By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 6, 2019)
In my 2007 review of A.J. Schnack’s documentary Kurt Cobain: About a Son, I wrote:
It’s virtually impossible to live here in Seattle and not be constantly reminded of Kurt Cobain’s profound impact on the music world. Every April, around the anniversary of his suicide, wreaths of flowers and hand taped notes begin to cover a lone bench in a tiny park sandwiched between the lakefront mansions I pass on my way to work every morning. Inevitably, I will see small gatherings of young people with multi-colored hair and torn jeans holding silent vigil around this makeshift shrine, located a block or two from the home where he took his life.
This past Friday marked the 25th anniversary of Cobain’s passing. It’s funny how your perception of time recalibrates as you get older. My memory of attending a spontaneous memorial at the Seattle Center along with thousands of others on the day the news broke in April 1994 makes it seem like relatively “recent” history to me. However, when I stop to consider I was 38 then-and that I’ve just turned 63 (not to mention that Cobain has been dead nearly as many years he was alive) …25 years is a generation ago. Even on a good day, Time is cruel. From my piece on Kerri O’Kane’s 2008 documentary, The Gits:
In the fall of 1992, I moved to Seattle with no particular action plan, and stumbled into a job hosting the Monday-Friday morning drive show on KCMU (now KEXP), a mostly volunteer, low-wattage, listener supported FM station broadcasting from the UW campus with the hopeful slogan: “Where the music matters.” I remember joking to my friends that my career was going in reverse order, because after 18 years of commercial radio experience, here I was at age 36, finally getting my first part-time college radio gig. I loved it.
I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to cue up whatever I felt like playing, as opposed to kowtowing to the rigid, market-tested “safe song” play lists at the Top 40, Oldies and A/C formats I had worked with previously. A little Yellowman, Fugazi, Cypress Hill, Liz Phair, maybe a bit o’ Mudhoney with your Danish? Followed by a track from Ali Faka Toure, some Throwing Muses, topping the set with an oldie like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to take you up to your first coffee break? Sure, why not? I was happier than a pig in shit.
What I didn’t realize until several years following my 7-month stint there, is that KCMU was semi-legendary in college/alt-underground circles; not only was it literally the first station in the country to “break” Nirvana but counted members of Mudhoney and Pearl Jam among former DJ staff. I was just a music geek, enthusiastically exploring somebody else’s incredibly cool record collection, whilst taking my listeners along for the ride; in the meantime, I obliviously became a peripheral participant in Seattle’s early 90’s “scene”.
Reminds me of a funny story. Within a few weeks of moving to Seattle, I went to see Cameron Crowe’s Singles, which had just recently opened. If you’re familiar with the film, you are of course aware that it is a romantic comedy about a group of (wait for it) young singles living in Seattle, incorporating the city’s contemporaneous music milieu as a backdrop.
At one random point during the film’s opening sequence (a flash-cut montage of various Seattle neighborhoods and landmarks) the audience literally exploded into cheers and applause. I felt sheepish…I didn’t “get” it. What did I miss, I wondered?
Years later, I happened to watch the film again on cable…and that’s when I caught it. Only then I noticed that during that montage, there’s a momentary shot of a movie marquee. It was the Neptune, the very theater I’d been in when the audience freaked out. I suppose that my point is…sometimes, you can’t see the forest for the Screaming Trees.
In retrospect, I feel blessed to have moved to Seattle at that point in time, as the city was the nexus for a paradigm shift in rock. As Hua Hsu wrote in The New Yorker this week:
The success of Nirvana and other Seattle bands, including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, changed the music industry. The breakout rise of “Nevermind” suggested that so-called alternative bands and niches could be commercially viable—not just as steady, low-risk earners but as the proverbial next big thing. Major labels began showering loads of money on tiny, Nirvana-esque bands that played a similar kind of “grunge” rock. The “grunge gold rush,” as the journalist Steve Knopper termed it, created boom-or-bust trajectories for bands that might have once settled for modest regional fame. It was no longer hard to find alternative sounds; major labels were desperate to pitch everyone as the next Nirvana.
After his death, there were articles and nightly-news segments about Cobain’s nihilism, and what his choice suggested about the younger generation. Mostly, I remember listening to “Nevermind” over and over—not as a search for clues (for that, you’d listen to Nirvana’s last studio album, “In Utero,” and its many references to despair and illness), but as a reminder of how unlikely his trajectory had been. It was the first time I’d wondered how you could work both inside and outside the system—whether you could be critical of, say, the corporations underwriting your art while making art that aspired for worlds beyond those realities.
There’s a sort of bittersweet aftermath to this story. “Nevermind” has since been absorbed into the rock canon. Just as kids a couple of years younger and older than me at school had wildly different opinions about whether Cobain was a saint or a sellout, every generation has their own version of the Nirvana legend. Nowadays, Cobain has become a fashionable reference point for musicians across genres, from pop to hip-hop, who want their music to seem brooding and emotional. Dr. Dre and Jay-Z today express admiration for the cultural rebellion that Cobain represented, describing his music as powerful enough to have briefly “stopped” hip-hop’s ascendancy.
Maybe that’s the paradox of alternative culture that’s always been true, only it was our turn to realize it: pop culture is born anew each time an outlaw is discovered. Your pose lives on, even if the seeds of your own rebellion are forgotten.
Saint or sell-out, I don’t care…it’s the music that matters. Nirvana was but one fraction of the “Seattle Sound”, and I think a lot of it has held up rather well. With that in mind, I’ve selected my top 10 grunge-era songs by Seattle-based bands. In alphabetical order…
“Come As You Are” (Nirvana) – Yes, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is iconic, and a fantastic song, but this has always been the most compelling track from Nevermind for me. I find the band’s “MTV Unplugged” performance of the song particularly haunting.
“Hunger Strike” (Temple of the Dog) – Sadly, the history of Seattle’s grunge scene is full of heartbreak and shooting stars. Such was the impetus for this “one-off” supergroup, formed by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell as a tribute to Andrew Wood. Wood, lead singer of early Seattle grunge outfits Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone (the latter band featuring future Pearl Jam members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament) OD’d on heroin in 1990. Cornell recruited Gossard, Ament, their Pearl Jam bandmate Mike McReady, plus Soundgarden/future Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron. Eddie Vedder added vocals on some tracks, including this gem. Vedder and Cornell singing together is beyond sublime.
“Jeremy” (Pearl Jam) – Still one of the most powerful and moving songs of the era.
“Loud Love” (Soundgarden) – The late Chris Cornell had one of “those” voices; a force of nature. There was a raw immediacy in the band’s early recordings, nicely encapsulated by this standout track (and single) from their 1989 sophomore album Louder Than Love.
“Man in the Box” (Alice In Chains) – While this ominous yet compelling dirge has become a classic rock staple, it still doesn’t sound quite “right” coming out of your car radio…as in “how in the fuck did they ever sneak this one into the Top 40?” All I can say is, whatever dark regions of the human soul this tune sprang from, I daren’t even go there to snap a quick picture. Weirdly enough, lead singer Layne Staley tragically died of a drug overdose on April 5th, the same date as Kurt Cobain (but a different year…in 2002).
“Nearly Lost You” (The Screaming Trees) – Another early grunge outfit (formed in the mid-80s) the Screaming Trees got their first major national exposure in 1992 when this catchy number was featured on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s hit movie Singles.
“99 Girls” (Young Fresh Fellows) – OK, they are not super well-known outside of Seattle, but I have a soft spot for the album this cut is taken from, because it was the Fellows’ “latest” when I worked at KCMU in 1992, and my introduction to the band’s quirky goodness. Originally formed in the early 80s, they had a college radio hit with their tune “Amy Grant”, which was a parody of Contemporary Christian Music. Their “sound” is sort of a mix of garage and punky power pop, frequently with cheeky lyrics. This song is a bit of clever wordplay referring to a stretch of Highway 99 (AKA Aurora Avenue where it runs through Seattle city limits) that is infamous as a sex worker haunt.
“Second Skin” (The Gits) – One of the Seattle scene’s greatest tragedies was the loss of this band’s dynamic and talented lead singer Mia Zapata, who was raped and murdered in 1993 at the age of 27 (thanks to the advent of DNA technology, her killer was eventually arrested, convicted and jailed 10 years later). This song was released as a single in 1991.
“Touch Me I’m Sick” (Mudhoney) – I love the amplifier buzz in the intro. Says it all.
“Tribe” (Gruntruck) – This band, which featured members of seminal Seattle grunge outfit Skin Yard leans closer to hard rock, but sometimes…I just wanna fly my freak flag.