The centre of Seattle, where the majority of the Nirvana related venues lie, is exceedingly compact. OK, walking round, the truth is you’re going to see the gentrified, commercialised, corporatized face of the city — expect the usual shopping street uniformity rather than some fascinating duck-and-dive through alcoves, alleys and fascinating discoveries. Having said that though, the centre tails off rapidly into the kinds of streets where independent businesses and local moments persist, you’ll find them. Having to find my way just using my own scrawl on a paper map (I’ve not bothered mastering the phone’s map system nor would I have wanted to face the international rates for connecting it up) meant quite a few wrong turns, pauses to play tourist but still all of today’s venues were lashed round within a few hours.
As ever, I’m drawing my lines starting at the area of the Paramount Hotel and/or Hotel Max simply because that’s where I know best and this is the order I rambled through. I found that the whole walking experience goes best when there’s a regular ‘pay off’ to keep it feeling worthwhile and reward. On this stroll there’s no need to worry; march straight down Pine Street and hook onto Second Street and you’re already scoring.
The first venue is the still-functioning Moore Theater where Nirvana played a show back in August 1990 during Dale Crover’s temporary tenure. From the outside I admit to liking the slight marks left by the years, it’s a nice contrast, turning off the shopping streets, to buildings that have uniqueness by nature rather than uniqueness by design (the difference between lived-in thrift-store clothing and the horror that was ‘grungewear’).
Looking at the building too, I can’t help but think about the differences — love the big long steel fire-escape, a rarer sight in London, meanwhile I paused at the side to look at the back-exits for bands and equipment. People stated a few times to me, in almost embarrassed tones, about how young the buildings are in America, how they’re not as curious as what exists in Europe where despite our best efforts to bomb them to hell we still wade knee-deep in the past. It’s true that the contrast between buildings has been built up over centuries of change and is the antithesis of the grid built regularity of the American approach which also tends to inflict an ordinariness on the shapes present on each block. On the other hand, Europe suffers from sometimes freezing its past and creating city centres — I’m looking at you Prague — that as artificially perfected as a stroll in Disney’s Epcot Centre. If the grip loosens then there’s nothing that Europe has architecturally that will not someday grace U.S. streets, these buildings are already left to change, fray at the edges, and basically remind me of my favourite European city Lisbon where corrupt politics has ensured there are still bullet-holes from their revolution and even the main square features regular leakage from the fountains.
A few blocks further on, yes, further than you think but barely far enough to keep you fit, there’s a corner on which the, likewise, still-extant Crocodile Café is open — get a drink (heck, get pizza!), enjoy. It’s almost a surprise leaping two years forward, to 1992, and finding Nirvana indulging in secret gigs for limited audiences in what isn’t a particular large venue. It gives a sense of the band retreating — it’s such an incongruous fit imagining this place alongside the stadium in Buenos Aires just a few weeks later.
Head down a block and onto First Avenue, you’ll be back nearly to Pine Street before you catch the next target; 1923 First Avenue — the original Sub Pop Headquarters (boy, I hope I got the right building.)
I’d always imagined more of a dive, again, I suspect that what I’m looking at owes much to gentrification and doesn’t quite capture the rental values and/or clientele who must have been walking through the doors. This is the hub of the Sub Pop universe, the heart of the ‘Seattle scene’ era and the location for Jonathan and Bruce’s ambitious endeavours. I’ve been very lucky catching all these places during the beautiful weather, gives a very different impression to what these locations must look like on a grey day under light drizzle.
I admit, among my various failings on this trip that I’ll go into later, I didn’t haul over to see the new Sub Pop headquarters — ah well, the list is adding up of places I’ll have to return to see. You’ll walk next past the famous Pike Street Market, nearly a victim of declining commercial fortunes and now resurrected as live tourist location and functioning fascination. Keep walking.
Next we reach a rarity, a Cobain residence in the centre of Seattle; the Four Seasons. Unless you’re on an unlimited budget or so far out-of-season you’re permanently wrapped in half-a-dozen layers. Just as a side-bar, Seattleites don’t carry umbrellas — I reckon it’s because the darn things blow inside out so rapidly in these canyons formed by the tall buildings — and they tell me it’s because they’re tough, they wear hats, and they simply put their heads down and brazen it out. Oh, I also noted it’s possible to get quite a distance under cover.
I admit I like this idea, that the closest Cobain ever came to rock-star living was to book into this incredibly expensive location and get himself (and his wife) thrown out as they let their residence degenerate into a wave of burnt bedding and stacked room service remains with Cobain nodding out and ignoring that this have been the most luxurious bed he’d ever slept in; 25 years of bad beds and he gets thrown out of his first truly good one. If you fancy staying, it’s probably gone down now we’re into the Autumn, but I wasn’t up for the $650+ a night bill just to view the quality of blankets left “acne’ed with cigarette burns.”
I’d been working to the assumption that the Central Tavern at which Nirvana played way back in the late Eighties was the same as the modern-day Central Saloon…It’ll have to remain an assumption because I managed to lose track of where I was, misread my faulty map and in the end give up on it. It still shows bands I believe, still serves — can you tell there’s tiredness creeping in? I made a few miscalculations on this trip. The biggest one was switching beds so rapidly night-by-night, never settling in one place, starting each day hauling luggage having ended each day packing it all ensuring nothing was left behind. Next time (and I do think there will be a next time) I’ll settle, pick one place, create a home to come back to. I might take longer over the travel too — the dash through Tacoma, Olympia to Aberdeen was rapid-fire while the return to Seattle came with a feeling of racing toward a finishing line, all surrounded by the desire to try and keep things flowing onto the blog — if you can imagine it, sacrificing a couple of hours of a morning on holiday to scrawl the latest notes or missive for on here, then barrelling back out the door to dump laptop and reload pockets and rucksack for the next mission…
Another neat coincidence, Pier 48 is an easy find but under extensive rebuilding and reconstruction — there’s no building there now and plenty of steel gates and fences to ensure no public access. By chance, the doors were open to let traffic in, work was proceeding but I was temporarily defeated by a gentleman on guard duty who stated I wasn’t permitted to photograph the site…OK, no problem.
I retreated back to the main road and simply took all there really was to see from there — the site itself is just debris and truck tracks but at least with the gate open I was left in no doubt as to the state of what I was observing. It’s the only area where I felt a slight need to walk fast and keep my camera discreet — walking beneath the overpass, between the legs of the road, fast traffic on one side and streets spilling down onto this one, I kept moving.
Not far, however, the O.K. Hotel is extremely visible but I wasn’t blessed on this occasion with an accidental resident welcoming me in. It doesn’t mean you can’t though, I was aware of the First Thursday Art Walks thanks to the Wikipedia entry for this place (http://www.firstthursdayseattle.com/venues.php) but missed the occasion and couldn’t fathom whether it remains a functioning art venue…I’ll look further.
Strange though, this incongruous little door with barely a sidewalk in front of it, this is where Smells Like Teen Spirit first graced a stage? It’s the pleasure of a walking tour like this, reducing the unfathomably vast, to the manageably small. This is it, Nirvana’s doorway to fame, fortune and an uncomfortable future after which, having already given up what they were, they would cease to exist.
Perversely, I’m going to end not with that door closing (or opening as the press who wish to celebrate bigger-better-popular-known would have it) but with another one…Here’s a copy of Eddie Vedder’s postcard from the night he entered town to commence his own parrallel ride from the Hotel Max to the stars and on…