You know what sucks when you just landed in another time zone? Daylight saving time.
Though I’m a night owl through and through, I’d planned to get up at the crack of dawn to watch the sunrise from Kerry Park, a beautiful spot with gorgeous skyline views just half a mile from my apartment. I knew my strict schedule had gone out the window when I woke to broad daylight streaming in through the blinds. Ooops. It was still early, but I’d missed sunrise. I was also hungover as hell – somehow, I didn’t factor this in when I planned for ‘everything’. I desperately needed coffee, but I had a lot to fit in before meeting my friend Felicia for a brunch cruise at 10:30, so I ignored the headache that was creeping in, slathered on my war paint, and set off for Fremont.
Again, I traveled by Uber. Again, the driver asked me friendly questions about my plans for the day, and where we were going – I told her we were heading to a recording studio.
“Do you sing?” she asked me.
“Uh… Sort of?” Whether it was sleep deprivation or the hangover I don’t know, but the question threw me a bit. It seemed random.
“You’re going to a studio, I just thought…”
It hadn’t even occurred to me that “she’s going to a recording studio, she must be a musician” is a far more logical assumption than “she’s a weirdly obsessive grunge fan who wants to see Reciprocal Recording”. I awkwardly explained myself as she looked at me like maybe Uber should run background checks on passengers. Then I caught sight of a triangular, greyish-brown building on a corner lot.
“This is it!”
There was no sign, and nothing that resembled a shopfront or public entrance. Nothing to distinguish the tiny, windowless building from an abandoned storage facility – and now I’ve typed that out, I can see why the poor driver seemed so eager to leave.
The building, located at 4230 Leary Way NW, has housed many different studios since Reciprocal Recording closed its doors in August 1991, but I was here to follow in the footsteps of the grunge greats. Before forming Mother Love Bone, Andy Wood was here with Malfunkshun. So too were Pearl Jam, Coffin Break, Seaweed, Green River, Skin Yard, and Gruntruck. Soundgarden’s Screaming Life and Tad’s God’s Balls were recorded here; Mudhoney recorded their debut here and returned for their Superfuzz Bigmuff compilation. For me, personally, there’s one band in particular that made this place a must-see: Reciprocal Recording also hosted Nirvana before they were Nirvana. They recorded their demo tape here, with Melvins’ Dale Crover on drums, on January 23, 1988, before returning in December with drummer Chad Channing to record their debut album, Bleach.
I walked around the building and snapped some pictures. The weather was absolutely beautiful: warm, but not too warm; a gentle breeze; bright sunshine. So bright, in fact, that I couldn’t see well enough to take a selfie like the pitiful tourist I was. A delivery van pulled into a side street, and a woman hopped out for a cigarette break. I approached her, honestly expecting that she’d laugh at the dork wearing a Mudhoney shirt and flannel like the 90s never ended. I think my exact words were “excuse me, could you help me take a tragic tourist picture-” and before I could even say “please”, she said “outside this historic building? Sure!”
For all I know, maybe later she moaned to her friends about lame tourists who never got the memo that grunge is over. Regardless, she was friendly, and it made me happy that she’d called the place a ‘historic building’. We chatted about some of the bands that recorded there, while the whole time I was thinking this wasn’t supposed to happen. Seattle has moved on from grunge, yet here I was talking about Mudhoney with a random stranger. She finished her cigarette, I thanked her for taking my picture, and we went our separate ways.
The plan was to walk from Reciprocal Recording to the Fremont Troll, then on to Gas Works Park for more views of the skyline (I don’t think I could ever get tired of seeing that), and finally on to the departure port for the brunch cruise. It was just over two miles: not far, under normal circumstances. Except… These weren’t quite normal circumstances. The headache that I could no longer ignore had nothing to do with the music blaring through my headphones, and everything to do with last night at El Corazon. My ears were still ringing, making it hard for me to get my bearings; the sun was shining directly in my eyes, and I seemed to be… Swaying. Just a little. My friend texted me to say she was on her way, and asked if I needed a ride. Up ahead was a random patio table and chairs that seemed to have been put there just for me… So I said yes. Oh yes please.
Felicia is a very dear friend I met in college. She moved to Seattle last year and her daughter, Reagan Jo, was born there, so I’d never had the chance to meet her. It was a lovely morning catching up with an old friend, squeezing and falling in love with her precious baby. My own daughter is now five and is almost shoulder height to me, so I won’t lie, it took me a second to get past the initial “FRAGILE BABY IS SMALL AND FRAGILE” panic and remember what I was doing – but Reagan Jo seemed to like me, even though I did nibble on her ear a little bit. (I’m sorry, Felicia – she’s too cute and I got carried away.) For two hours, we cruised Lake Union and Lake Washington, giving us breathtaking views of Seattle to enjoy as we chatted over coffee and bottomless mimosas (I’ll spare you the hair of the dog/Temple of the Dog puns I didn’t spare Felicia). It was the perfect way to squeeze in time with a friend and sightseeing all at once. An added bonus: if anyone noticed I was swaying, they probably thought it was just the boat.
This isn’t a fashion blog (no one should take fashion advice from someone whose closet is 50% officewear and 50% band shirts), but I do have to make a brief wardrobe note. The cruise had a ‘smart casual’ dress code, so I had a black dress rolled up in my tiny bag ready to change into if other guests were dressed on the smarter side. It wasn’t necessary, in the end. In fact our waiter, Ryan, complimented my shirt and we also chatted a little about the ‘late’, great grunge era. Maybe grunge will never die if we just REFUSE TO STOP TALKING ABOUT IT?
Before we had to say goodbye, we briefly stopped by Felicia’s office – she works for Trinet on Yale Avenue North, near my next stop. I had to get a few pictures of the decor:
Excuse me while I go decorate my entire house with concert posters and giant band stickers.
My next stop, sadly, only exists today in Pearl Jam’s Alive video. Before there was a hotel at 1812 Yale Avenue, there was RKCNDY: an all-ages venue where Soundgarden, Meat Puppets, Mudhoney, Blind Melon, Melvins, and Mad Season played. Pearl Jam played a number of important shows there, including the wrap party for one of my favourite movies – Cameron Crowe’s Singles. There’s a concert/after party poster (pictured above) showing that Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam appeared at RKCNDY together in 1992, but it seems likely that didn’t happen. According to the Seattle Times and Pearl Jam’s Twenty, it looks like the RKCNDY show was arranged as a last-minute alternative to an arena show with Nirvana and RHCP, which was canceled because both Kurt Cobain and Anthony Kiedis were ill. The Chili Peppers’ website doesn’t list a show on January 3, 1992, so maybe they had to pull out of the RKCNDY show/party – or maybe they attended, but it was more of a meet-and-greet than a concert. Maybe they played without Anthony – MAYBE JOHN FRUSCIANTE AND EDDIE VEDDER SANG TOGETHER? I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know what glorious thing I missed because I was ten months old, and thousands of miles away.
(….I do want to know. Please comment or get in touch if you can tell me what I missed – especially if it was a Frusciante-Vedder duet.)
After moping around the hotel where RKCNDY once stood, I got horribly, horribly lost looking for my next venue. In my defence, GPS went absolutely haywire, taking me almost a mile (on foot) in the wrong direction before inviting me to casually stroll right across I-5 to a destination that wasn’t there. I remembered too late that the Uber driver who took me to El Corazon the night before got lost in that area because his GPS was misbehaving, so I’m going to blame technology and not the fact that I have no sense of direction. Pissed off, I caved and called another Uber to take me to the next stop on my grunge tour:
Let’s not focus on how close the Moore Theatre is to Yale Avenue (or how terrible that photo is), and instead focus on who played there: practically everyone. Alice In Chains. Mad Season. Melvins. Mudhoney. Nirvana. Pearl Jam. Soundgarden. Tad. Temple of the Dog. In June 1989, Sub Pop took a gamble by having Mudhoney, Nirvana, and Tad – beloved in the underground circuit, but not yet household names – play the 1,400 capacity venue for Lame Fest. Tickets were $6 in advance, or $7 at the door. (Can you imagine seeing Mudhoney, Nirvana, AND Tad for $7? Even adjusted for inflation, that’s still only $14.04. I was born in the wrong era.) The show was a complete sell-out, and helped to kick-start the grunge explosion. Three local bands who, according to Tad Doyle himself, previously “would have been relegated to playing house and basement shows” packed the Moore to capacity. Sub Pop’s founding man, Bruce Pavitt, said that Lame Fest “ignited the city’s youth and put Seattle on the map.”
I’d have loved to get inside and see the stage where history was made, but there was an event going on, so all I could do was poke my head in the lobby. Still, technically I can now say I’ve been to the Moore Theatre – right? Let me have that.
Speaking of Bruce Pavitt, next up was, arguably, the centre of it all:
The original Sub Pop location was on the 11th floor of the Terminal Sales Building, located at 1932 1st Avenue. It was a tiny office which Mark Arm referred to as a “pauper’s penthouse”; Charles Peterson, office manager in the label’s early days, described “sliding sideways through boxes of Green River’s record to take a leak”. Sub Pop began as Bruce Pavitt’s fanzine Subterranean Pop in Olympia in 1980. It seems unbelievable today, now that ‘music’ and ‘Seattle’ are almost synonymous, but when Pavitt moved to Seattle in 1983, it was an isolated city with a music scene unheard of outside of Washington state. Sub Pop helped change that: the list of bands who’ve released material through the label is endless, and within ten years it grew from an enterprise so penniless that on payday staff like Peterson would “literally run down to the bank – if you were last in line, your check might bounce” to a company worth more than $20 million. Without Sub Pop, the world may never have known Mudhoney, Nirvana, or Soundgarden – in fact, then-DJ Jonathan Poneman teamed up with Pavitt to fund Soundgarden’s debut release, Hunted Down. Over the years Sub Pop has also represented The U-Men, Screaming Trees, Skin Yard, Tad, Love Battery, Seaweed, and Truly – an impressive roster, and by no means an exhaustive list. Today, Sub Pop is located on 4th Avenue, but for the nostalgic (guilty as charged), its home is here on 1st Avenue.
After scoping out the Terminal Sales Building, I wandered through Pike Place Market and the surrounding area for a while. My novel Entertain Us opens there:
A young man stood on the ledge ten stories above downtown Seattle. The wind blew far stronger up here than it did at ground level – it whipped through his wild hair and sent a chill through him as it investigated a tear in the knee of his jeans, and he braced himself against it, coasting on the adrenaline flooding his veins. He was sure-footed as an old mariner, but the wind was unpredictable and it was a long drop to the ground below. He took one final look at the scene stretched out before him.
I wanted to be sure that the picture I have in my head of downtown Seattle – the one I’ve used to write the opening scene – is accurate. Fiction gives us artistic licence, of course, but it can be distracting when writers rearrange a city’s geography for the sake of convenience, or throw in details based on guesswork. I wandered around looking for the specific type of building I’d placed this character on, and, thankfully, found several. I took pictures and noted down the addresses so that later I can check they’re as old as they look. Am I overthinking it? Probably. Will anyone, ever, read my book and say “hey, I think I know the specific abandoned building with a rusty fire escape the author’s referring to here”? Probably not. Welcome to my brain! It’s a weird place.
Once I was satisfied that there are tall (but not too tall) buildings with external fire escapes (specifically, rusty old fire escapes) that could potentially have a view of Elliott Bay from the rooftop (I drew the line at climbing up there to investigate), I moved on to The Showbox, at 1700 1st Avenue S.:
Green River, Screaming Trees, and Pearl Jam played here. My daughter is a Screaming Trees fan, so I had to check it out for her, but also for myself: there were only three venues on my list which Malfunkshun played, and this was one of them. Mark Arm says the first time he saw Malfunkshun was in 1982 at the Showbox – he remembers the late, great, beautiful Andy Wood “giving some bizarre high-speed rap about how they came down from Mount Olympus.” I paid my respects, in my own small way, to L’Andrew the Love Child. I had a few more places to check out while I was in the area:
What was once The Vogue, a venue rocked by Alice In Chains, Green River, Mother Love Bone and Nirvana, is now a hair salon and boutique. It’s located at 2018 1st Avenue. In 1994, a 27-story condo tower was built next to it, obscuring a mural advertising a Nirvana show, among others. A newer mural on the exposed side of the building has subtle nods to its place in grunge history:
I went in to take a look around, and in search of gifts for a couple of friends who, like me, are weirdly obsessive and would appreciate something, anything, from a venue their favourite bands played. One of these friends loves the late Type O Negative frontman Peter Steele more than anyone has ever loved anyone or anything – I got her a card which is too inappropriate to share or describe here, so I will just say it was a very loose reference to Peter. As she rang me up, the lady at the register looked at the card and chuckled. I told her about the Type-O-obsessed friend back home who would love it – and then she started talking about Type O Negative, and the day that Peter Steele died.
“You should meet my friend,” I said. “She’d shit if she knew I was chatting about Peter Steele – in The Vogue, of all places.”
Then she said, “Well, do you know our history?”
It was music to my ears. Yes, please, let’s talk grunge AND history – my two favourite things, combined. So we did: we chatted about Nirvana and Mother Love Bone, and it hit me that although I’d only been in Seattle for a little over 24 hours, this was the third time I’d talked to a local about grunge music. THERE IS HOPE.
I was nowhere near done sightseeing for the day. Next on my list was the Paramount Theatre, which holds special importance to me for several reasons:
As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I wanted to see the Paramount because a lot of my favourite bands played there: Alice In Chains, Mother Love Bone, Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, and Temple of the Dog, to name a few. Most importantly, on Halloween night in 1991, Nirvana were here, supported by Mudhoney and Bikini Kill. The show is prominently featured in my novel as the first Nirvana show Cara – the band’s guitarist, and my beloved patriarchy-smashing, punk-rock power bitch – ever attends. After checking it out, and trying to capture Cara’s sense of wonder at being there to see her favourite band, I headed back to my apartment. I had to get myself ready for an evening of live music at an iconic venue:
The Crocodile is a legendary place. It’s hosted Alice In Chains, Melvins, Meat Puppets, Mudhoney, and Pearl Jam. Mad Season played their first show here; Nirvana held their Smells Like Teen Spirit video release party here. Krist Novoselic fondly recalls:
The Crocodile Cafe came into being at the same time Nirvana hit it big. I can remember going down to Belltown to this new club. It seemed cool and, of course, had great drinks… …Going to the Croc was like hanging out at the neighborhood watering hole. I’ve had countless conversations either by the bar, in the booths in the back, along the narrow hall by the side door, by the kitchen counter, or in the dining room. I’d hang with friends or make friends.
[Seattle Weekly, 2007]
Let me preface this by saying that I’m not cool, confident Krist Novoselic – I’m a bumbling, awkward dork; and an introvert. Sure, I’d been happily chatting about music with a couple of strangers earlier in the day, but those were brief encounters. You won’t find me at a bar on a weekend night having ‘countless conversations’ and making new friends – you’ll find me hiding somewhere the people aren’t, assuming I’ve left the house at all.
I got to The Crocodile a couple of hours into the show, and found there was nowhere to hide. All the booths were full. I made a beeline to the bar, hoping to find an empty seat where I could watch the band and stuff pizza into my face. A kind gentleman offered me his own seat when he realised I was ordering food. He introduced himself and his wife, Lori, but I wasn’t quite sure I’d heard his name correctly over the music.
I gave them both a friendly wave. “Hi, I’m Alice. Sorry, did you say Ted? Or Tad, like the band?”
He turned to Lori and said “Hey, she knows Tad!” – and to the bumbling, awkward introvert who might not have ventured out at all had it not been for the venue’s history, it was instant reassurance I’d made the right decision. He clarified that yes, his name is Tad, like the band – which, of course, we talked about.
Merchant Mariner – a seven-piece band I’d describe as “punk meets indie rock meets sea shanties” – gave us awesome music as we chatted. It turned out that Lori and Tad were visiting from California for the same reason as me: because they’re grunge fans who refuse to let the 90s die. The walls of the Crocodile proudly display some of the artists who played there:
Lori and Tad are lucky enough to have seen some of them – they told me stories about the shows while I sat there in quiet disbelief. What are the chances that I’d wander into the Crocodile and meet two people who were also visiting Seattle for its grunge history? How lucky was I, to find people I could happily talk to at a bar for hours (I don’t think that’s ever happened) who are just as enthusiastic about grunge music as I am? In true Alice style, I was incoherently fangirling – and they didn’t mind.
There was a break in the music as Merchant Mariner finished their set and War Puppy got ready for theirs. Behind the bar there was a TV, which had been playing music videos all night – we’d already freaked out over seeing a Nirvana video AT THE CROCODILE, and then, of all the bands to appear on that TV that night:
By now, the drinks were flowing, and War Puppy were playing the kind of dirty, distorted rock that lights up all the happy places in my brain. Lori and Tad and I had gone through the alphabet of grunge, from Alice in Chains all the way through to The U-Men. We’d mourned the stars who’d burned out too soon and lamented the recent, tragic loss of Chris Cornell. We’d talked about what we’d been up to in Seattle and what we had planned for the time we had left there. Inevitably, as it always does, the conversation turned to my accent, and how I got here. They mentioned they’d love to visit England.
“I’d love to visit California,” I said. “LA, specifically.”
Tad asked, “Do you know where in LA? It’s pretty huge.”
“I’m not sure, really. Definitely the Fairfax area. I’m a big Red Hot Chili Peppers fan, so….”
At this point I should mention that calling myself a ‘big Red Hot Chili Peppers fan’ isn’t putting it mildly so much as it is grossly under-exaggerating. There is no band in the world I love more – no, not even any of the bands I came to Seattle to fawn over. Chili Peppers inspired me to start writing, to pick up a guitar; Chili Peppers have got me through my darkest days and they’ve been the soundtrack to some of my happiest.
Which is why I almost fell off my chair when Tad said “We love those guys.”
I can never recreate the face I made, or the babbling, incomprehensible nonsense that came out of my mouth as I tried to wrap my head around this. How were these guys also Chili Peppers fans? It was unreal.
And then something dawned on me.
“Wait… Have you guys always lived in California? Did you grow up there?”
Lori didn’t; Tad did.
“Did you ever get to see them play there? Like, at home?”
I was so excited at the idea of seeing Chili Peppers play their home state – I couldn’t imagine how much better this was about to get.
“I saw them in ’83.”
My brain was screaming SHIT SHIT SHIT YOU’RE TALKING TO SOMEONE WHO SAW CHILI PEPPERS ON THEIR HOME TURF IN 1983 so loudly that it took a moment for all the pieces to drop into place.
“Wait a minute. They STARTED in ’83. You must have seen one of their really early shows. You-” my jaw dropped. “YOU SAW THEM PLAY WITH HILLEL?”
“I’m pretty sure it was ’83.” Tad thought out loud for a moment, working out the year he saw them based on his age at the time, while I waited, on the verge of screaming. “Yeah, it was definitely 83.”
That was it. I was done. I think I actually said “I can’t even” without a trace of irony. This man had seen the Israeli Funkenstein himself, my darling Huckleberry Slim, the Skinny Sweaty Man in a green suit. I thought nothing could possibly top this.
“This was back when they still did the socks-on-cocks thing.”
I thought wrong.
Things get blurry after that. I honestly think it had more to do with the shock of MEETING SOMEONE WHO SAW HILLEL SLOVAK PLAY than anything else – sure, I was a little tipsy, but I had yet more stops to make on the way home, so I wasn’t exactly throwing back drinks. The final act of the night, Hellbat, was my personal favourite. When they finished their set I excused myself from Tad and Lori to grab some Hellbat stickers for Lillian – I awkwardly gushed to the lead singer and bassist about my daughter, who just got a bass for her 5th birthday and wants to be “a singer-bassist and Wonder Woman” when she grows up. I checked the time. It was still quite early, but I had a two and a half mile walk ahead of me, in the dark, in an unfamiliar city, in heeled combat boots (of course) and a miniskirt. I reluctantly said goodbye to Tad and Lori, grabbed my to-go box, and set off for my next stop.
Nevermind has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide and turned Nirvana into global superstars, but in 1991, they were kicked out of their own release party at Re-Bar. I know what you may be thinking: what lewd, extreme rock star debauchery would warrant such a thing?
…oh, a food fight? Okay.
To kick Nirvana out of their own release party over a food fight may seem a little excessive, but an interview with then-owner Steve Wells provides valuable context:
Something most people today can’t even imagine about that time, about the Washington State Liquor Control Board, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, getting a license to sell beer and wine, let alone “spirits”, was a very difficult process. Maintaining that license could be even more difficult. Especially, in downtown Seattle, where, to protect the “status quo”, licenses were much more expensive to get. New clubs, especially gay clubs, or any clubs that played “black” music, were under their microscope for violations of liquor laws regarding over-serving, drunkenness, drug use or sales on premises, and minors being allowed in…..
….[For the release party] I contracted with awesome Seattle artist Carl Smool to hang fantastic fabric pieces he’d made that were like long, dangling, multicolored box kites. The Seattle Art Museum owned them, lent them to us for a month, and naturally, expected them to be returned in good condition….
….Suddenly, Kurt, Krist, and maybe, Dave, but also others, started a food fight, with what was left over… The “victim” being Carl Smool’s artwork! It got totally crazy, and I guess I freaked about the whole situation, rounded them up, including Bruce [Pavitt], and with the help of the doormen, got them out of the door, just in time for them all to barf on the curb.
Reading the full piece by David Schmader for The Stranger, it becomes clear that Re-Bar was a lively spot to see a play, watch a show, or dance the night away at a weekly “Queer Disco with MC Queen Lucky”. It was especially beloved by the LGBT community, and attracted special attention from Washington State Liquor Control Board agents looking for any excuse to shut the place down. Throw in valuable artwork on loan from a museum, and it’s no wonder Wells panicked and asked Nirvana to kindly take their chunder-fest outside. Shortly afterwards, WSLCB agents showed up to question the doormen, and the party was officially over. Not that there’s any animosity from Wells:
That’s how I remember it. And to this day, I love them all.
Re-Bar is still open today. I stopped in only briefly: though now I wish I’d stayed longer, I can forgive myself because I was keen to get home and write. I had one more stop on the way:
It was quite sad, after watching a show at the Crocodile and stopping by the lively Re-Bar, to see the Phantom Dance Club all boarded up. The release party for Pearl Jam’s Ten was held here: it’s located at 330 5th Avenue N., just around the corner from the Mural Amphitheatre, where the band played a show immediately before the party. On weekend nights in the 90s, the Phantom played contemporary dance and top 40 hits; on Wednesdays, you’d hear house music pulsing through the walls. Today it’s abandoned, covered with graffiti, and littered with trash. I can’t help but wonder how many people pass by the former dance club, en route to the Museum of Pop Culture just across the street, with no idea of its own place in pop culture; its connection to Pearl Jam’s 13-times-platinum debut.
Phantom Dance Club brought an end to my second day in Seattle. Jet lag and daylight saving time be damned, I’d crammed a lot into it: I’d caught up with an old friend and made new friends; I’d seen live music from local bands; I’d met locals who refused to let grunge die. The Seattle I have in my head is so stuck in the past that I feared the real city could never match up, yet I’d had conversations with strangers about bands that rocked the 90s; I’d walked into the Crocodile, of all places, and happened to meet someone who saw Hillel Slovak play. That’s the kind of coincidence I could never put into a book for fear it would be too unbelievable – sometimes my life is even stranger than fiction.
I’d visited ten different landmarks where eighteen of the bands I love cut their teeth. I’d gone in search of grunge history, and found that it wasn’t all boarded up or bulldozed: some of it was thriving, even if there was a sad lack of band shirts. There was only one thing left to do now. (Sleep? Hahahaha, no.)
Kick off my stompy 90s boots; sit in the kitchen with my leftover pizza, a cold beer, and a view of the Space Needle; and write the damn novel I came here to research.
If you enjoyed reading about my fangirl adventures through Seattle, keep an eye out for part 3!