of evil. Sub Pop is the only company I can think of thatfor thirty straight years has both redeemed and romanticized the whole idea behind business culture. Nothing makes me happier than seeing the SubPop store in Seatac — well, unless I get to see that Alaska Airlines plane with SubPop stamped on it in person. I love the manifesto that they wrote, Evergreen style, that you can see on the wall in Terminal D there:
It reads, in part, “it is our intention to market and sell the recorded music and related merchandise of artists whose music some shifting definition of “we” really and truly love. We mean to represent those artists as faithfully and diligently as possible and hold out hope that this is enough for us to remain solvent in the face of the well documented collapse of the music industry at large. We also enjoy laughter, good times and the company of friends.”
SPF 30 exemplified these values. Most free festival concerts generally have a lot of drawbacks, like drunken crowds and horrible toilets and too much sun and horrid noise. Sub Pop, if you can believe it, circumvented all of that entirely. According to my local friends, they made a concerted effort to include the community of West Seatle in their aim, using local vendors, replacing worn out amenities, and ensuring that the area was safe and pleasant all night long. The four stages (named Loser, Flippity Flop, Harsh Realm and Punky) were stretched out along a lengthy area, so that everyone was able to fit comfortably in to the stagings, and if they didn’t feel like fitting, they could go walk on the shore or even sit in the water and watch from a boat craft, or from a bar on the main drag. It felt comfortable rather than crowded, despite its estimated 50,000 person capacity. From every angle you were being bombared with beauty, either the Seattle skyline, the Olympic Peninsula, or the sound itself, green and grey and black all over, lapping lightly on your footsteps, swallowing up your pain.
Meanwhile, as the day continued, the weather remained Washingtonian, i.e. cool and mild, and the sound and the toilets were perfect, simply because so much care had been given over to making this experience exactly what a festival should be like. Weirdly, since Sub Pop is the opposite of hippie dip, it was a literal love festival, with people simply shouting their love and appreciation at each other, hugging and kissing and moshing in the pit. It was the festival to end all festivals, a consummation devoutly to be wished.
It’s hard to write about everything that happened or all the bands that played at this all day festival, because there was so much going on, so I will confine myself to writing about the Fastbacks. Back in the day, I didn’t just love the Fastbacks, I lived their lives for them — at least on paper. There is just a certain type of band that I can get into the skin of and say what I think they want and need to be said, and for that, I have been duly rewarded with friendship. I mean, it all happened organically — years ago I saw them a ton of times in my home town and then I took it to the road: once we drove to San Diego in their van and played in someone’s backyard in Chula Vista and after the show was over there was a fight and someone shot off a gun. Another time I went to Park City Utah where they played a party after the screening of the documentary “Hype”: Michael Stipe was in the audience, as was Sandra Bullock. Later on in life, they took me places I’d never been to, like Istanbul and Budapest and Vienna, where they opened for Pearl Jam in stadiums large and small, and in exchange, I wrote about them obsessively. I remember one time I was at some conference — SXSW or NMS or CMJ or something, and someone said, they hated the fact that people like me “had so much power” over which bands became popular and I said; “Dude, if I had any power whatsoever, the Fastbacks would be as big as the Beatles.”
The Fastbacks aren’t as big as that, but those who love them lovely dearly and I count myself as their number one fan. They haven’t played live in a many years due to various unfortunate events, and I was thinking as they took the stage, only to crush the crowd with Kurt’s melodious speed runs, Mike’s massive backbeat, and Kim and Lulus casual deftness with those powerful guitars, how they were probably the first or only punk rock band I saw with girls playing instruments, and how their songs always seemed so untainted by ideology or idiocy. I could watch Lulu and Kim in a way that I could not watch anyone else, as if they are me and I am them, and I still can, even as we all push sixty. Those two women have lead the way for me to know how to be a person in this world, and for that I am forever grateful.
When Mudhoney took the stage, it was as if they were flaying the collective eardrum of the Puget Sound. That sound — the murky guitars all covered in buzz, the stupifyingly loud drumpoundary, and then Mark Arm’s exquisitely undercutting it all with his flat, deadpan howl — it is the epitome of grunge, is it not? Honestly, someone needs to deconstruct why that a skinny bespectacled man shrieking “touch me I’m sick’ can inject such weight into an otherwise mute art form, but it’s not going to be me: I watched Mudhoney briefly from the sandy shore and then I unlocked an electric limebike and start riding off into the sunset with their music reverberating into the night. I wanted to leave the scene in the same way that I arrived, mid-song, mid-shout, mid-story, mid-Sub Pop, mid-Seattle. I want that feeling to never end.
Originally published at foolsrushinredux.blogspot.com on August 14, 2018.