Details. Stephen Tow’s book, The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge, has a lot of them, and though there’s a mountain of information, it isn’t overwhelming. It’s scholarly but entertaining, interesting and funny; it’s researched to no end but quite relatable for both musicians and music fans.
The book covers Seattle’s pre-grunge years, the late 70’s through 1991, the time when something rose from nothing, when Seattle went from a few underground bands and clubs to all that would break upon the world with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and more. I was in the Midwest during those years (Detroit and Columbus, Ohio), and as I got into bands in the late 80’s and early 90’s, we all thought there was a scene. We all thought there was something happening, especially after Seattle broke. Folks in Columbus liked to say in the early 90’s that Columbus was the next Seattle. LMFAO. Really? I guess I even thought such, or at least wanted to believe it, because I was in a band, and I believed in that band, but there was no scene, no sound, no new attitude. There were just a lot of random bands making a lot of random music, and though some of them were quite good, and some were even signed to labels major and minor, nothing ever came of it. No one made it. Nothing happened.
But it happened here in Seattle. A community developed, and then a sound, or perhaps attitude, or as Tow puts it, “grunge was more an approach to playing than an actual style of music”, and The Strangest Tribe captures the smallest details of how that happened. There were bands and bands and bands that contributed something but never made it. The Fags. The U-Men, The Young Fresh Fellows and so many more, and all these years later, they have much to say, of course. When you’re in the thick of it, and then a new kid comes along, and then the new kid makes it big while you’re still playing whatever little bars you can, you have something to say. You have an opinion. You have the feeling of being part of something that made it all possible, that “I was there at the beginning” kind of feeling.
And like I said, it’s relatable, Tow spoke to many musicians, and anyone who has ever played in a rock band can relate to things like what Leighton Beezer from the Thrown Ups said, “I remember my budget was $400 a month: $80 for rent, $50 a week for food, and the rest went for beer. It was not a bad life.” I can relate to that life from my own time as a struggling musician, but what I never felt was that kind of burgeoning scene of musicians living together, bonding, supporting each other, creating music in a scene that was all about just that, the music, not the stardom. Tow writes about how the grunge attitude and sound were dying locally and how Nirvana’s success saved it and propelled it out into the world, largely against the wishes of one Kurt Cobain. He mentions the local backlash against Pearl Jam for wanting to be successful. Beezer confirms that, says he ridiculed them back in 1991 and 1992, but he came around, understands how the scene that made Nirvana, that enabled them, did the same for Pearl Jam. He and the other Seattle musicians and bands from that time know they played a part but don’t overstate it. No one in the book takes credit for the artists that came later. They just say, “I was there. I did this. Then this happened, and it was cool!”
And it was.
And all the details are there, the prequel, if you will. And reading it the way Mr. Tow writes about it, I almost feel like I was there drinking a beer with Beezer as Nirvana exploded. And that’s to Tow’s credit. There’s a ton of detail, but it never loses focus, never gets bogged down. He has an instinct for that which really matters to the story and writes it in a memorable way, almost nostalgic even tough he wasn’t there. When I met Tow at his book signing at the Feedback Lounge last October, we signed and exchanged books, had a couple beers and talked about the time and effort of writing, how we both observed the scene from afar back in those days, how we loved Nirvana and Pearl Jam then (no backlash back east), how we both wished we could have been here in those days. It must have been exciting for both musician and music fan, and after reading his book, it makes me wish he’d write the next part of the story, the sequel, the explosion. I want his take on the moment the world stood up and listened to Seattle.
Get a signed copy of The Strangest Tribe