In case you missed it, yesterday I announced a last-minute post on the 90s nostalgia theme I want to feature, two other blogs with a call for content, and more. Today’s guest post is from my friend Brent Stavig, on the early days pre-grunge in Seattle.
by Brent Stavig
In order to describe the impact that Nevermind had in my world I’ll need to delve into a brief history of the Pacific Northwest rock scene that led up to Nirvana. I turned eighteen in 1980, and the two most popular bands in Seattle were “New Wave” bands: The Cowboys, and The Heats. Both mimicked the fashion of The Cars, Split Enz, Blondie, etc., and had that tough, post-punk attitude that defined the New Wave genre. While neither ended up having much success, they were treated like rock stars in a town where nothing else was happening. I recall going to see Pat Benatar at the Paramount Theater in 1980, and the front row of the mezzanine was cordoned off for The Heats. When they strolled into the venue everyone stood up to stare at them, like they were Seattle’s own Beatles.
I’d been playing guitar in my own New Wave band at Western Washington University, The Blitz, and we played punk and new wave cover songs at high schools around the state, usually for homecoming dances and Sweetheart Balls. I’m proud to say that my band probably introduced many unknowing youngsters to bands like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Clash, and Squeeze, and perhaps inspired some of them to form their own bands.
After one year of college I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in a rock band, and since Seattle didn’t hold much promise I set my sights on New York City. At the age of nineteen I packed a suitcase, grabbed my guitar, and took a Greyhound bus to Manhattan. Unfortunately there wasn’t much going on there either. The heyday of CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City were over, and the scene had become a droll collection of black-t-shirt-clad mood shifters, doing their best ‘Velvet Underground meets Talking Heads’ impersonation. I joined bands and played these now-legendary venues too, but the overall mood was dark and unpromising.
While this was going on in NYC, back home in a town called Olympia (south of Seattle) my childhood friend Bret Lunsford had formed a band called Beat Happening with two college friends. They started to make cassettes, and distributing them via their own label, K Records. By 1983 my cousin Sid had moved from Seattle to join me in my quest for rock and roll success, and we’d listen to the Beat Happening songs with a sense of wonder. They were so primitive and childish. Rudimentary musical skills and base lyrics. It was easy to dismiss them as a lark, but pretty soon they started to receive coverage in the national media, as well as the attention of a young Kurt Cobain (who would later slap a K Records sticker on his guitar). Beat Happening – Bret, Heather, and Calvin – visited us when they were playing in NYC, and it was hard to relate to their vibe, which I’d describe as latent-Hippie mixed with societal disdain.
Around this same time another childhood friend – Daniel House – also came to visit. He was living in Seattle and had recently formed Skin Yard with Jack Endino, who would later produce and record the earliest Nirvana tracks. Daniel told us stories of how the Seattle music scene was about to explode, and how A & R reps from major labels were always checking out the local bands. I found this preposterous. The Seattle I’d left behind for the greener pastures of NYC was void of any real promise, or so I’d thought.
In 1985 or ’86 (I’ve lost track) my band Lyrical Whips was playing CBGB’s the same night as Green River; a Seattle supergroup (in hindsight) that included Mark Arm and Steve Turner who would shortly form Mudhoney, and Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard who would shortly form Pearl Jam. We swapped stories about Seattle, and the challenges of playing in NYC clubs, and once again we heard amazing stories about the Seattle scene, re: the enormous number of good bands, the camaraderie, the promise of getting signed to a genuine record label, and how we should leave NYC and move back home. We decided to stay in Manhattan rather than retreat back to Seattle having not achieved our dreams.
However, even though a buzz was happening in Seattle, no one had really broken out nationally yet. The Minneapolis scene of the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Soul Asylum was dominating the regional-scene attention. When I told New Yorkers that I was from Seattle they usually had a hard time visualizing where it was. “Is that sort of south of Alaska?” they’d ask.
Soundgarden was the first Seattle band to get some national attention. Their second album Louder Than Love was getting some radio airplay, and almost made it into the Billboard Top 100. By now I was starting to wonder if maybe there was something happening in Seattle.
By 1990 my cousin Sid had given up on making it in NYC, and had moved back to Seattle. One day I received a cassette in the mail he’d made, a collection of bands he thought I hadn’t heard yet. The first track was Nirvana’s “Sliver”, only released as a single in 1990. I was intrigued the moment I heard Kurt’s voice for the first time, and also by the nostalgic lyrics about mashed potatoes. I spoke to Sid about this strange band called Nirvana, and as a manager at the Seattle Tower Records he was enthusiastic about them, and told me that they were going to be huge.
I neglected to pick up their first album Bleach, but made a point of grabbing a copy of Nevermind the day it was released, and of course I was blown away. In the history of rock albums there aren’t too many opening tracks as powerful as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I stood in front of my speakers, volume cranked as high as I could get away with in my apartment, and marveled at the production, the guitar tone, the ferocious drumming, and Kurt’s amazingly shredded vocals. I played the album all the way through, and then played it two more times. It had been a long time since I felt like I was hearing something groundbreaking, but it seemed like rock and roll was about to head in a different direction, and Nirvana was blazing the trail.
The national media, as well as music fans around the world, latched onto Nevermind like they’d been waiting for it their whole lives. Virtually every magazine had Nirvana on the cover, MTV was drenched in Nirvana coverage, and everywhere were essays and commentaries trying to explain their rapid ascent. Some compared them to the Beatles, others dismissed them as talentless noise jockeys, but “grunge” was suddenly a household word.
I found myself proud, at last, to say I was from Seattle. Now when New Yorkers heard that I was from Seattle, they’d ask about Nirvana. Did I know them? Do I really think they’re any good? But the best part was that I no longer had to go into detail about exactly where Seattle was located.
Nevermind remains a touchstone for me. It opened the door for countless other bands, spawned many imitators, and inspired me to take more chances with my own music. It also kicked open the door of the 1990s, and paved the way for a wave of incredible rock bands who (I felt) stepped up their game a couple of notches after hearing Nirvana, and who released some of the best music of their careers. These include, Screaming Trees, Dinosaur Jr., Buffalo Tom, Urge Overkill, Soul Asylum, Grant Lee Buffalo, and Smashing Pumpkins.
Of course the story of Nirvana is bittersweet, and to this day I still feel sadness when I think of Kurt’s death. Like Highway 61 Revisited, Revolver, Moondance, and Never Mind the Bollocks, Nevermind is firmly nestled in the pantheon of rock’s greatest records, and I feel lucky to have been paying attention when it landed.
Brent Stavig is a contributor to Seattle Music Insider.