Twenty-five years ago, if you thought about Seattle at all, you might have known it as the home of Boeing airplanes. Then along came a band that shook up the world's ideas about rock music. In September 1991, Nirvana released its major-label debut, Nevermind.
Nirvana's success helped transform Seattle from an isolated working-class city to an international hub of art, technology and cafe society. On Saturday, Seattle's Experience Music Project opens the first major exhibition ever devoted to Nirvana and the music scene that spawned the band.
When Alice Wheeler came to Seattle 30 years ago, she was a teenager who loved punk rock.
"This was a great neighborhood when I first moved here in the early '80s," Wheeler says. "There were three punk-rock clubs on this block." She says her favorite was one called The Grey Door. Today, it's a coffeehouse.
Wheeler has spent the past three decades photographing Seattle's fringe scene: her fellow punks, musicians and disaffected kids. She also shot the grunge scene.
In the late '80s, that word — grunge — was shorthand for rock bands with a heavy, distorted guitar sound and for flannel shirts and long johns under cutoff jeans. Grunge was synonymous with Seattle. Grunge was a gritty sound that developed in a gritty port city.
"Before the Internet, you had Boeing and the naval shipyards. I ended up working at the naval shipyard for a few years," musician and producer Jack Endino says. Endino left the shipyards to join a band called Skinyard. To support his music, he got a day job at a recording studio. That's where he got a call from a kid living in Aberdeen, a logging town southwest of Seattle.
"January of '88," Endino says. "Here comes this band with no name. Kurt Cobain and his friends. They could only afford one reel of tape, and they filled the tape up. It ran out in the middle of the 10th song. They said, 'That's OK, put a fade ending on that song. We're done. We don't have any more money.'
"Then," Endino says, "I played it for Jon Poneman." In 1987, Poneman and his partner Bruce Pavitt started a company called Sub Pop Records to put out singles by local bands.
"I was halfway through the first song," Poneman says, "and Kurt launches into a roar, and I was just, 'Oh my god.' "
At the time, Seattle's music scene was tiny. A couple hundred people traipsed around from one impromptu club to the next. Back then, Charles Cross edited a weekly newspaper about Seattle's music scene. He went on to write the Kurt Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven.
Standing in front of the white sheet-rock walls of an Urban Outfitters stockroom, it's hard to imagine that the room was once a club. Cross says the club "had a smell, a basement smell. Everything about Nirvana smelled like basements: the recording studios, where they lived — there's a mustiness."
By 1989, Nirvana was on its way out of the basement. Sub Pop had just released the band's first album, Bleach. In a stroke of marketing genius, the label flew over a British music writer to check out the Seattle scene. His article opened the floodgates.
In a short period of time, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Mudhoney all signed contracts with major labels. Their records sold well, but nobody was ready for 1991, when MTV picked up Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video from Nevermind.
"It was everywhere," Endino says. "I remember one of the major-label people being quoted. Somebody said, 'You did a good job of promoting that record.' And he said, 'We didn't promote it — you had to get out of the way and duck.'"
Nevermind sold a million copies within the first six months of its release, and Nirvana went from a trio with no name to No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
By 1991, Seattle had already started to change. Five years earlier, Microsoft moved to a suburb and made its initial public stock offering. That same year, 1986, Howard Schultz bought his first coffeehouse. A year later, Schultz acquired a company called Starbucks. Cross says it all made for a perfect storm.
"The combination of there being software jobs, the combination of things like Starbucks getting national attention, then the music scene, made anyone who was 22 years old, who had just left college and was hip, move to Seattle," he says. The city's days as a blue-collar outpost were over.
Dow Constantine runs the county that includes Seattle and its suburbs; the 13-story, environmentally certified office building where he works is a vivid example of how things in Seattle have changed. Twenty-five years ago, Constantine was behind a microphone at the local alternative-music radio station. Both the man and the city have shed their scruffy images since then.
"I don't think you can say it was a bad thing we became well-off," Constantine says. "But it does do things like increase real-estate values, makes it hard to do things like run a seedy club where bands can come play for five bucks. You gotta be able to make money to pay the rent."
Some bands, and some hipsters, fled south to Portland, Ore. Seattle's music scene is thriving; it's the sound that's changed.
"You'll probably see a lot of people wearing flannel right now, because that seems to be back in: flannel, beards and folk," says Jacob McMurray, senior curator of Seattle's Experience Music Project.
McMurray says grunge may be a 20-year-old memory, but it's part of the continuum of Seattle pop music, from Jimi Hendrix to the Sonics to the next unnamed trio.
"What happened in Seattle and the Northwest couldn't have happened in L.A. or New York," McMurray says. "That's because to most of the people in the universe, it's this unknown, mythical place. It didn't bring up any preconceptions."
Seattle was a frontier town that attracted people who wanted to invent new things and to reinvent themselves: Bill Boeing, Bill Gates, Kurt Cobain. Two decades after Nirvana hit it big with Nevermind, Seattle is slicker and richer. But photographer Wheeler says the city still beckons.
"I still meet kids all the time that still have that punk-grunge spirit," Wheeler says. "It's just as cool as it ever was." Maybe just not as loud.
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