I’m fascinated by routine and not as a purely negative element. In day-to-day life we all automate certain activities in order to allow our energies to be devoted to tasks that require more thought and have a higher value. As an example, William S. Burroughs speaks of practising picking up a glass over and over again from different positions and postures in an attempt to make it into a subconscious and perfected activity that would never fail and yet would simultaneously never take any further time or thought in the future. Entire portions of life can be handed over to some degree of automation, an article in New Scientist the other week explained that three areas of the brain activate when one is conscious of one’s own thoughts or motion…Yet a lot of activity bypasses that and is therefore unconscious — the example they gave was if you’ve ever been travelling somewhere that happened to intersect with a route you take regularly, it’s not uncommon to suddenly automatically commence walking that route rather than the path you actually need at that specific time, the brain acts without you having to know.
Ritual is a recorded form of routine intended to replace the accidental with the deliberate and the off-the-cuff gesture with movements of pre-defined meaning. Ritual incorporates an entire environment bestowing significance on chosen elements of the physical landscape as well as the human actors, their accessories, motions and words. Britain is loaded with these activities; changing of the guard, Remembrance Day services, royal wedding protocol, opening of Parliament, trooping the colours, and so forth. What is interesting to me, however, is that the age of these rituals overlooks the ways in which they have all evolved, changed, been invented and reinvented. As an example, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is a site of remembrance and veneration but was dreamt up by a British Army chaplain in the Western Front in 1916 who shared his idea four years later with the Dean of Westminster at a time when there was a desire to create some central symbol of mourning to gloss the decision not to repatriate British war dead from the continent due to the vast money and time required. The body was chosen by a senior army officer being led into a room containing four selected (and anonymous) bodies in coffins and placing a hand on one at random. Millions visited the site in 1920 and barring unforeseen calamity millions more will over centuries to come.
When viewing the Nirvana sites nothing comes loaded with that long-ordained weight, or with a planned and plotted written ceremony, nor with a ritual or routine to be followed. What we’re in fact looking at is history in the making. These houses and venues were once as insignificant as one unmarked coffin — among the thousands littering the Western battlefields — was on November 7, 1920. With Kurt Cobain’s death, the ‘cut’ was made in reality — the hand touched the chosen object — now these houses and locations have gained a significance, even if only to a coterie of fans and music aficionados. They’ll never lose that. If the house at 171 Lake Washington Boulevard weathers the ages then it’ll still carry a mark of historical interest; if 114 Pear Street NE remains in one hundred years, an occasional fan may still drift by on the street outside to stare at it. The apparent insignificance of a site or an action or a routine at one point in time — walking round house after house in Aberdeen in 2013 — belies the potential these things carry. Looking around you wherever you are today there’s no telling what might someday be a part of a story or a legend; who shared your office? Who slept at your home?
Anyways, as ever, I’ve deviated from the straight-n’-narrow path into inane rambling. Remember I mentioned the Amtrak at King Street in Seattle? Head straight back there and yeah, though it’ll cost you more (anywhere between $30-50 dollars) it’s still a relatively easy four hour ride in comfort from Seattle to Portland. Amtrak is a beautiful institution, to me it’s like being in U.K. first class rail travel but with vastly more personal service. Among the quirks I enjoy; once you have your ticket the guard personally assigns you a seat doing so manually on pieces of paper telling him which seats are filled — lengthy process and so amusingly old school. Similarly, once on the train, you tuck the yellow slip of paper with your seat/car numbers into the seat number tag located on the edge of the luggage rack above your head — no idea why. I must ask. Only just realised that the Amtrak will do Bellingham too. There’s a place on the map called Centralia, which sounds far too medical to be somewhere I’d want to visit. Announcement came over “you are reminded that you must wear footwear at all times while on the train,” a sensible policy but I’m fascinated anyone would need to be told.
I’m also getting used to the fact that American Internet access is quite a distance BEHIND Europe — I’m frankly used to kick-ass speed for uploading/downloading yet there have been whole areas where I can’t log into anything and low speeds in general — U.K. train WiFi, where available, is tolerable and workable but there’s no way I could work properly via Amtrak WiFi. I was faced with the prospect of manually cropping and reducing dozens of photos to get them onto the blog which I didn’t fancy much hence the delays and the fact that the blog is totally out of synch with my actual movements but what the hey, so long as I write everything around the right time you’re not too worried about where my 5ft7 presence is are you? Mum, if you don’t hear from me for 48 hours call the police and let loose the dogs.
Nisqually delta, I-5, Tacoma, Olympia…Listening to the conductor, he took it upon himself to provide an audio tour of the scenery and the areas around us — misty lakes and half-seen islands, an area covered in small mounds that were apparently suspected burial grounds (nope), then suspected fossil sites (nope), so are now being examined in case as potentially features caused by glaciers during the last ice age…Oh, and a major trash processing plant. Cool…
Portland became significant to me back around 2006-2007 when I developed a liking for Yellow Swans — phenomenal outfit. Portland has a reputation akin to Olympia (personal reaction to what I’ve been told) for artistic leanings, independent businesses and endeavours, an openness to liberal lifestyles. Getting out at the station and running the gamut of insalubrious individuals haunting Sixth Avenue that runs down from Union Station it was hard to pause and appreciate I admit. In similar vein, the couple of prostitutes working the pavement outside an otherwise comfortable and pleasant Starbucks in the centre did reinforce the initially unsettled reaction.
That didn’t stop me, however, pausing to take a quick shot of the former site of Satyricon. A quick browse of NirvanaGuide.com will reinforce the significance of the location — it’s one of a small cluster of truly regular Nirvana haunts and name any other band from the indie scene as far back as the mid-Eighties onward, they’ll have ended up here at some point. There are a lot of footprints on this turf.
But, unfortunately, staying true to the hallowed style of most punk monuments; there is no monument, there’s nothing here and I can’t even tell which side of the road the club was on. The numbers along the entire street are even on one side, odd on the other, but here the numbers skip number 125 entirely leading me to believe there was either a deviation to that order and 125 lived under the car park across the road, or that 125 has been subsumed into the buildings now numbered 121 and 127. No mind, tuck camera away, march on.
I knew by this time in the tour that I was spending nowhere near enough time in many places, I wasn’t learning them as they deserved to be known nor observing them sufficiently to glean either the best or the worst of them. But my feelings about Portland ramped up massively when I arrived on S.E. Clinton Street and finally reached the intersection with 25th Street. It’s a charming independent district, bars, cafes, a real-live record shop(!) — remember them? When the world was full of places one went to browse through musical unknowns in search of surprises and fresh discoveries rather than simply clicking and receiving a pre-determined result. I know, I know, nostalgia overlooks the ease and benefits that have accrued, but still…
Why was I here? I had decided to come to Portland to meet a friend from work, I’m the only U.K. based individual in a U.S. based team and this lady, Maureen Johnson, had performed all the design work on the Dark Slivers book for me last year — I wanted to meet her, that was the sole reason I was heading to Portland…
…Except. I’d been talking to a lady called Gilly-Ann Hanner who suggested that if I was in town it was easier for her to chat on to me about Nirvana in person than over email; time, family, real life puts obstacles in the way of writing. I took her up on the idea and was delighted to sit in Dots Café and enjoy lunch while being regaled with stories of life in Olympia back in the late Eighties. There was so much to say we never even made it as far as the notorious October 1992 show in Buenos Aires that precipitated the collapse of Calamity Jane — I think I might have spent a couple minutes gawping at Gilly-Ann when she casually chatted on about that time in May 1988 when her then boyfriend drove her over to Pear Street to ask Kurt if he and Nirvana would be cool to come play at a house-party being thrown for her twenty-first birthday. Is it OK if I pause here a moment just to sit slightly awed at the lady who had Nirvana play her birthday party and who sang a duet with Kurt at the occasion?
The conversation took in the remarkably fertile soil of the Evergreen State College, Olympia and the extensive access it gave to its students — and therefore to their friends in local bands and other creative endeavours — which made it possible for bands to record music, play radio shows, experiment with videos and put on live gigs in and on college facilities. I gained a far greater sense of Sister Skelter, of the links and deviations between what was dubbed Foxcore and that in turn bled over into Riot Grrl, of the early days of Calamity Jane and the endless casual intersections between those people at the time who were dedicated to their music.
I’ve total gratitude to Gilly-Ann for taking time out from her day-to-day to come share a little of her past with me and my curiosity — it’s also lovely meeting someone who has built what looks like a comfy and happy life post-music. Music histories, due to their focus, always talk of those who retire from music as if there’s a total loss, as if it’s an abandonment or a disappointment — in real life, with life spans stretching ever further, the likelihood is that most of us will live several ‘lives’ and if we have any curiosity or desire we should want to look beyond one spell we’re living to other possibilities — there’s no ‘natural’ priority given to being a musician over any other endeavour into which an individual can place time and energy. Again, the warmth and friendliness I’ve been met with has made my holiday and this was no exception. My mum, my dad, my grandfather, they’re all quality storytellers so I’ve long since learnt to appreciate that a good story doesn’t need forcing, it finds a natural start and simply flows. Gilly-Ann gave me a top notch hour getting to know some small sliver of the life she had led and is still visibly proud and happy to have experienced. Plus, wow, nice to sit with someone who seems to have nothing but good to say of each ex-boyfriend who popped up in conversation!
There’s a good article here I’ll end with:
Meanwhile I had the pleasure of meeting Maureen AND a colleague of mine deciding to surprise me by flying all the way from California just to meet me.