Archive for the ‘The Strangest Tribe: the College Course’ Category

Well, we had a blast, but all good things must come to an end. (I hate that expression…like, what does that mean? That all bad things go on forever? It’s right up there with “everything happens for a reason” in my book.)

We began with two presentations: Mikaela told us about the Manchester, UK scene of the ’80s and ’90s (also called “Madchester.”) Then, Jordan followed with Florida boy bands of the ’90s. Since a lot of the class grew up with that stuff (Backstreet Boys, etc.), they really dug the trip down memory lane.

We then talked about the last chapter of my book called, “After the Gold Rush,” which is nowhere near as good as the Neil Young album of the same name. In any event, the writing deals with Seattle and the world, post-Nirvana and post-grunge. The students seemed most interested in Kurt Cobain’s reaction to the massive commercial success of Nevermind. In my book, I quote the late Ben McMillan (Skin Yard), who recalled congratulating Kurt when Nirvana’s second record went gold. Kurt’s reaction, per Ben: “I don’t wanna fuckin’ talk about it.” The students seemed to believe Cobain was genuine in his feelings (I believe he was as well), but they couldn’t quite grasp the downside of selling millions of albums.

I also had the students listen to the following ’90s alt rock songs:

Guided By Voices: “I Am a Tree;” Bikini Kill, “Rebel Girl;” Built to Spill, “Reasons;” and Pavement, “Conduit for Sale!”

The class reacted favorably to these songs (save for the Pavement selection, which of course is my fave of the four). They pointed out the ability to hear lyrics in these selections, versus some of the Seattle stuff they heard earlier. In addition to the above, I gave the students the option of listening to the following songs from independent bands I’ve been digging recently:

The High Dials: “Morning’s White Vibration;” Kinski (Seattle band!): “The Wives of Artie Shaw;” The Shins (Sub Pop band!): “Pink Bullets;” Silversun Pickups: “Well Thought Out Twinkles;” and Vampire Weekend: “Campus.”

They seemed to like the above more accessible stuff (save for Kinski), and in particular appreciated the Shins and Vampire Weekend.

We closed the semester discussing the merits and deficiencies of the course. The students seemed to enjoy themselves, and I complimented them for contributing to our various discussions. Then, after they threw various objects at me, some of them gave me a little insight into what they liked and what they didn’t. In regards to bands, it appears the Young Fresh Fellows appealed most to them…one also mentioned Minneapolis’ Replacements. The U-Men (my fave from Seattle), not so much. One young lady said the U-Men’s “Dig It a Hole” has scarred her for life…which I think is the point.

So, after much mourning and gnashing of teeth, we said good-bye.

It’s funny…I’ve found that when a class really clicks, it never feels like work. Maybe for the students, but not for me. I put in a ton of time into this course, not to mention the efforts of our six guest speakers…but it was a total labor of love. I was also blessed with some honors students who willingly gave of themselves and honestly expressed their opinions on the music and that goofy, eccentric music scene that was Seattle.

Below…Kinski plays the Sub Pop 20 anniversary fest, July 2008.


Tomorrow will be our last class, and we will focus on the post-Nevermind world of popular music. Once Nirvana blew everything up in 1991 and 1992, the major labels discovered alternative rock could actually sell. So, they made the music into a commodity: play loud, turn up the distortion on your guitars, and have your good looking lead singer (preferably blonde) scream on key. Voila! You now have your next big ’90s alt rock band.

With that, I am having my students listen to ’90s bands that actually remained underground, or at least upheld the spirit of what alt rock represented pre-Nirvana: “I Am a Tree,” Guided By Voices; “Rebel Girl,” Bikini Kill; “Reasons,” Built to Spill; “Conduit for Sale!” Pavement.

Our planned schedule…

1:40 to 2:05…Presentations: Mikaela talks about the ’80s/’90s Manchester, UK scene; Jordan presents on Florida boy bands of the ’90s.

2:05 to 2:20…Samantha S and Sarvie lead the discussion on chapter 8 from my book (“After the Gold Rush”) and the musical selections.

2:20 to 2:40…Class summation. I will lead the discussion on what my goals were for this course and how I think we faired. Then I will ask the students to tell me what they did and didn’t get out of the course…what they liked, what they would have done differently, what bands really did it for them, which bands they hated, etc. This section will be their opportunity to open up on whatever course-related topic they’d like to chat about.

2:40 to 2:55…Students will evaluate me.

Below…Guided By Voices.

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.


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

Thank you to all who took time this semester to chat with my students:

Rob Morgan of the Squirrels

Leighton Beezer of the Thrown Ups

Laura Weller-Vanderpool of Capping Day

Gary Minkler and Rich Riggins of Red Dress

Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop Records

Carla Torgerson and Michael Wells of the Walkabouts

Thank you all so much.

The Walkabouts’ Carla and Michael talk with the class yesterday.

Our theme will revolve around “Art versus Commerce” as Seattle’s music scene reaches kind of a maturity in 1989. Some people, notably Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, and Mudhoney, began getting recognition, while others did not. We will talk about what can happen to the creative process when serious money becomes a real possibility.

1:40 to 1:45…Intro/Outro by me.

1:45 to 1:55…I talk about the Fastbacks (reading and music.)

1:55 to 2:10…Shanae and Kristy lead the discussion on Chapter 7 from my book.

2:10 to 2:30…Abbie talks about the London punk scene of the ’70s; Jenna presents on London metal in the ’80s.

2:30 to 2:55…Q&A via Skype with the Walkabouts’ Carla Torgerson and Michael Wells led by Gabrielle.

(The Walkabouts.)

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:

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

Topic: Grunge and beyond: Seattle in the late ’80s.

Special Guest: Sub Pop Records founder Bruce Pavitt via Skype.

Text: Tow, chapters 5 and 6.

Music: 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.”

Schedule (all times US EDT)

1:40 to 1:45…Intro by me

1:45 to 1:55…completion of  Emily’s presentation on the San Francisco ’60s psyche scene

1:55 to 2:05…Nicole presents on ’90s Atlanta rap scene

2:05 to 2:25…Julia and Samantha K lead the discussion on the music and reading.

2:25 to 2:30…Outro by me

2:30 to 2:55…Q&A via Skype with Bruce Pavitt, led by Morgan.

Bruce Pavitt mini bio

Bruce began his music life with a small fanzine called Sub/Pop at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.  There, he pursued his passion for uncovering music scenes not named London and New York.  After putting out three cassette compilations at Evergreen, he moved to Seattle where he began to write a column for the Rocket, Seattle’s monthly music paper.  In 1984, he formed a record label called Bombshelter and put out an EP by the U-Men (the world’s greatest band.)  Later, he founded Sub Pop Records, turning it into a full-time entity in 1988 with partner Jonathan Poneman.  Up to that point, the label had put out two EPs by fledgling bands Green River and Soundgarden.  By 1989, Sub Pop had become Seattle’s premier independent label, featuring grunge acts like Mudhoney, TAD, and Nirvana.