A rock 'n' roll question: Why Seattle?

The names are as synonymous with Seattle as Starbucks or the Space Needle: Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden.

They are bands that redefined modern rock 'n' roll, forsaking slick clothes and choreographed dance steps for secondhand work shirts and self-effacing lyrics. After the egocentric 1980s, they became the voices of the '90s, introspective everymen who captured the mood of a generation with growling guitars and Doc Marten boots.

But before they became national icons, they were simply part of a unique music scene that has been shaped by years of isolation and day after day of rain. Now, with the opening of the Experience Music Project last month, Seattle has a monument to its heritage of musical innovation.

A cross between a video arcade, a traditional museum, and a Disneyland gone virtual, the Experience Project grew out of billionaire Paul Allen's reverence for Jimi Hendrix, the legendary Seattle guitarist of the 1960s. While it is a museum to all rock 'n' roll - combining exhibitions of artifacts with interactive displays that help people create and play music on their own - it's also a testament in steel and glass to Seattle's role in contemporary music.

The "Seattle Sound" seems a byproduct of disparate forces and attitudes, from a tiny AM radio station to the relative prevalence of heroin in this seaport city.

Yet like most musical epochs, the Seattle Sound of the 1990s evolved in antithesis to the music preceding it.

"In the late '80s, most rock 'n' roll had gotten to the point where the music was contrived," says Daniel Rapport, guitarist with a local hip hop band called The Flood, and a dedicated student of Seattle's music-scene arcana. "There was definitely a lot of bad pop music. Everything was kind of corny and slick."

The Seattle Sound, say Mr. Rapport and others, was "a backlash." The members of Seattle's music scene had grown tired of tunes that seemed prepackaged and formulaic. They rejected flashy costumes and held the very idea of glamour in contempt. Many stated publicly that they were, as human beings, unremarkable, even losers, and were not ashamed of it.

While the musicianship was mediocre - too many of the simple songs were monotonous bordering on atonal - the bands' honest lyrics reached out to youths who knew that they would probably never make the cover of Vanity Fair.

"Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, they all had a sense of melancholy to them," Rapport adds. "Maybe it's the weather."

All about the rain

Indeed, say others, the weather is a compelling reason for Seattle music. Terry Morgan, a musician and more recently an impresario in the alternative music business here, says "gray-day recreation" provides significant inspiration as well as discipline for the musicians of Seattle.

"If it's raining, you've got to go indoors," he says, explaining that the regularity of precipitation here sends an inordinate number of teenagers into basements and garages to practice.

It is not accidental that The Beatles came from Liverpool, one of the dreariest places on earth, or that mold-breaking bands come from Seattle, one of the dreariest places in the United States.

Mr. Morgan also points out that Seattle's location in the furthest corner of the lower 48 states has played a role in allowing Seattle to define its unique sound.

In the '40s, '50s, and even the '60s - before air travel was as efficient as it is today - many of the country's musical acts ignored the Northwest. "They'd play Los Angeles, San Francisco, and then skip Seattle," Morgan says. "This was in the days of bus touring, and it was just too difficult and expensive to come here."

Being geographically isolated created a cultural vacuum that, Morgan says, protected Seattle from the homogenizing musical forces at play in the rest of the country. Since then, music here has developed with a strong independent streak.

Demographic trends have also played a part. Before World War II, the city was home to but a handful of blacks. After the war, however, thousands moved to Seattle and, along Jackson Street east of Chinatown, began what historians call an amazing musical moment.

During a dozen years after the war, John Coltrane came here to record an album. So did Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington. The young Quincy Jones played here, as did an even younger Ernestine Anderson. In 1948, a blind pianist appeared with his trio, doing perfect renditions of Nat King Cole songs. Later, he would land his own TV show on a local station and become known as Ray Charles.

Because of the dearth of pop acts and and rise of Jackson Street, Seattle's teen musicians found their influence not in Elvis Presley but in the jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues.

Other local musicians say the influence of the radio station KJR nurtured Seattle's nascent independence. As the first-generation garage bands of the late '50s sought audiences, on-air personality Pat O'Day began playing music by local musicians as much as music from the national charts.

It was partly because of the dearth of acts visiting Seattle, and partly because Mr. O'Day realized that he could use his airwaves to promote local concerts.

Ned Neltner, a popular musician for more than 30 years here, remembers "turning on KJR and hearing Pat O'Day say, 'Here's the dance line-up for tonight' - and there'd be 15 dances.

"And this was Wednesday night. On Saturday night there'd be 20 or 25 dances."

Influencing rock giants

KJR and O'Day made handsome profits from this strategy, and also kept a large number of musicians working. Among the bands popularized by KJR were The Kingsmen, The Wailers, The Sonics, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Ventures - groups that had seminal influence on the blooming rock-'n'-roll culture.

"I remember Ray Davies from the Kinks saying that The Sonics and The Wailers were big influences on them," Neltner says, "and John Lennon and George Harrison, sometime in the mid-'60s, saying that The Sonics and The Wailers were an influence on The Beatles."

At the opening celebration for the Experience Music Project in late June, an amalgam of Grunge artists put on a musical tribute to the early pioneers of the Seattle music scene.

"To me," Mr. Neltner said, "that was them recognizing their roots, recognizing where they came from, recognizing that what they play today has come full circle."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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