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20 Years Later, Seattle Music Scene Still Channels Spirit Of Nirvana

Novoselic and Cobain perform at the University of Washington HUB Ballroom in February 1989. (Charles Peterson)

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.

Copyright 2014 Puget Sound Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.kuow.org.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Twenty-five years ago, a lot of people may have considered Seattle kind of a rainy port town with a big Space Needle downtown and a big airplane factory on the edge of town.

In September 1991, Nirvana released its major-label debut, Nevermind and it became a huge hit and it helped transform the image of Seattle into an international hub of art, technology and cosmopolitan cafe society.

This weekend, Seattle's Experience Music Project opens the first major exhibition ever devoted to Nirvana and the music scene that spawned it.

Marcie Sillman of member station KUOW takes a look back at the band and the city it changed.

MARCIE SILLMAN: When Alice Wheeler came to Seattle 30 years ago, she was a teenager who loved punk rock.

Ms. ALICE WHEELER (Photographer): This was a great neighborhood. When I first moved here in the early 80s, there were three different punk-rock clubs on this block. My favorite one was in this building and it was called The Grey Door.

SILLMAN: Today, it's a coffeehouse.

Alice Wheeler has spent the past three decades photographing Seattle's fringe scene for fellow punks, musicians and disaffected kids.

Its raining outside. A light steady list of Wheeler calls daffodil rain.

Ms. WHEELER: Today is the perfect grunge day because its like flat, gray. I was looking out over the water, you couldn't see the edge of the water and where the sky began and the mountains.

SILLMAN: Grunge. In the late 1980s, that word was shorthand for rock bands with a heavy, distorted guitar sound, for flannel shirts and long johns under cutoff jeans. Grunge was synonymous with Seattle.

(Soundbite of song, Papercuts)

SILLMAN: Grunge was a gritty sound that developed in a gritty port city.

Mr. JACK ENDINO (Musician, Producer): It was before the Internet boom and the coffee and all the giant companies. I mean you had Boeing and you had the naval shipyards. I ended up working at the naval shipyard in Bremerton for a few years.

SILLMAN: Jack Endino left the shipyards to join a band called Skin Yard. To support his music, he got a day job at a recording studio. That's where he got a call from a kid from Aberdeen, a logging town southwest of Seattle.

ENDINO: 1988, in January of '88, 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. And it ran out in the middle of the 10th song. And they said, well, that's okay. Just put a fade ending on that song and we're done. We don't have any more money.

(Soundbite of song, Papercuts)

NIRVANA (Grunge band): (Singing) When I'm feeling tired. She puts food through the door. I crawl towards the cursed light. Sometimes I can't find my way.

Mr. ENDINO: And then I played it for Jon Poneman.

SILLMAN: In 1987, Jonathan Poneman and his partner Bruce Pavitt started a company called Sub Pop Records to put out singles by local bands.

Mr. JONATHAN PONEMAN (Founder, Sub Pop Records) And I was halfway through the first song on the tape and Kurt launches into a roar, and I was just, oh my God.

(Soundbite of song, Papercuts)

(Soundbite of roar by Kurt Cobain)

SILLMAN: 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 sheetrock that walls off an Urban Outfitters stockroom, it's hard to imagine there was a club here.

Mr. CHARLES CROSS (Author, Heavier Than Heaven): And the club that we're standing in had a smell. It was a basement smell. Everything about Nirvana smelled like basements: the recording studios they were in, where they lived -there's a mustiness.

SILLMAN: But 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, the band 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 the album Nevermind.

(Soundbite of song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit")

Mr. ENDINO: It was everywhere. I mean my band was touring Europe at the time and we were hearing it everywhere over there.

SILLMAN: Record producer Jack Endino.

Mr. ENDINO: I remember one of the major-label people being quoted in an article. Someone said, oh, you guys did a really good job of promoting that record. And they said, we didn't promote it - you had to get out of the way and duck.

(Soundbite of song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit")

NIRVANA: (Singing) Load up on guns. Bring your friends. It's fun to lose and to pretend. She's overborne and self-assured. Oh no, I know a dirty word.

Hello, hello, hello, hello, how low?

SILLMAN: Nevermind sold a million copies within the first six months of its release. Nirvana went from a trio with no name to number one 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. Cobain biographer Charles Cross.

Mr. CROSS: What happened is that the combination of there being software jobs, the combination of things like Starbucks getting national attention, and then the music scene, made anyone who was 22 years old, who had just left college and was hip, move to Seattle.

SILLMAN: The city's days as a blue-collar outpost were over.

(Soundbite of street traffic)

SILLMAN: This corner may be the most vivid example of the changes in the city of Seattle. This is a 13-story glass, steel and granite environmentally certified office building where King County executive Dow Constantine works.

Mr. DOW CONSTANTINE (King County Executive, Seattle): From this window you can see where the clubs, the Gorilla Room and Gorilla Gardens and Metropolis and the Central Tavern, which was tremendously important. You could see those all from the window.

SILLMAN: Dow Constantine runs the county that includes Seattle and its suburbs. Twenty-five years ago, a different Constantine was behind a microphone at the local alternative-music radio station. Both the man and the city have shed their scruffy images.

Mr. CONSTANTINE: I don't think that you can say that it was a bad thing that we became well off. But it does do things like increase real-estate values. It makes it hard to run a seedy club where bands can come play for five bucks. You got to be able to make money if youre going to pay the rent.

SILLMAN: Some bands, and some hipsters, fled south to Portland, Oregon. Seattle's music scene is thriving; it's the sound that's changed.

(Soundbite of song, Down in the Valley)

THE HEAD AND THE HEART (Folk band): (Singing) I wish I was slave to an age-old trade. Like riding around on railcars and working long days.

Mr. JACOB MCMURRAY (Senior curator, Seattle's Experience Music Project): You'll probably see a lot of people wearing flannel right now, because that seems to be back in: flannel, beards and folk.

SILLMAN: Jacob McMurray is senior curator of Seattle's Experience Music Project. McMurray says grunge may be a 20-year-old memory, but it's part of a continuum of Seattle pop music, from Jimi Hendrix to the Sonics to the next unnamed trio.

Mr. MCMURRAY: What happened in Seattle, you know, and in the Northwest couldn't have happened if it was L.A. or if it was New York. And that's because to most of the people in the universe, the Northwest is unknown. I mean it was this mythical place, you know. And so it didn't bring up any kind of preconceptions.

SILLMAN: 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 Alice Wheeler says the city still beckons.

Ms. WHEELER: I still meet kids all the time that still have that punk-grunge spirit. It's just as cool as it ever was.

SILLMAN: Maybe just not as loud.

For NPR News, I'm Marcie Sillman in Seattle.

(Soundbite of song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit")

NIRVANA: (Singing) And I forget just why I taste. Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile. I found it hard it's hard to find. Oh, well, whatever, nevermind

Hello, hello, hello, hello, how low?

SIMON: Seattle is always cool.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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