Seattle in the 1980’s was a mere shadow of the Seattle we all know today. There was no Microsoft or Starbucks to speak of. No Amazon. The most Seattle had to offer besides Boeing was an NBA championship in 1979, a retailer named Nordstroms that was growing in popularity and a football team that was forever the bridesmaid, but never the bride.
It was a big deal when bands came to Seattle. We were so far north of Los Angeles, many bands didn’t think it worth the expense to make the journey. But those who came found sell out shows and rabid audiences. Iron Maiden’s first sold out show in the States was in Seattle at Hec Ed Pavillion, back when they were still fronted by Paul D’ianno.
I knew a little about Seattle’s music scene at the time. I knew about TKO and Rail, and the Battle of the Bands that went on in a roller rink across Lake Washington. But for the most part the local bands played heavy metal, and at the time I was more into New Wave like Adam and the Ants, U2 and the Cars.
In 1983 Rail would win MTV’s basement tapes and later a band called Shadow would appear on the show. I knew of Shadow because of my 7th grade Art teacher, Mrs. McCready. Her son, Mike was in the band. Also in Shadow were the Friel Brothers. Chris and Rick, who lived in our neighborhood at the time. While I’d never seen Shadow, or even heard their music, seeing them on Basement tapes made it seem like maybe Seattle had something to contribute to the music scene and possibly even the world.
But that hope proved to be short lived – not that I had any great steak in it. By the late 80’s Shadow had relocated to LA and then back to Seattle without ever landing a record contract. But that was okay, because new bands were starting to make national waves. Bands like Queensryche, Soundgarden and Mother Love Bone.
Mother Love Bone came on my horizon via some kids I went to grades school with. They were in a band called SGM and frequently played with Mother Love Bone. The guys in SGM were slightly older than me, but I remember hanging out on Capitol hill with my friend Mike Lawson and running into Paul Uhlir and the two talking about when their first practice would be. Eventually they’d put out a record. And while I was aware of it, I wouldn’t buy it for many years to come. At that point in my life, if it wasn’t Led Zeppelin it wasn’t worth listening to.
But that all changed on March 19th 1990 when Mother Love Bone’s singer Andrew Wood died, four months before the release of “Apple”, their major label debut. Even though I had neither heard nor seen Mother Love Bone, I, like most of Seattle was profoundly affected by his loss. And that loss became even more tragic once “Apple” was released and we all discovered how brilliant Andy had been.
“Apple” turned out to be my gateway drug. My old Schoolmates in SGM had become Sweet Water, and they had a cassette for sale at Tower Records. I picked it up and wore it out playing over and over to anyone who would listen. Then came Temple of the Dog, the tribute record to Andy. The album changed my life. Listening to it I found myself saying “If I were in a band, this is the kind of music I’d want to be playing.” A few months later I bought my first electric guitar and started getting serious about playing after six years of not touching my nylon string acoustic. Music had always been a huge part of my life up until this point, but now it was everything to me.
In the Spring of 1991 I turned 21 and could finally start seeing so many of the bands I’d been listening to: Soundgarden, The Screaming Trees, Mud Honey and Alice In Chains. I would go out three nights a week with my friends to see bands we’d heard or read about. Sometimes there were only 15 people in the room besides the band. But that would all change by the fall.
Amongst my friends and I, “Ten” was highly anticipated over that summer. Perhaps it was my familiarity with Mike, or maybe it was that two fifths of the band came from Mother Love Bone. Perhaps it was because in the early days they would share the bill with Sweet Water. Perhaps with MTV playing Soundgarden and Alice In Chains it all just seemed like a matter of time. In August Pearl Jam would release Ten and in September Nirvana would release Nevermind. Over night the clubs began selling out regardless what kind of music the band played. The grunge explosion had arrived in Seattle, although not the rest of the world.
The Seattle music scene continued to thrive over the next three to four years with Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, The Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains, Candlebox and Queensryche all on the international stage. During that time I put on a few shows, directed a few music videos and worked a number of concert shoots as a Production Assistant, Heart and Mad Season amongst others.
Shortly after the Mad Season concert Mike McCready and Baker Saunders started hanging around with my group of friends. I was in pre-production on my first short film and one night asked Mike if he’d had any interest in composing music for it. A few years later Baker would do the soundtrack for my second short film.
Mike’s soundtrack would end up being the best thing about my debut film, which even now I have trouble watching all the way through. But the collaboration was incredible. Mike composed some specific songs for key scenes in the film and then on Neil Young’s advice we recorded two passes of Mike playing guitar to the entire film. Mike’s playing was phenomenal and some of the musical sketches probably should have been developed more. I think there would have been some fantastic songs in their own right.
As Christmas neared that year I was trying to think of a present for Mike to say thanks. I wandered into a local guitar store named The Trading Musician because I’d become quite the gear nut by this point. The place was empty. And then I heard voices coming from a back room and out came two employees and Eddie Vedder. Pearl Jam was about to begin recording what would become “No Code” and Eddie was looking for an amp or two to bring to the studio. I knew Eddie could be weary of fans, but as we were the only two customers in the store I approached and asked if he’d mind if I asked him a question. He was hesitant at first, I don’t know if he thought I was going to ask about why they didn’t make videos or about their fight against Ticketmaster. But once I told him I was looking for advice on a gift for Mike he relaxed. We chatted for a couple minutes and he gave me a lot of great ideas. Eventually he told me that he had bought a bunch of things for Mike and if I couldn’t come up with anything I was welcome to come by his place and raid his surplus. It was an incredibly generous offer, but I’d already felt like I’d intruded on his time enough.
As a result of my friendship with Mike I would eventually direct a music video for another one of his side projects, the band $10,000 Gold Chain. I’d also end up receiving a backstage pass when Pearl Jam played Seattle in support of No Code. I have consequently seen them on almost every tour with the exception of the Backspacer tour. Thanks to Mike’s generosity I even saw Pearl Jam play four shows in five nights. What was eye opening about this, was that every night was a different set list which the band decided on just prior to the show. And every encore was constructed after the main set. All the songs were decided by how the band was feeling that night and the vibe they were getting from the audience, and the encore would only begin once a set list was decided upon and it could be distributed to all of their tech’s.
After one show I remember remarking to Mike that this was the first time I’d seen them open a show with the song “Release”, a song they’d often used to end shows when they were first starting. Mike remarked that while they didn’t do it often, shows that started with “Release” always seemed more special, almost cathartic for both the band and audience. While other bands will play the same set list for every show on the tour, Pearl Jam crafts a new set list every night of every tour in order to perform their best for the audience and why they have cultivated a Grateful Dead-like fan base.
Unlike many of their contemporaries, Pearl Jam never broke up, they remained one of the only real fixture of the Seattle music scene. Because of this, it is a point of pride for Seattle-ites to have Pearl Jam inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for they are the quintessential Seattle band. While Nirvana was a Washington band, it wasn’t a Seattle band. That’s not to say Seattle-ites didn’t like Nirvana, we did, and their importance can’t be overstated. But Pearl Jam’s roots are in Seattle, and they remain there to this day. While other Seattle musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, and Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses have topped the international charts, all of them had to leave Seattle to find success. But by staying, Pearl Jam has seeped into Seattle’s collective conscience and even its DNA. All of the members have charities they are heavily involved in and are often playing benefits in support of their causes, from Rock the Vote to Free the West Memphis Three to Habit for Humanity. Their side bands can be seen in the small clubs and record stores of Seattle, or playing the national anthem at sporting events. Seattle is as much a part of them, as they are of Seattle.