After returning home from Seattle for last week’s The Strangest Tribe launch, I presented my first Philadelphia area reading at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore. As expected, the vibe was much different from last week’s Seattle panel Q&A…this audience did not consist of former scenesters. This atmosphere was a bit more casual, set in a corner next to the café.
I opened with the “four Seattle myths” as I call them: 1) Nirvana invented grunge; 2) Seattle is all about grunge; 3) the famous Seattle bands constituted grunge; and 4) Seattle and grunge are so serious. I segued into that wonderful Northwest humor and the sort of laughing at the absurd…which led me to the U-Men 1985 Bumbershoot story—the one where they set a moat on fire after their performance, and then joked about it. I also mentioned a band that “killed” off one of its members to get publicity, a story where the Young Fresh Fellows opened for themselves wearing wigs, and talked about the creation of the fictional TAD backwoods savant story. I then played a clip of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm recalling his participation in Mr. Epp and the Calculations, a fictional band that became real.
We did talk about the elephant in the room–Nirvana–and their impact on Seattle after they went nuclear. Then, it was time for questions.
One attendee asked about camaraderie within the Seattle music community. Specifically, he wanted to know if the musicians supported each other. ‘Yes,’ I answered (single quote because I’m paraphrasing myself…I don’t remember exactly what the hell I said), ‘especially when it still remained a music scene, before the major labels came calling. At that point, nobody had any money or illusions of stardom. Back in 1986, for example, you could catch a Skin Yard/Soundgarden show on a Tuesday night for $2…and the audience would consist of members of those bands and others around town. That’s just the way it was. Later, when the money showed up, things of course changed. It’s just human nature to be jealous when someone else’s band gets signed and yours didn’t. That being said, even during the dark days of the ’90s, the Seattle bands continued to root for one another for the most part.’
People asked a lot of stuff about grunge, but a lady named Elise—who is not in any way shape or form my publicist—inquired about the Showbox, a venue that brought punk rock to Seattle kids in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I told her and the audience about the importance of the four gentlemen who started Modern Productions, and how they helped expose a whole generation to the Ramones, 999, Iggy Pop, Gang of Four, Devo, the Police, the Specials, PiL, and others. Many of the attendees would later form bands like Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and the Young Fresh Fellows.
Mark Yarm, author of Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge (and no relation to Mark Arm), attended (which was really cool, by the way) and challenged Tribe’s assessment of the movie hype! For those not familiar, hype! is a 1996 film that documents the Seattle music scene. In my book, I disagree with some of the film’s assertions. Mark basically said most people he talked to believe hype! is pretty spot on–that director Doug Pray “got it right.” I didn’t dispute his sources, or the veracity of the film. Rather, I felt, due to Sub Pop’s involvement, hype! provided a skewed portrait of the Seattle music community…basically it asserts that Seattle was “lame” until Sub Pop came along and made it cool. I disagree. While Mark and I interviewed a lot of the same people, he focused on grunge and forward, whereas I wrote about grunge and backward. I talked to many folks who predated the grunge scene and who, in my opinion, made their own unique imprint on Seattle music, an imprint that hype! ignored. To be fair, films have a much narrower focus than books, and Doug acknowledged as much in an email to me.
Afterwards, a college buddy named Frank showed up with his wife Johnna, and they joined Mark and I for a beer at Local 44, a tavern a few blocks from Penn. Mark and I then commiserated over our experiences. I enjoyed getting to know him, especially since few people can appreciate the intensity of our writing and researching experiences.
After finishing our beers, Mark and I shared a cab back to 30th Street Station, and we both headed home. I think we both are proud of our accomplishments. Mark did a terrific job presenting the grunge phenomenon in an oral history format, and I’m more than satisfied with my narrative on the music scene that created that phenomenon.