Writers Write

Posted: October 1, 2011 in From Writers

“Grunge celebrated its 20th anniversary this past fall. Never heard of grunge? Then this book probably isn’t for you. But if you’re like me, and you believe Seattle bands like Mudhoney, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were the source of some truly inspired rock moments, then Delaware Valley College professor Stephen Tow’s well-researched examination of the scene that spawned them is a must-read—one that’s written with the impassioned perspective of a historian in love with his subject.”

Hobart Rowland (Main Line Today)

“Details. Stephen Tow’s book, The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge, has a lot of them, and though there’s a mountain of information, it isn’t overwhelming. It’s scholarly but entertaining, interesting and funny; it’s researched to no end but quite relatable for both musicians and music fans.

It happened here in Seattle. A community developed, and then a sound, or perhaps attitude, or as Tow puts it, ‘grunge was more an approach to playing than an actual style of music’, and The Strangest Tribe captures the smallest details of how that happened. There were bands and bands and bands that contributed something but never made it. The Fags. The U-Men, The Young Fresh Fellows and so many more, and all these years later, they have much to say, of course. When you’re in the thick of it, and then a new kid comes along, and then the new kid makes it big while you’re still playing whatever little bars you can, you have something to say. You have an opinion. You have the feeling of being part of something that made it all possible, that ‘I was there at the beginning’ kind of feeling.

And like I said, it’s relatable, Tow spoke to many musicians, and anyone who has ever played in a rock band can relate to things like what Leighton Beezer from the Thrown Ups said, ‘I remember my budget was $400 a month: $80 for rent, $50 a week for food, and the rest went for beer. It was not a bad life.’ I can relate to that life from my own time as a struggling musician, but what I never felt was that kind of burgeoning scene of musicians living together, bonding, supporting each other, creating music in a scene that was all about just that, the music, not the stardom….No one in the book takes credit for the artists that came later. They just say, ‘I was there. I did this. Then this happened, and it was cool!’

And it was.

And all the details are there, the prequel, if you will. And reading it the way Mr. Tow writes about it, I almost feel like I was there drinking a beer with Beezer as Nirvana exploded. And that’s to Tow’s credit. There’s a ton of detail, but it never loses focus, never gets bogged down. He has an instinct for that which really matters to the story and writes it in a memorable way, almost nostalgic even though he wasn’t there. When I met Tow at his book signing at the Feedback Lounge last October, we signed and exchanged books, had a couple beers and talked about the time and effort of writing, how we both observed the scene from afar back in those days, how we loved Nirvana and Pearl Jam then (no backlash back east), how we both wished we could have been here in those days. It must have been exciting for both musicians and music fans, and after reading his book, it makes me wish he’d write the next part of the story, the sequel, the explosion. I want his take on the moment the world stood up and listened to Seattle.”

Dave O’Leary (Seattle author of Horse Bite)

“Philadelphia historian Stephen Tow searches for the earliest roots of the grunge emergence, tracing local influences from the late 1970s through the ’80s, and ending his timeline–constucted via hundreds of interviews–just as grunge as goes mainstream in the early ’90s.  This is grunge before grunge was grunge.”

Brangien Davis (Seattle magazine)

“Less ‘the story of Grunge’ than ‘Grunge: the Prequel,’ The Strangest Tribe is a granular study in stage-setting—Stephen Tow’s exploration of the various conditions and coincidences that made the late-1980s/early-90s Seattle rock eruption possible to begin with. After conducting rafts of interviews, parsing countless fanzine and newspaper reviews, and probably coming away with tinnitus, the Delaware Valley College professor emerges with a portrait of the varied, nascent freak scene that would eventually spawn Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Soundgarden. It’s the kind of history wherein misfit groove units like the U-Men, enterprising goof-offs like the Squirrels, and crowd-baiting punks like Upchuck and the Fags matter more than The Melvins, where a guy like Skin Yard’s Jack Endino isn’t so much ‘the producer of Nirvana’s Bleach‘ as he is a sort of all-by-his-lonesome Northwest cousin to Glenn Branca.

After approaching Seattle from a geographic perspective—divvying up the region into enclaves and class structures, hinting at resentments simmering at the fissures of scenes—Tow leads us forward year by year from the late 70s. Venues like The Bird and Modern Productions usher in first-wave punk; Evergreen University’s radio station turns eclectic; the Deep Six compilation forges a sense of regional identity; Mudhoney’s uncompromising noise-pop defines the titular genre. As 1989 faded into 1990, the garage rock of Girl Trouble and Gas Huffer gripped Seattle; it was on the verge of eclipsing grunge’s metal-punk hybrid when Nirvana exploded into national consciousness. Informative but not slavishly so, Tribe serves as a sober, even-handed primer for an era in Seattle history that many have forgotten, if they were ever aware of it.”

Raymond Cummings (SpliceToday.com)

The Strangest Tribe, by Stephen Tow, makes a case for how awesome it would be to have a time machine and go back to Seattle circa 1985-88–clutching this handy tome as your tour guide! Not only would you be able to say you were making the nature (NW) scene long before the grunge goldrush happened, you could zero in on the more intriguing pre-Nirvana bands (say, the U-Men, Thrown Ups and Green River), venues and places (Gorilla Gardens, Reciprocal Recording studio, KCMU-FM) and events (the release of the seminal Deep Six compilation on C/Z; British journalist Everett True’s six-week Seattle sojourn) with the benefit of pre-emptive hindsight. Tow guides his wayback machine to the mid ’70s punk explosion then proceeds to steer towards 1992. It’s a fun, detail-rich ride.”

Fred Mills (BLURT magazine)

“With the recent twentieth anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, all the aging Gen-Xers are looking back at their lost youth. It’s kind of funny really, the whole thing was defined as a teen-spirit revolution, and now most of those teens have children and sub-prime mortgages in foreclosure. But just like the hippies in 1987, with their endless tributes to the Summer of Love in 1967, it is our turn to tell stories of the good old days.

Actually, there have been plenty of those self-serving accounts published already. Thankfully, Stephen Tow’s The Strangest Tribe is not one of them. Tow takes a completely different tack on the subject, one which steers very clear of the obvious to provide the story of what led up to “Grunge-mania” in 1991.

What makes this book interesting is the fact that Tow ends his narrative in 1991, rather than starting there. His tale is about the various ingredients that went into producing the instantly identifiable sound prior to the explosion.

As a lifelong Seattle native of a certain age, I was there for it all — and can vouch for the fact the The Strangest Tribe gets it right. The author even discusses details such as small parties in Belltown, the events of which would one day alter music history.

The cooperation Stephen Tow received was invaluable. The hundreds of interviews he conducted and obvious research have paid off substantially. For an “outsider” (he lives in Cheltenham, PA) Tow has done an outstanding job of telling the real Seattle music story. The Strangest Tribe is a great read.”

Greg Barbrick, Blogcritics.org (formerly of Seattle’s Rocket and Backlash)

“The ‘Seattle sound’ always was more than just one label, one band, one individual. Did grunge ever break through to the mainstream? Certainly not in the way I envisaged it. The U-Men, Thrown Ups, Tad Doyle, Mudhoney, C/Z Records, Sub Pop, Skin Yard, pajama parties in Olympia … now that’s what I call(ed) grunge. Stephen Tow might just be the very first writer to acknowledge that fact.”

Everett True (Nirvana biographer and music critic)

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