On November 19th, 2018, UNESCO (United Nations Cultural Organization) designated Reggae to the representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Exemplified as the “voice of the marginalized,” UNESCO stated that Reggae is “the music is now played and embraced by a wide cross-section of society, including various genders, ethnic and religious groups. Its contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity underscores the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, socio-political, sensual and spiritual.
” The idea of preserving music as an intangible cultural heritage was born out of UNESCO’s World Heritage site program which protects and preserves physical sites around the world.
Reggae’s designation to the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is an excellent example of how the preservation community is now seeking understand the social, cultural and economic processes which surround the production and consumption of popular music histories.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, Seattle gave birth to what became famously known as the musical genre of ‘grunge’.
Eventually hailed as the “Seattle Sound”, grunge developed into a distinctive genre, presenting a style and sound which propagated within the confines of a specific time and place of the Pacific Northwest. Though Seattle’s technology boom redevelops the urban fabric, grunge culture remains an essential contributor to the region’s character and culture. As a counterculture; However, grunge is vulnerable not only to the passage of time, but also the processes of development, gentrification, and marginalization.
By researching three local case studies of grunge era landmarks, this paper explores the music venues of the intangible cultural heritage of grunge that established Seattle as popular culture icon at the tail end of the twentieth century.
It presents a brief history of the genre, the cultural contributions the scene made, and; lastly, acknowledges the issues of preserving a musical heritage that embodies a subculture of the recent past.
GRUNGE MUSIC: REPRESENTATIVE OF A CULTURAL PLACE AND TIME
Encyclopedia Britannica defines grunge music as the “genre of rock music that flourished in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.” The term grunge was first used to describe the murky-guitar bands (most notably Nirvana and Pearl Jam) that emerged from Seattle as a bridge between mainstream heavy metal, punk, and alternative rock.
Seattle’s isolation allowed grunge subculture to operate under its own ethos, separated from the economic incentive of scenes in Los Angeles or New York City. In the book, “Grunge is Dead”, Kent Morrill (From legendary Seattle band, The Wailers) argues that Seattle’s unique ecosystem and separation from cities like Los Angeles was essential to defining the grunge sound. Morrill noted that, “…It was geography. In those days, people in the northwest though we lived out of covered wagons on the trail… but isolation and the weather were the reasons why we could come up with such an original sound.”
Rooted in punk rock’s do-it-yourself culture, ethics, and sharing band members, grunge came into fruition on Seattle’s do-it-yourself Sub Pop record label, which hosted genre defining bands like Nirvana, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and Soundgarden. Combining heavy guitar distortion, moody vocals, and angst ridden lyrical content, grunge music embodied the sound and culture of a pre ‘tech-boom’ Seattle.
In 1988, Sub Pop released a three-boxed set called ‘Sub Pop 200.’ It was a compilation of Seattle bands that came complete with a 20-page booklet with pictures. Sub Pop also sent a catalogue to radio stations describing the music’s deafening guitar noise as ‘grunge.’ This the first documented use of the now-ubiquitous term. Jonathan Poneman, a Sub Pop founder, noted, ‘It could have been sludge, grime, crud, any word like that.’
Ironically, in the wake of unintended musical success of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Seattle—right before the economic boom from tech companies like Microsoft—became a magnet for record executives and television companies looking to profit of the genre’s unique sound, aesthetic, and identity. As the city became internationally relevant and less isolated, the scene lost its authenticity to time and place. The economic investment of grunge music ushered grunge into an international fad. Department stores and fashion industries began exploiting the ‘grunge aesthetic’ by selling flannel shirt knockoffs, thermal underwear, combat boots, and stocking hats that were favoured by Seattle bands and their fans.
The international grunge fad had eventually faded, partly due to Kurt Cobain’s (Nirvana) death in 1994, who had unintentionally developed into a generational popstar icon. Though grunge lost its economic sellability after Cobain’s death, the genre’s ethos, culture, aesthetic, and sound still influence Seattle today.
THE SOCIAL AND CULTURAL IMPACT OF GRUNGE
Grunge music did not shy away from tackling social issues. From an artistic perspective it was a socially conscious and engaged scene. Feminism, LGBTQ rights, rape, and drug abuse were all prominent themes in lyrics, venues, art, and rigidly upheld social communities. The refocusing of artistic content can be highlighted in Rick Marin’s New York Times article, “Grunge: A Success Story” that acknowledges showing a massive decline in sexist lyrics and with a strong emphasis on lyrical content focusing on social justice issues.
In discussing the politics of grunge, author Thomas C. Shevory identified gender politics as one of the four main political themes of the grunge movement. Shevory argued, “Grunge supported, and was supported by, an alternative culture that has begun to substantially change the position of women in white rock music’’ This, combined with anti-sexism and anti-homphobic stances taken by prominent male musicians and a close connection to the feminist Riot Grrrl movement, demonstrated an activist stance than many others within alternative music. Grunge’s progressive stances on social issues established a strong foundation that continues to impact Seattle outside of the music scene.
DEVELOPING SEATTLE: PRESERVING THE VENUES OF GRUNGE
Place is important to an artistic identity, a rootedness that gives both music and musician a context for being. This notion can take on any kind of scale from a national one. When considering the identities of architecture, music, and place, the associations come easily: The Beatles and the Cavern Club, The New York Punk Scene and CBGB, New Order and the Hacienda. Similar to Reggae music’s association to Jamaica, Seattle’s grunge sound and community was heavily tied to the isolated regional context in Seattle as a whole.
As Seattle develops into an international city, there is a genuine threat of the city losing it’s isolated, do-it-yourself mentality, and blue collar ethos exemplified by grunge heritage. As a counterculture, the intangible past of grunge is vulnerable; not only to the passage of time but also the processes of development, gentrification, and marginalization. Tom Scanlon, in a Seattle Times article from 2009 reflects on the disappearing music culture in Seattle. He stated, “It used to be, you couldn’t throw a guitar pick without hitting a live-music joint. Not so much, these days. We’ve lost nearly all of our performance spaces.”
Investment, technological advancement and real estate demands have dramatically shifted the economic vigor with which the cities have developed. Urban areas like Seattle are experiencing rapid shifts in how space is used and little consideration is given to the heritage significance of the venues and landmarks of the grunge past.
Venues are key signifiers of the grunge movement. Increasing awareness and attempting to preserve significant grunge locations serve as indicators of the cities and broader regions connection to its musical and cultural legacy. The following case studies exemplify the deteriorating role of buildings and spaces that have contributed in defining the music, culture, and identity of grunge-era Seattle. The most iconic grunge locations, like Gorilla Gardens and O.K. Hotel, were short-lived and been long since forgotten. Others, like The Showbox, are currently at risk of being lost.
THE GORILLA GARDENS
(Left) Guns and Roses first show in Seattle. Photo Credit (Carlene, Stalking Seattle, 2018)
(Right) Google Map image of Gorilla Gardens original site
“At the time, the local tavern rock scene was dominated by granola R&B with an occasional serving of loopy new wave. Metal ruled the burbs to the east of Lake Washington. Most of the early bands who would later be associated with the embryonic “Seattle sound” were still playing at Gorilla Gardens, an unsavory all-ages club.”
– Jonathan Poneman, Sub Pop Records
Located at the western edge of Seattle’s International District at 410 Fifth Avenue South, Gorilla Gardens uniquely featured two different rooms for bands to play in: Gorilla Gardens and the Omni Room. The venue’s official name was Seattle Rock Theater, but it quickly became known as Gorilla Gardens by its regular clientele. Only lasting about a year in 1985, the Gorilla Gardens is largely considered to be the birthplace of grunge.
Gorilla Gardens offered two separate shows in the same venue simultaneously. As a result, punk and metal acts often played there on the same nights, leading to the softening of relations between the two subcultures. Casually, two groups of music fans (that had previously been expected to fight in lobbies) were listening to each other’s music and influencing their sounds. The gradual meshing of these two styles of music became the influence for the grunge sound in the early ’90s.
Left: Sonic Youth concert poster at the Gorilla Gardens Omni Room in January of 1985 (Sonic Youth Website)
Right: Green River Live at the Gorilla Gardens. Buzz Osborne of the Melvins on the left (Charles Peterson, 2016)
Below: Skin Yard playing at the Gorilla Gardens, July 1985 Jack Endino would become a prominent producer for Sub-Pop. From left: Jack Endino, Matt Cameron, Ben McMillan, and Daniel House. (Photo by Cam Garrett)
During its brief year of existence, Gorilla Gardens hosted several now-legendary underground and grunge bands, both local and national. The venues first national act was the infamous Butthole Surfers from Texas with Seattle’s Green River opening — a band now largely considered by many the first true grunge band. Soon after, New York City’s Sonic Youth played their premier Seattle show there, on January 19, 1985. As seen in the image, opening acts at that show were Green River and the U-Men — another now-legendary Seattle band from the mid-1980s. Guns N’ Roses made their Seattle debut at the Gorilla Gardens on June 8, 1985. Other legendary artists like Hüsker Dü, Violent Femmes, and Seattle’s own Soundgarden all played the Gorilla Gardens in the venues short lifespan.
Though the Gorilla Gardens building still stands, it is only a ghost of grunge past. On November 6th, 1985, a little less than year after the demise of Gorilla Gardens, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Seattle International Historic District. The original designation document describes the poor architectural quality of the one story commercial building that was once the Gorilla Gardens. The document notes, “the facade has been radically altered, its tile roofs removed and storefronts and parapet completely covered with plywood. Earthquake action has misaligned facade. Although originally a somewhat awkward but pleasant sequence of storefronts interrupted by auto service use, alterations in the 1960’s and 1970’s have substantially changed its contribution to the visual character of the street.”
Gorilla Gardens today as an industrial carpet store in the heart of Seattle’s Historic International District (Photo Credit: Google Maps)
Today the building is a worn down industrial carpet factory. There are no indications near the site that acknowledge the building’s contributions to the music scene or the Seattle’s grunge heritage. Though the building is designated, the poor condition of the architecture, the unclear oral traditions of the venue’s impact on grunge music, and the Gorilla Garden’s extremely short history at the site are unconvincing arguments for preservation. An attempt to preserve and restore the site to its original form as Gorilla Gardens would be a possible solution, however the issue of authenticity would drastically outweigh the impact of the Gorilla Garden’s to connect modern Seattle to it’s grunge roots.
As apparent in the case study of Gorilla Gardens, part of the issue with preserving grunge heritage is connected to the transient nature of punk music and it’s adaptability in utilizing a building to create a space for the youth culture and artists to congregate, perform and network. Upon the landscape, grunge and punk music has manifested itself through improvisation, immediacy and spontaneity, a theme which has continued today through its remains, memory and enfranchisement into mainstream heritage discourse.
Originally built in 1914 on Railroad Avenue S (now 212 Alaskan Way S), OK Hotel is faced west to the Elliott Bay waterfront. The original building served as flophouse was geared toward “salty sailors, muscle-bound dockworkers, and lubricated lumberjacks all raring to blow their dough in the bars and brothels along Skid Road.” In 1953 Seattle’s new Alaskan Way Viaduct was erected near the site, creating more noise, crime, and darkness in the already dark and industrious area — forcing the OK Hotel to close business operations.
Left: Earliest photo of OK Hotel (Photo Credit: HistoryLink.org)
Right: Interior shot of OK Hotel’s interior in 1997 (Photo Credit:Ralf Huels)
Five years after the sudden disappearance Gorilla Gardens, Pioneer Square’s OK Hotel opened its doors in January of 1990, continuing the building’s rough history as an all-ages music venue. The first show at the venue was performed by grunge legends, Mother Love Bone. OK Hotel’s thousands of subsequent shows would feature other grunge bands like Soundgarden, Mudhoney, the Gits, and Mookie Blaylock (the name used by Pearl Jam prior to their inception).
OK Hotel is most famously acknowledge by the concert on April 17, 1991, where Nirvana headlined a three-band lineup there that also featured Olympia’s riot grrrl band Bikini Kill and Tumwater punks Fits of Depression. According to some accounts, the show was organized as a fundraising benefit to help Fits of Depression lead singer Mike Dees avoid jail by paying off his traffic fines.
The show would become legendary, in part because Nirvana had only done one Seattle show since their new drummer, Dave Grohl (now of Foo Fighters fame) joined the band. Adding to the excitement was the presence of of a camera film crew that captured the debut of new Nirvana songs, including the future hit ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ Adding to the oral tradition of this legendary night, Nirvana only played the show, reportedly, because the band ‘needed gas money to drive down to L.A. to record [their next album], so they played a last-minute show at the OK Hotel … [and the] band walked away with a few hundred bucks, drove down to L.A., and the rest is history.’
Left: Show poster for Nirvana’s legendary performance at OK Hotel (Photo Credit: HistoryLink.org)
Right: The OK Hotel as the Java Stop in Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film Singles (Photo Credit: Singles)
Though Gorilla Gardens was largely unknown as the birthplace of grunge, The OK Hotel became the iconic music venue that popularized the genre. After Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit #1 on the music charts, the OK Hotel also hit mainstream, serving as a filming location — recast as the ‘Java Stop’ coffee house — in Singles Cameron Crowe’s 1992 hit film about the Seattle grunge scene. Subsequently, the OK Hotel became a must-visit spot for film and grunge-history tourists.