Why you should care
Because grunge is alive and well in Seattle … if you know where to look.
Though Seattle is known for many things — Starbucks, rain, plaid — it is perhaps underappreciated as a pioneer. The city brought us Boeing (developers of the first American passenger jet); Microsoft and Amazon; Pictionary; UPS; hell, it even invented Cinnabon. Most famously, of course, Seattle is the birthplace of grunge. And now it is pioneering the world’s first-ever grunge musical.
That’s right: This summer, it was revealed that the Seattle Repertory Theatre has commissioned Grunge: The Musical. The theater itself is a bit of a trailblazer (it launched the careers of a youthful Richard Gere and Christopher Walken), and has signed up a pioneering director, Wendy C. Goldberg, known for her work shaping Tony-winning new plays. Without a book or script, it’ll be a while before the show — about a fictitious rivalry between grunge stars, and featuring classic songs from the era — hits the stage. But that just means there’s plenty of time to brush up on Seattle’s pioneering musical past and present while you wait.
To get some insider perspective, we asked local writer, and the brains behind Seattle’s Grunge: Redux walking tour, Eric E. Magnuson, for his guide to Seattle’s essential music venues. Here’s where to make a pilgrimage before booking Grunge: The Musical tickets.
El Corazón and the Funhouse
Or, “The Space Formerly Known as the Off Ramp,” a venue that was once synonymous with grunge. As Magnuson tells us, “This is where Pearl Jam first played, and where Nirvana got kicked out of their own launch party for [their album] Bleach.” According to Magnuson, the space remains true to its roots — i.e., “cramped and dank” — and still hosts 1990s-era punk bands (Arizona’s Authority Zero just played).
This Belltown favorite hosted Lamefest in 1989, where, Magnuson tells us, Mudhoney, Nirvana and Tad all appeared. They gave “the sold-out crowd its first real sense that the wave might break far beyond this humble backwater,” he says. Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow” video was shot here too. Today, it hosts everyone from rockers War On Drugs to beardy-man Iron & Wine.
Moe’s Mo’ Rockin’ Cafe had a helluva run during its short 1993–97 lifespan — the Flaming Lips and Radiohead blew through, and local acts like girl punks 7 Year Bitch also got their first gigs here. In 2003, it was resurrected by its original founder as Neumos; today, Magnuson tells us, you can catch a thrilling spectrum of performers here, from Sub Pop punks Metz to Filthy Friends (a supergroup featuring REM’s Peter Buck) to cerebral R&B siren Kelela.
“This was the grunge era’s living room,” Magnuson says, noting how celebrity snobbery got checked at the door. While he thinks the venue has “sold out” with a fancy refurb, it still books “fascinating acts” (electropop duo Frenship and NYC rapper Princess Nokia are coming up).
Black Dog Forge
The basement of this blacksmith’s is where Pearl Jam and Soundgarden practiced before making it big. “Eddie Vedder crashed on the couch after moving up to Seattle from San Diego,” Magnuson recalls. Until recently, pilgrims could poke their noses into this “fragrant” space, where aspiring rockers still thrashed all night, and old beer cans and ashtrays passed as decor. But in a story that is now all too familiar for gentrifying Seattle, skyrocketing rents forced out leaseholders Louie Raffloer and Mary Gioia. “It appears a buyer who has an eye toward preservation has bought the building,” Magnuson says, but he cautions that the future of the legendary rehearsal space is still in flux.
Even if Seattle loses this ghost of its grunge past, Magnuson tells us, there is a lot to love in the music scene’s here and now: “Seattle has great hip-hop, alt country, jazz, garage rock and bits of everything beyond and in between.” His advice? Check out the listings in Seattle Weekly, wander out to Belltown, Capitol Hill and Ballard, and even further afield to Seattle’s South or North End: “There are very few no-go parts of the city’s musical landscape,” he says. Whether Grunge: The Musical delivers or disappoints, it seems Seattle is still pioneering its musical legacy.
Grunge Redux Walking Tour
- $50 for two-hour tour
- By appointment only.
- Visit ericemagnuson.com for more information