Late ’80 Seattle Grunge and Beyond, 11/13/12 Class

Posted: November 14, 2012 in The Strangest Tribe: the College Course

I’d have to say I enjoyed yesterday’s class immensely, up to and including our Q&A with Sub Pop Records founder Bruce Pavitt. Nearly everyone contributed to the discussions, and we even had two guests stop by for the Q&A.

First, we chatted about late ’80s Seattle music, with students listening to the following songs before class:

Mudhoney, “Touch Me I’m Sick.”

Nirvana, “Spank Thru,” “School.”

TAD, “Helot.”

Skin Yard, “Hallowed Ground.”

The Posies, “Blind Eyes Open.”

Jack Endino, “Sideways Savannah.”

Gas Huffer, “Night Train to Spokane.”

Reactions? Well, I think Mudhoney, TAD, and Skin Yard kind of scared them. We talked about the “sell” Sub Pop created with TAD…about these scary backwoodsmen who want to invade your homes and murder your children. I think they got the whole twisted Seattle hyperbole, especially understanding the warmth and intelligence of people like TAD’s Kurt Danielson.

Students talked most about the Endino track, which appears on his first solo offering, Angle of Attack. “Sideways Savannah” is an instrumental, and began in Endino’s basement when he and drummer extraordinare Greg Gilmore began pounding on carefully laid out two-by-fours. Once they finished the percussion track, Endino added drums, bass, and guitar. The result, as one student put it, sounds “African.” I would go with Asia, given Greg’s visits to Indonesia, but regardless, I think the class got the diversity and experimentation then going on in the Seattle music community.

Next, Emily finished up her presentation on ’60s San Francisco psyche talking about the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. (Side note: the Dead’s American Beauty makes my Desert Island Top 10 List.) Nicole followed with ’90s Atlanta rap, which provided a nice contemporary counterpoint to the LA gangsta scene (although…and I didn’t know this…Atlanta generated Ice T.)

Finally, the main event, a chat with Bruce Pavitt, founder of Sub Pop records, and tastemaker within the Seattle music community. I had not interviewed Bruce for my book, although I had attempted to make contact. I asked him for an interview upon spotting him at the 2008 Sub Pop 20 Fest.  Unfortunately, he thought I wanted to bother him with an interview there. (With the volume of the music, he couldn’t hear that I wanted to do a phoner at a later time.) Afterward, I saw him sort of eyeing me during Green River’s set…I think he thought I was a stalker (I’m not one…really…I just looked weird wearing my Geezerfest shirt.)  Later, I sent him a copy of my book. He said nice things about it, and graciously agreed to chat with my class.

Students, led by Morgan, asked some wonderful questions about his long career championing independent music. Morgan inquired about Bruce’s days at Evergreen State College, and he responded by talking about his early Sub/Pop fanzines, then his moving to Seattle, writing for the Rocket, and putting out Sub Pop 100 (1986) and Green River and Soundgarden EPs (1987.)

Bruce talked about his interest in national independent music scenes, until he realized he had a vibrant one in his own backyard, particularly after the 1986 release of Deep Six. That LP, put out by C/Z Records’ Chris Hanzsek, featured rough early recordings by Green River, the Melvins, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, and Soundgarden (and a track by the amazing U-Men.)

One student mentioned yesterday’s release of the new Soundgarden record, King Animal, and asked what Bruce thought of it. He mentioned he had only heard one track, but nonetheless liked it. Bruce talked about growing up with Soundgarden’s guitar player Kim Thayil in suburban Chicago…and about how Kim basically lived at his house, even dating two of his sisters.

Another student asked Bruce about the origin of the word “grunge.” I kind of braced myself, because in my book I mention Bruce first using the word in an ad for a Green River record, in the April 1988 issue of the Rocket. Afterward, the Seattle media picked up the term to describe everyone from Mudhoney to Swallow to Nirvana. My fear was that Bruce might provide a different version of events, and fortunately for me and my tenuous credibility, he backed my story. As far as where he came up with the word itself, Bruce couldn’t recall specifics. No one can. Regardless, he felt the term did squarely apply to bands like TAD and Mudhoney, in terms of their raw musical styles and raggety fashion sense.

A student then asked him why certain bands “make it” and others don’t. Bruce kind of put it like this…he said, when it comes to the music industry, justice does not exist. Some immensely talented bands get nowhere, while other mediocre acts become enormously famous.  In addition to the music itself, a lot of it depends on timing, luck, and the quality of the recordings.

Finally, I inquired about Bruce’s new book, Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989 (like the Soundgarden record, also released the day of our chat with Bruce…weird.) Experiencing Nirvana provides a rare photographic journal of the band’s time in Rome, culminating in London with the legendary Sub Pop Lame Festival show that December. You can find Bruce’s book on iTunes and order it here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/experiencing-nirvana-grunge/id575827071/

(Sub Pop Records founder Bruce Pavitt chats with my class via Skype.)

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