Grunge

In this section I will try to be brief about my life in Washington State during the time the underground scene began fading as Grunge broke into the mainstream.  At the end I will speak about my acquaintance with Kurt Cobain.  

 

I have long tried to write about a short time in my life that was extremely important for my development as a human.  Originally, my first attempt at writing a story about my group of friends was started as early as 1990, prior to Grunge’s mainstream success.  I wish I still had the story as a time capsule to look back.  The more I write or reedit this section of my biography I realise that I have allot to say about the topic, and most of it really doesn’t belong here as it is long, detailed and only useful if you are interested in the history of the counter culture.  There might be a time when I will wish to revisit this topic and give it more substance for you to read.

 

There was no such thing as Grunge music before MTV got involved.  The term “grunge” was used in 1987 to describe the sound on a song made by the band Green River.  Most Grunge musicians detest the term as it never related to their music careers as they were coming up on the scene.  Living in Washington State prior and after Grunge’s ascendancy into mainstream culture, none of my friends or myself had ever heard the term "Grunge" used to describe the “Seattle Sound” which was an actual term used at the time.  If I was being true to the terminology of the day, most of us simply called those making this type of music “Garage bands.”  While not being a historian of the movement, I am sure that others more informed would have some points they could debate.  But being part of the underground scene in Washington during the years of 1988-1992, I can only report on what I knew from the time it was happening.

 

I am known by my friends in Albuquerque NM as the first person to ever play Nirvana in NM, I had a copy of Bleach that I tried to play, but it was never received well by my NM friends.  It was decades afterwards that others would remind me that I was the first to ever play Nirvana for them and probably the first person to play it in NM period, which I believe is probably true.

 

Grunge as a movement didn’t mean anything to me, nor ever would.  As a form of music I had zero interest in it.  My interests laid with Nirvana as a band and nothing more.  This isn’t to say I couldn’t appreciate some of the songs I heard in the same way I could appreciate other types of music from mainstream radio play.  But none of it ever made me want to run out and buy it.  

 

I always viewed Grunge as what destroyed our scene rather than as part of the scene, although Grunge came out of a many decades long tradition of an underground scene, which I was a part of.  Specifically what Grunge did was take our scene from the underground and bring into the mainstream, not that it hadn’t happen many times in the past.  Blondie and the Talking Heads were amongst the first radio friendly underground bands being played in the USA with constant radio and MTV rotation in the early 1980’s.  But despite the attention the underground scene gained in the past, it was only in passing and was never here to stay.  The underground could measure its mainstream success with relatively few albums and many more one off singles that broke radio silence, like Love And Rocket’s “So Alive” in 1989.

 

When Grunge broke into the mainstream it was momentous to our group of friends who listened to Nirvana.  Not everyone did, however, there was a whole part of the scene who could care less for such uncouth music.  I recall vividly the day Nirvana broke into the mainstream music scene.  A friend got a call that MTV played a Nirvana video, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and as the conversation took place, the friend announced they played it again.  We soon called others to gather at another friend’s house and sat on the couch and the floor waiting for the video, and it didn’t take very long before it played.  As we sat around analysing the video it would air again.  Using modern terms, the video went viral, and soon we could be at a stop light and hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit" cranked up on someone's car stereo.  

The conversion to a closed group to one that was forced open by the mainstream's jaws of life did not take place in a matter of months, but within a week or so.  Within days big changes were taking place.  On the second day of the release of Nirvana's "Nevermind" I got a knock on my door, when I opened it there was a group of redneck guys standing there bunched up in my doorway.  This included the last person I got into a fist fight with in High School.  My first reaction was to grab anything I could use as a weapon, but then one guy instantly held up a case of beer and asked if they could drink with me.  Girls were leaving notes on my car.  I had some more enterprising girls standing outside of my apartment door while one of them came up to tell me she liked me, had seen me around town.   

The scene prior to Grunge was like a closed knit family with various branches.  I think due to my popularity and age I was able to move about in all the various branches.  Some of the branches would include those most associated as "Grunge."  Other branches were almost in stark opposite.  Our commonality was in being different than most mainstream Americans.  Many in our scene were gay, me and a few others were the only straight guys for a period of time.  It was a scene with older foundations, although I have no idea if this meant the late 1970's or the early to mid 1980's.  The only way I knew about this long line of weirdos and creatives is one would hear about them in people's conversations, and there were times when I would meet some of the older crowd when I was introduced to someone's older sister or brother.  (Mind you these people introducing me were around 18 to 20 themselves).  Many of these older crowd were now having children, raising families, or moved to Seattle, fleeing from Yakima as soon as they could.  There were people in the scene that were in their 50’s and everything in between, with me being the youngest for a period of time.  The only real qualifications to be in the scene was having an open mind.  I think we could list musical tastes that many of us had in common, but in truth music tastes were broad and all over the board.  Lots of the gay men loved Madonna and anything she did, whereas I could leave or take it.  Some were strictly into Punk Rock, while others, like me were into the genre now known as Post Punk and Electronic music.  Some people utterly hated Electronic music.  Debating that bands should have a traditional set up.  

 

What pulled us together was our need for safety in numbers and finding real friendship amongst one another.  It wasn’t uncommon for someone to get gay bashed, and one friend of ours lost an eye during a brutal attack.  At another time a group of my friends were just walking to the club on a main downtown street when out of the blue they were being called faggots and attacked.  Many suffered injuries.  In Seattle there was a man who was gay bashed in a popular park in the University District, not a place one would imagine such things happening, who lost his life.  And there had been an incident where four of us had been waiting for a ride home when the parking lot began to fill up with rednecks.  We happened to be at the spot where they gathered.  We were being harassed, called names and threatened.  In an attempt to take the heat off my friends I told the loudest person in the redneck crowd to meet me behind the building, him and I only.  We barely got out of that when one of the rednecks knew one of my friends from shop class.  He placed my friend out of the “faggot” context and into a “hippy pot smoking” context (which was more apt actually), and seemed to mollify the crowd enough to where we got out without having to fight.   I don't think one could imagine the culture back then, but it was very hostile towards outsiders.  

 

The us and them attitude was not arbitrary of even hateful on our part, but rather a line of delineation created out of necessity.  In some ways I view the scene as part of the Gay Rights movement.  Not that many of us were political but simply our goal was a means to get the bullseyes off our backs.  In our conversations amongst ourselves there was a huge theme that would often come up, in dealing without outsiders.  The common phrase we used was "why do they judge a book by the cover?"  

 

In some ways I welcomed the change when Grunge broke up our scene, at least in terms of allowing people to live and let live, but another part of me was already seeing how others opened right up to these new people, giving them access to the inner sanctum of our scene.  For an example two of my friends showed up at one of our main weekly parties with a guy, who upon entering and seeing the crowd stated loudly, "You didn't tell me there would be fags here."  I think it was the first time anyone felt unsafe at one of our gatherings.  

One guy told me that he went to Seattle with his dad and realised there were others like me who were just weird, not gay.  I suppose that was his way of apologising, which actually sticks with me to this day (clearly).  I had one women I wanted to date in high school who sought me out to hang out with.  When I asked her why we never dated she said, “because you were gay back then.”

 

On a practical level what this Grunge invasion did is to break apart our scene.  Not all at once, but when one introduce people who tries to look like us without the mindset it waters down the bond to where the glue could no longer hold. To be fair, my memories of what happened is foggy.  Partly because things in my own life began to happen in a rapid pace.  If I am true to my actual experience what it seemed is that one day my girlfriend and I were having a housewarming party, and viewing the photos of this party recently, all the groups are represented there.  Then I remember seeing hardly anyone around, getting so few visitors as everyone went off with new friends or moved.  And then one day I decided I had enough of Washington State.  I moved back to NM by my self.  

I distinctly remember feeling betrayed by some of my friends who allowed an open door policy onto our scene.  For the first time in the three years there was a fight at one of our parties, which involved me protecting another friend from someone who was bullying him.  What I felt betrayed about is how our scene, one of the few truly safe places was no longer safe.  We escaped the hatred only to replace it with a lower grade hate that might had to bite their tongue instead of saying what they really wanted to say.  

My life afterwards was strange, I went from youth ground zero to youth zero almost over night.  I had moved to Albuquerque at first, but I really wasn't into the same drugs some of my friends were into.  I barely smoked pot or even drank anymore.  And it was clear that my friends in Albuquerque were still in the party phase of life.  I had gained too many experiences and began defining my life in more meaningful ways.  And plus I was very lost, and distractions is not what I needed.  I moved to a town, Gallup, where I had grown up as a child and pre-teen, where there were so few people I could connect with.  I eventually did give smoking pot a fair try and it seemed to open up nature in a way I had never noticed before.  It began a life long love of the Southwest's nature for me.  Socially eventually there was a scene of friends here in Gallup, and over the years it grew into quite a large group.  A friend of mine and I tried to count the various cool people we met and knew from this town or who lived here for a period of time.  We stopped counting at 60.  My role was always as a sort of sage or elder brother.  Decades later some friends and I were talking about the earlier years, and how they got the Grunge culture directly from Washington State via me, and I embodied what people considered the Grunge culture (like my understated fashion) but was more apt to introduce people to the Cocteau Twins rather than some other band they would hear on the radio.

 

Over time I had let go of my life in Washington as a whole, rarely did it appear in my conversations or even memories. It is only after many decades that I have thought back on the scene, the outcome of the mainstream's invasion.  I think in some ways it's a painful memory because it's more than a lost scene, it's the loss of family.  I do stay in contact with a number of the key figures in the scene to this day.   

I had pushed so much of this past life behind me that I even forgot that I met Kurt Cobain.  Granted I didn't meet rock star Kurt, I met a Kurdt who was not yet famous.

I was 13 years old visiting my friend in Ellensburg.  I lived in Ellensburg during the last trimester of middle school and had asked my friend's family if I could live with them instead of having to move to a new school in the 9th grade.  I very much enjoyed the life I had in Ellensburg.  I had earned the respect of the jocks by beating them in arm wrestling contests when they called me a faggot, ending the bulling before it began.  I had utter freedom to explore the town on my bike or on my skateboard.  And used to go to a cafe often to get espresso milkshakes.  My friends were smart, creative, and fun.  And the small University town life was easing to me in a way that felt like home.  

 

My friend and I were skateboarding when his older sister, attending the University of Washington came up to us after just got back into town from Seattle.  She was very cute and I always had a secret crush on her.  She gave her brother a hug, introduced her friend "Kurt," and the siblings began to talk.  I took this as a cue to take a break from skateboarding and sat on a small wall.  Her friend sat next to me and introduced himself again, this time spelling the name, K-U-R-D-T, which I thought was odd that he was taking the time to spell his name.  I asked if that is the Scandinavian way of spelling it, and he said something like "I suppose it is."  So I began to do my Swedish Chef voice and he joined in the joke.  At one point he watched us skate.  When they were leaving we were given a flyer to what I recall as a dance with one part of a flyer having Bela Lugosi on it.  It turns out my memory was wrong, it was a concert Nirvana was having at the local library.  

I recall he stayed at the house with us or that was my impression because he sat with us at breakfast or perhaps at some other meal, and afterwards we sat outside while he smoked and talked.  I don't recall the exact conversation.  Only a vague memory that it had something to do with skateboarding.  

 

Later when my friend and I were skateboarding in town again we bumped into his sister and Kurt again, and the brother and sister were talking while Kurt and I were having a conversation that somehow got on the topic of wearing lip stick, which I used to wear out at the night clubs.  Kurt was telling me how he would wear lipstick, and then mentioned how he wore dresses when he felt like it, and I thought that was a bit extreme.  He said no, that we have to express ourselves and be who we are without being afraid.  

That is the extent of my memory as best as I can piece together.  I know it's a trite memory, but I think it says allot about Kurt's character that he would spend some time watching us kids skateboard, and that he talked to me although I was 7 or 8 years younger than him, engaging with me as he would anyone else and not like a child, which most people tended to do.  

I know that my writing on the underground scene is more of a slap dash way of addressing a far larger topic.  My original essay was far more comprehensive, and I spent a good deal of time researching this topic.  But as I stated in the beginning of this section, I thought it was too much.  It is my hope to one day expand this section to be more open about the scene.  

I hope this has been an enjoyable read!

Thank you!  

svp