Post-Grunge, Seattle Rocks On

Time And A Place

New York Times

SEATTLE — Three months before he killed himself, Kurt Cobain spoke of his band’s breakthrough single at a concert here that turned out to be one of Nirvana’s final performances in the United States.

 “This song made Seattle the most livable city in America,” Mr. Cobain told the audience”

Then he ripped into the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” an anthem of indifference polished just enough to give it popular appeal.

Now, 20 years after Nirvana soared from obscurity to superstardom and the Seattle scene was anointed as rock relevant, a new exhibition, a film and a tribute concert planned for the anniversary make it clear how different things really are here now.

Seattle has become even more livable since Mr. Cobain’s dry declaration, way back in January 1994. The city still rocks, and its rockers still ache, but more gently now. Flannel? Sure. Screaming? There is less of it from this new stage.

Once mostly boom, bust and Boeing, Seattle rebuilt itself on high technology, global commerce and well-educated newcomers making waterproof peace with the weather. The Pacific Northwest, long a mysterious corner of the country, stepped out of isolation and into cliché: coffee, computers and Kurt, the voice and face of grunge.

“The times for Seattle to be sort of a misty forgotten land are over,” said Jacob McMurray, the curator of “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses,” the exhibition at the Experience Music Project here.

The anniversary events are canonizing — and continuing to commercialize — the moment when, some people say, alternative music fully broke through to the mainstream. Yet many of the dark clubs where Nirvana and bands like Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney and the Melvins built followings are gone.

A nonprofit group called the Vera Project, based in Seattle Center, now teaches teenagers how to do everything from silkscreening band T-shirts to working in sound studios. (It also offers “Punk Rock Yoga” classes.) Many of the newer pop performers associated with Seattle — Fleet Foxes, the Head and the Heart, Macklemore and Shabazz Palaces among them — are more diverse, offering art rap and “beard rock,” and they feel far less confrontational, at least overtly.

“Seattle and the music scene had a very antagonistic relationship,” recalled Mr. McMurray, who arrived in the city as a college student in 1990, the year before Nirvana’s rise. “It wasn’t like today, where we’ve got city initiatives, you know, ‘Seattle: City of Music.’ We’ve got the Vera Project that openly embraces ‘all-ages’ music. There was none of that back at the time.”

All the celebrating leaves some people wondering whether the aesthetically authentic response to the anniversary should instead be what the band itself advised back in the day: the name of the Nirvana album that included “Teen Spirit” — and unseated Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” at the top of the charts — was “Nevermind.” It has sold at least 30 million copies worldwide.

Was it really One of the Most Transformative Records in Rock History?

When Mr. Cobain sang “I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us,” was it really emblematic of a new Seattle sound or was it just shrewdly packaged punk by some jaded dudes from a dreary old logging town, Aberdeen, Wash., more than 100 miles outside the city?

Does it matter?

“Probably in the mind of Kurt Cobain, if he was still with us, he would probably think the most punk thing would be to just reject it all,” said Charles Peterson, a photographer who still makes much of his living off the pictures he took of Nirvana. “But of course, you know, he would be a multi-multi-multimillionaire at this point. So, easy for him to say.”

Except that Mr. Cobain has been dead for 17 years. Regardless of the music being made in Seattle now, Nirvana and grunge loom like brand names, as connected to the city as Starbucks and Amazon and Microsoft. Some city tours include the house near Lake Washington where Mr. Cobain killed himself. A selection of the most prominent records by Nirvana and Pearl Jam are in a small sales display at the front counter of Easy Street Records in a West Seattle neighborhood near where Eddie Vedder, the singer for Pearl Jam, owns a house.

Were the records in such a prominent position because of the anniversary? “They’re always there,” said Ron Garcia, a store clerk.

“It’s our forebears,” said Malia Alexander, 24, interviewed on a recent night at the Black Lodge, an all-ages club next to Interstate 5. “It’s kind of my dad’s music.”

The band even surfaced in a Republican presidential debate the other night, with Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor, making an awkward and inaccurate reference to one of the band’s songs, “All Apologies.” Shortly thereafter, Krist Novoselic, Nirvana’s bassist and something of a political activist in Washington State, posted on Twitter: “Kurt Cobain Lives in the GOP presidential debate! Kurt supported Jerry Brown for president in 1992.”

Not everyone is reverent. A woman named Viki — she insisted that is all she goes by — said she had moved to Seattle for its music scene, but not grunge. Viki is 32 and said she played “electronics” for Midlife Vacation. She has no plans to see the new exhibition.

“I don’t care, because it’s in the past,” shei said. “I can’t believe they’re still talking about it. I mean, come on.”

Mr. Peterson, the photographer, now 47 with a 2-year-old son, agreed that there had been too much talk. But his pictures are all over the exhibition and on the wall at the Crocodile, one of the few clubs from the grunge days that is still operating.

“I may be a little sick of talking about it,” he said, “and I think most of the people that were involved are a little sick of talking about it, if, you know, it didn’t sort of further our careers to a degree. So, keep it coming.”

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