Essay is © Copyright 2016-2020, John Hessburg & The DICTION AERIE.™ All rights reserved.
Photo is © Copyright 2016-2020, Donna Engelbardt & The DICTION AERIE.™ All rights reserved.
By JOHN HESSBURG, Editor
A few weeks back, I was chatting with a lady buddy from Idaho on social media -- we were memory riffing, brain-jamming back and forth re' how fun it was to slide (slooowly, ruefully) towards adulthood during "The Weighty '80s" and the "Nihil...'90s." Hey, those wanton days of wonder, wit and wandering... when incandescent indie rock fed the fires of youth, and lured us like cliff Sirens away from maturity. Then jobs and spouses, stress, rent and yep, that pesky li'l thang called The Urban Grid yanked us inexorably towards the center line again and ... (sigh) back into the Moth-Eaten Myths of the Muddled Middle Class.
Between the summers of 1982 and 1999 I worked as a roving feature writer, investigative journalist, magazine freelancer, then start-up biz founder in likely the hottest rocking city in NorthAm at the time -- Seattle, Washington USA. Our Emerald City was the home of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, Layne Staley and Alice in Chains, Chris Cornell and Soundgarden, to name a few of the now legendary groups that roared through that toddlin' town for much of the early-to-mid-1990s. Those bands were boss. Just hammer-down relentless. They wailed and thrashed, howled and hectored the forces of lame serenity long into countless rainy nights, back deep in the bowels of some of the coolest clubs ever touched by rock 'n roll regents anywhere in America.
Remember, too, the Worldwide Web was just beginning to take off in '94 and '95, with a hefty push from Seattle tech giants. There was a heady economic backdrop to the livewire rock scene -- as Microsoft, Aldus, Nintendo-America, Amazon and Starbucks all were rumbling to life like a chorus of incipient earthquakes. Those were days of stunning innovation, a surfeit of disposable income and fresh living ...
There were jackass joints jolting kids off their feet all over town. And most hip humans in Seattle -- who were young, employed and fit enough to hazard epic mosh pits -- loved them with a crazy milling love. The clubs were always filled on weekends, packed to a terrifying density, with grinny bodies spilling like bowling pins out the front door as legions strove to get in. There were hypnotically grimy dives like Crocodile Cafe' ("The Croc") and the Re-Bar in Belltown. There was Vain and that seedy nexus called the Off-Ramp where Pearl Jam ripped out its first few concerts with the name of NBA star "Mookie Blaylock" -- I'm serious as a lance in mid-arc. And who could forget the slaughterhouse-sardine clubs, those sonic steamrooms for aspiring gypsy psychopaths on Pioneer Square, back when 5 or 6 bucks got you a purple wrist stamp and a full Friday cover charge into maybe half a dozen of the best rock clubs on the West Coast, for bar-hopping that now, in retrospect, seems too astonishingly good to have been possible in anything but an MTV pipedream.
"Oh ah'm so jelly," my Idaho friend intoned, to which I said, "Yeppers, I am too. Way jelly of the folks who still get to live in Seattle, while the rest of us dough-boys are schlepping loads day-by-day through life here in Flyover Land." Aka, Minion-apolis and St. Paul, Minne-snow-tah, nerve center of all that is safe, pedestrian and within view of at least one park with swingsets. Or place where you can buy a pronto pup.
Seattle weekends for the young and foolish (most aspired to same) were a Moshin' Magnificat down on Pioneer Square, back when Alice in Chains still had lead singer Layne Staley and slappin'-da-bass-mon Mike Starr. Green River (which morphed into Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone, the latter group then coalescing into Pearl Jam) would rend the humid skies on Saturday nights, in dim grimy warehouses that seemed too dangerous for life -- like sets for dystopian MTV videos -- and actually did become them, later on.
I remember when Eddie Vedder and Stone Gossard, plus a 3rd Pearl guy whose name I've always spaced on, used to munchie prowl at the Queen Anne Thriftway, just behind the view apartment I kept up there on Queen Anne Hill. Once I saw them line dancing, palms on shoulders, right-feet left-feet pointed just so in synch, down past the Captain Crunch aisle. My hand to God, it's true. They were a giddy lock-stepping trio like that iconic cover pic of Cream on their Good-bye album, and they moved like some spastic priestly newsreel, actually in perfect unison down that grocery aisle at nearly 3 am. The boys were having so much fun in their Fog o' Whatever... maybe it was only brotherhood and mirth. Well, this trio of Counter-Culture Titans spotted me -- a certified non-entity -- staring at them with a gaping vapid grin like some steam-rolled toad. And we all started laughing, fit to break our ribs.
I remember I actually had enough scant shards of cool left to laugh at them laughing at me. Well, it was 17 seconds of bona fide soul uplinkage, so like Bill Murray said of the Dalai Lama's blessing in Caddyshack -- "At least I got that goin' for me, eh?" Then I gave Sir Eddie and his bandmates the quick nod, one thumb up and got the heck out of their dance. Because that's what you did in Seattle. Sycophants were not cool. Worse than that... they were lame. And that was a grimier slimier word than any F-bomb those days in Seattle. Nobody sane nor remotely able, at anything, ever wanted to be labeled "lame." It was the law. The law of the young and the free.
Funny thing is a few years later, after I'd quit writing for the Seattle P-I, a morning daily that we grim insiders used to dub "The Partially Intelligencer," usually on paydays -- well one day I got a call in my home office in a brightly lit basement of West Seattle, where I'd founded U.S. Dive Travel Network. It was Stone Gossard, rhythm guitarist for Pearl Jam. The band was due to leave for a big Australian tour and he'd found our website on Infoseek and AltaVista -- remember those torpid ancient search engines? So Mr. Gossard desired, while Down Under, to flee his bandmates for one week just to do some scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. He plumbed my insights over two phone calls, maybe 20 minutes each then prepped to buy a dive yacht package. I was, have to confess, feeling pretty stoked about serving rock royalty, but I was keen on heeding The Law.... Must. Not. Bow. Nor. Scrape.
Then when I mentioned there were liability releases to sign, Mr. Gossard lit into me like I was the essence of shameless LAME-ness. LAME-itude. LAME-inosity. His lingo was colorful, self-assured, half-scolding -- the way I usually am with people who shop as painstakingly, annoyingly detail-driven as I do. Maybe he was right. Stone Gossard was a cool guy, relaxed and friendly, rich as Midas and he knew we were just a little start-up then. Man, he wouldn't have sued us even if a blue-ringed octopus bit him on the neck at 20 meters down on the Aussie GBR.
But ahoy, I had me partners and me rules, me hearties and yo ho ho and a bottle of rum nothing I said would convince ol' Stone to sign our waiver forms required on all live-aboard diving yachts. Impasse baby. Rock wall impasse. I would not budge, nor would he. Now since I had partners counting on my admin, too; and since literally heads of G7 governments had traveled with us and signed the bloody waivers; as well as heirs to a fashion house in Rome had signed them; then one family guy whose brother owned the Seahawks signed 'em too; and so did another guy who ran one of America's info-tainment networks -- so by grunge nobody got on one of our yacht trips without a waiver -- not even my own Mom.... see?
And so the good Mr Gossard bailed. Polite but withering, he told me to hang it on my beak. Still wonder if maybe I had it coming. My cheeks burned for a week after that smack-down phone call. But not as deeply as they did in SeaTac Airport a few months later when Kurt Cobain's widow, the then voluptuous blonde beauty Courtney Love, was crouched over her baby Frances Bean, who dozed in a car seat next to the baggage carousel. She was cinching the kid in tightly and I happened to glance over and spot her from maybe 15 feet away. I smiled warmly, ready to chat a sec' and wish her well, since I love little kids; and the Beanie Babe was adorable. But Mizz Love stood abruptly, one hand on a hip and she stared at me; I mean drilled straight through my forehead with eyes so squinty dark, so deep with malice that they seemed to growl, "Don't even dream of coming over here to speak to me, peasant, or I will disembowel you with the splinters of your own cheap sunglasses." It's grim to speculate, but I still wonder if poor ol' Kurt, bent from years of chemical mayhem, considered teething on a loaded 12-guage barrel as the lesser of two evils? Because there was a visceral malignancy in the eyes of that Black Widow Mama -- something distilled, immediate, malevolent. And it played my ribs like ball-peen hammers in a death arpeggio on marimba keys.
Straight up, sunseeekers, Mizz Love's visage would have scarified the eyebrows off Count Dracula -- or even Nancy Grace. So who was I to this Queen of Vitriol, but a bearded lump with wire-rims? -- my wife used to call them "birth control glasses." And there I froze for a couple seconds like a cipher, a void, less than a grease spot on the floor of some forgotten mosh pit. Humiliated, drained of joy, I turned away and found my luggage, exiting the SeaTac Airport with not enough unscorched tail left to even tuck between my legs.
But all brushes with the greats and near-greats were not as dire as nearly being Love'd to death at SeaTac. One sunny summer afternoon in the mid-1980s, there was an hour's chat in a murky downtown stairwell that reeked of rotgut wine and urine -- not far from Elliott Bay Bookstore and some rippin' nightspots. That interview with punk commando Henry Rollins still ranks among the most fascinating dialectics I've ever enjoyed. Rollins was a permanently scowling, raucously tattooed and muscular singer for the thrash-punk band, Black Flag, who wore tank tops and a buzz cut as his business suit. His SoCal followers revered him like THE high priest of anarchy. He did pack some mean lungs, too. But Rollins also was also a voracious reader of political tomes and manifestos, and among the most nimble wordsmiths I've ever had the pleasure of jousting with. Even he, Mr. Chaos Raker, would have caught my ending a sentence with a preposition, and he would have skewered me without mercy. Something up with which he would not put...
So why was Seattle's morning daily, flagship of the right-wing Hearst Corporation, even remotely interested in covering this punk apotheosis with a snarl and bull neck thick as a Minotaur? Because his lethally loud band was gaining traction with Seattle's tragically hip rock hordes, who were among the most tuned-in on the West Coast. And after a couple years on the roving night beat, I'd earned a rep for being flung with crazed immediacy by the City Desk, zero notice to prepare, into the wildest situations imaginable -- whether a daylong gunfight twixt Army Rangers and the Crips in Tacoma; or sweet-talking my way into the home of a prostitute couple whose toddler found a pistol under Mama's pillow and shot his baby brother, nearly killing him; or... yep, button-holing the rock throb du jour to hit our Emerald City -- then always emerging with a story. There was a lot of luck, you bet, but some brick-pounding hard work too. Seems invariably I'd find my way backstage, or catch a front man on break in an alley, then I'd grab a fistful of local color just in time for first edition -- by literally phoning in dictation to a sweating red-faced news clerk 20 minutes before the ink hit newsprint. My City Editor afflicted me with the nickname "Rockin' John," a tag that was flung with snark aplenty by fellow P-I reporters -- folks so cynical that most would not even spare Mother Theresa from a blue joke.
So Henry Rollins and I found a bistro near the old Cast Iron Pergola, grabbed some sandwiches and sodas, then toted our brown bags back to the stairwell of the upstairs punk club where Black Flag was booked to play in a couple hours. I had started the confab petrified, because Rollins was infamous for grabbing TV reporters' mikes and commandeering their interviews with caustic comedy like, "was your editor certain he'd secured a sentient human when he hired you?" But somehow my first couple questions piqued his better side and we hit it off. We gabbed like frat boys at a Starbucks -- about government's moral failures and the governed's moral lassitude, about new vectors in a now weary punk movement, and about whether he could imagine himself still barking Black Flag lyrics some day at the age of 40? I got a killer story from the guy, and can you picture my astonishment, just 3 weeks ago, turning on the History Channel to see Henry Rollins 30 years later, neck tats blazing away outside his dress shirt, narrating "Things You Didn't Know About..." such as articulate socio-political analysis of a long-gone gangster's speakeasy during the Roaring 20s? Isn't life hilarious, a romping stitch?
Then a couple decades ago in Seattle, a beloved friend named Howard Roberts (one of America's top session guitarists and a jazz master on the axe) passed away from cancer. Helped by his son Jay, also a searing jazz guitar player, I organized a fundraising concert for Howard's wife and little boy at Jazz Alley in Seattle, then one of the premier jazz clubs on the West Coast. The Roberts Clan were, and are, so dear to me, to many folks. I'd met Howard through my closest gal pal in Seattle, jazz singer Diane Schuur (who'd been Best Woman in our wedding), because Howard played guitar on her first GRP albums. Quirky and quick-fingered, ol' "H.R." was renowned in Hollywood and New York alike for playing lead guitar on a dozen seminal jazz albums such as "Antelope Freeway" and "H.R. is a Dirty Guitar Player" -- plus more than 50,000 pop singles -- including tunes that shaped American movie, TV and radio culture from the 1960s through the 1980s. Howard toured with the Stones, recorded with the Beach Boys and slung guitar on nearly every movie soundtrack Elvis ever recorded. He also cut the classic "DeeDee DahDah" soundtrack of Rod Serling's original Twilight Zone, and the lickety-split Beverly Hillbillies' licks, plus the haunting lead on "Shadow of Your Smile."
And Howard Roberts was a tutor, a guitar mentor to creative livewires, from Uncle Meat himself, Frank Zappa, to Seattle cartoonist Gary Larson (yes the guy who drew those deadpan talking cows), to Tacoma's favorite son, Steve Miller of "Fly Like an Eagle" and "Space Cowboy" fame. We tried hard, but Frank Zappa was too ill with cancer to attend, so we phoned Steve Miller and the Gangster of Love promised to show up at our memorial concert. And he did, playing 2 long sets to a wildly cheering SRO crowd. The concert rolled and rollicked until well past 2 am, with some of the best blues jams Seattle had ever seen. I was asked to emcee the gig, and at intermission I repaired to the Green Room to chat with the artists.
Asked Steve Miller about a thing that had bugged me since college: "On your song "Space Cowboy" -- man I love that piece -- y'know I've always wondered what really does this mean... "cuz I speak with the pompitous of love" ? Mr. Miller flashed a sideways grin and said, "Hey man, it means whatever you need it to mean. You're a poet, right? Well you know how these word games work..." I will never forget that dervish tilt to his face, not for the rest of my life. Never had I felt more encouraged to write, by anyone. Then I read the guys, and Howard's wife Patty, a lyric poem I'd written for him, imagining H.R. standing there in his ever-present shades and windbreaker, arguing with God, yeah deftly wheedling God almighty, just after passing away. They said I should read "Inaccessible Blue" from the stage as part of the memorial; even Howard's son encouraged me, but I declined. It wasn't ready yet. Not nearly enough pompitous, man.
We all were too deep in grief. I was sorely missing our 3 a.m. chats at oddball all-night cafes in Seattle, all that fine unfettered phantom genius of Howard Mancel Roberts. So much I didn't feel collected enough, not yet, to knit the diction into what Howard's life deserved. That poem became a lyric later in the 1990s and now it's a saddish drifty fusion tune, like an an odd rubato chant, lurking down in one of these Diction Aerie blogs...
BTW: Iconic comic artist Gary Larson, of "The Far Side" fame, also came to Howard's music wake. You remember the guy who drew all those cynical talking cows, who plotted mischief behind their farmers' backs, and the cartoon of God designing a great white shark, wondering "Should I put a happy face on the uvula?" Gary studied jazz guitar with Howard on the side. At the funeral jam, he lurked in back most of the evening, shoulders glued to the cold concrete wall, comfy and cocooned in deep shadows, never saying a word to anyone until I walked over to thank him for attending. He was clad in dark sunglasses like his teacher, with a brownish hoodie pulled over his forehead like some steel-cool icon of an early gangstah rapper. Sure would have loved to share more of a chat with Mr. Larson, but that would have been like pulling teeth; he was so magi-cosmically shy. Fascinating human being.
Two more things I'll never forget about the late great Howard Roberts were: first his nickname of "The Phant" -- short for "Phantom." That's because he had this uncanny ability to actually melt, to vanish suddenly at a party or meeting, when you'd barely turned your head for two seconds to grab your beer from a table. It was breathtaking how he pulled it off, time after time, for years. All his friends loved that about him and at the memorial concert we swapped "Phantom" legends, about who got nailed with the most devastating or artistic "Phant" maneuver. Howard Roberts was cooler than life itself, but humbler than a shepherd with his tribe.
Also, Howard owned a lot of amazing vintage guitars, scads of them. But one was beyond special and he let me play it a couple times in private jams. It was an original hollow-body 6-string model, brilliant black laquer finish, which Les Paul (co-inventor of the electric guitar) designed solely for him, then signed in metallic paint. I still have a framed monochrome photo of HR playing that sublime instrument, the guitar world's equivalent of a Stradivarius violin. He signed the pic in gold ink, writing... "Here's to the Big Now." So we put that shot on his concert poster and billed the memorial -- "Live...in the Big Now." Live, as in rhyming deliberately with both words -- "thrive" and "give."
And so... when Howard handed his Les Paul "Strad" to me one afternoon in the Post-Intelligencer photo lab, where they'd been shooting stills for my first feature piece about him, my hands literally trembled. It felt like daft impertinence or sacrilege. Like a street punk wielding Thor's own hammer, then being required to die right afterwards.
When Howard passed, Les Paul FedEx'd me a tape in his honor with a personal spoken tribute, which I played on stage. You could have heard a mouse tail twitch throughout the entire club. Respectful silence crowned the voice of Les Paul. Folks listened with devotion...
Producer Dave Grusin also mailed me an elegy tape for HR's memorial. And Messrs Grusin, Paul, Miller, Zappa, Larson, all his buddies... showed they knew that Howard flew like an eagle, in this world and the next. What a night that was at John Dimitrou's wonderful Jazz Alley nightclub, just down the street from the original Seattle Post-Intelligencer Building, where that 35-foot neon globe -- the first Daily Planet perhaps? -- turned slowly in the night for half a century, a city landmark proclaiming, "It's in the P-I."
Like Jim Morrison's City of Night, I've always loved Seattle and the Puget Sound it clutches... and there was just one more epic night of rock I can't forget...
THE WHO and CLASH at the TACOMA DOME -- back in the early 1980s. Covering this face-melting event for the P-I, I got to stand about 25 feet in front of Pete Townshend's amp stack for most of the concert at Seattle's concrete Kingdome. Now in those days newspapers reported that The Who were the loudest rock band ever to perform in a stadium concert -- even louder than a Boeing jetlinat take-off. (Boeings of course were made in Seattle.) Well that night, holy Hannah -- the Who and the Clash rocked the Dome to smithereens. The volume caused cellular damage, near bleeding in your tympanic membranes, I mean it. Wonderful roaring. Glorious fallout fury.
The Clash were sharp, played hard, and struck fan gold with "Rock the Casbah," "London Calling" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" They pumped the kids into a state of frenzy and delight. But their opener still paled next to... the legendary Who.
Buddy and fellow late-night rambler Gene Stout, the PI's rock reviewer and I were wearing airport runway ear protectors as we bathed in The Who's sheer wall of furious sound -- which often topped 120 decibels... and the manic tub-thumping deeeep 16th-note riffs from John Entwhistle, the Who's bass player, actually set up alarming vibrations in our collarbones and ribs. Messrs Townshend, Daltry and Entwhistle closed the show with this syntho-hook-rich rocker -- "Baba O' Reilly." Then their encore was -- oddly -- the Beatles' "Twist and Shout." Go figure? Years ago I found an amazing pirate vid clip on YouTube of Townshend -- in his sailor-striped T shirt -- playing windmill power chords on those songs at the Kingdome. And the best part was this -- right on a perfect beat as he slashed out the last of 5 chords of "Baba", Townshend hurled his guitar 20 feet in the air, turned on his heel and strode like a boss off stage. And as he vanished into shadows that guitar hit the floor EXACTLY on the instant of the last chord-beat. Some 60,000 dazzled fans yelled and stomped so loudly, in absolute rockin' joy, that the concrete walls, I kid you not -- the Kingdome shook!
So here's the lead I wrote for that front-page piece (which our City Editor somehow let into the paper) --
"If walls really do have ears, then there's one helluva lot of stone-deaf concrete in the Kingdome this morning."
All Hail the rockin' royals who tore up that Dome back in their day -- the Stones, the Clash, The Who...
And hail to the kids -- who really are alright -- in this rainy, grainy, gritty city cauldron of grunge 'n glory that Peter and The Who just rocked to shreds that evening... Talkin' about the Emerald City. Our city. Our beloved Alma Mater. Alma Pater. Alma Wild Water. Our Seattle.
Man alive, that city. How Seattle slew.
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