Nirvana Tour of Seattle: Doing the Mileage so You Don’t Have to

Posted: September 6, 2013 in Nirvana Maps and Locales

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In yesterday afternoon’s goofball moments I head-butted the counter in a Starbucks. I was reaching for a sandwich and miscalculated where the curved glass screen covering the pastries was. Classy first impression at the nearest store. It’s alright though, there were only about twenty people in the queue, twenty seated, plus seven staff. And the thud (plus the colourful English phrases that followed) was only audible over three-quarters of the store. I’m also being good about not jaywalking given a kindly pedestrian told me that a Seattle cop ‘tackled’ a tourist the other year to stop them doing it. I’m fragile, I’ll stick to official road-crossings and not risk it.

OK, this is rumour control. Contrary to popular belief, America is no different from the U.K. when it comes to the necessity or otherwise of motor transport. If one lives and works within a U.S. city then it’s possible to get to and from work via public transport or on foot — I live in London, I had a car in London for six months in 2004 and it was used so rarely the battery used to run out. If one lives outside of a major urban area then a car becomes essential but that’s no different to the U.K., London is one of the few cities where a car may even count as more a handicap than an advantage given the crowded road networks, inconvenient medieval street patterns, absence of reasonably priced parking and highly effective enforcement of fines for absolutely everything.

The grid system within U.S. cities makes them ideal for walking; so long as one has a map for reassurance its usually a snap to know where one is and to keep track of progress between destinations. I’d say having destinations, way-stations, checkpoints, things to aim for is essential — the problem with long straight roads is they can feel thankless and unforgiving. I hear driving through cornfields in parts of the U.S. mid-west has the same feel; the initial thrill of the new gives way to mile-on-mile of not much changing. Walking, to a lesser extent, can feel the same if one has a set and undeviating route; some kinda victory is needed to buoy the spirits!

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A disclaimer. The maps above are one suggestion for walking the Nirvana-related parts of Seattle that lie beyond the Washington Ship Canal and related waterways and yet these maps are not the whole truth. A truthful map would show me spannering about looping round the same block two or three times to check it’s definitely where I think it is; it would show stubbed toes and pavement trips happening with such regularity I started to worry I was developing some kinda lazy dragging clubfoot in the style of Joseph Goebbels; it would show me wading all the way down University Way NE before realizing I’d made a mistake in terms of where I’d drawn the biro dot on my paper map. Add to that some indecision, a few more double-checks and we’d be good.

So, let’s get the logistics cleared up. I’m using the Paramount Hotel as my base station for this for obvious reasons and because it’s pretty darn dead centre of Nirvana sights. Head straight up 7th Ave until you hit Stewart St, right turn along Stewart and you’ll hit the former site of the Motor Sports International Garage at the corner of Stewart and Yale.

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Remember, walking in the footsteps of one’s heroes does not mean a procession of glorious monuments and in the case of this walking tour, its especially true. What you’re looking at is a more special reality, that magic shouldn’t need to be crowned with a totemic monument, a Windsor Castle, Sphinx or golden statue rotating toward the sun. The things you love in life will never be special to most other people or in the same way to anyone; cherish those things and celebrate them regardless because what you love is as important as anything a wider culture chooses to mark in stone or metal. In this case, that special 1990 show was played out here:

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Next, keep going along Stewart until you see the ramp cutting down off the I-5 highway. Looking across Stewart, back slightly, you’ll see there’s a nondescript little road cutting back toward and running underneath the bridge over the I-5. Walk down that road and the only address you’ll find is that of The Off Ramp Café at 109 Eastlake Ave E. Still in service as a club you’ll be able to head in and look around on nights where there’s someone playing:

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Now you’re in for some walking…I headed up Denny Way until I hit Westlake Ave N. Do as I say — which is just follow that road all the way north to the bridges — rather than what I did — which was to dash merrily into the street bound by Taylor Ave, Roy St, Boston St and Queen Anne Ave — which served no purpose whatsoever I’d like to add. Cross under the bridge carrying Aurora Ave and you’ll come to the Fremont Bridge. Cross it and turn left onto Fremont Place N which kinks and turns into N 36th Street which, in turn, becomes Leary Way NW.

You’ll have earned a treat so keep counting down the blocks until you hit an unassuming yet distinctive gray wedge-shaped shack at the fork for 6th Ave; the number on the door tells you this is 4230 Leary Way NW and yes, as a discerning fan of Nirvana you know this is Reciprocal Studios, this is Word of Mouth Productions and this is where more Nirvana sessions took place than at any other venue.

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And yes, its such an innocuous place, an oddity too for sure. It’s now a private recording facility these days for Chris Walla from Death Cab for Cutie but still functioning. I paced out the building, 19 steps along each side, a mere four foot across the door. Isn’t it kinda wicked that great things can stem from what is basically a barely visible shed in the middle of a suburb? There’s nothing to stop achievements happening anywhere if people want them to happen. Just to sour the record, of course terrible things can happen anywhere too.

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Up to you what comes next. I retraced my steps and romped up 3rd Ave NW before turning onto NW 46th St which ends in a stairway leading to a stairway breaking and turning into a stairway all of which brings you out on the intersection of N Market St and N 46th St. Smooth sailing from here, just a regular straight line now straight down N 46th with you barely blinking as it becomes first N Midvale Pl., then N 45th St.

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Number 811 NE 45th is your next destination, former site of the Beehive music store, now hosting a supermarket (807), pet grooming salon (still 807), then an Apple store (the MAC store) which claims to be number 809. There is no number 811, I went round the building and as far as I can tell what’s happened is the combination of 807 and 809 into a single business deleted one number from the chain thus nudging the next number from 811 down to 809.

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Doesn’t look like much now but remember, that gig was just an in-store promotion, we’re not talking proms in the Royal Albert Hall, we’re talking a commercial premise giving floor space to an up-and-coming outfit. Can you imagine it? Traffic visible through the glass, everyone hemmed into whatever space wasn’t taken up by units, band playing about a foot away from your face…Oh, and the building does still have some quite impressive graffitti all along the side:

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Keep walking along NE 45th St, not far, you’re banging through these now. Halt at the corner of University Way NE and take a left. There’s an Urban Outfitters across the street now, there’s an innocuous door alongside it numbered 4518 University Way NE. You made it; the Underground.

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Seriously though? What could I possibly have expected to see here…? It’s underground…What I did think of though was Jesse Bernstein. Geoff Robinson from Blood Circus made a point on email of saying how much he admired Jesse and how saddened he was by his death – that this was another underground legend, a guy with a thousand ideas for creativity refusing to let anything stop him ploughing his own path. So I stood here, ignoring the corporate store front and thinking about someone who didn’t die a superstar. Most of us won’t be superstars but that doesn’t mean we can’t be extraordinary. Damn, I’m such a hippy, or a corporate slogan writer depending on your perspective…Ugh…

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Back onto NE 45th St, head into the University premises via Memorial Way simply because it’s the most formal and impressive entrance. I paused here and had another of those small epiphanies of difference/similarity.

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There are elements that the world in general associates with America and believes the nation obsesses over, yet every country has those core elements. Here on the gateway to the university there’s a memorial to the war dead of the First World War. It’s the only war memorial I’ve seen out here in this relatively unscathed piece of the U.S. Yet, in Britain, every town, most villages, a fair few hamlets that a passing motorist might barely glimpse a blur of before emerging beyond, they all carry their plaques, statues, pedestals, podiums recalling that war. The British are portrayed sometimes as the nation that can’t get over the world wars but these wars formed the largest mass horror to afflict us during this past century; the first time in history that sound penetrated the barrier formed by the channel and the south coast could hear the guns turning the soil of France, the first time our civilian population had been directly assaulted in many hundreds of years. The First World War dug a hole in the population of Britain that by the Second World War we still hadn’t recouped; the Second World War built our own creed of exceptionalism and separateness that we haven’t relinquished even as all other relics of what we were at that time have vanished.

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Universities clearly all have stellar architects and garden designers because this place is gorgeous…Turn off Memorial Way onto Stevens Way and follow it round to the South. Eventually you’ll find the Husky Union Building — in the U.K. we’d just call it the Student Union but this one is indeed the ‘H.U.B.’ I had to do some further research on this, the building was substantially refurbished and remodelled between 2010-2012 so it isn’t precisely what you’d be looking at in 1989…Sometime when I have more time I’m going to recheck the floorplans to make sure whether or not the area Nirvana played in is even there, I may email the University and see if someone knows…http://hub.washington.edu/floorplans

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Time to get out. Follow NE Pacific Street then, when you reach the bridge you’ll need to cut back north up a path and onto a stairway that takes you up onto University Bridge. This becomes a fairly simple walk, Harvard Ave E for a time, kink to your left along E. Roanoke St and then south down 10th Ave E. which turns into Broadway Ave. If you enjoy looking at houses then this’ll entertain you, if you don’t then this is where tedium will set in. Keep pushing, find something you want to see that’s worth heading on down that road…Or of course you could just take the plentiful buses or trolley buses or even just get a cab…I mean, in actual fact there’s no reason to walk this whatsoever apart from the pleasure of walking and the challenge of do it for oneself…I just found it scarier to work out the public transport network than to keep marching mindlessly toward oblivion…

My choice for a final stop was to hit two on one block; 1516 11th Ave, former site of The Vogue club and then further down the same street the Annex Theater entrance numbered as 1100 East Pike St. Again, these are still functioning venues so feel free to walk through the doors and take a look. I believe there’s been some renumbering going on as the visible club venue is number 1514…

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From here it’s all easy enough, either head straight up E. Pine St back to The Paramount or you’ll see the dotted line out toward Lake Washington Boulevard 171. Your call. I’ll leave the central Seattle sites/sights for another day but I’m very sure that its possible to do today’s sights plus most of the central Seattle venues in one day. The outliers are the house at 11301 Lakeside Avenue, 171 Lake Washington Boulevard East plus the two sites of the Center on Contemporary Art…Another day…

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Any big thoughts? It makes the stars look normal, reachable, when the magazine images and twenty years of hoopla is brought down to bricks-and-mortar reality. That’s a comfort. I mean, be honest with yourself, to the world-at-large Nirvana is just another band, another product but to you its something special. And that’s the point, the tour isn’t about observing magic, it’s about indulging one’s own love of something that matters and is as significant to you as your favourite memories. You wouldn’t be a Nirvana fan twenty years after the fact if it didn’t matter. And yes, the buildings change, disappear, get remodeled and spruced up until they don’t look like what they were but it doesn’t stop it being a pleasure to walk the streets with Nirvana.

Comments
  1. Chris Comte says:

    Nick,

    Just wanted to let you know, the two sites you visited on Capitol Hill (The Vogue and Annex Theatre), aren’t the actual locations where Nirvana performed. The Vogue was originally located at 2018 1st Ave, closer to the waterfront. Over the years, the venue moved several times, finally ending up at 1516 11th Avenue, where you were. Likewise, Annex Theatre’s original venue was at 1916 Fourth Avenue, just north of the downtown retail core, which is where the April 7, 1989 show took place, and which I was fortunate enough to attend.

    If anyone DOES seek out our 11th Avenue location – and the door is open – come up to the 2nd (er, 1st) floor, and there’s a framed print in our lobby by photographer Charles Peterson of the band performing that show.

    CHRIS COMTE
    chris.comte@annextheatre.org

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