“It’s got death in it. For someone like you, it probably appears to be a nice town. Like it’s all holistic and trees and arboretums. Bullshit!” – Courtney Love (Yarm p 216)
Seattle is not a cultural emerald surrounded by vast oceans of nothing. A more accurate analogy would be to see the Pacific northwest as a cultural watershed, with Seattle as a river’s mouth. The water doesn’t originate there, it flows in from other places and mixes there. There is and has always been plenty of cultural connection between Vancouver, Seattle, Olympia, Portland, and the smaller towns that feed in. Nonetheless, the mythology developed by Sub Pop in the late 80s and carried forth by the rest of the world to this day doesn’t recognize this.
Grunge mythology rarely recognizes a single pioneering act from Portland outside of the Wipers (for their influence on Kurt Cobain) and Courtney (for her influence on Kurt Cobain). Not surprisingly, Sub Pop only recognizes artists in which it is invested.
Considering that Portland’s punk/music/art scene blossomed before Seattle’s, and considering that you can easily drive from Seattle to Portland and back in a day, it seems strange to me that no one has looked deeper.
Napalm Beach and grunge
GRUNGE is a brand. It was created by Sub Pop (including members of Green River). If Napalm Beach or Snow Bud had recorded with Jack Endino – as they should have, because unlike most 80s producers, Endino understands their roots music, the 60s heavy underground – and put the album out on Sub Pop, they would have been a grunge band. But they didn’t, so they aren’t. Even though it can be argued (as I am doing) that Napalm Beach, as much as anyone, started the whole thing, they have never been included in the narrative. Mudhoney started grunge. Why? Because they were the first grunge band. The logic is flawlessly circular.
Grunge is problematic not only because it is proprietary, but also because it breaks down quickly. It’s undefinable. It’s not really a style, it’s not really an attitude, and it’s not really a genre. It’s not really anything. So why do we keep talking about it like it’s something?
And who is really from Seattle? Although Sub Pop is a Seattle-based label, none of the Sub Pop executives associated with the origins of the label (Pavitt, Poneman, Jasper) are from Seattle, or even from the west coast. Bruce Pavitt was born in Chicago, Illinois. Pavitt moved to Olympia for college around 1979, and then he moved to Seattle in 1983. Jonathan Poneman was born in Toledo, Ohio (near Detroit) and moved to Seattle in 1985. Current Vice President Megan Jasper is from Amherst, Massachusetts, a college town on the east coast about 5,000 km from Seattle. (Where Dinosaur Jr. comes from.) She moved to Seattle in 1989.
It is not unusual for new-in-towners to see and appreciate (or laugh at) things that locals miss. That said, it is really hard for me to understand why writers and journalists accepted, and continue to accept, the original Sub Pop executives, and their closest friends, as the go-to experts on nearly everything northwest. By now Sub Pop’s original grunge mythology is so entrenched that latter-day attempts to add broader view are consistently brushed off as unimportant.
The more powerful write the less powerful out of history. I get it. I just don’t accept it.
Underneath grunge, and everything around it, there truly is something beautiful and real. The silliness and seriousness and vitality in our punk/underground. Seattle, Olympia, and Portland are very different towns, but geographically close and deeply connected.
The punk rock aesthetic was interpreted by different people from different parts of the northwest, all of whom partied together, dated each other, dated each other’s ex’s, traded cassettes with each other, wrote each other letters, read each other’s zines and journals and graffiti, played music together, hated each other, liked each other, went to the same shows.
Through their constant live performances and numerous underground cassette releases, Napalm Beach won many northwestern teens to their cause of ROCK N ROLL! In Seattle, they came on like gangbusters. They had no real competition at first. They played The Wrex (which became The Vogue), The Gorilla Room, Astor Park, Off Ramp, Golden Crown, Baby-O’s, Ditto’s, Central, Graven Image, and many of those big old rented halls and granges used for all ages punk shows. They played week after week, month after month, year after year. Trips to Seattle could last two weeks, with the band playing 6-10 shows in that time span, all around the Seattle area. They might play a club gig, then an after-hours gig later the same night. They were original, on fire, relentless.
In addition to playing all these shows, Napalm Beach took every possible opportunity to record. When they released an album on cassette, they sold it at their shows and independent record stores all around Portland and Seattle (and to a lesser extent, San Francisco). They were featured first on Greg Sage’s Trap Sampler LP (1981). Then Trap released Live At The Met (1983) and Napalm Beach’s first full-length album, Rock & Roll Hell (1983), on cassette. Chris recorded, mixed, and released their third album, Pugsley (1984) himself. Teen Dream was funded by then-manager Doug Reed and recorded with Bill Stuber in Seattle at Triangle Studios on 24 track. Teen Dream was released on cassette in 1985, and on vinyl (as a self-titled album) in 1986. Napalm Beach now had a vinyl LP. That meant something. And they continued to play show after show and release album after album into the northwest punk and underground rock scene up through 1996. Beginning in 1986 Chris was also performing and releasing albums with Snow Bud and the Flower People.
A quick perusal of Wikipedia tells me that Mark Arm and Gary Lee Conner turned 21 in 1983, Kat Bjelland turned 21 in 1984, Mark Lanegan, Courtney Love, and Jack Endino in 1985, Krist Novoselic and Steve Turner in 1986, Stone Gossard and Andrew Wood in 1987, Van Conner and Kurt Cobain in 1988.
It’s a fact: Sub Pop’s late 80s Seattle-based artists grew up on Napalm Beach.
Sub Pop’s LOSER
Ugly people weren’t allowed to rock before us. – Mark Arm, as quoted in Rolling Stone Sept 2011.
Part of Sub Pop’s grunge myth is the image of an underground rocker who doesn’t care about being commercial. The greasy haired “loser” sleeping on floors, the big lumberjack playing heavy riffs, the small town rambunctious kids who just don’t give a shit. They just want to rock! Napalm Beach look like the prototype for this image, for both musicans and marketers.
Here’s Charles Cross writing for the Post Intelligencer, Seattle’s main daily (morning) newspaper, 1981:
…Chris Newman looks anything but the typical pretty boy rock star… Newman sports a girth that makes managers of all-you-can-eat restaurants turn over the closed sign when they see him walk down the street. He has a wild unkempt mop of hair, a 10 o’clock shadow and on stage tonight he’s wearing a greasy black wino’s raincoat.
Newman spends so much of his time sleeping in cars and on the floors of the bars the band plays in, that his personal hygiene habits leave something to be desired. In short, he’s the type of guy that if you saw him walking down an alley, you’d high tail it in the other direction.
But tonight on stage Newman uses his gruesome body to create some of the great gruesome driving rock n’ roll. Backed by the three other young bad-boy types that make up the Untouchables, Newman breaks into the band’s signature tune “Rock & Roll Hell” and all hell breaks loose in Astor Park as the dance floor fills up and the place becomes so hot you could cook hot dogs on the roof. The Untouchables have just begun their set and from the opening riffs of their first song they have the audience riveted to the wall with their driving, highly original new wave rock…
After their set, and the two encore tunes, a magic seems broken in the hall, as if some great sword had been pulled from the stone for a few short minutes and has now been replaced… One of Seattle’s most successful established bands has just been upstaged by some of the poorest, ugliest, and most talented rock n’ rollers in town.
Charles R. Cross “Band drives stake through heart” Seattle Post-Intelligencer July 18, 1981
Ok, you’ve come this far. Let’s talk about Courtney Love.