November 27 Seattle Rock Class

Posted: November 30, 2012 in The Strangest Tribe: the College Course

We spent the first 10 minutes or so talking about the Fastbacks, one of my favorite Seattle bands and the subject of a chapter addendum. The students also had to listen to four of their songs: “K Street,” “Trouble Sleeping,” “Set Me Free,” (a Sweet cover), and “3 Boxes.” As I expected, about half the class dug the music, and the other half kind of shrugged their shoulders. The Fastbacks have good songs with hooky melodies. If you want to hear major musical innovation or sparkling vocals, you should move on. Nonetheless, the students seemed to appreciate the band’s DIY ethic and longevity. They also enjoyed reading and talking about the Fastbacks’ experiences opening for Pearl Jam in the ’90s.

Next, we chatted about chapter 7 from my book: “England is Sending an Emissary!” That chapter focuses on Seattle in 1989 and ’90…when the once tiny music scene had begun to reach commercial viability. So, we spent the next 15 minutes weighing in on art versus commerce, and what exactly constitutes “selling out.” By that point, Soundgarden had moved on to a major label, slowly changing their sound to appeal to a metal market. Their transition was handled so deftly that the band managed to score riches while maintaining their street credibility. As one of my students put it, “they got to have their cake and eat it, too.”

We talked about other bands beginning to receive attention, notably Mudhoney, Nirvana, and Mother Love Bone…again focusing on each band’s approach to the business side of music, and attempting ascertain why MLB (and their successors in Pearl Jam) faced the scenester’s accusations of “sell-out!” while the other bands did not. I don’t think the students totally got the attitude of punk communities back then…which was not to embrace stardom. MLB, and later PJ, wanted to become rock stars. And lo and behold, it happened for them. “How dare they?” my students asked in jest.

Next, Abbie presented on the London punk scene of the ’70s, focusing on the Pistols, Clash, and Damned and giving us an idea of just how shocking those bands were back then. Next, Jenna talked about the UK “new metal” community of the ’80s, distinguishing itself from forebears like Black Sabbath. She mentioned people like Iron Maiden and Venom as examples of the newer, proggier, showier bands that influenced American groups like Metallica.

Finally, we readied ourselves for the main event, a chat via Skype with the Walkabouts’ Carla Torgerson and Michael Wells. Gabrielle led the questioning and did a fine job. I think my favorite question and answer related to Carla’s time canning salmon in Alaska (really.) Back in 1984, Carla had ventured there to make some money for college and ran into Chris Eckman, another guitar player who found himself in a similar position. Together, they formed the Walkabouts, which would later include Michael on bass.

In any event, Gabrielle asked Carla about her years canning salmon during summers, an experience that intrigues us on the East Coast. Carla talked of long days standing in the cold canning salmon, and how she learned to empathize with workers in manufacturing plants all over the world.

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(Carla and Michael from the Walkabouts chat with my class via Skype from Seattle)

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