Nirvana Tour of Tacoma Revisited: Hiding Out with Sleeper Cell


When I go on holiday it’s easiest taking pictures of the things that don’t move. What I’ve realized, however, is that I soon forget those things, the images don’t remain in my head. What remains is memories of people and their actions, words, or simple presence. It’s always the same, however spectacular the objects around me may look, it’s the stories that arise when people arrive that makes for the things I’ll speak of when I’m an old man.

I mentioned serendipity the other day, there are moments when life sets the path and all you need to do is follow — strange things just happen and everything clunks into place. In this case, I was just going to stroll the north-west, take some pretty pictures and roll on home. Instead, people have helped find me people and all these people are making this a spectacular holiday. A gentleman called Brian Naubert, formerly of a band called Yellow Snow who played with Nirvana at the Community World Theater in 1987 kindly told me “when you’re in Tacoma there’s someone you should meet…” He put me in touch with Mr. John Purkey, formerly of Machine, formerly of Noxious Fumes, formerly of a whole bunch of bands I wasn’t quick enough to note down, currently of Sky Blue Eye, Sleeper Cell (Tacoma) plus one other I can’t recall! Darn.

John was kind enough to invite me to his home, sit me down and just talk to me about Tacoma back in the late Eighties-early Nineties while sharing with me the items given to him by Kurt. Yes, I mean that Kurt — John attended most of the early shows under Nirvana’s various early identities, witnessed the shifts from Aaron, to Dale, to Dave, to Chad and to this day recalls being overawed by this band and this voice…Ryan L. joined us with his deeply patient daughter, poor kid is only three-or-four and had to sit listening to people talk about things that happened before she was born. Ryan said it straight, that John used to arrive at school raving about this band and when Kurt did him a copy of the January 1988 studio session John brought it in and everyone’s eyes opened wide as they heard how good this band was.

As an aside, recall that Cobain line “disease covered Puget Sound”…? I mentioned how looking over the port area and its mass of funnels and factories I felt I understood the line better, that Cobain wasn’t working in metaphor, he was simply reporting the truth. John did me one better and explained that in the early Nineties a particular smelter was pouring cyanide over the residential areas around Puget Sound and ultimately the resident sued and won compensation from the city. So! That’s one line that makes more sense now.


My desire with whatever I’ve ever done on this Nirvana trip I seem to be on has been to be respectful of people’s privacy and to remember these are real people talking about their friend not some abstract guy in a book. So, at this point I can only thank John for being willing to show me the remnants of what Kurt shared with him, and also to bow respectfully and say how impressed I was by the depth of emotion he displayed; a true man and true friend.

My time in Tacoma was rapidly become the trip’s highlight so far. A long and winding coffee break with a fascinating lady called Bernie — personal assistant to Mike McCready, retired therapist, thriftstore owner, antique store owner, general all round deep soul (a further thank you to Bernie for spending time with me and to the deeply cool Madame Abby for putting us in touch) — filled a lunchtime with tales of Cobain and others arriving to buy old clothing and the levels of pain some people in the scene were carrying almost openly on display at all times.

This is when kindness took another turn; John returned with Bob, drummer for Sleeper Cell and the man with the most mellow gold smile imaginable.


Of course they arrived in a limousine, the plush leather backseat is a fond memory already. We all headed over to join Pat, former singer of Yellow Snow, present-day bassist and vocalist for Sleeper Cell. Chat, beer, a browse round a real ‘man garage’ including horrifying childhood haircut photos and tales of musically talented families…


…And suddenly I was invited to an impromptu Sleeper Cell performance in the basement. These guys have been at this game so long, they took every element so seriously, I watched them running round for twenty minutes tracking down gear, replacing a string, tuning up, checking setting, preparing gear — it’s just a practice yet these guys put in the kind of sweat I’d imagine comes for a full performance. Instead it was just me, with my feet up on a beam, beer in hand, being persuaded gently that sitting directly in front of a number of the speakers was possibly going to be a dangerous idea…


…It was an honour to lose a little bit of hearing to these guys. I felt a complete dork trying to say “you were really good”…I tried anyway and yeah, it sounded gawky and awkward, but true. I’ve had a song called Dharma running round my head a while now — Pat and John harmonise on the vocals throughout, the whole song heaves itself between meditation and rock-out seamlessly, it’s a really great song that I hope gets out into the world. Having reduced me to eyes closed rocking on the spot they still had the modesty to close and say “not bad, we’re a bit rusty.” This was rusty…?!


Following this we had a long talk about Nirvana days, about long-ago shows and life in Tacoma. It’s a nice town, a little hard given its dependence on the port and the influence of the massive military base up the road which floods it with current-and-former servicemen, but there’s enough life to it, a few jobs and certainly enough bands. I looked again at the list of the bands Nirvana played with in 1987 and its clear these aren’t just North-West bands, this is a slew of Tacoma bands specifically; Inspector Luv, Yellow Snow, Soylent Green, Silent Treatment.


The night dissolved into food and beer and Ryan, Pat and Bob improvising around the massive organ in Ryan’s basement — I ended up staying over with Ryan and his partner Rochelle (plus the dogs) — another couple, Mike and Sally, hearing about my levels of Nirvana-lunacy were even sweet enough to dash back to their house solely to pick up their copy of the Nirvana/Jesus Lizard split single, a bona-fide original from 1993! Amazing. It’s one of the few Nirvana releases I’ve never purchased because in the late nineties there were so many copies around I was positive it was being churned out and that I had no chance of proving I was getting a first edition. Now I do, all because two people decided I’d love to have it — they’re so right. I’m thrilled. So much so I insisted they all sign it, I want it clear this means as much to me because they passed it on as it does because of what it is.


Now, to correct a false impression, though the port area of Tacoma isn’t exactly pretty, there’s a whole lot making up for it. In Britain, frankly, our ‘nature’ is simply the bits in between the housing, roads and railways; Britain has lost 90% of its forest cover in the last 2,000 years. That isn’t a problem in State of Washington despite the best efforts of the logging industry. I was driven out to the truly awesome Point Defiance Park, acre upon acre of woodland and trails with a view out over the water. Breathe it in urban dwellers…This is something else…




The city itself too is not devoid of beauty, they’ve made a real effort and the steep roads in the downtown area do give it interest. I do recommend that you don’t do something like my crazy attempt to walk from 541 to 5441 South M Street at dusk/nightfall…I kinda stopped taking photos once I got to the point I was waving a camera around a darkened road in a city I didn’t know but before that there were a few cool images of the surburban landscape:






So. There ended my trip to Tacoma. My hangover was righteously earned thanks to Ryan’s stellar homebrew and I had a great sense of how good a town this is if you know the right people; John, Ryan, Pat, Bob, Rochelle, Sally, Mike, Bernie and Abby — thank you! Oh, except I’ve had the Yellow Snow Theme Song running round in my head ever since and the only way to drown it out is to recite the Dharma riff, over and over like a Buddhist mantra…


Next step tomorrow…? Should I tell you about my trip to Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Raymond…?



One thought on “Nirvana Tour of Tacoma Revisited: Hiding Out with Sleeper Cell”

  1. You ran into some of the right people, all right. Thanks for doing a bang-up job on conveying just what there is, to ‘get’ about my hometown. Can’t think of ever having read a better write-up about Tacoma. I knew I could count on you John Purkey and Co.

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