Musings on Rock and Roll
by Ken Shimamoto





Posted February 25, 2002


It's hard to believe it's been ten years since the Seattle "grunge" explosion came and went. As one who teethed on Brit blooze and early proto-metal, I have to admit that "grunge" was the last "new" development in rock'n'roll I could relate to - sorry, but bad metal-rap with vocals by Satan just doesn't do it for me. As reviled as Seattle is by lotsa folks in my cohort (those who dig garage/Detroit/punk/Aussie and more recently Scandi strains of high-energy jams), I think we'd all have to at least agree that the Grunge Moment MATTERED, if only because it restored (for a brief instant) the primacy of loud electric guitars in something approaching the mass consciousness, and I'd even argue that it produced some music of merit (although I wanna hear Pearl Jam's "Ten" - their GOOD rekkid - again about as much as I wanna hear "Dark Side of the Moon," "Led Zep IV," or, sorry Pete, "Who's Next," which is to say not at all, my ex-wife having picked up on it toward the ass-end of both our marriage and her days of Rawkdom, before she felt compelled to find herself a music - "New Country" - that she didn't have to share with either me or our kids...but I digress).

I once asked Dave Crider, Estrus Records honcho, former Mono Man and current Watts guitarslinger, what it was about the Pacific Northwest that made it such a hotbed of hot rock'n'roll going all the way back to the sixties - think of it: the Wailers, the Sonics, the Frantics (including future Moby Grape members Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson), the Kingsmen, Paul Revere & the Raiders, not to mention Jimi Hendrix (whose "Spanish Castle Magic" paid tribute to a Tacoma joint where the Wailers used to hold forth) and, uh, Larry Coryell in their formative years. He said, "Isolation." Which maybe has some truth to it. Unlike other hotbeds of American rock'n'roll, musos in Seattle, Tacoma, Bellingham, and Portland have the luxury of developing far from the perfidious influences of trends and the Industry (or at least they did up until some genius hatched the idea of NXNW). Something similar was probably taking place in Minneapolis a few years earlier, with the Replacements, Husker Du, Soul Asylum, and, uh, Prince all developing their own idiosyncratic thangs in the insular setting of their backwater burg.
That said, the Seattle bands were hardly a homogenous group. First to break through in a big way was Nirvana, whose slick, Butch Vig-produced, David Geffen-released 1991 album "Nevermind" redefined Rawk like no rekkid had since, I dunno, the first Van Halen album (and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" took its place next to "Enter Sandman," "You Really Got Me," "Smoke On the Water," and "Sunshine of Your Love" among songs that teenage tyros all over the U.S. of A. essayed the first time they picked up a guitar and plugged in, to the everlasting chagrin of neighbors and music store employees everywhere). Nirvana were built around Kurt Cobain, a local weirdo/stoner/outcast from the backwater burg of Aberdeen who absolutely loved punk rock (in a 1994 interview with Option, he talked about having the shit beat out of him by a local redneck - didn't realize they had those in Washington State, didja? - while tripping on acid, and gave the interviewer a long list of bands who "fans should check out if they like us" - a crusader in the same spirit as, I dunno, the early Rolling Stones were when it came to American blues guys; why, he even got the Meat Puppets on MTV, for chrissakes, a la the Stones with Howlin' Wolf on Shindig).

The first time I saw Cobain on TV, I thought he was my old bandmate Jay Hardesty (same sunken eyes, dirty blonde hair, ratty sweater), except Jay could play guitar a lot better than Kurt could. It didn't matter; Nirvana had the dubious distinction of being the band that belatedly made punk a commercial proposition. Kids idolized Kurt as their avatar and spokesman in a way no one had idolized a guitar slinger since, I dunno, maybe Hendrix. My kids sure did. So of course I was pissed - almost as pissed as I was when the Hendrix starship vectored in, way back when I was 13 - when Cobain, still the Tortured Artist in spite of fame, success, massive record sales, marriage to glitzy Star Wannabe and Hole frontperson Courtney Love, and the birth of a darling baby girl named Frances Bean, took the coward's way out and blew off the top of his head with a shotgun. A senseless, tragic waste.
Legacy-wise, Nirvana's angst-filled anthems inspired pretenders ranging from pretty-boy Brits Bush to spud-like (and integrated!) midwesterners Local H (whose "As Good As Dead" is the best album Nirvana never made and included the lines, particularly relevant here, "If I looked like Eddie Vedder/Would you like me any better?"; release of a new Local H album is imminent and anxiously anticipated at my house).

Nirvana's "unplugged-on-MTV" live album remains a strong testament. Stripped down to the basics, Cobain's music is all raw edges and emotion - the boy really Felt Things Deeply, and could sing about it. His version of Leadbelly (!)'s "In the Pines" is classic. Lotsa folks (punk purists) prefer Nirvana's pre-success alb "Bleach," released on local indie Sub Pop, which also released records by seminal Seattle bands like Green River and Mudhoney before hitting platinum with, uh, the wimpy Ben Folds Five and selling out to Warner Bros.

If Nirvana represented (for the generation that couldn't remember the 'riginals, at least) the Apotheosis of Punk, Pearl Jam performed the same function for what the marketeers have dubbed "classic rock." Their debut album "Ten" (which was gonna be called "Mookie Blaylock" after the NBA star but wound up being named after just his NUMBER instead) contains galores of musical allusions to Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and so on, but was a pretty good rekkid in spite of all that (although I could probably live another thousand years without hearing "Evenflow," "Alive," or especially "Jeremy" ever ever ever again; blame "alternative" radio overexposure). They were never again as consistent in the studio (after "Ten," I'd say they had exactly two good songs: "Daughter" and the Who-ish "Better Man," both of which are somewhat unique among guy-rock songs in that they adopt a feminine perspective lyrically). At the core of the band was the guitar/bass team of Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, who'd played together in Green River (a noisy Stooges derivation that also included Mark Arm, later of Mudhoney) and Mother Love Bone (a glammy metallic outfit fronted by one Andrew Wood, who OD'd on heroin just as they were about to Make It Big - first in a long series of "H" casualties among Seattle rockers). Together they wrote hard rock songs that grooved a little more than the usual post-punk or metal thrash.

While Gossard and Ament were the musical center (they went through drummers like Spinal Tap), the real big news here was their frontman, the brooding ex-surfer Eddie Vedder (yep, the same one immortalized in song by Local H in not quite the same way Paul Westerberg's sloppy-drunk Replacements did for Alex Chilton), who, along with Cobain, ushered in the Age of the Non-Singer, Eddie V.'s contribution being his distinctive insertion of the "Rrrrrrrrr" sound in words where it doesn't conventionally belong. The depiction of a sheep on the cover of their second album, "Vs.," was a dead giveaway: Eddie's vocal coach. He also did a nice line in crowd-surfing, as captured in their early MTV videos. Turns out he was a Who fan; a big "Quadrophenia" man, of course, and even got to meet and be pals with the Big T. The kiss of death came when they covered, uh, J. Frank Wilson's "Last Kiss": bleating the oldies. (My kids were hip several years before that; as early as '94, when they were still Bush fans, they dismissed Pearl Jam as "old men.") Not long ago, I caught a Pearl Jam tour documentary on PBS. Playing the stadiums, their stage was the length of a city block. They stood far apart, didn't move around much. They looked almost exactly like Pink Floyd, as stolid and boring as that.

If Nirvana were Punk and Pearl Jam were "classic rock" (albeit played by younger, cuter people than the Old School stuff), Soundgarden were nothing but an updated metal band (albeit one with a brain). Kim Thayil's layers of sludge guitar evoked the memory of Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi (he even played an SG, for chrissakes) and, uh, Jethro Tull's Martin Barre, while leather-throated, brass-balled front guy Chris Cornell was that rarity in nineties rock, someone who could Really Sing. Soundgarden's secret weapon was drummer Matt Cameron, undoubtedly the best skinsman out of the whole Seattle mob (see his Hater side-project) who wound up, post-Soundgarden's split, taking over the thumper throne in Pearl Jam when his predecessor exploded or spontaneously combusted or something. Cornell and Cameron participated, along with the Pearl Jam string players and Vedder, in a recorded tribute to late Mother Love Bone front Andrew Wood, which was released as "Temple of the Dog" awhile before their respective bands' "real" 1991 records and might actually be the best rekkid to come out of the whole Seattle grunge THANG. The 'garden's "Badmotorfinger" album (their second on A&M after stints with Sub Pop and SST) was released around the same time as "Nevermind" and "Ten" and proved 'em to be maybe the best of the bunch on songs like "Rusty Cage" (later covered by Johnny Cash!), "Outshined" (which bore the immortal line "Looking California/Feeling Minnesota"), and "Jesus Christ Pose"). The songcraft on that one was kinda sprawling and dissonant for RadioAmerica, though, and so for the next one, "Superunknown," they tightened it up, got more melodic, and had bona fide HITS like "Black Hole Sun" and "Spoonman" (the latter of which joined "Smells Like Teen Spirit" et. al. on the list of songs that teenage tyros essay etc.; I remember the kid who lived with his mom downstairs from me when the song was new usedta play it on his bass until I was ready to go down and throttle him, but instead I'd retaliate by practicing a coupla solo gtr pieces I knew by Captain Beefheart ad infinitum ad nauseum). They also had the decency to break up not long after their sell-by date, after which not much has been heard from any of 'em (although Cornell made a solo album). Pity.

The door to mainstream success having been busted wide open by the aforementioned Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, it was only a matter of time before the profiteers raced in, led by ex-Rolling Stone scribe/filmmaker Cameron Crowe, who'd married one of the Wilson sisters of Heart fame (the one that DOESN'T look like an evil Ann Gillian) and moved to Seattle a coupla years earlier. He wrote and directed a movie called "Singles," which immortalized the Seattle scene and featured Matt Dillon in the slacker/stoner/rock'n'roller role later reprised by Ethan Hawke in "Reality Bites" (I think his band was played by actual members of Alice in Chains or Soundgarden, I forget which) before going off to have himself portrayed as the Cute Kid in the kinda-ooky "Almost Famous." Before long, teenage boys all over MallAmerica were growing long, greasy locks and wearing flannels over their baggy shorts.
At this time I suppose I should say something about Alice In Chains, a quartet of hairheads who looked like nothing so much as the fake "Stooges" from the movie "Velvet Goldmine," led by one Layne Staley, whose voice oozed out from the depths of their music like an opiate haze, and Jerry Cantrell, a competent seventies-style (i.e., not a "shredder") hard rock guitarist, who made some interesting records before Staley's smack habit broke them; Mudhoney, a buncha Stooges devotees (for proof, check out the direct "I Wanna Be Your Dog" cop at the end of "Halloween," or think about who else would have the had balls to release a song called "1995" - like "1969" or "1970," get it? - let alone go the Stooges' annoying four-minutes-of-freeblow-noise-to-end-the-album gambit "L.A. Blues" one further by having a bonus track at the end of their "My Brother the Cow" album that consists of THE ENTIRE FUCKING ALBUM PLAYED BACKWARDS; I rest my case) who sound just like the crew of stoners everyone knows who have a band even tho they can't play or sing very well, but are cool anyway (perhaps I'm just inclined to like 'em 'cos a charming and delightful young woman of my acquaintance - who did high school in Seattle and college in Bellingham, where she actually dated one of the Mono Men! - told me she usedta go see them and Soundgarden at her local community college); and the Screaming Trees, who are not only Celibate Rifle Kent Steedman's favorite band but also one of the few bands from anywhere to feature a guy playing an Epiphone Crestwood Deluxe who prolly couldn't pick Deniz Tek out of a police lineup (not that the Iceman would ever be in a police lineup).

I saw a young Seattle band called Love As Laughter open for J. Mascis and Mike Watt last year. They were okay and worked hard, but the crowd almost seemed to be going out of their way to ignore their two-man acoustic set (their drummer had quit right before the tour and they manfully decided to carry on anyway) until Watt came out, plugged in, and sang the Velvets' "What Goes On" while one of 'em moved over to traps. These days, it seems that being from Seattle (and recording for Sub Pop) ain't what it used to be. Then again, neither is being from anywhere else. - Ken Shimamoto