OPINION: Kurt Cobain & Layne Staley, in passing

The anniversary of two respected Seattle musicians/singers made me think of how close-knit things were in the music scene in the early 1990’s.

I became a Washingtonian in 1984, when my mom moved us from Honolulu to be closer to her sister. I thought we would be moving to Seattle, but we found ourselves 200 miles to the East, crop circles and fields that looked like they hadn’t been watered in years. Culture shock? Yes. But it was the music that pulled me through.

For four years, it seemed Seattle’s creative community struggled with the deaths of some of its contributors:

  • People were cheering for Mother Love Bone to become the next it band for Seattle, when vocalist Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose, a few days before he was to make his debut as a major label artist. I remember being in New York City for the New Music Seminar and seeing posters for their album, APPLE, and thinking it was odd. But that was the “business”, to be able to milk that dollar even though the singer was dead for four months.
  • Writer/poet Steven Jesse Bernstein may not have been someone who wrote for everyone, but he was not the people’s poet. But his work was rough, dark, and full of sharp edges and was someone who gained a lot of respect not only among Seattle musicians but people in the city who were into writing and the spoken word. Bernstein killed himself in the fall of 1991 at the age of 40.
  • Stefanie Sargent was the guitarist of 7 Year Bitch, and a band whose music I liked a lot. I had plans on meeting Stefanie and some of the other members of the group when they were going to be at the Beastie Boys show at the Moore Theater in May (where the Fu Schnickens and Big Chief opened) but I was not able to find them. Sargent died a month later.
  • Mia Zapata was the vocalist of The Gits, a group who were not originally from the city but had migrated to the Pacific Northwest with friends who were also in other groups. I loved their music, loved her voice and lyrics, and even admitted this to the group during a phone interview. They played in my town on July 3rd, a holiday weekend, and unfortunately I was too chickenshit to say hello to her, yet I found out from their drummer that Mia wanted to meet with me and say thank you for my kind words. Four days later, Zapata was attacked and killed, the story of which gained national attention soonafter.

    My connection with any of them was simply as a music fan, but as a music journalist, I’d talk with these bands, publicists, even hung out in their stinky ass vans not as a fanboy, but because they were music fans too, there was no issues over things that didn’t matter. Most bands simply wanted enough money to pay for gas to their next gig, some extra beer, and a meal. Any extra money made would be split and maybe they could buy some cigarettes.

    One year after the other, someone from Seattle’s vibrant scene had passed away and at the height of the Lamestain movement known as grunge, it kept on going but with little to know fanfare outside of the scene. Then 1994 happened.

    When Kurt Cobain died, that may have pulled the plug on the national spotlight for Seattle’s music scene. Maybe not completely, but now there were were no forced heroes to worship, and Cobain was not a hero. He was a guy who loved music, did some drugs, played guitar, and liked to fuck shit up in his own way. It’s odd to think that this isolated kid who hung out under bridges in Aberdeen, Washington an now be heard in Nirvana blocks on the radio every day, when most of the bands he grew up admiring never received airplay to the right of the radio dial. Nirvana were great, but even Cobain would’ve told you that he was not the only musician or band worthy of attention. This is exactly why major labels signed everyone from Mudhoney to Hammerbox, Sweetwater to Tad. I mean fricken Tad from Boise, the lumberjack big man who did songs about getting a Kool-Aid buzz and riding cars into frozen waters while drunk on Jack Daniels and Pepsi.

    A lot of the music from that era is great because it meant something to me then, or at least it offered timestamps to what I was doing, what I wasn’t doing, and what I hoped to do, even though half the time I was making shit up as I went along. If I was a bit wiser, I would’ve done a lot more, but I was hustling at shows wanting to write, let limited myself to the constraints of a small town in Southeast Washington. Yet when I visited Seattle (and I did a lot), they’d welcome me as if I was family. I’d walk into the slophole that was Sub Pop Records, with old kung fu movies painted on canvas with loads of publicity packets, CD’s, records, and boxes of unknown origin, hidden in what felt like a basement somewhere on First Street. One of their publicists told me that if I wanted to talk with her, I should bribe her with chocolate. I went to Uwajimaya and bought a box of Hawaiian Host chocolate covered macadamia nuts. I visited Sub Pop, and said publicist wasn’t there. Those were good times.

    My reason for writing this? Nothing other than to share memories. Music is so deep and diverse that it’s sad that people will know of the anniversary of Cobain’s death and only listen to Nirvana. You had Screaming Trees from Ellensburg, Seaweed from Tacoma, Beat Happening from Olympia, the Mono Men from Bellingham, Melvins from Montesano (who eventually said “fuck this” and moved to L.A.), Motherload from Spokane, and incredible groups like Gas Huffer, Coffin Break, Positive Greed, Fitz Of Depression, Girl Trouble, Imij, Dickless, and so many others who were able to kick people in their faces with music. With every forced leader of a movement, there are scenes that didn’t want to be a scene in the first place, just a group of men and women who wanted to rock, drink, smoke or sniff something, and make people happy. So look into these bands, and look into any independent/underground scene in your city or region. Listen and have a good time.


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