RAWK TAWK: Q&A w/ Seattle Grunge Historian Stephen Tow


Tony_Abraham_Avatar.jpgBY TONY ABRAHAM Cheltenham resident and Delaware Valley College professor Stephen Tow has just published The Strangest Tribe: How A Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge, which is, to date, the definitive history of the Seattle music scene that went from beer-stained garage band obscurity to globally iconic in the space of a few years. Tow digs deep into the pre-historic, establishing the geneology of seminal, but lesser-known pioneers — band like the The U-Men, Green River and the Thrown Ups — that established the aesthetics and infrastructure that eventually made bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam household words and Seattle itself the center of the known universe in the early 90s. In advance of his reading at Penn’s bookstore tonight, Phawker took the opportunity to get Tow on the horn and discuss grunge and its discontents.

PHAWKER: For the benefit of those who weren’t around in the late 80s and early 90s, could you please explain what grunge is and what it was?

STEPHEN TOW: There are really kind of two versions of grunge. There’s the mainstream grunge phenomenon of the early 90s and that was, you know, the famous bands that came out of Seattle – Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice N’ Chains, Stone Temple Pilots – sort of heavy rock bands that sounded like that. Then there’s the organic version Seattle created in the latter 80s, bands like Mudhoney, early Nirvana, 64 Spiders, some of those bands that were going for an aesthetic of getting a feeling STRANGEST_TRIBE_cover_lg.jpgout, a passion out, not worrying so much about how carefully they played, whether they got it right on stage or not. The organic version wasn’t so much a style of music as it was an approach to playing. Certainly there were similarities in terms of loud guitars, distortion, elements of punk and metal, but everybody kind of drew from their own influences so these bands were different from each other but that’s what they had in common, if that makes any sense.

PHAWKER: What made you want to write a book about the history of grunge?

STEPHEN TOW: There are two angles to that approach. I’m a history professor, I’ve been doing that for 12 years. I teach American history and courses on that. As a historian, I kinda wanted to see Seattle fit within that context. But as a fan, I basically told all of my interviewees I wish I could say I got that first EP in 1984 and that’s what got me into the whole thing. But I was like everybody else, when Nirvana hit, that was just kind of like my 60s in a way, when that happened. I was still in my 20s when Nirvana and Pearl Jam hit, and it was the first time since I was probably a kid that I actually liked new music again. I was constantly looking back during the 80s towards the 60s. I didn’t get MTV, I didn’t get all the videos and everything about presentation and whatever until the when whole Seattle thing happened. Bands were back. I got into that way. I just started writing, sort of digging at it. The more I investigated it, it became so much richer of a story. I decided, I’ve never seen anything like it in the bookstore so I decided to write about it.

PHAWKER: Why did/does Seattle have such a vibrant music scene?

STEPHEN TOW: I think it’s almost like the perfect storm. You need some level of isolation to develop a music scene. I’m from Philly, and one of the problems was that once a band kinda got going and got momentum it was like New York was their calling. Seattle is far enough removed from LA and some of those cultural centers to develop its own identity. But at by the same token it’s not too far. You can’t be from Alaska either. You need to have some sort of connection, at least back then. I think that had a lot to do with it. And the weather I guess. People were inside more making music. But the city has long had a vibrant music history way before grunge ever happened. Going back to the 40s with jazz, the 60s with Hendrix coming out of there, the Sonics and the Whalers and all those bands. It’s long had a history of great music.

PHAWKER: You make a case in your book that Sub Pop was an asset in the evolution of grunge, but then they misrepresented it and ultimately contributed to its downfall. Could you expand on that?

Stephen_Tow_crop.jpgSTEPHEN TOW: I’m not sure if it contributed to its downfall. I think, clearly nothing would have happened the way it did without Sub Pop. They were the first label in town that had serious aspirations to kind of publicize this music, brand it and market it way beyond Seattle. Nobody else had done that. That was a really important piece of the puzzle. We wouldn’t have had Soundgarden without them either. Obviously, they were very important. The issue I have with them though, if you look at anything that they’ve been involved with in terms of how they present Seattle music history, it’s always about them. They’re very self-serving, in my opinion. According to Sub Pop, everything was really lame and imitative and then they came along and made it cool. Then suddenly it became cool. Anybody who didn’t like them or weren’t on their label or something, they just sort of get written out of history. And that’s where I kind of diverge from their view of Seattle history.

PHAWKER: Was Pearl Jam ever truly grunge?

STEPHEN TOW: I don’t think so. Certainly the two main actors that formed Pearl Jam – Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament – were the earlier incarnation with Green River. But by the time Pearl Jam happened or Mother Love Bone, before that, those guys really wanted to be in a successful rock band and it finally happened for them with Pearl Jam. Stone basically said to me, “We never were a grunge band, we just happened to be lumped in with it.” They came out of Seattle when Nirvana blew up and it was easy to lump them in with that.

PHAWKER: Who was your favorite band of the era?

STEPHEN TOW: If I had to pick one band it would be the U-Men. I probably wrote more about them than anybody else, including Nirvana or Soundgarden for that matter.

PHAWKER: What was their must-have album or single?

STEPHEN TOW: They didn’t, unfortunately, do a lot of recording.

PHAWKER: They came out of the early 80s, right?peterson1.jpg

STEPHEN TOW: Yeah, they formed in 1980. They really started to get going in ’82-83, when they started to pick up some momentum. Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot around. In fact, Bruce Pavitt had his first real record label was called Bombshelter Records and he put out their first record in 1984 before the Sub Pop label existed. There was a retrospective put out by Chuckie-Boy Records in 2000 called Solid Action. If you can get a hold of that, that at least gives you an idea of what the U-Men were about. The two songs I talk about in the book, “Gila” and “Shoot ‘Em Down,” just totally capture the mayhem that was U-Men. Not just mayhem, but musical mayhem if that makes any sense.

PHAWKER: Was Nirvana circa Nevermind still grunge?

STEPHEN TOW: Yes, it’s a grunge record but it’s a very accessible and cleaned-up version of it. Charles Peterson put it to me, an analogy with the Clash, it would be like London Calling is a more accessible record than let’s say the first Clash record or something like that. Nirvana’s Nevermind vs. their Bleach record. It has an obvious pop element in the songwriting, which is amazing, but it has that sort of passion of grunge. That is the most grunge record of probably any album that became huge.

PHAWKER: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is widely considered the defining anthem of grunge. Do you subscribe to that? Is that true or false?

STEPHEN TOW: I would say from a grunge phenomenon standpoint absolutely, from a real grunge standpoint, no. Mudhoney’s “Touch Me, I’m Sick” defines grunge.


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