A Tour Of Seattle During The Glory Days Of Grunge

Life Writer
07.09.16 39 Comments
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Zach Johnston -- The Interconnected Band Members

Grunge isn’t a music style. It’s complaining set to a drop D tuning.

— Jeff Gilbert, KZOK DJ

FROM THE MUDDY BANKS OF THE WISHKAH

It’s a grey place. Little three room mill houses line the streets. Logs still float down the murky Chehalis River. The smell of sawdust fills the air. This was Aberdeen, Wash.

One valley east of the Wishkah is the Wynoochee Valley. It’s not really perceptibly different than the Wishkah. Same muddy stream splitting deeply green misty firs and cedars as it rushes down from the Olympic Mountains. The Wynoochee River spews out into the Chehalis River in a little town called Montesano.

Montesano has a Thriftway grocery store on the corner of Pioneer Ave. East and South Sylvia St. It was behind this average looking grocery store that Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain gathered one night for The Them Festival to hear their friends play some loud music. Montesano was the home to high school buddies Matt Lukin, Mike Dillard, and Buzz Osborne — the Melvins.

They played faster than I ever imagined music could be played and with more energy than my Iron Maiden records could provide. This is what I was looking for.

— Kurt Cobain, Nirvana

Krist, noted Taco Bell employee, had an old zebra-striped van back in those days. He would drive the Melvins over to Seattle for gigs. He would help them load and unload and to get sh*tfaced in between. Too tall and lanky, Buzz called him Shaggy (of Scooby-Doo fame). Kurt would often tag along. Krist jammed with Buzz and co. on several occasions, but nothing came of the collaborations besides hangovers and an aesthete lesson in what music was to these guys.

Kurt had his sights set on his own band. He worked with Buzz, Mike, Dale Crover (the Melvins drummer after Mike Dillard), and Greg Hockanson on his first band Fecal Matter. Besides recording a tape demo at Kurt’s aunt’s house in Burien, it really didn’t go much beyond playing behind grocery stores and in friends’ rooms. Finally, Krist agreed to join forces with Kurt and Dale Crover to form a new band.

In March of 1987 Kurt, Krist and interim drummer Aaron Burckhard, played a “show” at their friend’s house in Raymond, Wash. It was mostly Led Zeppelin covers. Over the next six months they’d play under the names Skid Row, Pen Cap Chew, and Bliss in community centers and on local public radio in Tacoma, Olympia and Aberdeen. They were kids making noise.

PEAR STREET

In late 1987, Kurt moved to Olympia, and Krist moved to Tacoma. Dale Crover moved to San Francisco with Buzz. Without a committed drummer or a band name, Kurt and Krist started thinking about recording a demo.

Since Kurt and I were angry young feminists in the ’90s, we decided we were going to do a little public service. — Kathleen Hanna, lead singer Bikini Kill

Around the same time, Kurt began a friendship with an Evergreen State University student named Kathleen Hanna. Kathleen was a young artist, spoken word performer, feminist and stripper. Kath and Kurt spent a lot of time together drinking and talking and philosophizing. One misty Olympia day they were scoping out an anti-abortion center that was masquerading as a teen pregnancy center. With their heads full of whiskey, they graffitied the front of the fraudulent building. Kath tagged FAKE ABORTION CLINIC EVERYONE. Kurt wrote GOD IS GAY in 6-foot tall red letters.

The day progressed and more whiskey was drunk. They wandered down the hill into downtown Olympia. Back in those days The Vault, (now the Big Whiskey Saloon) was the place to drink, and next door Darby’s Cafe was the place to eat. It’s still true to this day. The two feminist friends ended up back at Kurt’s apartment on Pear Street NE. They drank more. Kath had a breakdown and very uncool-y trashed Kurt’s room. In the morning when she awoke, she saw that she used a Sharpie to write all over Kurt’s walls. One of the things she wrote above his bed was “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit!”

(video very NSFW)

RECIPROCAL

Jack Endino bounced around odd jobs until he started focusing on recording music in 1984. Now, 460 records later, the man is a legend. In 1985, Jack and Daniel House started a band called Skin Yard. They recruited drummer Matt Cameron (noted drummer of 12 different bands) and started writing songs. As 1985 progressed C/Z Records would release a seminal album of local Seattle bands, Deep Six. By 1986, Jack and Daniel turned their attentions more to producing music. Daniel bought C/Z Records. He supported his record company by working for Sub Pop Records with his friends.

Jack started producing at Reciprocal Records. He was being paid $5 an hour from the label to produce. He had an advantage with other bands because he was still in a band and not some nameless, faceless producer from out of town. In January of 1988, Jack got a call from Kurt Cobain. Kurt still hadn’t landed on a band name or a drummer yet. Dale Crover agreed to play drums for them on the demos. Jack jumped at the chance of getting to work with a member of the Melvins.

I thought Kurt had a really good scream and a really good melodic approach…I insisted they let me keep a cassette. — Jack Endino, legendary record producer & Skin Yard

On a rainy January day in 1988 between noon and 5 p.m. Jack recorded and mixed 10 songs as played by Kurt, Krist and Dale. Kurt’s main reason for making the demo was to find a committed drummer for the band. They got a record deal instead. Jack sent his tape over to Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop Records. Jon loved it. He played it for his partner and co-founder at Sub Pop, Bruce Pavitt. Bruce thought it was a little bit too arty. Jack furiously replied about Bruce, “He’s into mediocrity!”

THE CENTRAL TAVERN

Kurt was getting into Jainism and Buddhism. He loved the idea of of a nice and pretty sounding name to counter the usual raunchy and aggressive names most punk bands choose. Nirvana was born. Jonathan Poneman was a believer. Bruce Pavitt still needed convincing. Bruce decided to accompany Jonathan to the Central Tavern to hear Nirvana play live. The show was empty. Kurt’s girlfriend Tracy, a sound tech, bartender, and one audience member were the lone witnesses when Jonathan and Bruce arrived. Nirvana launched into “Love Buzz.” Bruce looked at Jonathan and said, “That’s the single!” He was now a believer.

Around the same time, Susan Silver was booking shows at The Central Tavern for a couple bands she repped: Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Screaming Trees. Meanwhile, Kelly Curtis was managing a band that was about to make history by landing their first six-figure record deal, Mother Love Bone.

GORILLA GARDENS

Gorilla Gardens was legendary for one thing: it had two stages. One devoted to heavy metal. One devoted to punk rock.

Andrew Wood spent his 18th birthday at Gorilla Gardens. He wore a huge white fur coat, and got thrown into a chainlink fence for his trouble. Chris Cornell stepped out from behind the drums for the first time and took his position as lead singer of Soundgarden during a show at Gorilla Gardens. Guns ‘N Roses played their first ever show to 12 people at Gorilla Gardens (their LA show at Madame Wong’s was only to the bartender and two bouncers).

Some say it was a Butthole Surfer’s show. I don’t remember. The fire department came in and tried to close it down because they didn’t have fire exits. Everybody was getting really pissed off, so somebody took a chainsaw and literally cut a hole in the wall to the alley outside, and sh*t went back on. — Art Chantry, artist for Sub Pop

Gorilla Gardens is where P+M=G. As noted by anyone who went to the venue, punks had to hang out with metal heads. Everyone used the same urinals and started bands while pissing.

Green River was the embodiment of Punk plus Metal. Mark Arm‘s distressed vocals and snark-laden lyrics wrecked mics. The band consisted of Arm, Steve Turner, Bruce Fairweather, Jeff Ament, and Stone Gossard. Listening to the tracks now you hear the massive guitars and bass of Jeff and Stone’s future endeavors overlain with a harsh Punk screed from Mark. Green River shared a practice space with another Seattle mainstay of the mid-’80s, Malfunkshun, fronted by Andrew Wood. In between band rehearsals Andy jammed with Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard and Bruce Fairweather. They clicked. By 1987 Green River imploded when Jeff and Stone invited record execs to an LA show. Mark Arm always put his friends above anyone else on guest lists. Mark Arm and Steve Turner parted ways with Jeff, Stone and Bruce. Mark and Steve called up Dan Peters of the Melvins and formed a new band called Mudhoney. Jeff, Stone and Bruce called up Andrew Wood and formed a new band called Mother Love Bone. From that point on Grunge would be two worlds: murky punk, and murky metal.

RAISON d’ÊTRE

Jeff Ament and Andrew Wood worked together at a pretentious little coffee house a block or two from the Farmer’s Market. They’d come in early, still wreaking of stale Budweiser and god-knows-what-else, and set up shop. Andy washed dishes. Jeff was the espresso machine operator. They’d argue over what albums to listen to while they opened. Andy always wanted Kiss or Elton John. Jeff would insist on Aerosmith. They’d compromise and listen to Southern Death Cult.

Down the road at the Grand Central Bakery Stone Gossard worked serving coffee and muffins. Ken Deans was a regular at Grand Central. One day Stone worked up the nerve to hand Ken a demo tape. Ken took it back to his business partner, Kelly Curtis. Kelly wasn’t sold. He didn’t want to get into management. But he did take the time to go see the show (at the Central Tavern) with her former employers, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart fame. Andy did not disappoint.

We were like, “Hey, this is authentic stuff,” outside of the MTV kind of disposable, flaked-and-formed thing that we were wrapped up in at the time. — Nancy Wilson, Heart

Andy wasn’t playing a rockstar. He was a rockstar. Kelly became their manager on the spot. Kelly started shopping a proper demo of Mother Love Bone to Geffen. They were resistant until Tom Zutaut got involved. Tom was already a legendary A&R guy because he discovered and signed Guns ‘N Roses. After meeting with the band, everyone knew it was a bad fit. Polygram came knocking next.

THE MUSIC BANK

Jerry Cantrell lived with his mother and grandmother in Tacoma, Wash. Within one year they both passed away. Jerry took the little money his mom left him and spent it on guitars, amps and drugs. He went a little wild, as they say. Jerry met Mike Starr while playing in a band called Gypsy Rose. The band fell apart and Mike and Jerry decided to start their own band.

Layne Staley was a upper-class boy from Bellevue who had a glam rock band called Alice ‘N Chains. Their biggest hit to date was about a gay rodeo cowboy.

Alice ‘N Chains played a show down in Tacoma at the Tacoma Little Theatre. Afterward Layne was at a house party and met Jerry Cantrell. The two hit it off immediately. Jerry was homeless at the time. Layne was working the graveyard shift at a warehouse that had been converted into band practice spaces. So Layne invited Jerry up to Ballard to live at his practice space at the Music Bank. Jerry jumped at the opportunity.

Jerry was living in our jam room, so in the middle of the night, Jerry would be in the office with Layne, watching TV with his guitar in his hand saying, “Hey, dude, check out this riff. I got this idea.” That’s quite a big catalyst to that incredible connection those two had. — Johnny Bacolas, Alice ‘N Chains bassist

Shortly after Jerry moved in with Layne at the Music Bank, Alice ‘N Chains broke up. Jerry called up his old bandmate Mike Starr to start jamming again. Mike had bumped into Sean Kinney in the Southcenter Mall and invited him along to drum. All they needed was a lead singer.

Layne was already starting up another band. Jerry, Mike and Sean knew they wanted Layne for his amazing voice and chilled out demeanor. They started auditioning terrible lead singers in front of Layne to send a hint. Finally, Layne broke and joined the band to “save them from those f*ckin’ clowns.”

Later Jerry accompanied Kim Thayil to DOA show. Jerry spent the whole show quizzing Kim on Soundgarden’s guitar sound. Kim let Jerry in on a little secret. Kim imparted, “Hey, there’s this thing called drop D tuning.”

RAY’S BOATHOUSE

Kim Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto moved to Seattle in the early ’80s from Chicago and quickly fell into the music scene. In 1984 they formed a band with line cook Chris Cornell on lead vocals and drums. They took their name from the NOAA weather station in North Seattle lovingly nicknamed The Sound Garden. Susan Silver cut her teeth managing Seattle bands First Thought and U-Men. She started dating Chris shortly after he started his band and decided to manage Soundgarden.

Originally Soundgarden appealed to the punk scene more so than the metal heads. Chris and Kim went to a Skin Yard show and saw drummer Matt Cameron killing it. That was the moment they both realized Chris was not a drummer. They talked Matt into working with them on Soundgarden and Chris moved up to the mic. That’s when Chris’ raw broody sexuality and Kim’s recent discovery of drop D took Soundgarden into the murky waters of grunge.

Mark Arm, myself, and Buzz Osborne were hanging out…around late ’86. Buzz mentioned that on a number of Black Sabbath songs, Tony Iommi used a tuning called drop D. It makes thing a little bit lower, a little bit heavier. After that, I went ahead and wrote a number of songs in drop D. — Kim Thayil, Soundgarden

As Andy Wood’s band was getting ready to hit the big time with their first album on Polygram, Andy was descending deeper and deeper into heroin addiction. Chris had been working as a line cook at Ray’s Boathouse, but was laid off. He offered to take Andy in for detox. Andy would sweat out the opioids as Chris locked himself in his room to write songs. He’d conceal his Jack Daniel’s habit in his coffee cup. They had all day together. So they talked. They jammed. Andy got a little better. Chris and Soundgarden went out on tour to support their first major label release with A&M Records, Louder Than Love.

While Jeff Ament and Kelly Curtis were hiring the tour manager for Mother Love Bone’s upcoming tour with Aerosmith, Andy OD’d again. Andy was rushed to Harborview, but it was too late. Andy was in a coma and brain dead. Xana Le Fuente, Andy’s girlfriend, insisted they not unplug him until Chris Cornell could get there to say goodbye. Chris flew in from New York.

THE PARAMOUNT THEATRE

The Paramount is an institution in Seattle. Built in 1928, it’s had its iconic moments come and go. In March of 1990 the Paramount hosted Andrew Wood’s memorial service. Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Mother Love Bone were there along with almost the entire Seattle music scene. After the memorial service mourners gathered at Kelly Curtis’ house for a wake. Everyone was devastated.

Andy was the light, fun part of Seattle, as opposed to the otherside, like the Jerry Cantrells — and I would even put Chris Cornell into this — the brooding, quiet, angry types. — Robert Scott Crane, Soundhouse Recording Studio owner

Nancy Wilson came by with her husband, Cameron Crowe. Cameron had just started work on a new screenplay called Singles.

The Paramount would host everyone in the grunge scene at one time or another over the next decades. Its stage is the hollowed ground of the Seattle scene.

In the wake of Andy’s death a shift came to the local bands. Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley took the deaths particularly hard, and their next album would reflect that darkness. Chris Cornell started a band with the former members of Mother Love Bone. He called it Temple of the Dog. Their only album is a deep meditation on mourning. Temple of the Dog was only a side project for Chris as Soundgarden was the first local band to break the Billboard Top 200 in 1990 with Louder Than Love.

A traumatized Stone, Jeff and Bruce went their separate ways. Stone started playing with his old childhood buddy Mike McCready. McCready urged Stone to call up Jeff and reconnect. The new trio recorded a demo and sent it to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer, Jack Irons. They hoped they could get Jack on drums, or at the very least he’d help them find a drummer and lead vocalist. Jack knew of a kid down in San Diego who could sing named Eddie Vedder.

THE OFF RAMP CAFE

There are times and places I’d like to travel back to. Between August and November 1990 is one of those times. The Off Ramp Cafe is one of those places. In that four month span Alice in Chains, Temple of the Dog, Pearl Jam (first ever show), Truly, Nirvana and Mudhoney all played shows on that single stage.

What makes those shows so enviable is that they took place a year before the scene exploded, but after all the bands had formed a steady line up of musicians and found their sound. You’d have heard Alice play “We Die Young.” Pearl Jam basically tried out all of Ten on that stage. Temple of the Dog played one of their only shows. Nirvana played an epic 31 song set that included new material and covers of Lead Belly, Velvet Underground, The Vaselines, Shocking Blue, and Wipers.

It was the calm before the storm.

O.K. HOTEL

This is where the earth cracked. This was the moment. April 17, 1991. Just another grey Seattle night. Just another sweaty rock club down by the waterfront.

Smells Like Teen Spirit” changed rock forever. Whether you want to admit it or not it doesn’t even matter. Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl played it live for the first time at the O.K. Hotel. And the crowd went f*cking nuts.

The next day Nirvana drove an old van down to Los Angeles. They set up shop at Sun City Studios in Van Nuys and started recording the album that would shake the world — Nevermind.

I was at the O.K. Hotel the night that Nirvana debuted “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and across the street there was a private thing where they were filming Alice in Chains for “Singles.” — Robert Roth, Truly singer/guitarist

Cameron Crowe didn’t know it at the time, but he had amazing luck in the timing of his film. The film is a time capsule of authenticity. It featured Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, TAD, and, of course, Citizen Dick. The Central Tavern, O.K. Hotel, The Vogue were real locations used for the film. It was a community effort.

Earlier in the year Alice in Chains started getting mainstream radio play with “Man in a Box” and “Would.” Soundgarden had a hit record. The doors to the rock world had been slung open to the Seattle Sound. Nirvana was about to break down the whole damn house.

THE COMET TAVERN

As 1992 opened, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous with its lead single “Black or White” was the No. 1 album in America. The second week of January Nevermind took the No. 1 spot after four months on the charts. It was second to Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind.

One of the larger ironies of the Seattle Grunge scene was the fact that when Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden blew up, they all left Seattle to tour the world. All of the bands being associated with Seattle were no longer in Seattle. The Grunge scene was left with new, local bands trying to make it. A new community was blooming around bands like 7 Year Bitch, The Gits, and the Riot Grrrl movement in Olympia with Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and more.

With the fame came the drugs, wives, tours, commercialization, commodification, and homogenization of the whole scene. Everything and everyone were up for grabs. But, still, there were bands toiling in the clubs and bars on Seattle’s streets. The Comet Tavern was a focal point for musicians.

The Gits formed at Antioch College in Ohio. They were originally The Sniveling Little Rat-Faced Gits as a nod to Monty Python. They relocated to Seattle in 1989 because of the burgeoning scene. By the time 1992 rolled around The Gits had recorded and released their first major album, Frenching the Bully. They were performing with Nirvana and Tad. Things were breaking their way.

Tragedy struck late one July evening in 1993. Lead singer Mia Zapata had been at the Comet with friends until closing time. She walked out into the Capital Hill night and was never seen alive again. Mia was raped and murdered in the streets that night. It would take 10 years and a random police DNA test to find Mia’s murderer.

Suddenly, everything was tainted. — Daniel House, C/Z Records

LINDA’S TAVERN

Kurt Cobain didn’t take to fame well. The demands of being on a record label, touring and drug addiction wore him down into a shell of himself. Kurt and his bandmates grew further and further apart. He was getting more and more lost. He didn’t believe he could do anything right. He’d fallen out with his musical idol, Buzz Osborne. Buzz didn’t think he was getting a fair shake of the tour money. There was nothing Kurt could really do about it as all of that was out of his hands. That didn’t stop Buzz from tearing down Nirvana banners at their shows or spray painting Nirvana Sucks in big red letters over them. Heroin became the sole part of Kurt’s life.

While on tour in Europe, Kurt attempted suicide in Rome. Then he attempted suicide three more time over the course of a month. All the attempts were overdoses. But, evidently he couldn’t do that right either. Until he did.

Linda’s Tavern has an amazing juke box. It’s always been a hang out for music types. The beer is cheap and the cocktails are strong. And that is the last place anyone saw Kurt Cobain alive.

BLUE MOON TAVERN

Alice In Chains were still touring in late 1995. Layne Staley was falling deeper and deeper into his heroin addiction with his girlfriend Demri Parrot (the model on the cover of Alice’s album Dirt). Layne had a side project with Mad Season and was wearing himself too thin.

In April of 1996, Alice in Chains gathered for their MTV Unplugged session in Brooklyn, N.Y. The overall performance was considered lackluster and messy at the time. It took over three hours to record the 45 minute set. The critical response was weak. Alice would perform together once more that summer. Then Layne couldn’t do it anymore.

That October, Demri succumbed to complications of heroin use, and that was really the last anyone saw Layne in the music world.

Layne bought a condo over the Blue Moon Tavern because his dealer drank there. The Blue Moon Tavern is a real dive to this day. In late March 2002, Layne finally joined Demri after OD’ing. Layne’s life had become so isolated that his body wasn’t found until two weeks after his death.

Alice in Chains’ Unplugged is now considered legendary.

ROBERT LANG STUDIOS

I just got tired of going to f*cking funerals, man.

— Dave Grohl, Nivana/Foo Fighters

A lot of musicians died in the Seattle scene. I didn’t mention them all here. It’s just too depressing.

After Kurt died Dave Grohl was lost. He didn’t know what to do so he started recording music to work through the pain. Dave spent months at Robert Lang Studios recording every instrument for an album he wasn’t sure what to do with. That album would become The Foo Fighters’ first album Foo Fighters.

Krist dabbled in music over the years. Mostly he spends his time in the misty hills of rural Washington. He even became a libertarian politician for a spell. Krist and Dave reunited to play some shows with Paul McCartney as Nirvana.

Grunge would be picked up in the Desert Rock of Kyuss and later Queens of the Stone Age. Maynard James Kennan’s supergroup A Perfect Circle would lean heavily into grunge elements. Even Metallica would dip their beak into the genre with Load. The Cranberries, Bush, Stone Temple Pilots, and Smashing Pumpkins all tested the waters at some point.

Pearl Jam tours on. Soundgarden got a Black Hole Sun in Seattle. Alice in Chains were able to replace Layne and have carried on touring the world.

But today it’s really just the Foo Fighters that carry the standard of Grunge into the 21st century. And that all started at Robert Lang Studios.

All right lamestains! See you on the flippity-flop! Rock On!

Zachary Johnston is a director, writer, traveler, and part-time chef and mixologist. You can see for yourself on Instagram @ztp_johnston, or on Twitter@ZTPJohnston.

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