There is a word in German, fernweh, which literally translates as “farsickness”. It’s not unlike the English word wanderlust, but it’s not quite the same: if wanderlust is the desire to travel, fernweh better expresses a need to do so. Another translation of fernweh is “a feeling of homesickness for a place you’ve never visited”. I know all this because not too long ago, I Googled whether you can be homesick for a place you’ve never even visited.
‘Homesick’ is the only way I can describe how I sometimes feel about Seattle. It’s ridiculous, and I don’t blame you for rolling your eyes – not only because I’m ‘homesick’ for a city I’ve never lived in, but because I’m pining for a city that no longer exists. The Seattle I pine for is one where a sweaty, long-haired Alice In Chains shakes The Off Ramp while an even sweatier crowd thrashes below. Where your Halloween night entertainment might be Bikini Kill, Mudhoney, and Nirvana at the Paramount; and on Labor Day weekend you might catch Soundgarden at Bumbershoot. A Seattle where the Stardog Champion himself struts the stage of the Moore Theater and a baby-faced Eddie Vedder climbs stacked amps at the Mural Amphitheater. But they say grunge is dead, and the Seattle I dream of died with it.
Since I’ll never get to see early-90s Seattle, I recreated it in my novel, Entertain Us: a dark story about a grunge band’s fast, devastating rise to fame. For a while, it helped. A great deal of my ‘research’ involved watching documentaries about my favourite bands, or footage of their old concerts. It’s easy to watch any of those shows and imagine myself in the crowd. I could even take a step back and imagine how it must have felt to hear that kind of music for the first time. But there were still missing pieces; too many scenes with blanks to be filled in later. I had to see Seattle for myself – not just because I’ve wanted to go ever since I first discovered grunge music, not just because it’s on my “30 To Do Before 30” bucket list, but for research, damn it.
I obsessively tracked the price of flights. Not only was I signed up to every email alert out there, but I checked, every single day, every price comparison website, and then manually checked every airline I knew – I was probably spending two hours a day just looking for flights. The price never changed, constantly hovering at $Haha Nope. Then one day I got lucky – there was a flight well under my budget. A brief panic attack ensued (it seemed too good to be true), then I got my shit together, checked all my bills were paid, and booked my tickets. I was going to Seattle.
By the time I arrived in Seattle – a little ahead of schedule, at 1 in the afternoon – I’d been awake since I-don’t-even-know-anymore. Still worried that something would go wrong – what if there was traffic? What if the airport shuttle broke down? What if there was traffic and the airport shuttle broke down and the replacement shuttle broke down, too? – I’d arrived at Atlanta airport almost three hours before my 7:15 a.m. flight. Then there’d been a two-hour layover in Denver, and while my body was trying to comprehend ALL THE TIME ZONES (hi, my entire country is smaller than Alabama), my brain was trying to comprehend SEATTLE. SEATTLE. I let everyone else off the plane first. I was already a wreck – I don’t really do emotions, but as we came in to land I got a stunning view of Mount Rainier and it hit me that nothing had gone wrong and I was here – so the tears were already flowing.
If I told you just how much planning I put into this vacation, you’d either think I was exaggerating, or be concerned for my mental health. I thought of everything. I carried a notebook with a minute-by-minute itinerary for the 3 days, 16 hours I was going to be in Seattle. I had a chart which cross-referenced bands I love with venues/landmarks I wanted to see, so that if I was running out of time, I could make quick decisions: did I really want to see [venue], or should I spend my time finding landmarks relevant to other bands I hadn’t explored as much?
I hadn’t prepared myself for Temple of the Dog’s Say Hello 2 Heaven to be playing in the airport lobby when I arrived, or the ensuing ugly-crying in the bathroom. Oof.
Makeup freshly reapplied, I hopped in an Uber for the 20-ish minute ride to my apartment, and got chatting to the driver. He asked me if I’d been to Seattle before, what I was doing there – friendly questions I’m sure he asks everyone. He commented on my accent, and I told him I’m from England originally. He said he’s from Morocco. Pause. My favourite character in Entertain Us is the bassist, Howie Farouk, who’s half Moroccan. I told my driver this. I don’t know why. We were chatting about the novel generally, and Howie specifically, as we drove along I-5, and to my left I recognised the industrial district, where Howie lives. (I’ve spent so much time poring over maps of Seattle for research I think I know it better than I know my hometown.) I could have asked my driver intelligent, useful questions – “is there a large Moroccan population in Seattle?” for example, or “were you here in the 90s, by any chance?” – these would have been helpful things know, but in my jet-lagged, overwhelmed state, I went with “so do you speak French?”. That’s how, less than an hour after landing in Seattle, I ended up chatting to my Moroccan Uber driver in a language I haven’t used in nearly 9 years, while driving by the neighbourhood where my Moroccan character lives. Shit was weird. Soon the skyline came into view, and I forgot how to form coherent sentences in English, let alone French. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to mind.
It wasn’t the first thing on my itinerary (I warned you about this), but with a little extra time on my hands, I had to stop by the Space Needle. Tourist trap or not, for me, no building better represents the city that gave me so much of the music I listen to. (I also have this recurring dream where I land in Seattle and it takes me a minute to get my bearings, but as soon as I turn and see the Space Needle I know my way ‘home’ – but I digress.) I didn’t go up – I had a ticket to do that later – but I walked around the area and took in the view, drinking in the sunshine, the clean air. Spotify had given me a Daily Mix playlist of Meat Puppets, Mother Love Bone, Nirvana, Skin Yard, Tad, Gruntruck, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, and so much more – it was perfect, as if the app knew I was going to wander aimlessly around Lower Queen Anne for a little while.
The next stop – officially the first stop on my itinerary – was Black Dog Forge, an old blacksmiths’ workshop located at 2316 2nd Avenue. Soundgarden rehearsed in its basement in their early days. So did Pearl Jam, back when they were known as Mookie Blaylock, if they had a name at all: famously, Eddie Vedder came here straight from the airport, demanding to rehearse immediately.
It didn’t occur to me at the time that Eddie and I both made a beeline to this place upon arrival in Seattle. I’ll never sing like him and his hair (even today) is better than mine, but at least we have that in common.
Black Dog Forge has since closed. It’s a recurring theme in Seattle: what was once grunge history has closed, or been turned into a condo – or worse, in the case of iconic venues like Squid Row Tavern, been completely demolished. The closure of Black Dog Forge is especially sad. The owners, Mary Gioia and Louie Raffloer, received notice that they had two months to vacate the premises on May 18 – the same day Chris Cornell died by suicide. I wish I could say that Black Dog Forge is hallowed ground, that a plaque commemorates its history, or even that there was a line of dorky fangirls like me waiting to take its picture, but today it’s just another vacant building tucked away in an alley. All the same, I can’t imagine having this on my doorstep. What it must be like to live in a city where you can’t throw a stone without hitting a venue that hosted a legendary grunge band. To cut through an alleyway and oh, there’s the spot where Soundgarden and Pearl Jam practised.
By now it was almost time to meet my Airbnb host and get the keys to my apartment, so I headed back that way, running a little late. My host gave me a weird look when I apologised for being late and said “that hill was steep”.
“Oh that- That hill?”
“Yeah, coming up Roy Street.”
Oh, Alice, you sweet summer child.
As it turns out, Seattle is really damn hilly. The mountain I’d just climbed isn’t even molehill compared to the rest of the city. I doubt Seattleites even register it as an incline.
I unpacked and FaceTimed Lillian. The Space Needle was next on my agenda, but I had some time to rest and freshen up a bit first. I cracked open a beer, set up my laptop, and revisited my itinerary, maps, and (I shit you not) spreadsheets while looking out at a view like something from a dream:
If you think I didn’t choose the apartment so I could write while looking out at the Space Needle, you underestimate how extra I am.
I bought my tickets in advance and specially scheduled my trip to the Space Needle to coincide with sunset, because there seemed no better way to finish my first day in Seattle. The views were absolutely breathtaking. Unfortunately, it was hard to capture it in pictures – partly because the best sunset view came from a portion of the observation deck that was closed for renovation, and partly because to get pictures, I had to stick my arm through the safety cage and trust myself not to drop my phone 520 feet to the ground below. When you’re as clumsy as I am, that’s not an insignificant risk.
Even if I didn’t get the best pictures, it’s something I’ll never forget: the sky streaked with orange and pink, Mother Love Bone’s Apple playing softly through my headphones; ferries and seaplanes crisscrossing Elliott Bay and the city lighting up as darkness fell.
I don’t know how long I stayed at the Space Needle, unable to tear myself away from those views. Certainly long enough to hear the entire album; long enough that it was pitch black when I decided to leave. I knew I wouldn’t have time to come back. I just wanted to savour it for as long as I could.
My first day in Seattle was over, but the night was just getting started. Later I was going to Metalfest – fifteen Pacific Northwest metal bands gathering under one roof, which happened to be El Corazon, formerly known as The Off Ramp, or Au Go Go, or Graceland, or Sub-Zero, or The Eastlake East Cafe… The place had a lot of names, and hosted a lot of bands. Its current name reflects its place as the heart of the music scene: it was the site of Pearl Jam’s first shows and Nirvana’s first show in Seattle; Alice In Chains, Mudhoney, and Temple of the Dog all played here. At the apartment, I made myself an instant coffee and chuckled that in one of the best cities in the US for coffee, I was drinking instant Nescafe. But it gave me the perk I needed, and a short while later I arrived – wearing a plaid skirt and stompy leather boots like the 90s never ended – at El Corazon. Bizarrely enough, I had to give my Uber driver directions.
Every inch of El Corazon, from wall to ceiling and even the floor, was painted black. It reeked of sweat and old beer. The floor was uneven in some places and suspiciously sticky in others. It was perfect. It was everything I imagined an old grunge venue to be, right down to the long-haired twenty-something dudes in leather jackets and combat boots. (I had to do a double take. It could have been the 90s.) The rest of the crowd were a lot older, the kind of wizened old metalheads who’ve seen some shit in their lifetime.
I spent my night flitting between the two stages and the bar, until I was thrashing like the best of them. These were my kind of people, and this was my kind of music: okay, so it wasn’t grunge, but it was heavy, with shredding guitar riffs and face-melting vocals. I asked the bartender to give me local beers, and I can’t remember what they were but I liked them so much I ordered… A few. At one point I asked him if I could tour the dressing rooms that once hosted Alice In Chains, Mudhoney, Nirvana, and Temple of the Dog – he said no, but bless him, he didn’t call security.
Some of the details of Metalfest are a bit hazy. Can’t think why. I know at one point I was talking to a woman in her 50s clad entirely in leather, having a conversation about some band I’d never heard of – she’d misheard me and thought I said I knew them, and it seemed too complicated to correct her. At some point I realised I’d been awake for almost 25 hours. I don’t know what time it was when I got home, washed away the sweat and beer (some of it may have been my own!), and collapsed into bed – but my ears were still ringing three days later.
If you enjoyed reading about my fangirl adventures through Seattle, keep an eye out for part 2!