About 10 years ago Greg Sage revealed that Kurt Cobain took his life two weeks before his first scheduled recording session with Sage at Zeno. He said the sessions had been kept secret, something to do with Cobain’s label, and issues of control.
The story didn’t end there for Napalm Beach. They toured a bit more, they released some more albums, they made a few more mistakes.
Meanwhile, thanks to the efforts of Sub Pop, many of the kids who had grown up listening to northwest underground bands like Napalm Beach had become instant rock stars. In the process, some of Chris’ innovations in sound, stagecraft, and songwriting were attributed to younger, more famous artists. That’s OK. I think that Chris is more than proud to have been an inspiration for so many.
The problem is not the inspiration, but the omissions.
…really open and weird… weird louder, arty bands, as opposed to the quiet, sweet Olympia sound. – Gilly Ann Hanner of Calamity Jane, on observing the late 80s Portland music scene after living in Olympia
Images of late 20th Century northwest rock music are consistently filtered through a Seattle/Olympia-slanted lens. 80s Portland punk/indie/alternative bands were almost all D.I.Y., and all buried under the great myth of grunge. Pioneering rock bands like the Obituaries and Calamity Jane became little more than a footnote in the Nirvana story. And a band like Napalm Beach just disappears completely.
Some seem to think all the invisibility kept Portland “pure” – but what musician wants to be invisible? or pure? or unheard?
1996 to today
In 1996 Chris arranged and performed a tribute show in honor of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, who had recently passed away. He performed the entire Fire Of Love album. The following day, Chris was arrested for heroin possession, creating a cascade of events that ultimately led him to become homeless, losing everything – letters, records, original artwork, and years of journals detailing band experiences. At this point, he had effectively given up and resigned him self to the life, and death, of a street addict. He and his wife Valarie lived on the streets, mostly in San Francisco, for six years. He wrote and recorded two albums while homeless.
Chris spent about 25 years of his life struggling with heroin. He eventually served his time in jail and has been back in Portland actively working on his recovery for over a decade. He and Valerie divorced in 2005, and both of them are now clean off of heroin. As long as Chris has love and stability, he won’t go back. Sam has been off heroin for 10 years, and will soon tour Europe for the first time since the 90s, with his band, Don’t. Bassist Dave Dillinger is also clean and well and has recently married.
In 2009, Chris arranged a Cramps tribute show in honor of Lux Interior, who had recently passed away. I asked to play guitar for the tribute, and that is how we got together. When the tribute show was over, we were left with Boo Frog.
There are a lot of interweaving themes in this story, many conflicting agendas in music and society. To me, a musician, the overriding theme is the tension between commercial and independent music. I find myself ever-more respectful of what artists like Greg Sage struggled to achieve, and of the difficulties they have experienced trying to find the balance between getting one’s music heard, and losing control of it (and any income it may generate). I am also very grateful to him and to so many others who have gone out of their way to help Chris and other unusual or misunderstood artists.
Chris’ songwriting continues to be prolific. He’s always weaving in new ideas. He still plays guitar every day. He has not toured since 1992 and very much wants to tour again before his health fails. He is still a top-notch performer, still gives EVERYTHING each time he gets on stage. He still approaches music and life with the openness and passion of a child who has lived long enough to know that where the old path ends, a new one begins.
- Humphrey, Clark. Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story. Portland: Feral House. 1995.
- Prato, Greg. Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music. Toronto: ECW Press. 2009.
- Tow, Stephen. The Strangest Tribe: How a group of Seattle rock bands invented grunge. Seattle: Sasquatch Books. 2011.
- True, Everett. Nirvana: The Biography. Cambridge: Da Capo Press. 2007.
- Yarm, Mark. Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. New York: Three Rivers Press. 2012.