Exposure to the scene
Music is an important part of being young, and as we age music often defines who we are during stages of our life. My own introduction to the type of music we would nowadays call Alternative came fairly early, around 1985 or 1986 in New Mexico USA, not exactly the centre of underground culture, which should say something how a scene first introduced in in the USA and England in the mid 1960’s filtered its way into rural America over a decade or so later.
What propelled my music taste was my best friend’s older sister who by luck had bought some important sound tracks, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink and perhaps others which contained quintessential bands. I recall in 1984, one moment listening to the Karate Kid Soundtrack, Footloose, and others that had really no musical value other than making you want to dance or re-enact the decisive battle in the film Karate Kid, and then out of the blue, being introduced to a totally different soundscape, one that would become a mainstay in my life. The moment I heard Depeche Mode’s Dreaming of Me and New Life, my life had been changed. I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but was captivated by how unusual the sound was, so different from what I had heard on the radio that the two songs became compelling.
Ellensburg & Yakima Washington
The move to Washington State from New Mexico was a positive in my life. The scenery was beautiful, and the small university town we moved to was rough, but also had enough of the university influences rubbing off on it that there was interesting things afoot, such as the cafe off a side street around the corner from downtown where I began my love affair with espresso. I had been warned to steer clear of the rednecks, but I found a way to make them want to leave me alone instead. I had challenged the first kid who tried picking on me to an arm wrestling match, however the caveat being that we used our weakest arm. So we squared off with our left hands. Redneck after redneck I beat, without anyone suspecting that I am actually left handed.
The youth culture in Ellensburg was varied, those of us who didn’t fit in banded together, and there were kid’s who I imagined their parents were hippies, as that was their persona. There were punk rocker kids, skater kids, and New Wave kids. One of the people I met had a big influence on me, he was the first openly gay youth I had met, about to graduate from high school, older than I, and when one is 13, 17 or 18 years old is a huge difference.
What made him so influential on me was that he had come from a totally different culture, being gay. We shared allot of the same music tastes, but his knowledge of music went far beyond what I had been exposed to. There was allot of upbeat music in my collection, some of the tracks were certainly what we would now consider EDM, Electronic Dance Music, although EDM hadn’t evolved to the pure beats and sounds it would become with the advent of the Rave culture. He was also an amateur D.J. who would mix his own tapes and give them to me. I would be exposed to the 12 inch single, a remixed version of a song that was made for the dance floor.
Beyond the music, there was a refinement he passed on to me, in clothing, in cologne, in shoes, hair, even make-up. I would get introduced to his friends, older gay men and women and absorb their culture and ways of being. I suppose that began me living in two different worlds, one of the older misfits and those misfits who were of my age.
A friend’s brother was in the band Screaming Trees, and I got invited to see the show at the Library centre where Nirvana would play that year too. I believe this was 1988, the year I met Kurt Cobain. More on this later.
Eventually my family moved an hour away to a small town called Naches, which was a huge down step from Ellensberg. Naches was twenty minutes from the small metro centre of Yakima, the last time I checked the region has about 250,000 people due to all the towns that surround the Yakima area. Yakima was large enough to provide a diversity of people, although the region’s main economic source is agriculture. If you buy apples in the USA, the bag or box most likely will say Yakima or one of the town outside of it. The dominance of the agricultural industry means that a large segment of the population will be more country, which could be good if you are looking for rustics, but during that time it really meant ‘closed-minded’ communities. And Naches was horribly close minded. I would end up getting into fights almost every day.
What set me up for this horrible experience was getting involved with a girl a little older than I, who wanted to get sexual soon after meeting me. In truth I had feelings towards women, particularly a skater girl I met while still in New Mexico, who would write to me and send me buttons. But I wasn't ready to be that involved with anyone. I actually did want to wait until either marriage or a strong commitment was made, as was the values I was raised with. When I rebuffed the Naches girl's sexual advancements, a rumour spread that I was gay. I am certain the event added to the general suspicion of me, as towns like that are never friendly towards new comers, but it was more in hindsight that I made the connection. It didn't help that prior to my entry into high school that I was dressed down, in skateboarding mode whilst my first day of school I dressed like someone going out to a night club with my outsider friend group, which included make-up (with the exception of no lipstick). That change in persona had very negative effects, to the tune that each day at school I felt threatened. My personality never allowed people to treat me in negative ways, I was a fighter, grew up fighting kids from the Indian Reservation, Mexican gangsters, and my favourite targets, the rich white kids, so when people tried to pick on me, I fought back or had a retort ready for them. One of my come backs to the all too common remark that I was gay was "in your dreams, in my nightmares." Most people ignored that comment, but a few took the time to think about it. To say the least, the experience was horrible and new for me. I was very alone in the school. Of course women like me, they always like sensitivity perhaps, and mixed with an edge of toughness, I would encounter issues with women who preferred talking to me rather than their own boyfriends which led to further issues.
The town of Naches itself felt pretty isolated. I had never lived in a town that simply felt miniature. I had lived in a very rural town once, in fact I had gone to school in a one room school, but there was no real pretence of a town, only houses, some stores, a gas station, and a lumber mill. Naches had a small downtown, a small park, and everything was closed together, on streets that soon came to an end or lead further out into the country.
One day my gay friend came down to visit, he had lived in Yakima once and had connections there. He introduced me to what I now call the scene by taking me to dances where I would meet other misfits like me. It wasn’t long, despite my age that I began to make connections and get to know some of them. The beginning of the youth culture for many of the outsiders in rural Washington began from dances at the Granger, or at local church groups. I missed out on that, but once those ended, perhaps because of the type of crowd they encouraged, the outsiders began to rent places out and gathered their friends to dance and hang out. I think these misfit made dances were a better environment as our group had complete control, including what sort of music and crowd populated the night.
The first time I attended such a dance I felt intimidated because everyone was so much older than I. However once I got into the dance hall and saw a couple slow dancing to The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” I knew a whole new world opened up to me.
Whenever I got the chance, I would head to Yakima and hit up the new contacts I made, often times sneaking out late at night to a friend’s car who graciously drove the distance to pick me up. By the time I was turning fifteen I had a girlfriend, Candace, who became my partner in heading to visit the other side of life in Yakima.
The Counter culture- an examination
Theres a problem in examining the counter cultures of any modern age; within one particular culture, there isn’t just a singular “Counter Culture," nor could you state one started on this set date, ending on this other set date. There isn’t a single tone, ethos, or aesthetic. And when one element or more evolves into something different or takes on new characteristics, what then does that original form transform into? What happens to the purer form of this Counter Culture? This is of course without focusing on what influenced its most visible elements of that Counter Culture. Clearly cultures change, but at what point does the Counter Culture become something different, even disappearing altogether?
For the “Alternative” counter culture (and all the genres it at one time encompassed) one could track it back to 1964, with the formation of the Velvet Underground. And yet the Velvets were also part of the NYC art scene, a’la Andy Warhol. John Cale, a founding member, was an accomplished classically trained musician and had the weight of the past European music tradition as well as John Cage and other Avant Guard music that heavily influenced him. The band was also influenced by the Beat Poets, part of another Counter Culture, the Beatniks. The Velvet’s approach to “Rock N’ Roll” was very unlike any other band at the time, indeed, their approach was more in tune with a painter’s process, where colours are soundscapes.
Over twenty years of evolution by the time I joined the scene, I am sure what I knew as the scene was beyond watered down at that point and no longer pointed towards magnetic north. Indeed it had already gone through various points of decadence and decay. Nor do I think it’s fair to view a “Counter Culture” simply through its easiest commodified element, music.
And yet the question remains, what is this Counter Culture so far away from the origins? Surely we must have seem like neophytes to the older generations. While we lived it, participated in it, formed it, it certainly seemed to belong to us, and while few of us might have had the connection to a band like the Velvet Underground, we certainly had an affinity towards what it birthed.
The main differences between the Counter Culture and Grunge was how wide spread Grunge became, lacking any of the principals that we held. Grunge didn't require anything from you, whereas in the scene, there was a whole mentality that was expected. I recall at one party, one we had been going to for the after party for four years, when grunge made landfall an individual walked into our party and loudly exclaimed “I didn’t know there would be fags here.” That would have never happened prior to Grunge.
There is whole section I wish to devote to the post grunge time period, so I will save my thoughts and observations for that section.
For lack of better terminology I have always used to terms "underground scene," “youth scene” or the “scene” to speak about my youth. One must recognise that there were not a plethora of terms to break down the various scenes into their microscopic form or their music genres. I think it would be reductive to call our scene the Alternative scene, after the music classification that became popular after the scene had died. The reason for this is because there was not one type of person who made up the scene, nor music or aesthetic tastes.
The term Independent “Indy” was briefly used through the 1990’s to describe the music our group preferred. I would hear from time to time that term, but it wasn’t wide spread and the term “Alternative” won the day eventually.
The more apt description would be to say we were the outsiders in society bonded by the need to be accepted and to accept others on the margin. As anyone knows who was young and socially evolved, groups often cross pollenate, so in our group was members of other groups who may not have fit into their own peer groups because they were gay, or didn’t care for the aggressive nature of other fellow members, or even the lifestyle expectations. In our group no guy would pressure you to have sex, wouldn’t egg you on to drink, you didn’t need to worry if you passed out about being groped or assaulted. Of course one can’t blanket a group with assumptions about their behaviours, nor could one say that individuals didn’t misbehave or act horribly. A group is only as good as their individual’s moral compass, the leadership in the group, and the other peers looking out for you.
In a sense the only real qualification to be a part of our scene was in the level of non-judgement and acceptance we extended toward everyone who was equally open as we were. Although there had been others who worn down the path for us, we were the last group to dye our hair, get tattoos, and piercings before the mainstream took hold of these practices and accepted them widely. As I will write latter in the Post-Grunge days, there was literally a day when having fire engine dyed red hair would get you threatened and one day when a rush of people came back with dyed hair all talking about how cool they looked, and then tried to pal around us as if they were always the types to take chances.
Our group lives on in so many youths I have seen through my adult life, one cannot escape our scene in modern times, it has simply become the norm. But the main core values have not carried on. These values was the accepting of people regardless of their race, sexual preferences, or belief systems. This might seem like a small difference but during our time these were very important issues, especially when one lives in a society dominated by White Christian values. The tone of society was more than hostile towards outsiders and misfits, it was down right dangerous. Gay bashings were a very real danger, it kept us going out in groups and when someone found themselves alone, things could get stressful, one in our group lost an eye to queer bashers. A smaller group of us got beat up by random people one night, which emphasised what targets we were. In either 1990 or 1991 a man was beaten in Seattle to death for being gay, so this wasn't singularly a small town thing, it was an attitude perpetuated by society in general. One didn’t need to be gay to be threatened either, you were always assumed to be or at the very least guilty by association.
The scene was not only in Washington state, but was nation wide, although in some states it was sparse and in other states it was populous. The larger the city you lived in, the more of you there were. We could travel and spot our own fairly easily anywhere. What made Washington so special is that Grunge came along and highlighted our scene, but it could have happened anywhere, and nearly did, like in Minneapolis.
But there was more to that as well that made Washington so ripe. Due to the open spaces in the western USA, it wasn’t unusual for us to drive for hours, coupled with the exodus to the main metro centres, this meant we made contacts and had contacts throughout the state. We could literally call someone in Seattle or Portland, or even some small town we were to stay the night in and someone would know someone who knew someone in that area. I had literally watched this many times from Portland to Seattle, to the Tri-Cities, to Boise ID, to Spokane, and other points in between. In some regards there was this feeling of an extended family. I think many of us came from these small towns, so there was an automatic empathy that others felt for us, and we were always welcomed and shown around.
The size of the scene was deceptive. Statewide is a whole other story that I will not try to estimate since at that point it would represent a small but noticeable percentage. The scene was always growing and shrinking at the same time, with more added than leaving. It was almost a rite of passage to make an exodus to the larger metro centres of Seattle and Portland. During my first year in the scene, age 13, I was really only comfortable with few people, but by age 14 that grew to an acceptance of me and of me accepting the others in the crowd until I was a regular feature. I would estimate there were around 30 of us more or less as consistent fixtures in the scene at that time period.
At age 15, my girlfriend introduced many to the scene, mostly women. Mainly this was her country and heavy metal friends who at first I didn’t think belonged, yet I could see how the introduction was positive for everyone. They adored the gay men, in fact I began to call the group of girls the Fruit Flies. The transformative power of acceptance cannot be underlined here. Our influence would recreate these women to confident women who valued themselves, who dressed up with the advice of the gay men who made them elegant. The type of men they would be in contact with were going places, not stagnant. And the level of exploration was endless. Their world view had been greatly broaden.
By age 16, the last year in the scene at that locality for me, things were different. In part this is because of me this time introducing those I met to the older crowd. At age 14 I had gone to Naches high school, at age 15 I was at Selah. At age 16 I was at West Valley, Eisenhower, and Davis High schools, the later two was the inner city schools that had huge. Not to mention a small three month period in Los Lunas New Mexico which I will write about later as well.
As you see, there isn’t a clear answer as how many there were in the scene. Originally at age 13 there were enough to fill the dance hall others in the group rented out. Due to my age I really hadn’t explored the scene other than a few older people I felt at home with, but by the time I was 14, there didn’t seem to be more than 30 of us at any given time. By age 15 due to my girlfriend the scene grew, and there were other new people as well that came in through other means that became fixtures. At age 16 the population of our scene skyrocketed due to my introduction of kids I met from the various schools I had attended, and from their extended friends list as well. By this time we began linking up with groups like the quasi hippies which was a whole huge scene within itself.
I recall having an eye opening conversation where my close gay friend told me that no matter how popular I was, I’d always be number two, while he would remain number one. I thought it was cute, but at the same time I never was aware of a popularity ladder, or that amongst all our friends, I was so popular to reach the number two spot.