Gentle Groove: The Hidden History of Grunge in the Modern City

Central Saloon

We wound down the hills of Queen Anne, one of the many ritzy districts in the thriving Seattle metropolis. With the water in the distance and the incredibly steep streets, it felt like we were in San Francisco. Past the buzz of a busy city on a Tuesday, we ended up in Belltown, the most densely populated area of the city. We pulled into a graffiti covered alley and hopped out of the car.

However this wasn’t graffiti like you’d see on the wrong side of the tracks, rather this looked like some sort of artsy hipster scene. We walked up to the elaborate and ornate alley entrance to Black Dog Forge, a blacksmith shop that’s been in operation for a quarter century. Fittingly, two black dogs walked out and greeted us, along with the sounds of machinery and metalwork emanating from inside.

alley

We descended past the workshop into the basement, ducking our heads as we made our way down the stairs into the darkness. There were no lights down there, only the smell of dust and the faint sounds of work from upstairs.

Yet we were surrounded by drum kits, amps, guitars, old couches, and of course piles of Rainier beer boxes. This makeshift rehearsal space was the birthplace of Pearl Jam, where they refined the songs that would eventually end up on Ten. This was where one of the most successful albums of the 90’s was crafted, in the basement of what was then called Galleria Potatohead. In this dark and forgotten room, history was born.

bdf

We ascended the staircase back out to the busy streets of Belltown. Modern Seattle was much different than when the members of Pearl Jam went up those stairs. The city was now home to huge tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon. Everywhere you looked was a new apartment building popping up. The thriving population was whisking between breweries and coffee shops on their way to fine restaurants and weekend hikes.

Seattle was no longer the birthplace of Grunge, rather, it was the place to be. If we were going to unearth the music and the history, it was definitely going to take some digging and imagination. Fortunately, we had a tour guide.

~

Seattle had always been on the top of my list of places to visit, mainly so I could see the Jimi Hendrix memorial. As lame as that sounds, I knew Seattle also had a lot to offer beyond just staring at a grave, so when I hit the dirty 30, it was decided. Fortunately I had family and friends to join me, which softened the blow of suddenly realizing a third of my life was over.

We made it to the Hendrix memorial our first day of the trip, and it wasn’t so much as it was anti-climactic, moreover I just didn’t quite know what to do. Like when I searched down blue graves in The Delta, there is certainly something powerful and moving in standing over the gravestones of your heroes. Yet, what do you do other than take pictures and say, “This is awesome?” I was at least able to cross something off my list, and have a few more days to process what all of it really meant.

jimi

After a fun weekend of sightseeing, eating, drinking, eating more, and drinking more, we tore through Seattle like it was our business. On our last day, my sister and brother-in-law surprised me with a bday gift: A Grunge tour of Seattle. I hadn’t really considered trekking through the music scene of Seattle beyond honoring Jimi and listening to Grunge all weekend. Naturally, the music nerd in me was stoked, and as we hopped into a Dodge Caravan that met us at the Experience Music Project, I was downright giddy. Wait, did I just say we were about to take a Grunge tour in a mini-van? Yes, that is in fact the most un-Grunge thing that’s ever been said, but stick with me here.

Our tour began promptly with our guide Charity playing the Mother Love Bone classic, “Man of Golden Words” and driving up the winding streets to Queen Anne. I mean technically, the Grunge conversation should start with Green River, but right behind that is Andrew Wood, an eminent figure in the early Grunge scene who succumbed to a heroin overdose weeks before the Mother Love Bone debut album Apple was set to be released. If there is one person that personifies the Seattle Grunge movement, it is Andrew Wood, not Kurt Cobain. Don’t worry, we’ll get to him later.

Wood grew up in neighboring Bainbridge Island, who’s band Malfunkshun was one of the early underground pioneers of Grunge. After a stint in rehab, he shacked up with his friend Chris Cornell, and the two began revving up the pace of their songwriting. Cornell scored a major label deal for his band Soundgarden after they’d been cutting their teeth for years in the underground scene. Wood hooked up with Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard following the disillusion of Green River and formed Mother Love Bone. Both bands burst out of the underground to the mainstream with major label deals. Yet all of it came crashing down with the death of Wood. The scene had been thriving since the early to mid eighties, and on the cusp of success, tragedy struck.

kerry

We stopped at Kerry Park, a small green space overlooking the city skyline after seeing an album photoshoot of Wood in front of the Changing Form sculpture. It was haunting thinking about what could have been. Mother Love Bone was the first band to hit the mainstream, and it all ended before their album was even released. Who would take the helm and lead the underground music scene out of the basement?

Chris Cornell grieved the death of his friend the only way he knew: By writing music. He didn’t want the songs to sit in a box, so he grabbed Ament and Gossard while recruiting Mike McCready and Matt Cameron. The result was Temple of the Dog, a little side project created as a tribute to Wood.

At the same time, Ament and Gossard were trying to figure out what to do following the end of Mother Love Bone. Some rough demos were recorded with McCready that eventually found their way to Eddie Vedder down in San Diego, and with the addition of drummer Dave Krusen, Pearl Jam was formed. In the darkness of the blacksmith shop basement came the answer to Wood’s death. Their debut would help propel Grunge into the mainstream along with Soundgarden. But they certainly weren’t alone.

alice

After brief stops at Seattle’s most iconic venues The Crocodile and Central Saloon, we headed to Lake Washington. The tranquil view was a nice break from the hustle and bustle in the distance. Then we were winding amongst mansions, looking more like Beverly Hills than Seattle. We stopped at an open space park oddly set between houses, with a lone graffiti covered bench under a tree. This was where Kurt Cobain met his end.

At the same time bands like Soungarden, Malfunkshun, Green River, and Skin Yard were sweating in the basement clubs of Seattle in the 80’s, Nirvana was emerging in nearby Aberdeen. The band saw moderate success with Bleach in 1989, and signed to a major label around the same time as Mother Love Bone and Soundgarden. Of course you don’t need to know Grunge to know that Nevermind became one of the most iconic albums not only of the 90’s, but ever. Kurt Cobain became the superstar in direct opposition to all that was the Punk music he adored. His twisted mind and incredible sense of melody created a distorted yet palatable music that ruled the airwaves. Grunge was no longer underground.

park

Yet just like Wood, another tragedy would beset questions of what could have been. His death is certainly one of the more talked about in the 27 club, along with fellow member Jimi Hendrix in nearby Renton. Some surmise that he was murdered. Others say he couldn’t handle the pressure of stardom. Many say he lost his battle with heroin addiction. Either way, the new king of Grunge met an early grave.

The house that Cobain died in has changed a bit since 1994. The greenhouse where he was found no longer exists, now overgrown by trees. A large fence surrounds the once open area around the house. Sports cars whiz by on the road. A million-dollar view of the lake is seen in the distance. The bench memorial is as out of place as you could imagine. It is no place for the eminent Grunge star; it’s a place for CEOs and tech executives. Kurt Cobain belongs in dark basement rehearsal spaces and dingy underground clubs, not there.

bench

We passed the bourgeois and landed back in the city, at Volunteer Park. There we saw what looked like a big tire, but was in fact the “Black Sun” statue, overlooking the surrounding Capital Hill neighborhood and Space Needle. This was the inspiration for Soundgarden’s seminal track, “Black Hole Sun,” not surprising, considering the band is named after “A Sound Garden” in nearby Magnuson Park.

All around the sculpture were kids on a field trip, drawing pictures of the space needle. As sounds of Soundgarden filled my head, I wondered if any of these kids knew that this was the “Black Hole Sun.” I wondered if any of them had even ever heard of Soundgarden in the first place. Did they understand how important this city was for music?

sun

These questions stuck with me as the tour ended at El Corazon, the home to what once was the Off Ramp, the venue where most of these Grunge bands got their start. On every side of the venue was new Seattle, from brand new hotels and apartments to wide highways crammed with cars. It seemed like Seattle today was just like the kids at the Black Sun, oblivious to the rich musical history of the city.

As the tour ended, we had only scratched the surface of the Seattle music scene in the 80’s and 90’s. We didn’t talk about how important Green River and later Mudhoney were to the genre. We didn’t talk about how pioneering Alice in Chains were to modern Metal and the tragedy of  Layne Staley’s death. We didn’t talk about how Grunge declined and all but disappeared in the mid to late 90’s. What we found was a hidden history in a city that now is as far from Grunge as it gets.

flowers

People think of Kurt Cobain, long hair, torn jeans, and plaid shirts when they think of Grunge. In reality, it was an incredible collaboration of open minded kids from a working class town in the 80’s. By some miracle, it all blew up at the same time, right in the early nineties, with some becoming stars, some become lasting music statesmen, and some meeting their early graves.

When I think of Seattle now, I don’t think of the Space Needle. I don’t think of Pikes Market. I think of Andrew Wood at Kerry Park. I think of Chris Cornell writing a eulogy for his friend. I think of Pearl Jam emerging from the darkness. As Wood sang, “No one’s gonna slow my gentle groove.” Nothing ever will slow the legacy that was built in Seattle. Grunge lives on, hidden in the shadows of an unlikely city. The gentle groove continues in Seattle, you just have to listen for it.

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