Cry for mercy,
relieve my hate
sliding in 'n' out of grace
One can never overemphasize how small that scene really was. 200 people could easily be too large a number. That would include every single member of every cross-pollinating band, the girlfriends and boyfriends of those bands, the hangers-on, those- in-the-know, the touts, the bartenders (who doubled as booking agents), the technicians (who doubled as dealers), the scribes, the amateur photographers and the handful of out-of-place schemers who were silly enough to think there was money to be made somewhere in that tangled mess.
My band, The Walkabouts, was the 4th or 5th band to get signed to the local record label Sub Pop. We knew the co-owners, Jonathan and Bruce, from our up and down travels through the mid-80s’ Seattle rock world. Jonathan had booked us and played our records at the University of Washington college radio station and Bruce had written about our first album in his column in The Rocket, Seattle's monthly music rag - a paper we took pot shots at mainly because they were quite content to ignore our band and the bands of our friends. We surely weren't the flavor of the month. In fact, in the wider scheme of things, we seemed to lack any tangible taste at all.
My brother Grant, who was The Walkabouts drummer in those days, worked side by side with Bruce in the Muzak tape room. Muzak was the main provider of America's “elevator music” - the background drivel that got piped though crackling speakers in hotel lobbies and the hallways of towering glass and steel office buildings. Bruce ran the tape room and populated it with his musician friends, who performed the menial tasks of cleaning tape cartridges and dubbing the new corporate line of vacant sounds.
Besides my brother, Mark from Mudhoney and Green River worked there, as did Ron from Love Battery, Tad Doyle from TAD, Chris from Swallow and for a time Jonathan, Bruce’s future Sub Pop partner was also a Muzaker. As they toiled, they all listened to the early recordings of each other’s bands. One day, Grant slipped the just-completed second album by The Walkabouts into the deck. Apparently it passed the jury test and Bruce suggested that Sub Pop release it. And that was that. In retrospect, all of it can seem so easy and so blessed. But this is, of course, just a disconnected snapshot. There were thousands of hours of grit and heavy lifting before that and many more after. There were tragedies and wounds that shadowed things. And we were recently shocked to find – again – that the vectors of those wounds still might exist.
One can see now, that that time was the culmination of a hard-earned intimacy and the beginning of something unimaginable and ultimately beyond any reasonable control. The cocoon of that tightly knit community would soon burst. And with that explosion came many cautionary tales and haunted doubts. But there is one thing for which we can be fairly certain. If a cyclone had flattened the Muzak tape room in 1988 at 2:30 in the afternoon on a work day, the global ascendancy of Seattle “grunge” music would never have happened. It would have ended right there and then.
“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
For a period of time at least, the emerging late 80s Seattle scene didn’t heavily rely on external validation for its existence. Most of us rightfully assumed that the mainstream music business didn’t give a shit about what we were up to. Those that cared about those sorts of things had left town long ago. They were climbers. We turned inwards and embraced a certain sarcastic hopelessness, and the freedom that came with that.
When Sub Pop made their first t-shirts they simply read: LOSER.
We lived at the edge of known things, in a forested, rain-soaked borderland. We grew up accustomed to tall moss-covered trees and long winter darkness. We were famous for our serial killers. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks dwelled in the foothills less than an hour’s drive outside of the city. That stuff was wild and fragmented. But Lynch was from the Pacific Northwest, and his choice to set the show in that particular landscape and culture was not accidental. We were accustomed to dark things. We were insular and brooding, even in our youth. We diluted that with sharp, black humor and alcohol and electric noise. The harder and meaner things came a bit later. And when they did arrive, they spread fast. The same tight weave that kept certain things out, locked other things in, and some of them proved deadly.
There was probably not a worse city in America in 1985 to play original music. The clubs had mostly shut down or fixed their sights on bleached-out blues bands and fading new wave afterthoughts. It was terminal. And by 1987 it hadn’t gotten much better. But eventually dumb-headed perseverance started to break through the hard wood ceilings. There was never really a master plan, but in the end it did go somewhere - in spite of that - or maybe even because of that.
We focused on building bonds with each other. What else did we have? Of course we didn’t call it that. We called it partying and rehearsing and recording and endlessly going out to each other’s shows. For a long time, building something outside of our little world seemed pretty impossible. And strangely, that perceived futility gave us a strength and a collective spirit that other scenes didn’t seem to have. On New Year’s Eve 1989, Mudhoney opened for The Walkabouts at the Central Tavern in Seattle. In the June of 1990, The Walkabouts made their first London appearance opening for Mudhoney. There was a casual, reciprocal nature to things. The friendships were handmade and pretty honest. We discovered, unsurprisingly, that many of us had been going to the same punk rock and post-punk shows since the late 70s. We, in fact, had all been learning together, long before we ever met.
“The phrase ‘I'll be all right’ came out too many unsolicited times. I'm o.k. now.
I'm back at the primal source of poems: wind, sea and rain, the market and the salmon.” – Richard Hugo, “Letter to Kizer from Seattle”
Chris Cornell’s terrible death has brought many of us back to those times. We trawl our memories. The righteous. The awkward. The buzz. The noise. The long walk home. We are scavenging for insight, as people do when tragedy descends. What was the something that went so wrong? Was it standing right there - in plain view - in the corners of those loud rooms? Drugs and the dark complexities of depression explain a lot, but maybe not everything.
It is no secret that we have already been down this road before. The sting of it is, of course, different each time, but it is also sadly familiar. Not again. Not now. We are in our 50s, for God’s sake. Another one of us. Didn’t see this coming.
I never knew Chris well. We communicated mostly in nods or clipped sentences while waiting to get a drink at the bar, or filing out of the club, after a gig at 2:00am. Closing time. I do remember the last time we talked. It was in that year of no return. 1991. Nevermind and Badmotorfinger and Ten were all released within weeks of each other. The Walkabouts were still struggling, and in fact I was looking for an exit strategy. I had applied to the University of Washington to get an M.A. in literature. I was sick and tired of patching things together. I was still working dead-end jobs – landscaping, driving for a delivery company, some low-level film production work. Whatever it took to keep the music alive. Or at least that’s what I told myself. I remember Michael, the bass player of The Walkabouts and I were on ladders painting a house when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was premiered on the radio. We didn’t really rate Nirvana highly before that, but when the song was over, I can still remember looking at each other. We just knew. A sea change. Things were going to race forward even faster, and there we were standing still - holding onto our ladders.
That conversation with Chris happened at the OK Hotel, a downtown bar, restaurant and venue, on the grimy edge of Pioneer Square – back when Pioneer Square still had a grimy edge. It was daytime, and I don’t remember why I had stopped in there. Possibly it was to eat lunch, in between my delivery runs. I was walking out and I saw Chris was sitting alone in one of the front of house booths. I raised my hand and said “hi,” and he said “Hey, sit down for a minute.” And so I did. It seemed like an odd request. We had never done that sort of thing before. Chris was quite shy – even at that point, even after Soundgarden had been on world tours and had runs of sold out concerts under their belt. He asked me about The Walkabouts. I didn’t have much to say, or at least much I wanted to say. 1991 had so far been a tough year for us. Sub Pop had been sitting on our next album for months, and we were stuck in Seattle. In limbo. I asked him about his band and he gave away just a few details. The new album was about to come out. Tours were planned. The machine was rolling. The gulf between his experience and my own was wide, and one could sense it was going to get wider. Though it was only a couple years back, the simpler entwinements of the late 80s Seattle scene already seemed lost to the past. That wasn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. It just was. It didn’t need to be said. Everyone felt it.
I needed to get back to work, and I left Chris sitting there alone. It was, as I said, the last time we talked, and possibly the last time I ever saw him. The following year things started to rapidly change for my band. Europe seemed to embrace us. We started to have our own bit of success. Late bloomers. The day jobs were cast to the wayside. Saved by the bell. I was thirty-two years old.
Like the bands that had rocketed before us, our world and lives became much different. We unmoored from Seattle, from our friends and families, from the daily sustenance of what remained of that scene, from its cultivated intimacies and its piss-taking bravado. At first, the increased touring was a total liberation and validation. We had hung in there long enough to get something back. But in time, I personally found it to be confusing and rather unsustainable. I indulged too often. Every night, in fact. Bad behavior followed. Relationships crumbled. I was spinning, literally. By the late 90s, I had developed a crushing case of vertigo. The doctors couldn’t figure it out. I needed it to stop. I got on a plane to Portugal and told almost no one where I was going until I was already there. I took things slow. It felt very selfish, but day by day I got better. Mostly I just wanted to say I was sorry.
I think there is something in that unmooring, in that fraying of the cord, that explains some of the Seattle scene’s discontents and eventual tragedies. It doesn’t explain everything, by any means, but I do believe most of us were uniquely unprepared for what happened. We were small town. We weren’t big city. Seattle didn’t really have celebrities. There was no culture of that, there were no reference points. We were LOSERS who became somewhat reluctant winners (in varying degrees, of course). The odds were defied, the predictable order upended and that can leave strange scars and ghostly traces. Especially when you are young.
Since Chris’s recent death I can feel there has been a sort of re-gathering of the tribe Once the initial shock was processed, my Facebook feed was filled with friends from those days checking in and outpourings of remembrance and love, not just for Chris, but also for that time and the sonic landscape we all shared a part of.
The silver lining, I guess.
Many of us are still making music, and many are still pushing the envelope, in whatever form, and I would guess that all of us have done what we can to reconcile the gap between the magic and the loss.
There is probably nothing particularly special in that. At our age, life asks that of us - nearly every day. As we slide in. And out. Of grace.
An Interview with the Pixies
An Interview with the Pixies
On misogyny in song-writing
On misogyny in song-writing