Seattle Without the Clouds

Tim Appelo, film critic for the Oregonian in Portland, covered the grunge years for Entertainment Weekly and edited the 1970s Seattle music magazine the Weekly's Sounds

Everyone knows what the Seattle Scene stands for: grim, plaid-clad hairy lads thick as timber howling against the wet Chinook wind until they O.D., clutching a Starbucks cup and a seven-figure record contract.

"Yeah, Seattle's full of heroin and rain--that's the imagery you get," says Doug Pray, whose cheeky new rock documentary "Hype!" helps blow that gloomy imagery away with bracing gusts of rueful laughter.

Pray always knew better than to buy the dolorous myth of the big grunge music scare of the early '90s, because long before he got his master of fine arts degree in film from UCLA, he was best friends with Jim Sangster of the breakthrough Seattle band the Young Fresh Fellows. Pray directed several Fellows videos and was thoroughly acquainted with the wacky, almost angst-free scene of this band, which critic Bill Wyman once described as "the rock 'n' roll equivalent of a whoopee cushion at a debutante ball."

"I had never witnessed such completely non-self-conscious and unabashed fun as they were having in Seattle," Pray says. "What was distinctive was the self-deprecating friendly character in the Northwest. And all the cup throwing!" When Seattle audiences feel the band onstage is too drunk to play properly, the custom is to teasingly pelt them with paper beer cups.

"In New York and L.A., they had that whole thing of wearing black and wondering who was cooler, the band or the audience," Pray says. The grunge fashion statement was to defy the very idea of coolness itself; its quintessential garment was not the plaid shirt but the Zit Pants worn by the Thrown Ups--garbage-bag sweatpants that, when squeezed, splattered the audience with shaving cream. In Seattle rock, everybody was in it together, and boy, was it a sticky mess.

"I'm struck by how funny the movie is," says Pray's UCLA classmate and producer, Steve Helvey, "and how much fun they're having in the Seattle rock scene making fun of all this attention. They weren't sitting at home brooding."

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All hype aside, Seattle rock really was touchingly devoted to the good of the group and the protection of its pioneer artistic integrity against the horrid bourgeois boredom of Seattle's revoltingly touted "livability" (the Young Fresh Fellows' first album advertised a tune called "I Fought the Lawn") and the menace of inauthentic mass pop culture. This was what attracted Cameron Crowe to make his film "Singles" there. "I was coming out of a hollow period," Crowe recalled. "My father had died, and I realized most of my friends [in L.A.] are really acquaintances. When I'd tell them my dad had died, they'd go, 'Tough break! Now what do you think of my screenplay?' The Seattle scene--non-L.A., non-journalist, non-movie-type people--I thought, these are the people I wish I'd grown up with."

Pray knew that Seattle in 1991 would not eagerly embrace Hollywood filmmakers. "Steve said, 'Wait a minute, there's this huge phenomenon, the most over-documented rock scene in rock history. Why isn't there a documentary about it?' I fought him at first. I mean, Seattle is the cynical capital of the world in terms of anti-media feelings. Even if the hype hadn't happened, there's a very supermodest character to the region, so nobody toots their horn there--literally. You do not honk your horn in Seattle. Go to New York or L.A. if you want to do that."

The sight of someone who might espouse non-Seattle values is an exception to the no-honking rule. "Every time I see a car on the freeway with California plates, I almost crash," Kurt Cobain's old roommate, Matt Lukin of the band Mudhoney, once explained, "because I'm honking and flipping them off."

Still, Pray made the perilous trek from L.A. to Seattle in 1992, for a good, honest slacker reason. "I'd graduated from film school, so I was sort of desperately unemployed." His Seattle contacts (including the local co-producer of "Hype!," Lisa Dutton) won him a grudging hearing from Seattle's surly xenophobes. "Seattle was a big castle with a sign saying, 'Stay out!' and we got in the back gate, hiding under a hay wagon with the chickens and pigs," Pray says.

"I called people and said, 'Look, we're not going to do this movie. But if we were gonna do a movie about the Seattle scene, I mean, is there room for it?' Steve Fisk [a major Northwest record producer] went into an hourlong diatribe against Penelope Spheeris and what she did to punk rock [in her "The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization" rockumentaries] and how she kind of used it. I thought, these people are so skeptical and so angry--this is kind of getting interesting. I'm beginning to like this."

To show that they got with the local program of not taking anything seriously, Pray and Helvey at first titled it "Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest," which was a double joke: This was the title of the first album by the Fellows, the first do-it-yourself Seattle band to get reviewed in Rolling Stone. In turn, the Fellows had been making fun of a sound effects album by that title released to cash in on the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, back when the city hungrily courted global publicity.

But this level of irony was not enough. Responding to the locals' howls of protest about their fame--and their boundless pride at having hoaxed such outsiders as the New York Times, which printed a "grunge lexicon" concocted by Sub Pop Records' Megan Jasper--Pray and Helvey took aim on the process of mass-market subculture milking.

"Within a month or two, it was like, 'Hype!,' " Pray says. "It's a total joke, so that worked. Like on Christmas Eve 1992, we raised $80,000 from about five investors. We booked 24 bands for a week. Most of the performances you see in the movie were all done in one week with that $80,000. In fact, we had to spend $150,000."

Helvey says the budget eventually swelled to around a half-million. "Visa was one component of the financing," he dryly observes.

The filmmakers demonstrated their unassailable punk ethics by risking all and immersing themselves in the local anti-culture culture. Instead of placing Nirvana and Pearl Jam right up front, they filmed revered non-millionaire bands like the ineffable Fastbacks and placed the obscure bands' footage up front in the finished film. (The historic scene of the first performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was only found by Dutton at the last minute during production.)

The first full performance in "Hype!" is not by superstars like Soundgarden, but by the Mono Men, because they capture the essential beer-sodden spirit of grunge. "Everybody got drunk, including the crew," Pray says. No doubt paper cups were flying.

After shooting some early footage, Pray and Helvey had no money with which to pick up the developed film from the lab. "It was a blessing in disguise that it was such a drawn out process," Pray recalls. "If we could've done it in six weeks it would've sucked. Instead, it took four years, and 11 months to edit. Having to wait six months to get another interview, I familiarized myself with the scene."

"In documentary making, time is your best friend," adds Helvey. Pennilessness meant they and the Seattle scene had time to absorb the death of Kurt Cobain, the subsiding of the hype and the sense of perspective imposed upon young people who are stunned to find themselves grown-ups in spite of themselves.

Much is missing in the Seattle group portrait presented in "Hype!" Because the scenesters found the exposure of certain famous musicians' private lives repugnant, and because Sub Pop Records has a major financial interest in the film--you can buy not one but two "Hype!"-related CDs, the official soundtrack and a disc tucked inside the back cover of photographer Charles Peterson's brilliant grunge chronicle "Screaming Life"--the more sordid aspects of the scene are basically ignored.

There really has been a woefully notable heroin subset of the grunge subculture. "When I got to Seattle, I could never figure out why I kept losing all my spoons--I had plenty of knives and forks, but my spoons kept disappearing," recalls grunge chronicler Melissa Rossi. "Most of the people I knew in Seattle did heroin, and I didn't even know."

Yet many of Seattle's celebrated opiate victims have cleaned up of late, and beer remains unchallenged as the scene's intoxicant of choice. Larry Zalin, spokesman for Seattle's Harborview Medical Center and a former rock newspaper editor, complains that such reports as Rolling Stone's expose on Seattle's heroin scene willfully distort a problem that originally resulted from underreporting of O.D. cases in 1991 just before the grunge publicity hit. "There has not been a significant increase in morphine-related O.D.s," Zalin said.

As "Hype!" amply and entertainingly demonstrates, Seattle's scene was much sillier than we had supposed, more lighthearted, and not a no-fun-zone devoted to glum, righteous dirges extolling self-destruction. And the scene's most recent smash bands, Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters and the Presidents of the United States of America, are firmly in the funzapoppin tradition. Asked to define the ultra-heavy Seattle Scene atop the Sub Pop tower in "Hype!," Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt confesses in the film, "It's essentially been one big prank."

"Hype!" neatly captures the nature of that gag, the way a few hundred friends formed bands that reflected and satirized one another's close influence like a series of fun house mirrors. When the marvelously anarchic band Mudhoney felt that Soundgarden was too earnestly pompous, it performed a gig under the teasing moniker Beer Garden.

To rib a rival band briefly billed as Lords of the Wasteland (later Pearl Jam), Mudhoney performed as Wasted Landlords.

"Seattle rock was a joke, but a serious joke," says Clark Humphrey, author of "Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story." "It wasn't self-parody--well, it was a self-parody, but a sincere self-parody. I like to think of the Seattle scene in terms of the old Highlights for Children magazine slogan: 'Fun With a Purpose.' "

To illustrate what Humphrey means, consider the name of the most renowned defunct Seattle grunge band, Green River. Sub Pop czar Jonathan Poneman said the name was a tribute to the guitar lick that opens Creedence Clearwater Revival's song "Green River," a Northwest soda pop called Green River and the Green River Killer, then the nation's most prolific murderer.

"So it was the kind of thing like, 'Yeah, we're gonna sing songs about chopping up women,' " Poneman says, " 'but hey, we're just named after a soda pop.' They're menacing and fizzy and bubbly all at the same time."

Partly due to the Cobain tragedy, Seattle's scene became more noted for menace than for fizz. Now the menace seems to be subsiding, while the fizz is fairly bubbling over--and not just in local pop. It's a national phenomenon.

And miraculously, reports of the death of the Seattle scene turn out to be exaggerated. Charles Cross of the Seattle rock magazine the Rocket estimates last year's sales of local bands at about a quarter-billion dollars. "There's still so many good bands," Pray says. "The community survived. It's kind of back to where it was, in a way. There's a peacefulness now."

The national spotlight has indisputably tired of Seattle, though, and grunge has become the most swiftly and totally disgraced fashion since the Nehru. Do Seattle scenesters have any secret pangs at finally being overlooked? "I get the feeling," Pray says, "that people are so glad it's over with."

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