Space Grunge Riot

Seattle's Westlake Park

Seattle’s Westlake Park

Who defines Seattle?

Addressing that crucial question ultimately benefits from close consideration of Seattle’s most economically prosperous — and thus most politically contentious — twentieth-century decade: namely, the 1990s. Just as the 1910s began here with a major cultural event and ended with a major political event, so did the 1990s. The decade that ushered Seattle into the twenty-first century began with Grungemania and ended with the WTO protests. Nevertheless, those two world-famous events were merely bookends to the decade in which Old Seattle finally became New Seattle — for better or worse.

During the 1990s, the city whose global icon is the Space Needle became a political battleground over public space. More money — and thus more potential public revenue — then flowed through Seattle than during any previous decade in its history. Yet instead of using that prosperity to help its less fortunate citizens, the Seattle city government then engaged in hostile action towards its underclass, actively embracing gentrification with both public rhetoric and official legislation.

Seattle has long suffered from the anxiety of being a perpetual underdog city. During the 1990s, that anxiety manifested itself in the “world-class city” meme. Candidates for high municipal public office and Seattle Times editorials alike all then spoke glowingly of the aspiration for Seattle to become a “world-class city.” That meme unfortunately still persists recently, as evidenced by such boilerplate boosterist fluff as the following, from an article in a 2010 Times weekend lifestyle section:

“There is an extra perk that comes with living near the heart of downtown Seattle: global soul. A world-class city that hasn’t lost sight of its down-home roots, Seattle offers urban living that trumps mere status with genuine international flavor.”

Such disingenuous rhetoric has long exemplified and rationalized the downtown establishment’s deliberate transformation of Seattle from its gritty progressive past towards the exclusive upscale milieu obviously desired by that establishment.

If any single particular person best embodied the sociopolitical life of Seattle during the 1990s as it was then lived by its citizens, it was surely Mark Sidran. Elected as city attorney in November 1989 and holding that office until January 2002, Sidran became infamous among the city’s progressive activist community for championing so-called “civility laws” that effectively criminalized poverty within the Seattle city limits. Specifically, he sponsored ordinances against public drinking, public urination, aggressive panhandling, sleeping in parks, sitting on sidewalks, and driving with a suspended license. Sidran and his supporters claimed that these ordinances would make Seattle a much safer and thus more civil place to live, while his opponents claimed that they unfairly demonized homeless people. The majority of Sidran’s ordinances were passed by the Seattle City Council with minimal opposition among the council members.

At the time of his election a property owner with buildings worth more than $2 million, Sidran embraced the controversial “broken windows” philosophy that New York City employed during the 1994-2001 mayorship of Rudolph Giuliani to “clean up” Times Square and other such downscale parts of NYC. (The “broken windows” theory, introduced in a 1982 article in The Atlantic magazine, maintains that cracking down on small crimes — such as vandalism and vagrancy — prevents larger crimes later.) Sidran’s popularity among mainstream Seattle citizens during the 1990s was symptomatic of the creeping classism that then pervaded the city, once a stronghold of working-class progressivism. This fundamental change in Seattle’s collective character was also reflected in the editorial attitude of The Seattle Times, a mouthpiece for the city’s affluent elite for several previous decades (as demonstrated most blatantly during the Potlatch Riot of 1913). In July 1993, the Times justified its support for Sidran’s civility laws in a politically telegraphic staff editorial.

“Seattleites have made huge investments,” the Times then argued, “to make downtown an economically viable, physically inviting place. Those achievements are threatened when some streets and parks become unpoliced havens for panhandlers and unruly drunks.”

Gentrification was rampant in Seattle during the 1990s as a consequence of the city’s unprecedented economic boom — not only in terms of real-estate property values and displacement, but also in terms of political power. University of Washington geography professor Matthew Sparke, in the 2011 UW anthology Seattle Geographies, coined a perfect phrase to describe this phenomenon: “the gentrification of urban citizenship.” Indeed, within Seattle’s municipal politics during the 1990s, urban citizenship was as much at stake as urban space.

The brutal side of gentrification showed itself most blatantly in a June 1995 incident in downtown Seattle. A low-income apartment building, the Payne Apartments, was then scheduled for demolition to make way for a $25 million commercial complex that would feature a NikeTown outlet as its retail centerpiece. Operation Homestead, a grassroots activist group dedicated to preserving affordable housing in Seattle, staged a non-violent protest against the demolition involving two activists, Bob Kubiniec and Dana Schuerholz, who climbed to the roof of the Payne to hang banners bearing anti-gentrification slogans. When they refused to leave the building, the Seattle Police Department sent a full Special Patrol Unit (then Seattle’s equivalent of a SWAT team) into the building, with weapons drawn and wearing gas masks, to arrest the two protesters. This incident would not be the last time during the 1990s that Seattle police would use brutal force against social justice activists.

As mentioned previously, throughout the 1990s, the Seattle city government neglected social services in favor of big-money downtown development projects such as the NikeTown complex, Benaroya Hall, and the Pacific Place parking garage. In 1995, as part of the Rhodes Project (discussed further below), the city gave away $23 million of public money behind closed doors to none other than Nordstrom, the Seattle-based upscale corporate retailer, during negotiations for the construction of the private parking garage that now stands at Sixth Avenue and Pine Street, underneath the Pacific Place mall, one block north from NikeTown. As with other such so-called “public-private partnerships” of that time, many vigilant local citizens objected, yet the deal was ultimately done. Meanwhile, social services for the city’s homeless population remained woefully underfunded.

Such appalling anecdotes were typical of civic Seattle’s attitude towards its underclass during the 1990s. The schism between Seattle’s radical past and its emerging aspirations towards “world-class” status would reach a cathartic clash at the end of that decade. Meanwhile, at the start of that decade, a grand countercultural catharsis would draw the world’s attention to Seattle once again — very much by surprise.

Some Random Dudes

Some Random Dudes

Obviously, much has been written already about the grunge explosion of the early 1990s — yet that event is always worth contemplating further in the context of Seattle’s broader cultural history. The sudden and overwhelming success of Nirvana’s Nevermind album in the autumn of 1991 was a profound surprise for many — especially within Seattle’s countercultural community. Coming from the humble origins of the counterculture of a small and provincial American city, the grunge explosion was arguably the one single historical event more than any other that finally thrust Seattle into the global spotlight for good.

Grunge was a social phenomenon as much as a musical one. It ultimately reflected the collective disillusionment of much of the young generation of the time — now commonly known, for better or worse, as “Generation X” — in Seattle and elsewhere. In both sound and sentiment, grunge was a profound rejection of the mainstream values of the 1980s, both musically and socially: the raw, distorted guitar style that commonly defines the genre was a rejection of the synthesizer gloss typical of much of the popular music of the previous decade, while the anti-fashion aesthetic was a rejection of the sartorial excesses of that decade. While most grunge lyrics were not overtly political, the dystopian negation of such signature songs as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” was ultimately a rejection of the puerile “Morning in America” optimism of the Reagan years.

Grunge could only have happened in Seattle. It was a profoundly regional musical genre, influenced as much by the infamously gloomy Cascadian climate as by any obvious musical influences. As pioneering local recording engineer Jack Endino said in the 1996 documentary film Hype!, “When the weather’s crappy, you don’t wanna go outside, you know, you basically feel like staying in the house, and it’s a very logical thing to wanna go down into your basement and, you know, make noise to take out your frustrations because you can’t go outside and do anything when it’s raining all the time.” Seattle’s geographical and cultural isolation from the rest of the nation was also a considerable factor in the emergence of grunge as a distinct musical genre. As Sub Pop Records co-founder Jonathan Poneman has noted, “Seattle [prior to Grungemania] was a perfect example of a secondary city with an active music scene that was completely ignored by an American media fixated on Los Angeles and New York.”

The birth of grunge can best be traced back to the year 1984. That was the year of the formation of Soundgarden and Green River, the two bands most closely associated with grunge’s early years. Both bands would later appear on Deep Six, the 1986 compilation album generally considered among the first recorded documents of grunge. Green River, formed by the alumni of several hardcore punk bands from Seattle and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, was the seminal band that would eventually beget Mudhoney and Pearl Jam.

The year 1984 also brought, in December, the opening of Gorilla Gardens, a crucial all-ages underground music venue located in Seattle’s International District that featured both punk and metal acts. What now qualifies Gorilla Gardens as the ultimate birthplace of grunge is the character of its core clientele: a mixture of hardcore punk rockers and suburban heavy metal fans — still a potentially volatile combination at the time of the venue’s debut. It’s easy these days for underground rock music fans to forget that, prior to the mid-1980s, the American hardcore punk and heavy metal scenes were often hostile towards each other — especially in Seattle, where punk and metal youth often engaged in fights on school grounds and at parties to express that mutual hostility.

The opening of Gorilla Gardens changed that situation positively by offering two separate shows in the same venue at the same time. As a result, punk and metal acts often played there on the same nights, thus leading to the softening of relations between the two subcultures. Each night’s cover charge paid for admission to both shows — a crucial factor in the creation of the musical miscegenation that would commence in Seattle at the height of the venue’s local popularity circa 1985.

Among the key catalysts of grunge culture was another gifted local musician who helped define grunge primarily as a poet. Steven Jay “Jesse” Bernstein, underground writer, musician, and performance artist, was born in Los Angeles on December 4, 1950, and came to Seattle in January 1967. After spending his first several years in his adopted home city in obscurity, he would become a crucial fixture within Seattle’s counterculture during the late 1980s.

Bernstein’s regular poetry readings at such erstwhile venues as the Dogtown Poetry Theater and Red Sky Poetry Theatre were deeply influential in Seattle, and he has been credited as a major personal influence by many local poets from his era. All through his life he suffered from substance abuse and mental illness, yet he managed to be highly productive during the 1980s, due mainly to his sobriety during that decade, which culminated in 1989 when Seattle Weekly readers crowned him Seattle’s Best Poet. During his late-1980s heyday, he often opened for local musical acts, including Nirvana, Soundgarden, and the U-Men. His most famous recorded work from that time was a spoken word piece, “Come Out Tonight,” which appeared on the crucial 1988 compilation album Sub Pop 200 along with early tracks by Mudhoney and Nirvana, among others.

Steven Jesse Bernstein’s astounding aesthetic ascendancy unfortunately ended violently on October 22, 1991. On that date, at the age of 40, Bernstein committed suicide by stabbing himself in the throat while visiting friends in Neah Bay, Washington. Several years after his truly tragic death, in 2003, Seattle Post-Intelligencer arts writer Regina Hackett would reflect poignantly on Bernstein’s volatile personality and local influence:

“He read poems from a stage with a live rodent in his mouth, its tail twitching as baseline punctuation. He tried to cut his heart out in order to hold it in his hands and calm it down. He once urinated on a heckler and tended to throw things: beer bottles, manuscripts, drumsticks, his wallet, a sandwich.”

Grungemania coincided with other local developments, such as the Microsoft-driven technology boom, to attract both attention and migration to Seattle during the early 1990s. For better or worse, these developments cemented the transformation from Old Seattle into New Seattle, changing the city’s fundamental nature from provincial to cosmopolitan. The bad part of that transformation for the city’s music scene was the damage done by all the absurd attention: by early 1993, much of that scene had been corrupted both by record company executives seeking “the next Nirvana” and by mediocre musicians moving to Seattle hoping to snag major-label record contracts by playing genetically-modified “grunge.”

Make no mistake: grunge died privately on April 5, 1994. Kurt Cobain’s suicide was indeed a devastating blow to Seattle’s music community, and it would take several years for the scene to fully recover. Meanwhile, Seattle would transform itself from a countercultural sanctuary city into the contentious epicenter of corporate globalization.

Among the most contentious topics in Seattle city politics during the 1990s was the Rhodes Project. Conceived in late 1994 and named after real-estate developer and project director Jeffrey Rhodes, the project involved plans to redevelop three crucial blocks of Seattle’s downtown retail core. The centerpiece of the project was a plan to move the flagship store and corporate headquarters of Seattle-based upscale retailer Nordstrom into the historic former Frederick & Nelson department store building at Fifth Avenue and Pine Street and to redevelop the former F&N parking garage to include underground parking, retail stores, restaurants, and a multiscreen movie theater.

As part of the art of the deal, Nordstrom demanded that the city reopen Pine Street to automobile traffic between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. This demand would divide Westlake Park, a longtime public gathering place and a crucial civic space for political rallies, free musical concerts, and other such activities lacking purely commercial value. Public opposition to this demand was strong enough to force a public vote on a ballot measure concerning the topic in a special municipal election in March 1995.

Among the key flashpoints of controversy surrounding the Rhodes Project was the secretive nature of the negotiations behind the project. For example, skirting the Washington State Constitution’s ban on giving public money to private interests, the Seattle city government knowingly and intentionally overpaid Pine Street Development, the ad hoc organization in charge of the Rhodes Project, to the tune of $23 million in order to close the deal that would move Nordstrom into the Frederick & Nelson building. This part of the deal, negotiated in 1995, would not become fully public knowledge until December 1997, when The Seattle Times published an investigative report on the transaction. By then, it was too late for any meaningful public objection.

The Rhodes Project prevailed in the end — yet not without considerable civic consequences. In Timothy A. Gibson’s 2003 book Securing the Spectacular City: The Politics of Revitalization and Homelessness in Downtown Seattle, Gibson framed the civic consequences of the Rhodes Project as a struggle between civil society and economic fundamentalism in the context of “the organic city trope,” in which the issue of public subsidies for private development was cast as a decision between the “life” and “death” of a city’s urban core:

“In this vision of urban vitality, that which contributes to the process of upscale recreation and consumption contributes to the ‘life’ of the city, while those activities or spaces viewed as impediments to spectacular consumption are treated as potential sources of ‘decay’ and therefore become subject to calls for private appropriation and control.”

This was the essence of political Seattle during the 1990s: a city whose government had succumbed to the ideological disease of economic fundamentalism. Within the context of the organic city trope, Seattle’s civic leaders had then come to define the city’s “vitality” strictly in terms of economic prosperity and real-estate property values, while the progressive notion of economic diversity — a longtime Seattle value prior to 1989 — was allowed to wither on the vine.

Along with the Rhodes Project, another controversial proposal based in downtown Seattle during the 1990s was the Glen Hotel Urban Rest Stop. Conceived in 1993 as a hygiene center for homeless people that would provide restrooms, showers, and laundry facilities, the Urban Rest Stop drew the ire of the downtown business community due to its proposed location one block north from the site of Seattle’s planned new symphony hall at Third Avenue and Union Street. At the time, Seattle’s political establishment planned to transform that area into a so-called “cultural district” with the symphony hall as its centerpiece. The hygiene center was seen as a threat to those plans, due to its alleged potential to attract street disorder.

Several politically powerful Seattleites, including real-estate developer and philanthropist Jack Benaroya, upscale restaurateur Rick Yoder, and Downtown Seattle Association president Kate Joncas, fought tooth-and-nail against the location of the Urban Rest Stop at the Glen Hotel. Since the hygiene center had been originally proposed and funded by the Seattle city government, the political battle over its location would become a three-year-long drama, staged both in city hall and in the opinion sections of Seattle’s two major daily newspapers. Eventually, an alternative location was settled upon, at Ninth Avenue and Virginia Street, just outside the downtown retail core. The Urban Rest Stop finally opened in March 2000, seven long years after its original conception.

Another sign of Seattle’s apparent ascension to world-class status arrived with the May 20, 1996, Newsweek cover story titled “Seattle Reigns.” Featuring CNN liberal pundit, Slate founder, and recent Seattle transplant Michael Kinsley on the cover wearing pristine rain gear and awkwardly holding a salmon, the article extolled the virtues of the city that had by then become a brazen magnet for wealth, prestige, and ambition:

“Sooner or later, it seems, everyone moves to Seattle, or thinks about it, or at least their kids do. The city is a demographic paradox, a place whose population — 532,900 in 1995 — is essentially stable, yet which seems to visitors (who don’t often get to working-class neighborhoods) to consist entirely of people who were born somewhere else. Rootless youths seeking alienation beneath Seattle’s brooding skies, but with plenty of girls to keep them company. Middle-aged strivers betting that Microsoft can create one more millionaire. Even those constrained to spend the 21st century in some less-favored city will inevitably feel the tug of Seattle’s gloom. For decades the Pacific Northwest has quietly positioned itself at the leading edge of economic growth — natural resources (Weyerhaeuser), manufacturing (Boeing), technology (Microsoft), music (Nirvana, Pearl Jam) and coffee (Starbucks).”

Writer Jerry Adler clearly did his research well, featuring local countercultural luminaries Bruce Pavitt and gallery owner Larry Reid along with Kinsley and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, among other famous names then representing New Seattle to the rest of the nation. The article also deftly discussed the transitional nature of Seattle in that crucial historical moment, when the city’s parochial slacker past was engaged in a civic tug-of-war against the global ambitions of such absurdly overachieving men as Howard Schultz, Bill Gates, and Paul Allen.

November 30, 1999

November 30, 1999

When Seattle invited the WTO to town, little did it know what “world-class” would mean after the party was over.

Seattle’s longtime aspirations towards “world-class” status came to an unexpected fruition during the 1999 WTO Ministerial Conference, when the World Trade Organization (WTO) convened at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in downtown Seattle during the week of November 29, 1999. During the preceding year, several of Seattle’s key civic leaders had lobbied the WTO to earn Seattle the honor of hosting that year’s WTO conference, including Mayor Paul Schell and Port of Seattle Commissioner Pat Davis, who led the lobbying effort. The honor was granted in January 1999. As soon as the honor was announced, a coalition of grassroots social justice activists quickly formed to organize protests against the WTO during the conference.

Those civic leaders clearly expected the WTO conference to shine a positive global spotlight on Seattle. What they apparently didn’t know was that corporate globalization was then already a contentious topic in much of the world outside the United States. Major protests against so-called “free trade” had already been staged at previous conferences devoted to multilateral trade negotiations, most recently in 1998 against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. The ultimate concern of the opponents of corporate globalization was its anti-democratic nature: as of January 1999, several democratically created laws had already been overturned in other countries by the WTO without public recourse. An editorial in London’s Independent newspaper published in July 1999 summed up the suspicion of the opposition:

“The way [the WTO] has used [its] powers is leading to a growing suspicion that its initials should really stand for World Take Over. In a series of rulings it has struck down measures to help the world’s poor, protect the environment, and safeguard health in the interests of private — usually American — companies.”

In Seattle, the protesters’ grievances were legion: trade unions were concerned about competition from cheap foreign labor; environmentalists were concerned about the outsourcing of polluting activities; consumer protection groups were concerned about unsafe imports; labor rights groups were concerned about unjust working conditions in other countries. Among the noteworthy activist coalitions that aligned in protest in Seattle was the “teamsters and turtles”: a blue-green alliance consisting of trade unions and environmentalists, two groups that had previously been antagonistic towards each other for many years.

The rest, of course, was history: while the majority of the estimated 50,000 demonstrators who converged in downtown Seattle on November 30, 1999, participated in the various marches, rallies, and workshops held that day, a small but brave group of activists played an equally important role in the WTO protests by engaging in non-violent direct action, shutting down the first day’s official business by blockading the convention center, braving police brutality in doing so. While what happened on that crucial day has been described in certain media outlets as a “riot” due to the vandalism committed by a small group of renegade anarchists, the activists who had organized the protests several months earlier were all profoundly concerned and informed about the issues that provoked the protests.

Mark Sidran played a noteworthy role in the WTO protests by locking up some 600 persons in King County Jail that week — only a portion of whom were actual protesters. All the arrestees were downtown on December 1, after Seattle Mayor Paul Schell had officially declared downtown Seattle a “no-protest zone,” and all were arrested in a massive and indiscriminate sweep — including many who had nothing to do with the demonstrations. Sidran insisted on holding all the arrestees until they were all processed, and he also insisted on pursuing charges against all of them, consuming considerable city resources in doing so. Charges were later dismissed against the vast majority of the arrestees, and eventually more than 175 persons filed damage claims with the city.

Among the positive ironies of WTO Week was the location of the Independent Media Center (IMC) on the ground floor of the Glen Hotel, which had been the controversial original proposed location of Seattle’s Urban Rest Stop earlier during that decade. The IMC was created as an ad hoc gathering place for independent journalists to cover the protests and publish reports online in real time. After the protests, the IMC would continue to operate from the Glen Hotel for several months afterwards, and would also help establish other IMCs in several major cities around the globe — thus answering the globalization of corporate power with the globalization of independent grassroots journalism. Coming from a location that had once been the locus of a significant political battle over economic justice in Seattle, the IMC was a truly great legacy of WTO Week.

Make no mistake: what happened in Seattle during the week of November 29, 1999, was essentially a series of protests — not a series of riots. Nevertheless, the violence that occurred during those protests — committed mostly by Seattle and King County police officers — was surely a symptom of something deep and disturbing lurking beneath the facile urban legend of “Seattle nice.” In a city with such an infamously repressed collective psyche, is it any wonder such an infamous catharsis occurred here?

While the majority of Seattle’s civic leaders considered the 1999 WTO Ministerial Conference an embarrassing failure in its immediate aftermath, social justice activists in Seattle and around the globe considered it a profound success. It hosted the sabotage of a round of potentially destructive trade negotiations and brought the folly of corporate globalization to the world’s attention — especially in the United States, where the subject had previously been invisible in the mainstream corporate media.

–Jeff Stevens. Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.

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Seattle’s Flaming Telepaths

Ze Whiz Kidz circa 1974 L-R: Rick Pierce, Kenny Kennelly, Cha Cha Samoa, J. Satz Beret, Rick Nelson Far West Entertainment

Ze Whiz Kidz circa 1974
L-R: Rick Pierce, Kenny Kennelly, Cha Cha Samoa, J. Satz Beret, Rick Nelson
Far West Entertainment

Seattle in the 1970s: when no other major port city would ever dream of being Seattle, which then dreamed once again of becoming New York City, which then was equally destitute (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”) and thus equally pregnant with myriad countercultural possibilities.

That decade began here with the infamous Boeing Bust, a local economic crisis drastic enough to inspire a mischievous roadside billboard that legendarily read, “Will the last person leaving SEATTLE – Turn out the lights.” That crisis commenced when The Boeing Company, the Puget Sound region’s largest and thus most economically dominant employer, laid off 65,000 people — almost two-thirds of its workforce — between January 1970 and December 1971.

While economically painful for many longtime local residents, the Boeing Bust would ultimately prove to be a boon for Seattle and the Puget Sound region in terms of quality of life due to the affordability it would bring to the city and region as one ironic local consequence of the resulting employment exodus. That affordability would also crucially catalyze a local cultural renaissance by attracting myriad members of the creative class — people whose ultimate personal ambitions were artistic rather than financial. Seattle thus then remained a city that both birthed and attracted a gaggle of glorious weirdos.

Among such avatars was David Xavier Harrigan (1948-2000). Born in upstate New York, Harrigan traveled as a teenager across the United States towards the West Coast and, after adopting the pseudonym Tomata du Plenty in San Francisco, crucially arrived in Seattle sometime during 1969, where and when he co-founded the legendary countercultural theater troupe Ze Whiz Kidz.

While the troupe’s name remains absurdly obscure today, much of the past five decades of Seattle’s counterculture can be traced back influentially to Ze Whiz Kidz — especially within our city’s music scene. Among other brazen trails they blazed during their brief time here, they paved the way for punk rock in Seattle, and thus they ultimately set the stage for grunge and other more recent countercultural developments within our city.

Providing a precise date for the birth of Ze Whiz Kidz is an apparently elusive goal, given the infamous wildness of their time. One possibility would be the third and final Sky River Rock Festival, held near Washougal, Washington, during Labor Day weekend 1970, where and when they first performed for a large audience. Yet it seems most appropriate, given their fundamentally flamboyant nature, to nominate October 31, 1970, when the troupe performed the second of two Halloween weekend shows at the Eagles Auditorium in downtown Seattle.

At the time of the Kidz’ concerts there, the Eagles Auditorium was the premier rock concert venue in Seattle, our city’s contemporary countercultural counterpart to San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium — and the 1970 Halloween weekend shows were the Kidz’ first on a large indoor stage. Prior to Sky River, they had performed clandestinely around Seattle: on the street, at bus stops, at an A&P grocery store, and several shows in the basement of Smith Tower in the Submarine Room, a lesbian dive bar run by the local mob where it was rumored that one could buy authentic Tommy Guns from the bartender.

Gay subculture was obviously the milieu within which Ze Whiz Kidz were created — and they were thus yet another historical example of Seattle following where San Francisco once boldly led. Prior to co-founding Ze Whiz Kidz, du Plenty was a veteran of the Cockettes, a San Francisco hippie-glitter drag musical theater troupe founded in 1968. The Cockettes created flamboyant stage shows that predated both David Bowie’s glam rock and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Ze Whiz Kidz similarly staged nearly 100 mini-musical revues in Seattle with an amorphous cast whose many wild stage names included Gorilla Rose (Michael Farris), Satin Sheets (Dennis Weikel, later known as J. Satz Beret), Melba Toast, Rhina Stone, Palm Springs, Co Co Ritz, Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen), Daily Flo, Benny Whiplash, Michael Hautepants (costume designer Michael Murphy), Leah Vigeah, and real, actual women Louise Lovely (Di Linge), Valerie Allthetime (DePonty), and Cha Cha Samoa (Cha Davis).

Among other highlights of their local countercultural career, Ze Whiz Kidz opened for shock-rock icon Alice Cooper on July 9 and 10, 1971, at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, where they performed an original 1950s-themed show titled “Puttin’ Out Is Dreamsville.” Apparently, their collective flamboyance then intimidated even the infamous Cooper. According to J. Satz Beret, “Who else would you put on the bill with Alice Cooper, except the Whiz Kidz? Alice said at the end of the show — being as outrageous as he is — he said to us, ‘You scare me!'”

Tomata du Plenty’s birth state of New York played a reciprocal role in the Whiz Kidz tale when he and Gorilla Rose left the troupe to move to New York City in 1973. After arriving there, they witnessed the nascent punk rock scene at the now-legendary club CBGB, and du Plenty eventually opened there for the Ramones, Blondie, and other such then-obscure acts as a one-man cabaret performer. Catalyzed by the CBGB scene, du Plenty and Rose returned to Seattle in 1975. During their NYC sojourn, Ze Whiz Kidz had become a relatively conventional rock band, similar to the New York Dolls, for whom they opened at Seattle’s Moore Theatre on March 14, 1974, before finally drifting apart circa 1975.

Several early West Coast punk rock bands emerged from the demise of Ze Whiz Kidz. Tomata du Plenty, Melba Toast, and Rio de Janeiro went on to form the Tupperwares, who famously played at the May 1, 1976, TMT Show, generally considered Seattle’s first true punk rock concert, about which more follows below. Meanwhile, circa 1977, J. Satz Beret formed the Lewd, who would soon move from Seattle to San Francisco, where they would eventually record and release the now-classic 1982 punk rock album American Wino. Ze Whiz Kidz’ ultimate legacy continues to thrive locally today, since certain former members of the troupe would eventually go on to join One Reel (for decades the organizer of Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot arts festival), Teatro ZinZanni, and other crucial Seattle-area arts organizations.

Shelly Bauman (1947-2010) circa 1974

Shelly Bauman (1947-2010) circa 1974

What best defines the word “counterculture”? Originally coined by historian Theodore Roszak in his influential 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture, the word is most often associated with the hippie movement, which crested that same year. After that movement devolved in the 1970s, the word would eventually become associated with the punk movement, which crested circa 1979. Between those two countercultures, what was the historical bridge? For Seattle circa 1973, the gay nightlife scene best qualified for that distinction — and that scene acquired a crucial haven on November 13, 1973, with the debut of the legendary Shelly’s Leg, Seattle’s first discotheque and first openly gay nightclub.

Shelly’s Leg was crucially located in Pioneer Square, which was Seattle’s de facto epicenter of gay nightlife before the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood acquired that distinction in the early 1980s. Where previous gay bars in Seattle had all been clandestine establishments, Shelly’s Leg was brazen in its ambition to be a genuine safe space for the city’s gay community. It would quickly become a popular spot in town as one positive local consequence of the gay liberation movement that emerged nationally in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. At the height of the venue’s local popularity, when it attracted as many straight patrons as gay clientele, a huge, hand-painted sign above the bar declared to all who entered, “Shelly’s Leg is a GAY BAR provided for Seattle’s gay community and their guests.”

The bar’s intriguing name revealed a life story as tragic as it was briefly triumphant — namely, the life story of its co-founder, Shelly Bauman, a straight woman. Her bar was indeed named after her leg — which she lost in a bizarre accident in Pioneer Square three years before the venue’s debut. And that accident would lead directly to the venue’s creation.

Shelly Bauman’s life was poignant even before that fateful accident. Born in Illinois on July 23, 1947, she grew up in Chicago, where she studied classical dance as a young girl. After her family moved to Florida, her innocence was shattered at the age of 16 when her father committed suicide. Her mother then told her that that man was in fact not her true father — and then kicked her out of the house forever. Bauman then spent several years living as a homeless drifter, traveling around the country and supporting herself by working as an exotic dancer. She arrived in Seattle in 1968, where she initially lived in Rainier Valley in the home of a black family.

The accident that transformed Bauman’s life occurred on July 14, 1970. On that truly fateful date, she and a group of friends gathered in Pioneer Square during Seattle’s first Bastille Day parade. What began as a festive night out for Bauman abruptly became a life-changing tragedy.

“There was a cannon in the parade loaded with gunpowder, held in place by a wad of wet papier-mâché,” Bauman would later recall. “Someone lit the fuse and the cannon fired into the crowd, hitting [me] in the pelvis. It was the son of the owner of the cannon showing off to a friend.”

The cannon blast critically injured part of Bauman’s pelvis, along with a kidney, some of her intestines, and her left leg. Gushing blood, she could easily have died at the scene. Luckily, a doctor was nearby who intervened and saved her life by pinching an artery to stanch the bleeding. She was rushed to Harborview Medical Center, where her left leg was amputated upon arrival. She then underwent nine months of operations and recovery before finally leaving the hospital. She would then spend the rest of her life confined to a wheelchair.

Rather than passively accept her fate, Bauman decided to sue the people whom she considered responsible for the accident: the parade sponsors, the man who brought the cannon, and the city for ignoring the loaded weapon at a public event. Three long years of legal battles eventually led to a $330,000 out-of-court settlement, awarded in April 1973.

What she did with the money was directly determined by her closest friends. Some time before the accident, Bauman had met Joe McGonagle and Pat Nesser, two gay men who lived in a large house in the Central Area with several other gay men. The house, known as Villa Mae, was a magnet for the local gay party crowd, and Bauman moved in soon after meeting McGonagle and Nesser. Crucially, McGonagle was then co-owner of the Golden Horseshoe, a Pioneer Square gay bar that had thrived during the 1960s, and where Nesser once worked as a bartender. After the accident, the three housemates talked about opening a new gay bar with part of Bauman’s settlement money — and very quickly, that dream became a reality.

Strategically located at the intersection of South Main Street and Alaskan Way, Shelly’s Leg featured Seattle’s first professional DJ sound system, with two turntables spinning records non-stop, when that now-standard set-up remained an innovative nightlife novelty. Also featuring 1940s-inspired lounge décor, including fake palm trees and neon lighting, the venue quickly became hugely popular, with lines that stretched around the block seven nights a week. Ken Decker, Shelly’s Leg acting manager, explained the disco’s popularity in an August 1975 Seattle Times column by Erik Lacitis:

“Straight discos don’t have the capability or sensibility to put together something like this. We’ve been crowded the past nine months. Every night about 9:30 p.m. it’s like three Greyhound buses full of people descending upon us. The word is just out this is the place to come and dance.”

Shelly’s Leg DJ Mike Higgins added, “It’s gotten to the point that you can’t tell who is straight and who is gay.”

Shelly’s Leg brought a glamor to Seattle that was rare for our infamously repressed city. John Otto, a Shelly’s Leg regular, recalled the venue’s unique character in a September 2014 City Arts magazine interview, where he discussed the associated glamor, comparing it to other cities’ nightlife scenes:

“It was a different sort of glamor . . . because Seattle had this earthiness, this grittiness, this subliminal nature that places like [Los Angeles] have never had. [Los Angeles] has a dark underbelly but it’s a bright, shiny, superficial place. Seattle gets deep. So even though glamor is what we strived for, there was depth to it as well.”

Shelly’s Leg’s massive popularity would unfortunately be destroyed in much the same manner as its creation: by an accidental explosion. On December 4, 1975, at approximately 1 a.m., an oil tanker was driving on the Alaskan Way Viaduct — directly above the club — when the tanker collided into a guardrail, unhitching the 4,800-gallon trailer, which then exploded, pouring fiery gasoline onto a passing freight train below and more than 30 cars parked in front of Shelly’s Leg, shattering the front window and torching the front of the club.

Miraculously, no one inside was injured, and Bauman, McGonagle, and Nesser were able to renovate the club using insurance money. Nevertheless, the club’s popularity was permanently damaged by the incident. Ultimately, the club’s final demise was caused by a financial dispute among the three co-proprietors that led to the club being padlocked by the Internal Revenue Service, and Shelly’s Leg thus abruptly closed sometime circa 1978 — just when disco music and culture had finally achieved national mainstream popularity.

After the demise of Shelly’s Leg, Shelly Bauman’s life would continue to be as difficult as it was before her namesake bar’s brief heyday. Although confined to a wheelchair, she would insist on maintaining the life of a bon vivant, insatiably moving and partying here and there until she finally settled down in Bremerton, Washington, where she spent the final eight years of her life. She died at home in Bremerton on November 18, 2010. The sign declaring Shelly’s Leg a gay bar is now on permanent display at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry.

The Meyce in 1976 L-R: Paul Hood, Jennie Skirvin, Lee Lumsden, Jim Basnight photo credit: Neil Hubbard

The Meyce in 1976
L-R: Paul Hood, Jennie Skirvin, Lee Lumsden, Jim Basnight
photo credit: Neil Hubbard

Once upon a time, the term “punk rock” remained obscure to most Seattleites. On May 1, 1976, a small coterie of young local musicians conspired to make local music history by introducing that volatile term to our sleepy little working-class town.

These musicians gathered that evening to present a three-band concert of original music at the Odd Fellows Temple building, located at 1525 10th Avenue on Capitol Hill. The event was advertised as the TMT Show, an acronymic reference to the trio of participating bands: the Telepaths, the Meyce, and the Tupperwares.

While still somewhat obscure within mainstream Seattle music history, the TMT Show is now generally considered the first true punk rock concert ever held in Seattle — as well as the first concert of any kind in Seattle organized and promoted by the performers themselves. Thus, it sowed the seeds of DIY (“do it yourself”) culture in the city and the region — a culture that would flourish much more fully during the ensuing fifteen years, culminating in the surprise global success of Nirvana in late 1991.

At the time of the TMT Show, Seattle’s music scene was dominated by cover bands, and thus, bands playing original music were generally shut out of opportunities to play for large, paying audiences. The bands on the TMT bill, all frustrated with playing exclusively in basements and living rooms, sought to change that equation. In order to bring legitimacy to their efforts, the show was promoted as a benefit concert for the Telepathic Foundation. This “foundation” did not in fact exist. Neil Hubbard, a Seattle writer, musician, and friend of the bands on the bill who helped organize and promote the event, conceived the “foundation” as a means of convincing local media outlets to publicize the show.

“This one radio station, KILO, gave us free public service announcements,” Hubbard remembered years later, “’cause we had this nonprofit group that we just made up out of thin air called the Telepathic Foundation. We were just pretty resourceful about things.”

The punk scene in Seattle in 1976 was microscopic, and the crowd at the TMT Show mainly comprised members and friends of the few other punk bands in the city at the time. Admission to the event was one dollar, and it was attended by roughly 100 people — just enough for the bands to pay for the room rental. Most of the audience, like most of the band members, were teenagers — and many of those people would soon go on to form their own bands.

Case in point: among those working “security” at the event was 18-year-old Penelope Houston, who would later move to San Francisco and become lead singer of the Avengers, the greatly influential American punk band of the late 1970s. Also in the audience was Damon Titus, guitar player for the Fruitland Famine Band, a country-rock covers-oriented act. Inspired by what he witnessed that night, Titus would soon transform his band into the Enemy, one of Seattle’s most important early punk bands.

All the bands on the TMT Show bill were connected to the punk scene at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, now considered an incubator of sorts for much of what would later develop within the Seattle punk scene. The Roosevelt High punk scene was driven largely by Chatterbox, a DIY fanzine published by Neil Hubbard and Lee Lumsden, drummer for the Meyce. Although the TMT Show was promoted as a punk show, there was in fact some stylistic diversity among the three featured bands.

The Telepaths are now considered by many to have been Seattle’s first true punk band — although, truth be told, they were influenced as much by early-1970s progressive rock as by the likes of the Stooges and the MC5; after all, they took their name from an early Blue Öyster Cult song: namely, 1974’s “Flaming Telepaths.” Their amorphous personnel crucially included on guitar the legendary Homer Spence, then a 35-year-old Seattle rock scene veteran, erstwhile University of Washington economics instructor, and spiritual mentor to the city’s nascent punk scene. As for the band’s transgressive disposition, according to guitarist Erich Werner:

“Our whole attitude as a gang was a perpetual state of anger about our environment. We opposed just about everything we felt Seattle stood for. We hated suburbia; we were completely opposed to complacent happiness, and we felt the world at large wouldn’t tolerate us. People constantly called us names because of how we looked, so we had a strong identity, a them-and-us polarity.”

The Telepaths would later evolve into the Blackouts, Seattle’s premier post-punk band circa 1979.

The Meyce played what is now called “power pop.” On March 6, 1977, just before breaking up, they would open for the Ramones when the latter band played their debut Seattle show. The Meyce’s lineup crucially included singer-guitarist Jim Basnight, who would go on to form the Moberlys, a locally popular outfit who, in 1979, were among the first bands from Seattle’s early punk scene to record and release a full-length album.

The Tupperwares could best be described as “post-glam/proto-punk.” Led by the aforementioned Tomata du Plenty, they were a crucial spinoff of Ze Whiz Kidz who also dressed in drag onstage. In October 1976, frustrated with the stagnancy of Seattle’s punk scene at the time, they moved to Los Angeles, where, in early 1977, after receiving legal threats from the Tupperware trademark owners, they changed their name to the Screamers. With their new name and transgressive sound, they quickly became notorious and therefore very influential within that city’s early punk scene: among their contemporary admirers were X, the Weirdos, and Black Flag.

Not only was the TMT Show an important catalyst for Seattle’s mid-1970s counterculture, it also predated by several weeks the very first punk shows in England by the Clash, the Damned, the Buzzcocks, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, as well as the many Los Angeles punk bands that would soon follow — including, of course, the Screamers. Despite being ahead of London and Los Angeles in that respect, Seattle’s punk scene would not achieve wider fame until several years later, with the advent of the circa-1991 grunge explosion.

The Enemy in 1978 L-R: Paul Hood, Suzanne Grant, Damon Titus, Peter Barnes, George Gleason photo credit: Donn Leber

The Enemy in 1978
L-R: Paul Hood, Suzanne Grant, Damon Titus, Peter Barnes, George Gleason
photo credit: Donn Leber

Seattle’s music scene has not always been innovative, it must be said. While there has always been exciting musical activity in our corner of the world, prior to the grunge explosion, the music scene here tended to be derivative of scenes and styles from other, larger cities. During the late 1960s, our music scene was largely derivative of San Francisco’s, while during the late 1970s, a small group of Seattle musicians, writers, and visual artists collectively sought to emulate the punk scenes then revolutionizing rock music in London, New York City, and Los Angeles.

Seattle’s punk scene took a big step towards finding its own voice when the city’s first punk club, the Bird, opened on March 4, 1978.

Located downtown at 107 Spring Street, the Bird was founded by Roger Husbands (1940-2015), manager of the Enemy (one of the few prominent punk bands from Seattle at the time), and the aforementioned Neil Hubbard. The club was named after the venue’s previous tenant, the John L. Bird office supplies company. Hubbard reportedly thought of the name during a brainstorming session involving members of the Enemy, Husbands, and himself.

The Bird was a dark, dank, and narrow space with a makeshift stage and a second-hand PA system. While the venue’s official capacity was ninety-nine persons, as many as 200 sometimes crowded into the tiny room. Before the Bird, local underground bands had nowhere to play within the city unless — as did the organizers of the TMT Show — they rented a hall and booked the show themselves. The Bird’s opening created a situation in Seattle where punk bands and their fans had a stable and thriving place of community — at least for the few crucial months when it remained open.

Local punk bands such as the Telepaths and the Enemy played at the Bird, as did bands from other West Coast cities, such as the aforementioned Avengers (from San Francisco, featuring former Seattleite Penelope Houston on lead vocals) and the Dils and the Zeros (both from Los Angeles). According to local graphic designer Art Chantry, the posters that promoted shows at the Bird were created by visual artist Frank Edie (a.k.a. “Franko”). Chantry has speculated that “the entire audience on opening night eventually formed their own bands.”

The Bird’s tenure at its original downtown location would last less than three months. The building’s landlord would soon order Husbands to vacate the venue, effective June 1, 1978. The closing-night party would exemplify the strained and confrontational relationship between the Seattle Police Department and our city’s punk rock community. Sometime after midnight that night, a small group of revelers, including members of the Enemy, exited the Bird and migrated to the roof of the building. According to Enemy drummer Peter Barnes, the aftershow party was “lame” until some people began throwing things off the roof.

“Somehow it ended up that the cops were called,” Barnes would recall years later. “And they showed up, and they sent the vice squad after us . . . I mean, the really heavy-duty cops . . . They slammed badges in peoples’ faces and they called us ‘faggots’ and they threw people on the ground. We had a rather diminutive woman lead singer, Suzanne [Grant], and they twisted her arm behind her back and broke it.”

Damon Titus, the Enemy’s guitar player, complained to the cops at the scene about Grant’s treatment and was rewarded by having his face smashed into the pavement. Unfortunately for the SPD, a partygoer on the scene happened to record the entire rooftop melee on audiotape. The band later sued the SPD and won a court-ordered monetary settlement. An audio excerpt of the confrontation later found its way onto an Enemy single B-side titled “Trendy Violence.”

After closing at the original Spring Street location, the Bird would re-open in August 1978 on Capitol Hill in the Odd Fellows Temple building, remaining there for a few months more before finally closing for good in November 1978.

Seattle's official macramé antidote circa 1979

Seattle’s official macramé antidote circa 1979

The year 1979 was a very good year for rock music, both internationally and in Seattle. In the wake of the punk explosion a few years before, much innovative and inspiring original rock music was then being created, performed, and recorded. Evidence of that renaissance can be found on the many now-classic albums released that year, such as Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, and Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. In Seattle, many young rock musicians were greatly inspired by all this new musical activity coming from other, more prominent cities, and as a result, several new groups emerged in our city that year dedicated to playing original, cutting-edge music.

Meanwhile, at The Seattle Sun, an alternative weekly newspaper that began publishing in 1974, a struggle emerged between certain writers on the staff who wished to cover Seattle’s emerging new music scene in that paper and certain senior staff members who considered the new scene ultimately unimportant. Frustrated by the Sun‘s refusal to cover the new scene, the Sun‘s arts editor, Robert Ferrigno, and art director, Robert Newman, decided to start their own publication as a monthly supplement to the Sun. The new publication’s name was The Rocket, and its debut issue was published on October 31, 1979.

As Ferrigno would later reminisce in The Rocket‘s 15-year-anniversary issue in 1994, the new publication was instigated by a rather comical incident at a Sun staff meeting in August 1979. The senior Sun staff, clearly betraying their lingering hippie affinities, wanted to publish a cover story on macramé. Ferrigno and Newman both laughed out loud at the suggestion. According to Ferrigno, “The political editor of the Sun glared at us suspiciously, and warned us about our ‘negativity.’ The next day we started raising money for The Rocket.”

Thus, this tiny circa-1979 cultural clash of “hippies versus punks” gave birth to a newspaper that would grow to become vastly influential within Seattle arts and culture during the following decade. Ferrigno explained The Rocket‘s founding mission in its debut issue, writing, “We believe the local music scene to be vibrating with life, multi-faceted and responsive to a wide range of audiences. We will cover national acts like The Cars, but remain committed to supporting local music.”

According to writer Charles R. Cross, who joined the Rocket staff in 1980 and would later become its longtime editor and publisher, the initial idea was never to publish The Rocket as a separate publication. However, after one year as a supplement to The Seattle Sun, the new paper’s unexpected success allowed it to split off from its parent paper. The new monthly paper — distributed free throughout the Puget Sound region, and eventually the entire Pacific Northwest — featured a striking array of talent among its writers, editors, and visual artists. Among other celebrated people whose careers were launched at The Rocket are music biographer Gillian G. Gaar, Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Sub Pop Records co-founder Bruce Pavitt, graphic designer Art Chantry, cartoonist Lynda Barry, comedian and television personality John Keister, and music critic Ann Powers.

During The Rocket‘s early years, the editors and writers constantly sought to cover mainly local bands playing original music, such as the Enemy, Chinas Comidas, the Allies, the Heats, Visible Targets, Red Dress, and the Cowboys. A reciprocal relationship emerged between the paper and the local music scene during its first decade. Through that relationship, The Rocket became profoundly influential within the music and arts scenes in Seattle. Among other ways the paper helped set the stage for the early-1990s international explosion of the Seattle music scene, the Sub Pop record label — which launched the careers of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney — began as a column in the paper written by Bruce Pavitt. Also, the paper offered free classified ads for musicians seeking other musicians with whom to collaborate. Myriad Seattle-area musical combos — most obscure, some later famous — were launched via this unique service offered by The Rocket to the local music community.

As the only local newspaper taking the Seattle music scene seriously prior to the grunge explosion, The Rocket held a unique position of local countercultural power. According to Charles R. Cross, “If you were a band in 1989 in Seattle and you put out an album, there’d be one place in the world that would pay attention to it, and that was The Rocket — and that meant something.”

While The Rocket continued to thrive during Seattle’s time in the global music spotlight during the early 1990s, things began to go downhill for the paper beginning in 1995. That year, Cross sold the paper to BAM Media, a San Francisco-based company that published several music-related publications. That sale effectively severed the paper from its local roots, leading to a noticeable decline in quality during the next few years. By the late 1990s, the paper had become a shadow of its former self. It had by then also begun to be eclipsed by The Stranger, the Seattle alt-weekly founded in September 1991.

The slothful demise of The Rocket accelerated abruptly beginning in August 2000, when BAM Media shut down all of its failing projects and sold The Rocket to Dave Roberts, publisher of Chicago’s Illinois Entertainer. Roberts quickly downsized the paper’s operations while giving the superficial appearance that he was seriously attempting to revitalize the paper. A few weeks later, according to Brian Goedde, a Rocket staff writer at the time, “almost everyone’s paychecks bounced,” and Roberts abruptly informed the entire staff that The Rocket was shutting down immediately. Thus, The Rocket vanished suddenly — literally “without warning.”

The final edition of The Rocket was dated October 18, 2000 — and thus, from within a city then increasingly dominated once again by economic fundamentalism, Seattle’s 1970s counterculture was also exiled during that madly millennial autumn.

–Jeff Stevens. Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.

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