Nirvana Tour: Experience Music Project and Mr. Ty Willman

In Utero Angel

I’m regularly beset with questions I find hard to answer. A year ago, if I mentioned I was writing a book, people would ask “oh, you want to be a writer?” as if it was impossible to write or want to hold a book in the band without having some kinda career plan — I used to take the question as an unintentional slight and would explain firmly that it was about enjoying writing not about making it into work. A lot harder has been explaining that I travelled to State of Washington and up until days before I travelled I didn’t have any plans to meet anyone bar a personal friend or two. Then, in a sudden wave, one gentleman put me in touch with Mitch for Aberdeen, another kindly introduced me to John Purkey who in turn did me the privilege of letting me spend time with his friends, my friend Abby introduced me to a lady called Bernie who’s son turns out to be another person of significance…Ty Willman. The only people I deliberately said hi to were Gillian and Jack; the rest of it was bizarrely accidental. Strange but true, I’m much less well-planned that people might imagine — I live in webs of coincidence and life’s humour.

EMP Exterior

Gillian G. Gaar very courteously gifted me two guest passes for the EMP Museum! (Amend: Its in Seattle. I’m near embarrassed to admit that I had been wondering about skipping the exhibition as time became increasingly strangulated…I know, I know, you don’t need to tell me I was being crazy, Jack Endino told me I had to do it about three times over and he’s much taller than me so I’d have been far too intimidated to ignore such an insistent statement in case he thumped me.

I was similarly lucky to have Mr. Tyler Willman for company. Do I need to introduce Ty? OK, I’m sure I don’t but seriously, this is a man who has been a part of the Seattle music scene for over two decades now and is so significant his band Green Apple Quick Step is on the wall in the Nirvana exhibit in the EMP as you can see here…The nice thing was that he hadn’t realised the band was mentioned there as one of the significant local outfits of the era – really wicked being able to be surprised with someone. That’s the listing of important Tacoma bands – Subvert was John Purkey’s outfit, this has been a real eye-opener of a trip learning how much goes on in Tacoma.

Ty on the EMP Wall

He’s a cap-wearing, Marlboro-smoking regular guy and all-round rock dude who made me feel every ounce the geeky, post-uni, office boy I’m sure I am (you’ve seen the photos, I look like a librarian; “Nick…It is your dessssstiny!”) My favourite conversation went “I write for pleasure, I love it, plus I learnt a while back that I’m useless at making music,” “Jeez, I make music and I’m useless at writing…” He described his ambition in life to always be able to make music so that he can tour as much as possible, that he enjoyed seeing the world and watching people play and getting to spend stage time with them. “I’d like to write a song that moves someone completely.” The emphasis he placed on that last word made me feel what he meant and how deeply Ty believes in the emotional value and power of music. He’s also wonderfully humble about his obvious intelligence, he even had an art exhibition take place over in Tacoma the other year and his work certainly shows a skill at writing.

Ty had spent the morning fishing with his son while I was off for breakfast — yes, this was the same day as yesterday’s post but I can only write so much in a day and I’m trying to break this down logically. I confessed I’d actually wanted to speak to him a long while back regarding a band he was in called Inspector Luv and the Ride Me Babies; yet another set of Tacoma natives who shared stages with a pre-Nirvana-name Nirvana. I’d already heard tell the other day of Ty’s extensive collaborations with Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam, of Green Apple Quick Step sharing management with the PJ boys — Ty estimates he’s been in half a dozen Seattle bands now not including less formal collaborations and he doesn’t feel any desire or wish to ever stop creating. An old manager of mine once said to me “Nick, surround yourself with people who challenge and inspire you,” I think he meant in terms of corporate life. The issue is that I’m more inspired by people like Ty who do something that may or may not mean something to anyone other than themselves, but that requires the complete dedication of a life to building, forming and creating something oneself. No matter how much work a job may involve there’s always pre-set structures and organisation, and an objective focused on profit rather than self-expression, that means its in no way the same whole-spirited effort. Ty impresses me with the many collaborations and side-projects and new efforts.

After a long chat — Clay Johnson was right, the North-West does have fantastic beer, the U.K. increasingly has a brilliant market for real ales and likewise for original lagers from across the world, we’re not having to make do with generics; the State of Washington and State of Oregon seem to be the same — we headed on to the exhibition.

Ty Willman at the EMP

The exhibition does a good job of turning something kinetic and vital into glass-cased preservation, while still managing to spark a pulse through those dried synapses. Walking in to immediately see one of Krist’s bass guitars, then the guitar Kurt played at both the September 1990 show at the International Motor Sports Garage and at the O.K. Hotel show in April 1991 where he unveiled Smells Like Teen Spirit, plus Dave Grohl’s drums from the 1993-1994 tour season…Wicked selection.

Cobain_Sept 1990 to Apr 1991

Grohl Drum Kit 93-94

It also finally made sense to me all the comments about Chad Channing’s odd-ball and over-large drum-kit which, oddly enough, is suspended half-way up a wall part way round the exhibition.

Chad Drum Kit Until Feb 1990

It’s not a large exhibition in some ways, don’t go expecting a vast space, if you move swift you could be in and out having glanced at everything inside of half an hour — on the other hand, if you took some time with the extensive multimedia components, played with the various screens and interactive areas allowing access to timelines and interviews and so forth, then you could while away substantial time here. Running round the edge of the exhibit cases you’ll also find a long sequence of personal photographs donated from various sources and wordlessly charting the life and times of the band and their fellow-travellers — just focusing on that piece alone and telling the tale in one’s head would be a fulfilling afternoon of consideration, occasional surprise reminders (I wanted to look more than wave a camera around so no shots of these), a coherent pathway from one end of the exhibition to the other.


For me what resonated were the surprising reminders of Nirvana’s earliest times. The later era is rendered via one of the rare (and always sparsely used) stage props from the In Utero era…

In Utero Angel

Or via the tour-battered instruments. The middle-age is signified with yet more battered instruments, shards of devastated guitars and a collage of show flyers (Ryan! Your Machine/Nirvana flyer is up there!) But the mass-produced nature of the former, next to the moderately commercial nature of the latter contrasts starkly with the second room. I’m starting to realise that the State of Washington is the land where nothing is ever thrown away.

4 Track and Suit Case Drum

I was most wowed by seeing Aunt Mari’s tape recorder a teen Cobain used for early efforts as well as the beaten-up old suitcase Cobain used as his drum kit for the 1982 Organised Confusion material that has never surfaced.

Original FM

There’s even an original copy of the Fecal Matter cassette Cobain gifted to someone. This all comes on one wall next door to a selection of Cobain’s teenage artworks. It’s the handmade and ‘make do’ aspect to a lot of this early component that resonates with me — there’s a hand-to-mouth aspect to having to use a suitcase, a bygone era feel to the tape recorder, all emphasised by the schoolboy doodles and their casual mischief.

Original Cobain Art

I’m a sucker for books and guides and programmes and brochures so naturally ended up purchasing the Taking Punk to the Masses volume complete with the disc of interviews — I trimmed down the book collection significantly the other month but this is a more than worthy addition. I’ll discuss it more sometime when I’ve had a chance to read it. Anyways, we retired and Ty gave me the tour of the surrounding area that has a few attractions for Nirvana fans…


Anyways, definitely my bad, but an attempt to run up to the other Cobain residence along Lake Washington coincided with such bad traffic we gave up yet still made the exhibition far too late in the day to do justice to the other exhibits on display. I would have loved to have gone and seen the Women Who Rock piece, or the Jimi Hendrix area…Ah well. Another day, another year…Once I’ve recovered from merrily bankrupting myself this time around…

More to add? I think the EMP throws the issues with coming to State of Washington to peer at Nirvana locations and memorials into stark relief. The exhibition is the most concentrated collection of Nirvana-related items anywhere in the world possessing items that one cannot and will not see other than in books (OK, OK, or on the copious quantity of online resources containing pictures of them.) On the other hand, its hard to create such an exhibition without explicitly freezing the items in time and deleting their real world context. It turns something wild and frenetic into cold unmoving items kept in public storage. Its better than the alternative, of course, private collections that will never be within reach of the likes of you and I – the house on Pear Street and the Melvins tour van are both now owned by the same individual for example…All these things that we’re seeing could have been destroyed like 1000 1/2 East Second Street. On the other hand, Nirvana’s ‘realness’ understandably goes missing when one can’t stroll past the locations, see them changing or even decaying, watch items made decades ago used and reused and gaining new scars as a result. But, that’s not an alternative for many things – its wonderful to have the chance to see what a more formalised response to Nirvana’s legacy would look like. Within that context a beautiful job has been done.

The economy works in strange ways. A crucial component is that arena, for example the art market, that increases value on the basis that others cannot have it regardless of the intrinsic qualities or otherwise of the item concerned. A comrade of mine worked in the perfume section of Harvey Nicholls (a ludicrous shop in London I avoid like the plague because its crammed full of precisely the sorts of people I rarely want to invite anywhere near my life – like the show The Apprentice) and told me that she could explain the virtues of perfumes all day to people, in the end they buy because of two words “new” and “exclusive.” It’s the same process driving hip hop artists to increasingly just wave brand names and labels – its an attempt by individuals to equate their own personal value, worth and achievement with the value and worth of the things they coat themselves in. I would say that if your watch is more interesting than you are then you’re still nothing much no matter what you’ve wrapped yourself in – likewise, showing me someone else’s work and talking to me as if it says anything at all about you, sorry, it just makes me very aware how little you have to say (I’m talking to you all the people who wept over Apple products!) But then, perhaps surrounding myself with books and music is precisely the same process of personal statement conducted via different means? I’ll think about that.


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