SEATTLE'S MUSIC SCENE is history. The fixation with so-called "grunge" crested long ago, flannel and Doc Martens now look terribly "early '90s," and Sub Pop's rise and fall from prominence serves as a cautionary tale on how brand recognition can be a fickle friend.
Still, a fascination persists about how this city far from the entertainment centers of LA and New York catalyzed a glorious, if brief, worldwide musical phenomenon. The brunt of this interest remains in publishing houses that continue to assign Nirvana-related books to authors charged with revisiting one of the most hyped cultural stories of our time. (At least two more are on the way, from The Rocket's Charles Cross and the online magazine allstar's editor, Carrie Borzillo.)
Loser—The Real Seattle Music Story
by Clark Humphrey (MiscMedia, $18)
Encyclopedia of Northwest Music
by James Bush (Sasquatch Books, $21.95)
In every one of these Cobaincentric tomes, the writer takes the requisite walk down memory lane, capsulizing Seattle's music history in a few paragraphs. Two newly published books go deeper: the revised edition of Clark Humphrey's exhaustive 1995 document Loser—The Real Seattle Music Story and James Bush's Encyclopedia of Northwest Music. Both writers bring pre- and post-Nirvana perspectives, and both have contributed works that avoid the pat sensationalism of most Seattle rock books.
When Humphrey's Loser first appeared, it seemed an apropos postscript to Seattle's wild ride through the first half of the '90s. Its low-budget, white-on-black cover and photocopied artwork—haphazardly placed in the margins—unpretentiously recalled the aesthetic that put the music community on the map. Inside, Humphrey revealed an almost fetishistic knowledge of local rock history, and he peppered the text with italicized anecdotes from the people who lived through each chapter of the story. His integrity (or naivete) led Humphrey to ignore the obvious widespread appeal of the Real Seattle Music Story as others saw it, so readers had to slog through page after page on the Sonics, the Young Fresh Fellows, and myriad political and punk details before they arrived at Chapter 10—"Sub Pop Rock City."
As a result, Loser didn't win; the original publisher, Feral House, let it go out of print. In rereleasing it, Humphrey's added about 11 new pages covering the past four years, which perhaps inadvertently comments on how insignificant the last half of the '90s was in Seattle. He treats the new material with the same wry sensibility that drove the original version; thus the new 13th chapter carries the title "I'm Not Sick But I'm Not Well." Not overwhelmingly clever, but with a glint of charm that maintains Loser's status as the best reference source about local music.
A challenger comes in the form of Seattle Weekly reporter James Bush's Encyclopedia of Northwest Music. The title sums it up; it's an alphabetized collection of profiles spanning all genres and covering artists with Washington and Oregon pedigrees. Bush himself spent the '80s and early '90s punishing his eardrums at local rock and punk shows, both as a 'zine correspondent and photographer, and his lively, pithy descriptions of the bands reflect his experience.
He got help writing the more than 150 entries, not to mention the dozen or so interceding essays on subjects such as riot grrrls, suburban metal, and the region's jazz scene. But Bush and his stable of critics pull their punches; these aren't so much critiques as they are informational accounts of a band or an artist's career. As such, the Encyclopedia lacks the panache of Ira Robbins' indie-rock bible, The Trouser Press. But Bush's book, like Humphrey's Loser, provides needed perspective about a rich cultural heritage based here in the Northwest.
These books take a risk in even suggesting that Seattle's music has earned a place in history. In June, this stature will get confirmation in the form of an unshapely monument, the Experience Music Project. For what is history without a museum to memorialize it?