In the sun: Aberdeen and Seattle, day 3

March 12

I mentioned in my last post that I’m a night owl. I cannot overstate just how useless I am in the mornings, so it’s no small feat that on my third day in Seattle I woke before dawn, voluntarily, and got out of bed without hitting snooze even once. Through the kitchen window, I saw a sliver of a crescent moon peeking out from behind the Space Needle, and smiled. Seattle had so far exceeded even my most unrealistic expectations. To start my busiest day in Washington State by catching a glimpse of the moon hanging low over the Space Needle, postcard-perfect – it sounds silly (it is silly), but it felt like a good omen. Had it been cloudy, or had I overslept by just a few minutes, I might not have seen it. Instead, everything lined up perfectly for me.

My day started so early because I wanted to see the sunrise from Kerry Park. The half-mile walk to the park was up a steep hill – my phone logged it as 18 flights of stairs – and as I was struggling up it, wheezing and coughing and wondering how I got so out of shape, some bastard had the audacity to run past me. Maybe that’s how you spot a tourist in Seattle: who’s out for a casual jog up Queen Anne Ave N., and who looks like they need a defibrillator?

The view from the top would have taken my breath away even if I were at peak fitness.

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Though I think that’s a pretty good picture – especially considering my smartphone camera and nonexistent photography skills – it doesn’t fully capture the beauty of it all, or how peaceful it was. It was unbelievably quiet. There were a few photographers snapping pictures, and a couple of other people who were, like me, just taking in the view, but no one was talking. There was no traffic noise. Only the occasional caw of gulls and the soft click of camera shutters broke the silence.

I put on my special ‘Sunrise in Seattle’ playlist – 45 minutes of grunge’s softer, more mellow side. (Screenshots, for those who don’t have Spotify.) You can laugh at me all you want. I’ve already written pity pieces about my busy lifestyle, and my complete inability to chill – there’s no need to elaborate here, but I will say that it was perhaps the first time in four years that I’ve truly slowed down. For 45 minutes, I did nothing. Layne Staley, Andy Wood, Eddie Vedder, and Chris Cornell gently crooned in my ears as I watched the sky fade from hues of deep purple to pink. Ferries crisscrossed Elliott Bay, bringing commuters from Bainbridge and Bremerton before the sun had fully risen; before the lights of the city had even dimmed. The sky burned gold at the horizon, and the moon slowly disappeared as the streaks of colour faded to bright blue.

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I’ve never seen anything like it. If this was right on my doorstep – if I could wake up and see this every day – I think I’d turn into one of those mythical ‘morning people’.

Once the sun had risen, I bused downtown to pick up my rental car. I wandered around the waterfront, grabbed breakfast (and coffee) to go from Pike Place Market, and set off on my little road trip. I couldn’t come all the way to Washington state and not see Aberdeen.

Throughout the drive, I was listening to and thinking about Nirvana. They were more than just my gateway to grunge. Along with Chili Peppers, Nirvana helped me discover a love for music that I didn’t know existed in anyone, let alone me. My parents aren’t really music lovers, and of all the great sounds to come out of the 70s and 80s, they favoured ABBA, Dr. Hook, and the Bay City Rollers over legends like Hendrix; even ‘dad rock’ like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin is (I quote) “too bang-crash” for them. The distorted guitar, screeching vocals, and fast, angry drums of Nevermind were nothing like the cheesy 70s disco and soft rock my parents casually listened to. More importantly, it was nothing like the melodic, uplifting Chili Peppers I knew from By The Way. It blew my mind that I could equally love both, and it was that love for two vastly different bands which made me realise I could connect to music on an emotional level. I just needed to find the right music – and Nirvana opened that door for me.

On a more sombre note, my tendency to obsess over things led me to read everything I could about Kurt Cobain. While it was something of a morbid fascination, bordering on unhealthy, it made me feel less alone with my depression long before I received a formal diagnosis or even fully grasped what depression was. I had to visit the town where he grew up.  I had to see where it all started for the man who gave me so much.

There were many places I wanted to see along the way: the Crescent Ballroom, at 1302 Fawcett Avenue in Tacoma, which had hosted Nirvana, Green River, Soundgarden, the Melvins, Malfunkshun, and the U-Men. In Olympia, there were several venues where Nirvana played, including Capitol Lake Park, where in August 1988 they played one of their only shows with Soundgarden. On May 3, 1986, Kurt made his public debut – as part of Brown Towel, a one-off trio with Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover of the Melvins – at the Greater Evergreen Student Community Cooperative Organization (GESCCO) Hall, located at 503 Cherry Street SE. GESCCO Hall also hosted Malfunkshun and Skin Yard, two bands which, so far, were sadly lacking on my ‘completed’ list. In Montesano, there was the high school where the Melvins began, and the Thriftway parking lot where Kurt first saw them play. If I’d had a couple of extra days in Seattle, I’d have stopped at every single spot – yes, even a Thriftway parking lot – but with only three days and sixteen hours and such a long ‘must see’ list, I decided to head straight for Aberdeen without stopping, in the hope that on the way back I’d have time to visit a landmark or two. About an hour into the trip, the coffee was wearing off. I thought, I’ll pull off at the next exit, whatever it is. It’s Washington state. There’ll be coffee somewhere. I pulled off at the next exit….

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…and I happened to be in Olympia. I didn’t check out the Olympia venues – I didn’t trust my ability to find them without getting lost, losing valuable time, and my priority was getting to Aberdeen as soon as possible. I did at least get out the car and wander around for a little bit, taking in the beautiful views. Pull off at a random exit where I’m from and you might find a sketchy strip mall, if you’re lucky. Pull off at a random exit in Washington and apparently you’ll find coffee shacks overlooking mountainous inlets.

Coffee in hand, I drove on. Passing through McCleary, I got all excited to see… …a highway sign. Have you ever been excited to see a highway sign? I have. Just this once. Just this specific sign.

 

(I know I’m a dork, thanks.)

And then, finally, after driving for a little over two hours and thinking about it for years before that, I was in Aberdeen.

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I fought against my Type-A urge to hurry up and get to my first stop, instead pulling the car over at the earliest possible opportunity. I’d spent weeks poring over maps; planning a minute-by-minute itinerary; planning a backup “in case I’m behind schedule” minute-by-minute itinerary; and I’d debated whether it was worth making a 4-hour round trip just to see Aberdeen, a town that wasn’t exactly bustling with attractions. I was quietly sure that by day three in Seattle I’d be so horribly behind schedule I’d have to give up the idea. Yet here I was, walking along the banks of the Chehalis River.

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Aberdeen was built around the lumber and fishing industries, and its history is often told as a ‘boom and bust’ tale. Census data shows that the population exploded in the early twentieth century, growing from just 3,747 in 1900 to 13,660 in 1910, and quickly reaching its peak of 21,723 by 1930. With the First World War came a need for wooden ships to supplement the merchant marine, and Aberdeen’s shipbuilding industry received a boost directly from Congress; by 1924, the town earned the title of “Lumber Capital of the World” when it shipped its one billionth foot of lumber. But the depression and the decline of the logging and fishing industries hit Aberdeen hard. Since its 1930 boom, the population has almost continuously decreased. The unemployment rate hit double digits in 1970 and remained that way for decades.

I tell you all this not just because I’m an insufferable history nerd, but in an attempt to give a sense of the Aberdeen Kurt grew up in. Though he was born several decades after the town’s economic boom, he lived among an adult population that surely remembered it – which, in my mind, conjures up an inherently sad picture: an older generation who remembered when the town was thriving; a younger generation with parents out of work; both as bitter as each other. (I have no statistics related to ‘bitterness’, of course. Perhaps that’s just my imagination going haywire.) I wouldn’t be the first writer to mention that he grew up poor; to bring up “that legendary divorce” which turned his world upside down at age nine; or to point out that he bounced around from place to place, calling twelve addresses (that I know of) ‘home’ in his short 27 years. The 1210 E. First Street house which people often call his ‘childhood home’ was one of many:

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The Cobains moved here from Hoquiam when Kurt was two. He was three when his sister, Kim, was born in April 1970. The years the Cobains spent here as a family of three were happy by all accounts, including Kurt’s own:

Up until I was about 8 years old I had an extremely happy childhood – a really good one, with a totally affectionate mother, and she was totally supportive in helping me do art. I was always drawing and reading and she was really into supporting me… …I had a really good childhood during that time.
About A Son 

In About A Son, Kurt describes himself as a hyperactive child so loved and well-supported that he felt he could do anything: he could be the President of the United States, if he wanted; the world felt about as big as his back yard, and he thought every town in America was like Aberdeen, where “everyone just got along”. In Montage of Heck, Kurt’s mother Wendy paints a vivid picture of that hyperactivity, recalling her son “running and jumping and doing somersaults, and jumping off of things… And rocking in the rocking chair like, ninety miles per hour.”

Though he describes his childhood as happy, there is a tinge of sadness to some of Kurt’s earliest memories. By age seven, most of his friends were asking the same question: why are my parents divorcing? What went wrong? Kurt described it as “a plague, a total disease.” In February 1976, a week after Kurt’s ninth birthday, the plague struck his own home when Wendy told her husband that she wanted a divorce. Wendy and Donald Cobain had struggled financially throughout their marriage: Don held down an office job in the logging industry, but his $4.10 hourly wage wasn’t enough, and even with the extra money he took in doing inventory at the lumber yard on weekends, the Cobains frequently had to borrow money from family to pay their bills. Financial stress and conflicts over parenting may have led to the divorce, which was finalised on July 9, 1976. Donald moved into his parents’ trailer in Montesano. In Kurt’s own words:

I never felt like I’ve really had a father, you know? I’ve never had a father figure who I could share things with. I had a mother and father [before the divorce]… …and then he got married and after that I was, you know, like one of the last things of importance on his list…. …he just gave up.
About A Son

After his parents’ divorce, Kurt “started becoming this manic depressive”. His view of the world – and his behaviour – changed dramatically. In June 1979, an overwhelmed Wendy granted Don full custody of his son. While living in Montesano with his father, Kurt met Buzz Osborne, who made him a compliation tape of punk rock.

…by the end of the week I was a certified self-proclaimed punk rocker. I’m so glad that I got into punk rock at the time that I did, because it gave me those few years that I needed to grow up, and just put my values in perspective, and realize what kind of a person I am.
About A Son

But Kurt’s rebellion was too much for his father to handle, so for a while he couch-surfed with family and friends: at one time, ‘home’ was back in Aberdeen, in a refrigerator box on his friend Dale Crover’s porch, at 609 West Second Street. He eventually moved back in with his mother. In high school, he struggled to belong:

Well, I wouldn’t have been so unusual at all if I would have found at least one kid with a wacky haircut. If I could have just found one punk rocker… I mean I wanted to fit in somewhere, but not with the average kid. I mean not with the popular kid at school.
About A Son

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J.M. Weatherwax High School. A substantial portion of the school was completely destroyed by fire in 2002.

It was at high school that Kurt met Krist Novoselic, and found the punk rocker friend he’d been looking for.

I remember seeing him in high school a few times and thinking he was definitely somebody I wanted to meet, but I never saw him other than at pep assemblies. I remember thinking he was a really clever, funny, loudmouth person… …I kept always making it obvious I wanted to be in a band, and wanted somebody to play with… …I made the Fecal Matter tape with Dale [Crover] and always made it available for Krist to hear, and he just never bothered to listen to it, until one day he just came over and said “I finally listened to that tape you made. It’s pretty good. We should start a band.” Okay, finally!
About A Son

Kurt had discovered his love for music at a very early age: now, he walked a thin line between wanting to become a rock star just to prove he could, and questioning why he should, when the approval of others mattered little to him. Shortly before graduation, he made up his mind, and dropped out of high school.

My family was certain that I was gonna go to art school, but at that time I was so heavily into punk rock that I decided I wanted to be in a band instead. I had two scholarships waiting for me…. …I made my mind up at the end of the year that I wasn’t going to go. I was immediately kicked out.
About A Son

Homeless again, Kurt lived at a number of different addresses before eventually moving into his own place. Meanwhile, he and Krist had recruited Aaron Burckhard as drummer for their band, which practiced, in its early days, at Krist’s mother’s hair salon. The little building is still there, at 107 S. M Street. Needless to say, I stopped by to check it out. It looked inhabited, so I didn’t get pictures, but you can take a tour via this real estate listing, if you like.

After visiting the spot where Nirvana rehearsed before they were Nirvana, my next stop was where they played some of their earliest shows, and where Krist made his first public appearance:

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The D&R Theatre is located at 205 S I St. It was closed when I got there, though I appreciated that speakers were blasting Jimi Hendrix into the entryway. Just around the corner, at 211 E. Wishkah Street, is where Rosevear’s Music Center was originally located: Kurt’s first guitar, a gift for his 14th birthday, came from Rosevear’s. After supplying Grays Harbor with instruments and music lessons for 80 years, Rosevear’s sadly closed in 2015. A post from the store’s Facebook page reads:

For a short time at our location on the corner of Wishkah and H we had this map up on the wall. We invited anyone that visited Aberdeen and our store because they were fans of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain put a star on the map showing were they had travelled from. Quite a few of the stars have fallen off but most of them are still there. Pretty cool to know that some hometown boys have had such a far reaching influence!

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Far-reaching, indeed.

I had one more stop to make in Aberdeen – something I’d intentionally saved for last. I headed back in the direction of E. First Street, looking for a certain park, and a certain bridge.

Kurt’s claim that he lived under the Young Street Bridge during periods of homelessness has often been questioned, but he certainly hung out in the area. A park has been built there in his honour:

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Near the bridge there are a couple of benches where fans scrawl tributes. I paused to leave my own, and to read the messages others have left. They ranged from simple “thank you”s to lengthier notes of appreciation; doodled hearts and “I love you”s; Nirvana lyrics and choice quotations from the man himself. One of the names was familiar:

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I have no way knowing if that message was really left by Aaron Burckhard, of course – I know it’s about as verifiable as a spray-painted “DAVE GROHL WOZ ‘ERE” – but I want to believe.

There was one more thing I had to do before I could leave Aberdeen.

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I sat underneath the bridge for a while, reflecting on Kurt and Aberdeen. It was eerily quiet. Occasionally a car would pass overhead, but the sound was muffled, barely louder than the gentle lapping of the Wishkah. I couldn’t imagine sleeping here, on the cold, muddy banks, exposed at all sides – you almost hope that Kurt was making it up. A piece published by AP News last year called Aberdeen a place “drowning in despair”; in a letter to Grays Harbor County newspaper The Daily World, Aberdeen Rep. Jim Walsh derided the article, calling it “a classic hatchet job, designed to portray this area in the worst possible light…. ….to portray us in a buffoonish, pathetic manner to make self-styled sophisticates feel morally superior.” I can’t make judgments about Aberdeen based on the few hours I spent there on a sunny, windy Monday. What I can tell you is that many of the houses in Kurt’s ‘Felony Flats’ neighbourhood are boarded up, or in disrepair. I can tell you that (as of 2016) 21.6% of its residents live in poverty. I can tell you that I didn’t spot any needles laying around Kurt’s memorial park, despite the grim warning posed by a local resident’s handmade sign, but the town’s opiate-related deaths doubled last year.

Before I left the bridge, I put on Something In The Way. I had to. I’m sure Kurt would have hated it – he probably would have hated me, the extra fangirl who traveled nearly 2,800 miles to sit on a riverbank under a bridge. All I can do is hope he’d understand that the way he describes first hearing punk rock in About A Son is how I felt the first time I heard Nevermind; that his music is to me what Buzz’s demo tape was to him. The song finished and I got up to walk back to my car. I had to listen to something, and nothing seemed more fitting than Nevermind.

Except, suddenly, the music would ‘play’ but there was no sound whatsoever. Some weird shit was happening to my brand new phone, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t get Nevermind to play. Maybe it’s a total coincidence. Maybe it was a personal “f*ck you, you creepy, obsessive freak” from Kurt himself.

I had no time to stop anywhere on the way back to Seattle – I had an appointment I couldn’t miss. There’s no way I could ever forget the trip I’d been dreaming of for more than a decade, but I wanted something special to mark it. Something that would last forever. A way to take a piece of Seattle with me everywhere I go:

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[Pictured a few days later]

I have to give a huge shout out to the staff at True Love Art Gallery and Tattoo, who were wonderful from start to finish, and to my artist, Eric Schandelmeier. I was in the studio for a little over an hour, and had a few more sites to squeeze in before dark.

The first was Comet Tavern. Most of the venues in my novel are fictional, but there are a couple of nods to real bars. How could I not feature a bar The Stranger described as “a place to start your night with a shot of whiskey with a couple grizzled regulars. A place where a hazmat suit should have been provided before entering the bathrooms. A place where tales of drugs, drunks, and debauchery were never in short supply”? Drugs, drunks, and debauchery could be the byline to my novel.

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I didn’t pack my hazmat suit, so I couldn’t stop for a drink – I was also rushing, racing against daylight and Mother Nature, who didn’t give a damn about my schedule. I had a couple more sites to check off my list before the sun set:

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Neumos opened as Moe’s Mo’Roc’N Cafe in 1994 – by that point, many of the bands that epitomise the grunge movement had already left Seattle. To my knowledge, just one of the bands with a permanent spot in my ‘recently played’ list played here: in 1996, Moe’s hosted Pearl Jam’s first collaboration with Neil Young. Moe’s also hosted No Doubt for their first appearance in Seattle, and it was here that an infamous free Radiohead show nearly caused riots.

My next stop, Oddfellows Hall, has had its own share of controversy: a Mudhoney show here was shut down by police for violating the Teen Dance Ordinance. The Teen Dance Ordinance placed such heavy restrictions on music venues that bars often refused to host local acts, who would instead rent Oddfellows Hall for their performances. The Hall was an essential part of the early music scene, and is also where Skin Yard played their first show, on June 7, 1985.

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Of course, while I was in the area, I had to pay homage to one of the most legendary musicians Seattle ever gave us:

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Thank you, Jimi ❤

Still with me? I did warn you this was my busiest day, but we’re almost done.

Having seen the sun rise over Seattle, I also wanted to see it set. I rushed over to Alki beach/Alki point in the west. West Point, 14 miles north of Alki, is the westernmost point of Seattle and may seem like the best place to see sunset, but for me, it had to be Alki. Many pivotal scenes in my novel take place there, and it has special significance to one character in particular. By the time I arrived, the sun had pretty much disappeared, but it was stunning nonetheless:

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Rumour has it Eddie Vedder lives in Alki – watching the waves roll in as the last glimmer of light disappeared over the horizon, I could see why he’d choose to live here, and why there are so many references to the ocean in Pearl Jam’s lyrics. It was beautiful, in a way that felt completely different to watching the sunset from the Space Needle. At the top of the Space Needle, you’re surrounded at all sides by the city: it’s inescapable. From this spot of Alki beach, it didn’t feel like I was in the biggest city in the Pacific Northwest.  It could have been any remote corner of any country in the world, and that’s exactly why my characters come here so often: to escape. On my way home, I drove through my characters’ neighborhoods: I walked around the industrial district, where I currently have my band’s bassist living in a shithole apartment flanked by train tracks on one side and the Spokane St Viaduct on the other. I drove around Beacon Hill, where my guitarist lives, and swung by her high school. I took careful notes for realism; I scribbled down a few landmarks so I can repeat the journey on Google maps if ever my memory needs refreshing.

I’d hoped to go out for the night. I had this silly idea that I could wander around downtown and find live music somewhere; that I should step out of my comfort zone and do something without thoroughly planning it first. Be spontaneous for once. In the end, I stayed in. I was exhausted, but that wasn’t all: I was inspired. I’d seen the sun rise from Kerry Park. I’d visited Aberdeen. I’d got a tattoo while all the memories it represented were still fresh, and I’d finished the day the way my characters so often do.

Truth be told, before coming to Seattle, I hadn’t written in weeks. I’ve been in a creative slump for some time now, so I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity. I set up a writing spot overlooking the Space Needle, laying out my itinerary maps and pebbles from Alki for a little extra inspiration.

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I cracked open a beer, and I finally wrote a chapter that’s been plaguing me for months. I kept writing until the early hours of the morning, fighting against sleep. There were so many ideas rushing around in my head. Eventually – around the time I thought I’ll just ride this little inspiration wave a bit longer and then started cackling to myself, singing “I’ll ride the wave where it takes meeeeeeeeee” – I begrudgingly called it a night.

After all, I had another busy day ahead of me.

If you enjoyed reading about my fangirl adventures through Seattle, keep an eye out for the final instalment- part 4!

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Stranger than fiction: Seattle, day 2

March 11

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…”
“Oh!”
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.

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Appropriate shirt is appropriate.

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:

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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:

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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:

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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.:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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No, sadly, I didn’t stop there to see Hamilton 😦

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:

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croc

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:

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Pictured: Tad (L) and Tad (R)

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.

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Lori and Tad, thank you for being COOL AS FUCK

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.

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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:

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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.

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As writing nooks go, I’d say this one’s pretty sweet.

If you enjoyed reading about my fangirl adventures through Seattle, keep an eye out for part 3!

 

Fernweh: Seattle, day 1

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.

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.

———–

March 10

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?

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Pictured: what happens when my level of Type A meets my level of Obsessive Fangirling.

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.

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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.

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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:

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Alice, who took more than 500 pictures in Seattle, didn’t think to get a picture of the apartment on a sunny day.

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.

(As if it wasn’t beautiful enough already,  Crown Of Thorns was playing when the view looked like this.)

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction Friday: grunge edition

And we’re back for our (ir)regularly-scheduled programming, Fiction Friday! This week, we’re in Seattle, “at some point in late 1993”:  ‘at some point’, because I haven’t yet figured out where this scene will go. That’s one of the things I love about piecing novels together scene-by-scene instead of writing to a strict, structured outline.

This excerpt is, of course, taken from Entertain Us. You’ve met Jesse, my darling little shithead of a lead singer. Now I’d like you to meet Cara….

__________________

A man and his young son tossed a football between them. An elderly couple, walking their terrier-type dog, paused so that the creature could sniff a tree; while a group of twenty-somethings, probably students, lay in the grass poring over papers and books. Cara scanned her surroundings from behind her sunglasses, looking out for a familiar face. She checked her watch: her visitor was ten minutes late already, and she was sorely tempted to leave; bail on their scheduled meeting.

“Excuse me?”

Cara jumped in her seat. Oh no, not today. Not today. “Yes?” she said, trying to convey as much displeasure as she could in a single word. It was one of the twenty-somethings, and she didn’t have the emotional strength to be recognized and ogled today.

“Could I just reach under you real quick? The wind got to some of my papers…”

“Oh!” Cara stood, vacating the bench, and the young man reached under it to retrieve his notes. So he hadn’t recognized her at all. She was thankful that he didn’t look at her when he gave a cheerful ‘thanks’, and didn’t see her reddening face.

You’re almost as bad as Jesse, she chided herself, but she was distracted, before the thought could take root, by the sight of her visitor in the distance, looking in every direction but Cara’s, holding two coffee cups. There was a sort of franticness to her movements, a quickness in the way her head jerked as she looked for Cara’s face among one cluster of people after another, that showed her desperation even from a distance.

“Mom,” Cara called, with a sigh. Lynn turned her head in Cara’s direction, and Cara waved a hand in the air to catch her attention. She sat back on the bench; judge and jury all in one.

Her mother stood sentinel for a moment, too overwhelmed upon seeing her daughter for the first time in months to find words. “I got us some coffees,” she said, at last, needlessly. She handed one to Cara.

“Thanks. You going to sit down, or…?”

“Of course, of course.”

Perhaps a park was a poorly-suited venue. Its attraction to Cara stemmed not just from it being a neutral ground (there was no way she would ever return to that house, not for any reason; and she was even more unwilling to give her mother the address to her apartment) but because all the territories she now occupied carried with them happy memories she didn’t want to be tainted with a bad one. The studio; Jesse’s garage; the parks and grassy knolls and coffee shops nearer to her home. But now that she had come halfway across town to a park she’d chosen for its location in an affluent area – to try to remind her mother, even subconsciously, that she was better off without her – she could only see it as a place where families came to enjoy each other’s company. She hated the little boy and his father; she hated the elderly couple and their dog. She hated the students for the happy, ordinary family she presumed they had at home. “Why did you just stand there?” she said, finally; ice in her tone. “You just stood there, and did nothing. No, wait: didn’t just do nothing. Just walked by into your bedroom, like it was just some… Some minor little inconvenience to you. Like someone left the TV on, or something.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not enough.”

“I know it isn’t. But I am. It was shock. I didn’t know he was like that, with you.”

Cara opened her mouth to argue, but paused. With you, she’d said, the implication of those words heavy. “So he…?” The words died on Cara’s tongue; fleeting sympathy replaced with a flash of anger. “How could you not know? It was happening right under your nose.”

“The same way that you didn’t know, honey.” Lynn laid a hand on her daughter’s forearm, and though Cara flinched, she didn’t pull away.

“So why stay? How could you still love a man like that?”

“Love him?” Lynn gave a joyless chuckle. “Cara, I haven’t loved him in a long time. But he put food on the table; kept a roof over our heads. And when I thought I was the only one suffering for it, it was worth it.”

“Is that why you married him in the first place?”

“No. I loved him back then. I didn’t know what he was really like.”

Cara scoffed. “Maybe you should have waited longer. Dad wasn’t even cold.”

Wounded, Lynn released her gentle grip on Cara’s arm. She closed her eyes, so she never got to see that Cara winced; she would never know that she regretted the words as soon as she’d said them. “When you lose someone you love, you can’t just roll over and stop living. I had you to think about.”

And what a load of good that did me, Cara thought, but she had inflicted enough damage already. An uncomfortable silence fell over them. Cara hadn’t known what to expect from this meeting, but it certainly wasn’t this: to be sick at the sight of her; to know that it wasn’t her mother’s fault, but to find that being angry with her felt so good that she didn’t care. To be caught somewhere between wanting to accept her apology and rebuild their relationship, and feeling that she could never forgive her for just standing there motionless, no matter what her reasons. “Why did you write me? Why now?”

“I wanted to write, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to find you, until you got the PO Box.”

“Bullshit. I’ve had that box for months. Why now?”

Other parents might have called this insolence, but in Cara, Lynn only saw backbone, and it almost brought a smile to her face. So Ray had not taken that from her.

“I need your help,” she confessed.

Pause. Breathe. Repeat.

I’m writing this with puffy eyes, messy hair, and winged eyeliner that is tragically off-fleek. I’m writing this cradling a cup of coffee like it’s a lifeline, because last night, instead of going to bed when Lillian went to bed (which is what I’ve been saying I’ll do ‘tonight, no matter what’, for the past week) I stayed up into the small hours of the morning. Writing. Thinking. Planning. And then, when I finally laid my head down on the pillow, I picked up my phone to record a voice memo because I couldn’t sleep. My brain was still writing. Thinking. Planning.

I don’t know how to switch off.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s look back at November; at how we got here.

I returned to the stage. One short, manageable rehearsal a week became four rehearsals a week; five shows over four days. But then it was over, and I could pause. Breathe.

Just, you know, not for too long, because NaNoWriMo. But that wasn’t so bad. I’d write on my lunch break, I’d write when I put Lillian to bed, and then I could pause.

Or, at least, I could pause long enough to record vocals for a cover/tribute album. But that just meant waiting until the house was quiet (HA!) and singing a few songs by my favourite band; it was hardly torture. And then I could-

-well, not pause, not just yet; because first, there was Operation Christmas Child to take care of. My wonderful parishioners did the leg work there, though: they’re the ones who dedicated their time and money to shopping for gifts, wrapping boxes, and filling them with love. Really, all I did was send the boxes on their way around the world. Then the project was done for the year, and I could—

—do my homework, because, oh shit, we’re in week what? I’m how far behind? Okay. Breathe. Focus on homework. It’s okay. You’ve got your 50,000 words and you’ve still got two days before NaNo finishes. Then you can relax, you can

Sigh.
Who am I kidding?

Some people try to burn the candle at both ends. I hack away at the wax to expose the wick, and burn it from the ends and the centre.  I’m not going to go to bed early tonight, or tomorrow night, or the next. I’m never going to finish the book I started reading in September.

I thought I could pause when NaNoWriMo was over, but I haven’t. I’m still writing every day. That’s great news: I’m in love with this novel, fully engaged with it, and it’s coming along so nicely (there’ll be an update soon). But I don’t pause. When I get a free moment it’s like I have a compulsion to fill it. Even now, though I’ve ordered myself to take a night off from writing and go to bed early, I’m thinking instead I should update this page. I’m thinking about how tonight, I need to record vocals for a Foo Fighters tribute album I signed myself up for. I’m thinking that I can see a free window to catch up on sleep, to pause; and it doesn’t matter that it’s ten days away. I can keep going until then.

Newton’s first law of physics. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. I suppose that for the first time, I’m admitting that I’m scared of what will happen if I stop moving; if I pause.

Smells Like November

Drum roll, please.

NaNoWriMo is now less than two weeks away. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when I give up sleep, Google things that might get me put on the no-fly list, and watch my body composition turn to 70% caffeine, 25% gin, 5% bones and muscles and the like.

Last year was a huge success. I wrote 51,159 words in 30 days: words which weren’t perfect, but formed the backbone of Say Nothing. Over the past year I’ve edited, deleted, cried over, and re-written those words into a complete novel. I’ve never worked harder on, or been more in love with, a writing project. Why it took me so long to put my obsession with love for history together with writing, I just don’t know. But it’s definitely ‘my’ genre.

I’ve known since writing the very first chapter of Say Nothing that it will be a series. I’ve known from the first chapter how I want the series to end (no, I’m not telling). Over the last few months, with NaNo creeping ever closer, I’ve been planning its sequel. I’ve got the bare bones of a plot, from start to finish. I’ve got pages and pages of research notes. So, without further ado, I’m happy to say that this year’s NaNoWriMo project is….

Continue reading

Fiction Friday: ‘NEW NOVEL WHAT???’ edition

Let me briefly explain how my brain works.

My brain is like that asshole college roommate who drinks all your good beer and replaces it with Natty Light. Sure, it’s not exactly what you wanted, but it will do, right? I don’t ever have ‘an idea’ rattling around in my head. I either have nothing, or I have too many to work on all at once. For a while now, I’ve had ‘nothing’. But for several weeks, conversations with my brain have looked like this:

Yo, I’ve got an idea for a novel.
Brilliant! Is it the sequel to Say Nothing?
Lol nah.
…okay, what is it?
Seattle. 1990s. Grunge scene.
…that’s…. That’s not a novel. That’s a setting, and a theme.
Hey, my work here is done.

With NaNoWriMo just around the corner and a sequel to Say Nothing already earmarked for that, I was going to ignore my persistent, petulant brain. Then it gave me a (working) title. Then an opening scene. Then two characters. Now I was listening. Then it gave me the vaguest idea of a plot, and now I’m excited.

I’ve written the first chapter. This is a tiny excerpt – just a teaser – introducing you to one of the main characters. Enjoy!

—–

Above a double garage in the green suburb of Washington Park was a studio apartment where Jesse lived in squalor. The occupants of the house were the Williamses, an elderly couple whose ears could rarely pick up the sound of Jesse’s loud guitar, even if their noses often caught whiff of the pot smoke that frequently came across the garden from the garage. Jesse had lived in the apartment for two years, but had made no effort to scrub it up: paint was peeling in the loft area above the kitchen, where a mattress and rumpled sheets on the floor formed his bed; in the tiny bathroom, the faucet dripped; there was a pervasive smell of damp (noticeable even over whatever takeout was spoiling on the counter) from a roof leak he never bothered to report to his landlords. His landlords, quiet though he kept it, were his parents. Embarrassingly wealthy, they owned one of the largest real estate companies in Seattle, and the house in Washington Park was one of their many rentals. The Williamses paid rent; Jesse did not. Though Jesse’s apartment was small and filthy, he found that his friends and bandmates were in awe of him having his ’own place’, so for two years he had simply let them assume that his landlords were the Williamses. In Jesse’s defense, he had never technically lied, he just hadn’t corrected them: he couldn’t be held responsible if they came to the wrong conclusion. He didn’t correct them when they assumed his parents had cut him off, either. They painted for themselves an image of Jesse as a struggling musician, Mom and Dad’s purse strings brutally cut; the rug pulled out from underneath him; on his own since the day he flipped the proverbial bird to his parents’ dreams for him and dropped out of real estate school. He was their hero. A rock star. After all this time, like the stench of weed that perforated the furnishings and even the walls of his apartment, this white lie had seeped into Jesse, until he almost believed it himself.

So he let the apartment go to ruin. He didn’t replace the couch when it started to sag in the middle, or the bulb that blew in the kitchen. Someday, when his band made it big, there would be a glittering write-up in Rolling Stone of his rags-to-riches tale. Jesse Parr, who came from nothing and formed the greatest rock band of all time. Jesse Parr, the kid who made it big.

 

 

Dreaming Big

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Autumn sweet, we
Call it fall
I’ll make it to the moon
If I have to crawl

Today, I have a story to share. Admittedly, it doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of this blog, but it’s not suited for Facebook, either; and it’s a story that I think should be told. It’s about music, and art, and babies.

I have always been deeply moved by music. I don’t think that makes me a rare and special snowflake – who doesn’t feel that way? – but it does have a strong effect on me. If I find myself staring at an empty page, music can help the words come unstuck. Certain songs have never failed to cheer me up; certain songs have never failed to make me cry. Then, somewhere in between, there’s Scar Tissue. (Put it on. Have a listen.)

Red Hot Chili Peppers always have been, and always will be, my favourite band. Scar Tissue always has been, and always will be, my favourite song. As someone whose body is rippled with scars, its meaning to me always came from taking its lyrics at face value.

Until I heard the words “your blood tests came back abnormal; we’re going to send you to a specialist to check the baby’s okay.”

Let me first state, very plainly, that I am wiser now than I was just four years ago. I know now that the diagnosis I feared would not have been the end of the world for my child, or for me. But at the time, I didn’t know that. It can be scary, being pregnant with your first child. It’s terrifying to be pregnant with your first child in a new country, with no health insurance, no prenatal care, no money, no job, and no idea when your situation will improve. To scrimp and save for your only prenatal appointment, only to be told that the baby “might not be okay”… I couldn’t handle it now, if I had to; and I certainly couldn’t handle it then. In the days that we waited for an appointment with the specialist, I cuddled my pets close to my belly and I counted kicks and I cried, consumed by fear.

And then, as quickly as that fear took hold, it was vanquished. Results of further tests normal. No indication of any abnormality or delay. No sign that this pregnancy is nonviable. Relax, Momma. Everything will be okay.

On the way home, we stopped to get gas and a couple of sodas. I could tell you the specific Chevron station where I sat and waited in the car when it all finally sank in. After going so long without even basic prenatal care, I hadn’t dared to make dreams for this child. I couldn’t bring myself to buy baby clothes, let alone daydream about what my child would be like. Now, I had permission to dream. That was the first time motherhood felt like something wonderful and beautiful and life-changing. It was the first time I wasn’t scared.

And while I was sitting there in a Chevron gas station, trying to piece my thoughts together and trying to comprehend everything I was feeling, Scar Tissue came on the radio. My favourite song; one I hadn’t heard in a while and one I’d never heard on the radio before. For the first time, I really heard the words I’ll make it to the moon if I have to crawl, and I thought, “we’ll be okay”. It didn’t matter that I had no job, no money, no health insurance, no light at the end of the tunnel. We’d make it, somehow, this baby and me. Then – and I swear, this is true; though I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t believe me – I looked through the window up at the sky, and a flock of birds flew overheard right as I heard with the birds I’ll share this lonely view.

That was it. Scar Tissue was forever going to be this baby’s song.

I tried to incorporate music into the baby’s life as much as possible, even before she was born; even before she had a name; even before I knew she was a she; even while I was still scared. The baby listened to Nirvana’s In Utero whilst she herself was in utero, but she also listened to Elvis; to Johnny Cash; to whatever country music was playing on the radio. Before long, she’d picked out her favourites. Before she was born, she’d kick like crazy for Elvis. By the time she was six months old, she would giggle with delight if I sang Sugarland’s “Baby Girl”. At two, she was adorably headbanging to Nirvana. By age three, she was singing Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. And now, at age four, she’s picking up on my love of Red Hot Chili Peppers.

I haven’t forced it. I’ll always ask her if we can listen to music, and if she likes the song that’s playing or if she wants something else. So far, she’s never asked me to skip a Chili Peppers song, and my heart just swells with delight: it’s such a special and beautiful thing to have shared interests with your child, particularly when it’s something you love as much as I love those funky California dorks.

Lillian is still so little, and her interests are changing fast. But I think – and I hope – her love for the Chili Peppers is genuine, and lasting. Recently, I was listening to I Could Die For You and Lillian, recognising Anthony Kiedis’s voice, started singing Under The Bridge. She loves what she calls ‘the bubble noise’ on Feasting on the Flowers and asks for it on repeat.Her reaction to hearing Mother’s Milk for the first time was to thrash around the room and jump up and down on the couch. My little rock star.

Scar Tissue is the perfect song for Lillian; for us. I have dreams for her as big as the sky. I do everything I can to teach her not to accept a life with limitations; to not listen to those who say “you can’t do that” and to never dare say it to herself. She may never understand how it felt to hear that song the day I sat in a Chevron forecourt and let go of my fear. She’ll never know how it feels like life has gone full circle when she sings Scar Tissue. How it hits me like a freight train. But one thing is for certain: I want her to know that if she wants the moon, she can make it there.

Even if she has to crawl.

 

 

 

 

 

Who are the ‘good guys’?

Last night, Lillian and I were watching Avengers: Age of Ultron. She was firing off all these questions at the speed of light and I answered each of them. Then she asked me something which made me pause.

“Is he a bad guy because he has a gun?”

It will probably not surprise any of you that guns make me deeply, deeply uncomfortable. I grew up in a country where they are almost completely outlawed, and I fear them. My first instinct was to answer her with a “yes”, but I know that isn’t true. I personally know and love many civilians who carry firearms. They are not ‘bad guys’. I personally know and love many soldiers and police officers who carry firearms. They are not ‘bad guys’. At age almost-four, my daughter is too young to understand that sometimes the people with guns are bad guys, and sometimes they are good guys.

Because, you see, James Holmes had a gun when he killed twelve people in a movie theater in 2012. He was a bad guy.
Philando Castile had a gun on Wednesday when he was pulled over for a busted taillight in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He was a school cafeteria worker with no criminal record. He was not a bad guy.
So how do I explain to my child why James Holmes is alive and Philando Castile is dead?

I wasn’t going to write about this. My voice is not the important one here, so I was going to sit back and let others speak.

Then, Dallas happened. On Thursday, five police officers were killed during a demonstration related to the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. The Dallas police were there to keep the crowd safe. They posed for pictures with demonstrators, they filmed them and shared the videos on Twitter. Spreading the voice of their discontent. Helping. They were not bad guys.

I am seeing the people I love and admire following the same script from the same sick play that opened after the deaths of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray… The names change, but the dialogue doesn’t.
“Black lives matter.”
“Blue lives matter.”

We want things to be simple. We want clearly defined “good guys” and “bad guys”, but life is far more nuanced than we would like it to be.

In our rush to oversimplify things, when we hear “black lives matter” we think that it means “only black lives matter” or “black lives matter more than others”. We turn “blue lives matter” into “only the lives of the police matter”. “Black lives matter, and police are the bad guys” versus “police lives matter, and everyone they come up against is a bad guy”.

Enough; please.

I urge you all to remember that “black lives matter” doesn’t include the word ‘only’. Its meaning is not “black lives matter, and the police are the bad guys”. A closer, but wordier, explanation of its meaning would be: “this country has a long, tragic, and even recent history of treating people of color appallingly; and today we see people of color killed by law enforcement at a much higher rate than is proportional to their percentage of the population as a whole. When people of color are killed in high-profile incidents involving law enforcement, the media is quick to sully their name and their reputation by any means necessary, as if that justifies their deaths. So maybe, just maybe, America hasn’t healed from that history yet; maybe well-meaning cops are growing up hearing the racial attitudes of the not-too-distant past, and even if they are not intentionally racist, they’ve taken in those messages and absorbed them. So maybe, when the media rushes to dehumanize people of color, a fear and a prejudice grows in those well-meaning cops until they automatically see skin darker than their own as more of a threat, even if they don’t realize that they’re doing so. That might explain why last year, black men were nine times more likely to be killed by police than any other group, even though they only make up 2% of the general population.[Source] This has to stop. Black lives matter, too.”

But I also urge you to remember that “blue lives matter”, likewise, doesn’t include the word ‘only’. Maybe its meaning is closer to “the men and women who work in law enforcement make it their jobs to protect us. They put themselves in danger every single day, and many die in the line of duty: an average of 40-50 are shot, stabbed, strangled, or beaten every year.[Source] Demonizing law enforcement as a whole in the wake of high-profile incidents only heightens fear of the police and widens the gap between law enforcement and the communities they serve. To demonize law enforcement as a whole is an insult to the people who have sworn to serve and protect us, and do so every day without incident. Be outraged when innocent people are killed by the people who were supposed to keep them safe, yes; but please, remember that blue lives matter, too.”

And so we’re back to Lillian’s question, which, at its heart, is “how do we spot the bad guys?”.

We don’t. Because unlike in superhero movies, the bad guys don’t belong to one defined group, or organization; there isn’t one specific behavior that singles them out.

So please – please – stop pitting these two movements against each other. You can respect law enforcement in this country and grieve for officers who have fallen in the line of duty and still feel that people of color are dying at the hands of police at an alarming rate. “Black lives matter” doesn’t mean “only black lives matter”, any more than “blue lives matter” means “blue lives, and only blue lives, matter”. And while there is an ‘All Lives Matter’ movement, I would caution you that the movement and that language are not as inclusive as they sound. The battle cry of ‘all lives matter!’ is used more often to silence the grieving and the angry than it is to include them. To borrow from a popular internet analogy, it’s the equivalent of taking money from a fundraiser for a cancer charity while saying “what about the other diseases?”. It ignores people’s justified pain and outrage. It says “what about everyone else?” at a time when grieving communities are saying “yes, I know that all lives matter, but a life in my community was extinguished today and I am allowed to grieve for that loss; to focus on this particular life that was important to me”.

Two communities are hurting today. It is possible to show some compassion for both.