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Sunday, April 26, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bliss Out -- The Scene's A Moving Target

FIVE MINUTES 'TIL SHOWTIME, and Regan Hagar wanders into what amounts to backstage and says to no one in particular that his girlfriend is mad at him. Again. God knows why, but anyway, he can't think about that right now, can't think about anything, gotta get ready to play, to wail on those drums. He sits, gets up, paces around. He always paces before a show. Cory Kane is at the door with his bass, ready to jam while his cousin, John Hoag, wipes out a cigarette. Jeff Bennett sits in a corner - he's playing with his sax strap, muttering neurotically, rattling off his favorite films, and actually, you know, he doesn't go to movies much, but Stanley Kubrick is a genius and anyway what time is it?(END ITAL)

From the doorway, a friend's voice: "The waiting," he says, "is the hardest part."

It's a joke, see, a deadpan line from a Tom Petty tune, meant to steady the nerves. Regan heads for the stage, and John and Jeff follow. Cory is already out there, bass sputtering to life, amplified burps of sound that appease the excitement-thirsty crowd like the gurgling hiss of a soft drink spilled over ice on a summer day.

But even before somebody blurts it out, you can practically hear people thinking it in the electric darkness of RKCNDY, this progressive music club at the bottom of Capitol Hill - heck, in just a moment the guy in the sound booth above the ravenous Fat Tuesday crowd will say it himself, in a voice that barely transcends the din:

"Where is the singer?"

Well, knowing Shawn, he's lurking in the shadows somewhere, probably lounging on an antiquated couch in one of RKCNDY's adjoining chambers. Shawn Smith is sort of a grinning master of recline, always seems to have his feet up somewhere and a major-league baseball team cap on his head, but the problem is Bliss is ready to play and he is still AWOL. The crowd is waiting - here we are now, entertain us - and the band has to do something, so they launch into the intro and hope.

And there comes Shawn, grinning as he glides through the unsuspecting crowd, like everything's cool and what's the hurry anyway? He dumps his overcoat, strides up the stairs, grabs the mike and jumps into the song like a rider mounting a galloping horse, and finally the nerves settle and the guitars scream and the stage lights glitter like pearls and yes, this is what it's all about, life in the Seattle rock scene, how ya doin tonight everybody.

SO WHERE WERE YOU WHEN Nirvana hit it big?

It was that kind of rise, the stellar-proportions sort, the one that defined the scene in Seattle for the rest of the country. For months now, MTV has been programming music videos by Seattle bands like a preacher quoting from a Bible - which is to say all the time, giving national exposure to acts like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and, of course, Nirvana.

What is amazing about Nirvana is that they are the band that rocked Michael Jackson, or what's left of him, from the top of the tree. Three and a half years ago, they cut their first album in a Ballard studio for only $600; in January, their first major-label release, "Nevermind," rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard magazine albums chart, got a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative LP and landed them a stint on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" - all in the same week. DGC Records at first pressed only 40,000 copies; six weeks later they'd sold more than a million; now it's three times that. Kids and hooked-in resurgent rockers across the U.S. were mumbling the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" along with singer Kurt Cobain, and next thing you knew the national media were trumpeting Kurt as the latest Pied Piper come to lead the teenage rebellion.

"I hadn't even heard of Nirvana until I moved out here," says 24-year-old Capitol Hill cafe groupie Ed Harris, a Manhattan transfer as of September. "There was just whispers, and then boom! Someone really shook the soda pop can."

It was quick, practically overnight, and suddenly it made sense that all these bands from the same place were signing with major labels, and that's when the mainstream media gold rush began. Seattle - and in particular, a label named Sub Pop - became a sort of magical breeding ground for musical talent, the star in the West followed by caravans of label representatives and out-of-town bands. Or so everyone said. They freely tossed around phrases like "the Seattle sound," the key word here being "grunge" - a raw, molasses-paced concoction of '60s garage pop and late '70s punk and heavy metal that meant - can this be any surprise? - loud, big-sounding guitars. Mudhoney, named after an obscure movie, whose shows inspire audiences to thrash around like those little molded players on a vibrating electric-football field, finally succumbed to the wooing and signed with Warner Bros. in March. It was the last of the Sub Pop prize horses to leave the stable.

That's sort of the official version. What really happened was this: A bunch of guys living in Seattle, years ago, who pretty much all knew, hung out with and lived with one another, played in bands for a while. They listened to early '70s rock like Kiss and Black Sabbath and grew up surrounded by rapid-fire punk. They slowed the music down like another Seattle band, the Sonics, did in the '60s, and squeezed grunge from their guitars. It was fun. That's all it was supposed to be. Then the British and alternative press noticed the Sub Pop bands, labels such as Polygram and A&M came to town and went away happy, and, finally, grunge was dead. Long live the scene. Then Nirvana hit it big with a melodic mixture of metal thrash and punk urgency, and almost as if on cue, the rest of the country figured something was going on in Seattle.

"People have been doing this for seven years," says guitarist Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, which has been around, oh, about seven years. "So the fact that the mainstream press is picking up on it now is of no interest to me." Actually Thayil, a college philosophy major, has to admit the hoopla is nice: "It's great to know something we're pretty responsible for has succeeded," he says. "This has successfully crushed the rock establishment in New York and Los Angeles."

Grunge never actually died, as musical styles go - it just evolved, became something else. But few bands would want to be associated with the thing now because, as with punk or any underground scene, the moment it turned trendy it was officially on underground death row. "The grunge sound that everyone is talking about is not even really happening anymore," says Dawn Anderson, who edited a local monthly rock mag called Backlash until its demise in March 1991. "I mean, that's sort of what happened yesterday. And the rest of the world is just catching on."

A GUY WITH SCULPTED JETSPRAY hair splashing off his head walks into Adagio, a tiny Capitol Hill cafe, and Regan Hagar, 26-year-old veteran of the Seattle music scene, is ready for him. "Seven shots?" he asks.

"Seven shots," the guy says. And disappears, mumbling something about being right back.

Regan, wearing an earring and a Prince T-shirt, turns to the few cafe patrons stationed at little tables inside. "This guy comes in, always orders seven shots of espresso," he says. "He must really need to get wired."

This - making lattes and pizzas three days a week at the business he operates with his mom - is what Regan does when he's not playing drums for Bliss, the band he formed with friend Shawn Smith in January. It's not his first band; there was Malfunkshun, which seems to be more popular now than it was then, and then there was - well, it was this other band he doesn't even want to name, he's on such bad terms with them right now, but they're still around. Things like that happen when you lose two drum sets in an accidental fire.

He remembers the old days, back in 1985 when it was all just for fun, when the legendary "Deep Six" compilation was released on C/Z Records. This is the record people point to when they try to define the Seattle sound. Want to know what grunge is? Listen to this album: This is grunge. Not a classic listen, but it was the first recording to lump certain local bands together, and there you have it: the Seattle sound. It was a collection that included Malfunkshun, Soundgarden, Green River, the Melvins, Skin Yard and the U-Men. The guitars were slow and ponderous, monster trucks sloshing through syrup. No Patsy Cline cover tunes here, just a Northwest sound that developed organically under the Seattle rain, nurtured by radio station KCMU, in clubs like Squid Row, Gorilla Gardens and the Rainbow Tavern, away from the L.A. and New York spotlight.

"The whole reason the sound arose is that we were so isolated from everybody else," says Anderson, the former Backlash editor. "Everyone was in their basements experimenting, and they were doing it with absolutely no idea in the world that anybody would notice, or care."

And those bands - see, here's why "Deep Six" is so legendary: Malfunkshun singer Andrew Wood split from the group and, with half of Green River, formed Mother Love Bone, which signed with Polygram and seemed on the verge of success until Wood overdosed on a bad hit of heroin two years ago. The rest of MLB disbanded, then turned into Pearl Jam and hit the big time with Epic. The other half of Green River, along with a Melvins spinoff, became Mudhoney, Seattle's "grunge kings." Soundgarden's latest A&M release, "Badmotorfinger," went gold last month. The Melvins relocated to the Bay Area but are still the godfathers of grunge who can come back and play anytime they want to. The U-Men broke up in 1988 and Skin Yard recently did the same, but Skin Yard guitarist Jack Endino - well, there is your man, the guy who gets the credit for creating the so-called Seattle sound. He laughs at that, but it was he who engineered the "Deep Six" LP, as well as Nirvana's first album, "Bleach," and a major portion of Sub Pop's initial recordings.

Independent labels thrived: a mini-industry, labels like PopLlama and Black Label and eMpTy. Bands played a regular rotation of clubs - the Vogue, the Central before it yupped out, the Ditto before its liquor license got yanked. They toured regionally, if at all, surviving on $100-a-night gigs and Cup-a-Soups. They didn't so much snub the L.A. band glamour image as not care about it. Who wanted to be in L.A. anyway? Bands have to pay to play there, as much as a thousand bucks, just to do their thing onstage. It's the guys with the dads who are lawyers in Encino who get all the gigs. Here they could play for free or a percentage of the cover-charge receipts. They were all buddies and didn't take themselves too seriously, they wore the same clothes onstage as off, it was all just torn jeans and undecorated rock-'n'-roll.

"We were all very happy," Endino remembers. "Everyone was doing their thing. We were all surviving. The original sense of the Seattle scene as an innocent thing, people just making a sound they wanted to make, ended around 1989. Bands got so big it changed things. Sub Pop spent more than they needed to. A bunch of bands jumped ship. And as recently as a year ago, Sub Pop was doing very badly. I was touring with Skin Yard, trying to get established, and actually we didn't do too bad. Then the Nirvana thing happened and basically changed everything."

THINGS ARE MOVING FAST these days. Hard to keep up with the ringing phones, everyone wants to talk. Have a seat, don't mind the mess. It's been pretty crazy around here.

Pretty crazy around Sub Pop, the label that planned ahead. It's as if they knew, almost, that all this would happen. Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, both Midwest transplants, started the label in 1986 after Pavitt had studied independent labeling at Evergreen State and Poneman did stints with KCMU and the Rainbow Tavern. They issued records in collectible colored vinyl and boxed sets. As if. What were they thinking? Who were Nirvana and Soundgarden anyway? But that's the nature of an independent label, and now things are pretty crazy here on the 11th floor of the Terminal Sales Building in downtown Seattle, especially compared to the days when both worked for Muzak.

A guy is on the phone from the L.A. Times - he's stuck at the airport, won't be able to make a scheduled appointment. And then, suddenly, the line is disconnected. Oh, well. See, everyone is calling - Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker - The New Yorker? - "Yes," says busy Bruce Pavitt, "The New Yorker, they're going to do a huge, huge piece on the Seattle music scene. One of the stodgiest magazines in the country, can you believe it? It's totally amazing. See - I mean, there's some great music coming out of here, but to me what's even more interesting is the media phenomenon that is accompanying this music. I've never seen such a feeding frenzy in terms of the art - I mean, you don't really have something like this come along more than probably every 10 years or so. Literally - like Liverpool and the Sex Pistols, but even the whole punk thing didn't sell many records."

The intercom beeps. It's the guy from the L.A. Times again, presumably still stuck at the airport, missing his appointment. He'll have to talk to Poneman when he gets here. Pavitt is heading out of town.

"Nationally speaking, I mean, when's the last time - I - you know ... " - and he gasps, looking at the ceiling as if the right words are up there floating around somewhere - " ... People might talk about Athens (Ga.) or Minneapolis being hot regional scenes or whatever, but none of them ever got the kind of exposure this has. Serial killers get the press coverage that this scene is getting. It's a total media phenomenon."

He'll be the first to admit that it was Mudhoney's last release on Sub Pop, "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge," that rescued the financially troubled label. Mudhoney saved them from death. But Nirvana put the color back in their cheeks.

And things are pretty crazy. It's an economic miracle, you see, what happened to this group, and Sub Pop gets a share. Nirvana bypassed normal avenues in a medium that has become corporate business. People are asking how did it happen, how could a band signed for only a few hundred thousand dollars knock Michael Jackson off the top of the album charts? "It's kind of like living on Wonder Bread all your life," Pavitt says, "and then being given the option of eating seven-grain bread and going, `This is better.' "

So Sub Pop has been watching its back. Major-label reps are everywhere, offering the lure of big contracts. Pavitt and Poneman find themselves screaming at bands they say aren't ready to dive into the corporate machine. Those bands are slitting their own throats, they say, sacrificing artistic development and style for profit-driven expectations. They couldn't hold Nirvana back, but they charged them $70,000 to get out of their Sub Pop contract. Then Nirvana got a $250,000, two-album deal from DGC Records that, considering the triple-platinum, let's-buy-big-houses-now success of "Nevermind," was a steal for DGC.

Poneman, who at 32 is still a scruffy guy without a car, says there was an incubator effect that went along with being geographically removed from the mainstream. Rock has reflected society - carefree prosperity in the '50s, protest and disillusionment in the '60s, self-importance in the '70s, excess and inequality in the '80s. So he also sees this as a social phenomenon, a linking of Generation X, the "twentysomething" crowd, and late baby-boomers. "A lot of people our age and younger have been brought up with these notions of Reagan-era-fueled affluence," he says, "then when you suddenly see a lot of those dreams subside because of this particularly brutal recession, and class warfare, race warfare, it makes you very angry, very fearful, very alienated. And those are the qualities that lead to an unusually rebellious, passionate rock."

And rock, along with rap, remains the music of rebellion. Still crazy after all these years.

THE FAT TUESDAY CROWD is tough to please. Most are here to see the bands coming up afterward and act as though Bliss is just the Merrie Melodies cartoon preceding the feature presentation. But some are thrusting their fists in the air, others move various body parts in time to the music: rockers in jeans, leather jackets and simple T-shirts, Birkenstocks, high-top sneakers, Doc Martens boots, clean-cuts, crew-cuts, scraggly long hair, everyone wearing whatever they'd wear if they were at home instead of here at RKCNDY.

Which means there are no posers. No one is trying to look a certain way. Shawn Smith, for instance, is not your stereotypical lead singer. If he's in the right mood, he'll do "Amazing Grace" at the end of a set. He doesn't prance all over the stage, mostly just stands there looking like an aged Peter Brady in a baseball cap and lets his soulful voice do the walking. If folks want movement, all they have to do is check out John and Cory, who transform into exploding masses of hair with Fender guitars.

They rehearse in a clunky rehearsal space in Capitol Hill, next door to Seattle bands Sweet Water and the Posies. Small posters advertising their shows are taped to one wall along with the few nods they've received in the press. The Rocket, Seattle's largest rock magazine, called Bliss "remarkable largely for its guileless promise," but Shawn wasn't pleased about being labeled "stubby," even if his "shy innocence and honest lyrics" were "quite fetching."

Shawn's keyboard is stuffed into a corner where he sings into a mike suspended from ceiling pipe fixtures. There is a chemistry here they're proud of, and they work up a sweat going over their least polished songs, trying new arrangements and lyrics. It's a strange thing, music, to devote your life to, only 12 tones to arrange in various ways, but there's more to it than that. It's a release, a matter of style, of developing ideas. You don't just invent something new - all the masters before you laid it all down. This is Jeff's thing, the lineage, and he talks about people like John Coltrane, Miles Davis. "Like Branford Marsalis says, it's all about music for the music and not perpetuation of the ego," he says. "You kind of ingest this raw fire and shape it."

Jeff and Cory, both 21, met at Cornish College of the Arts and live with Cory's youthful mother, Diane, in a one-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill. She waits tables at a nearby diner so that Cory can follow his dreams. "He's always been into music, so it just seemed real natural," she says. She keeps photos of Cory's performances and listens to Pearl Jam.

Cory, a young version of Gregg Allman, knows he's living on the porch swing of life, and he has Diane and a supportive stepfather to thank for that. Like Shawn, he's tried working odd jobs, but it's hard to wash dishes when your body is trying to sing and dance. He set his alarm to make a noon appointment today - says he was up until 6 a.m. finishing a song he's writing to record with his grandfather, a piano player. His dad, who plays the upright bass, is pushing Cory and his grandfather to make a tape, "for posterity or whatever." He says he quit Cornish when he got tired of trying to echo the sound of jazz recordings in closed-in classrooms and not knowing how to judge himself. Playing live, though - that's easy: If audiences like you, you must be doing something right.

The band is like a family, fights and all, and one spat over what to play at a recent Crocodile Cafe gig raged right up to showtime. But the show emerged as one of their best. No one wanted to be the one to screw up, they explained afterward, and it was a good thing, too, since Poneman, the Sub Pop honcho and a friend of Shawn's, was in attendance.

Cory and Jeff remember: It was in a friend's apartment near the Kingdome where they and John first met Regan and Shawn a few months ago. It was the first time they'd played together, but it clicked. "I want to bring that back, man," Cory says. "It was like, we were playing, and we just looked at each other and went, `What's going on here? Something else is going on here.' "

And that something else has made Regan rethink his decision to stay out of the increasingly political rock scene. Friends couldn't understand when he left his former band - it was successful, established. Now they're coming up to him after shows and saying he looks much happier. So he says he doesn't care what happens with Bliss - a name was inspired by the late Joseph Campbell, who talked of following one's bliss to find happiness. "If we just end up practicing and doing shows and playing around here, I'm content with that," Regan says. He laughs, listening to himself. "This is so cliche. But it's true."

Seattle bands are known for cooperation, for fertilizing the ground around them. In an issue of Rolling Stone early this year in which prominent artists were asked to list their 10 favorite recordings, while others named LPs by pop stars such as Michael Jackson and Madonna (and Amy Grant named one of her own), Nirvana listed locally bred bands such as Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Tad and the Melvins.

But Seattle has changed. Bands that used to play the Vogue are selling out the Paramount. "Singles," a movie by filmmaker Cameron Crowe and showcasing the Seattle scene (and Pearl Jam as actor Matt Dillon's backup band), is set to premiere this summer. Nirvana is worshiped by kids who don't even understand what the underground scene is. And longtime fans like 23-year-old Molly Dempsey are helpless as their bands outgrow them. "This is my social life," she says, waiting for Portland's Dharma Bums to begin a show at RKCNDY. "I never do anything else. I like seeing bands in small places. Like Pearl Jam - sometimes I wish they'd never caught on at all. I'm happy for them, but it's sad to see them go."

New bands are moving in, to soak in the rays of attention and a vibrant club scene that now includes the Off Ramp and the OK Hotel. One of the immigrant bands is San Diego's Jambay, a technically amazing quintet of jazzy eclecticism who draw comparisons to King Crimson. They've paid a price for being unknown - they sped up Interstate 5 one Saturday after a Friday show in California, made it back in 10 hours for a 10:30 gig and found they'd been bumped ahead an hour to make room for a native band. They were too pooped to protest. But hey, they're in Seattle now: "There's going to be record people here," says drummer Matt Butler. "We're definitely not what they've been looking for, but a lot of bands outside the grunge thing are going to get picked up."

And see, that's the new standard: It's no longer enough to have a local following. Now you have to land a contract. But the kind of success Nirvana is enjoying is rare when production and touring costs run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and a band's share of sales receipts typically runs between 12 and 14 percent. Still, there are plenty of bands out there ready to be the Next Big Thing - Love Battery, Gruntruck, My Sister's Machine, Hammerbox - and everyone's watching to see what Nirvana will do next. "Are they gonna be the next Peter Frampton?" wonders Endino with his friendly, shaggy-dog expression. Frampton had one of the biggest debut albums ever, 1978's "Frampton Comes Alive!," then was forgotten like a high-school locker combination. "Seriously - I wouldn't want to be Nirvana right now. Soundgarden's success curve was more constant, controlled, but Nirvana's was like this" - and here he does a swooping upward trajectory with his hand. "They're probably really stressing out right now.

" `Leave us alone. We just wanted to make a record. What's the big deal?' "

SEATTLE HAS HAD ITS SHARE of notable rockers through the years - Jimi Hendrix, Heart, Queensryche, Sonic Youth - but none of them brought the attention that has drowned the city this time around. A Rolling Stone cover story last month went so far as to call Seattle "the Liverpool of the 90s." Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron says people are coming up to them while they're on tour, asking if they should move to Seattle, too. "It's just so mind-blowing," says guitarist Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains. "I'm so stoked and proud that it's happening here. It's a testimony to good music."

Hot music scenes run in cycles, from Athens and Minneapolis to Austin and the Jersey Shore, but it's rare that the first time a band lets loose on a major label that it blows everyone away the way Nirvana did. Both happened simultaneously in Seattle, where musicians suddenly felt like giant tortoises on the Galapagos Islands. Who are these people? What do they want with us? The reporter from The New Yorker had an enormous budget, a New York wine list budget, and couldn't understand why the locals kept taking her to little Greek restaurants and joints like the Crocodile Cafe. "What next?" Endino says. "I don't know. It will probably pass in a year. After a couple of years, the Seattle scene will still be notorious. And maybe Logan, Utah, will be the next place to be."

Meanwhile, Cobain - voice of a new generation, rebel against the old guard, embodiment of collective teen angst and ennui and all those other labels being slapped on this 25-year-old from Aberdeen - is married now, to the lead singer of Hole, an L.A. band, and he says it wouldn't be so bad to just fade away. He can't imagine why all these people want to talk to him about his feelings. Besides, anyone who tries to analyze it all too much is missing the point. "Any good review," he told Rolling Stone earlier this year, "should just say, `They got up onstage, they played 15 songs, and they left. It was loud. People were slam-dancing. I went home with a headache. Nirvana.' What more is there to say?"

Marc Ramirez is a Pacific staff writer. Harley Soltes is Pacific's staff photographer.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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