Grunge City: The Seattle Scene

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The costly but ingenious move of flying in a Melody Maker writer in 1989 panned out – the English press flipped, and in classic fashion, American A&R people soon rushed in, checkbooks at the ready. In a trice, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, the Posies, Alice in Chains and others were snapped up.

Photographer Charles Peterson established the look for Sub Pop bands – all hair, sweat and guitars – while Jack Endino's raw production was the sound. In a word, it was grungy.

Seattle became Grunge City. The music hailed Seventies bands like Black Sabbath and Kiss, as well as proto-punks such as the Stooges, the MC5 and Blue Cheer. Endino calls grunge "Seventies-influenced, slowed-down punk music," while Kim Thayil says it's "sloppy, smeary, staggering, drunken music." Poneman calls it "a backwoods yeti stomp."

"You gotta understand Seattle," says native Duff McKagan, now bassist for Guns n' Roses. "It's grungy. People are into rock & roll and into noise, and they're building airplanes all the time, and there's a lot of noise, and there's rain and musty garages. Musty garages create a certain noise."

In Seattle, where no one honks his horn, to make noise is to make a statement. "People want things to be pretty and gentle and soothing here," says Grant Alden. "And if you look at the world differently and you rebel against that, you end up sounding like Mudhoney." (There may be a chemical explanation, and no, it's not the water. By day, coffee-crazed Seattleites guzzle espresso in cafes on every corner; by night, they quaff oceans of beer – jolted by Java and looped with liquor, no wonder the music sounds like it does.)

Noise always figured in Northwest music. Named after the sonic booms of a nearby air-force base, Tacoma's Sonics – admired by everyone from Springsteen to the Sex Pistols – cut loose with bloodcurdling screams, Neanderthal drumming and heavily distorted guitar that sounded, well . . . grungy. And this was only 1964.

While the rest of America was mooning over Frankie and Fabian, Northwest kids were digging the Sonics, the Wailers and the Galaxies on the region's crazed teen-dance circuit. "Those bands have never been forgotten around here," says Scott McCaughey. "There was always a core of people who looked at that music as the Northwest tradition."

Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Kingsmen and the Ventures all came from the Northwest, where the original grunge classic, "Louie Louie," first became a hit (and nearly became the state song in 1985). The region boasts many other illustrious native sons, from the doo-woppers the Fleetwoods to James Marshall Hendrix.

The Northwest's late-Sixties psychedelic bands didn't cut it, and things went dormant until the debut of Heart on the indie Mushroom label. Later on, there were isolated successes, such as Metal Church and Queensrÿche.

Typically, scores of punk bands popped up after a late-Seventies Ramones gig at the elegant Olympic Hotel ballroom (there hasn't been a rock band there since). Among them was the Vainz, featuring a not-yet-legal young guitarist named Duff McKagan. McKagan also played in the tastefully named Fartz, which became the seminal punk band 10 Minute Warning, and in some twenty-eight other bands. "When I was there," says McKagan, "there were no record companies there, there was no writer from Rolling Stone there, it was just our own scene. But we were happy with it. And it was cool, and that's all we needed."

The scene bottomed out around '83, but then a new flock of bands, including the U-Men, Malfunkshun and the Melvins, started playing music that merged punk and metal, both the province of outsiders and outcasts; it was like someone putting their chocolate bar in someone else's peanut butter. Metal kids from Seattle's suburbs liked punk's exotic cool, while downtown punks liked metal for its theatricality, for its uncanny ability to annoy pointy-headed New Wavers and because it just plain rocked.

If the Seattle scene was an explosion, 1986's Deep Six compilation (now out of print) lit the fuse. The album featured Soundgarden, the U-Men, the Melvins, Skin Yard, Malfunkshun and Green River. "We'd go to New York, San Francisco and L.A., and there was nothing there," says Soundgarden's Chris Cornell. "With Deep Six coming out, we all said, "Yeah, this is a way cooler scene than anywhere else.' "

A tightknit core group emerged – the Melvins, Green River, Soundgarden and Malfunkshun. "We used to jam together a lot," says Cornell. "We talked about each other's bands, what we liked about 'em, what we hated about 'em. We talked about music a lot, we drank a lot."

The criminally over-looked Melvins virtually invented grunge simply by going from being the fastest band in town to being the slowest. "They got really heavy," recalls Mudhoney's Dan Peters, "and then a lot of bands decided they would be really heavy, too."

Malfunkshun bravely melded hardcore punk and the excesses of Seventies glam rock. The band's Andy Wood ("a total star," says Cornell) hit even the tiniest stages in white face, glittery outfits and motorcycle boots with nailed-on platform heels and hollered, "Hellooooo, Seattle!" Green River's tense punk-metal fusion eventually snapped the band – "It was punk versus major-label deal," says former frontman Mark Arm. It is believed that the band's Jeff Ament was the first Seattle musician to proclaim he wanted to make music his living.

Green River's Ament, Stone Gossard and Bruce Fairweather joined Andy Wood to form Mother Love Bone and signed a major-money, major-label deal. Tragically, Wood died of a heroin overdose in early 1990, just weeks before the group's debut album was released. Polydor dropped the devastated band, but the Seattle rock community rallied around them, producing the moving memorial album Temple of the Dog, featuring Wood's onetime roommate Chris Cornell. Ament and Gossard later triumphed in Pearl Jam.

Although Wood's death raised awareness of the problem, heroin still runs rampant in Seattle. The Supersuckers' Eddie Spagetti says the band knows plenty of musicians who have experimented with the drug. "Most people come out of it saying, 'That's bad news,'" he says. "Or they die."

Privately, a number of sources confirm that several of Seattle's leading musical lights – members of internationally famous bands – are heroin users. The feeling around town is, the drug is a disaster waiting to happen.

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