Innovation through Isolation: The Pacific NW

I’m going to have a spiel prepared about Amtrak by the end of this trip, but the long and short of it is, if you have an opportunity to ride the Amtrak Cascades in the Northwest, do it. Let’s leave it at that.

Try to find the tiny donut bakery stall somewhere in here.

Try to find the tiny donut bakery stall somewhere in here.

I just had the opportunity to spend a day in Portland and then a day in Seattle, both cities that absolutely live up to the hype. Both cities have proven and continue to prove the adage of innovation through isolation, well after the ostensible isolation became redundant through space-time compression (cf. Doreen Massey).

He actually got much cooler-looking as he got older. (baseball-almanac.com)

In other words, the Pacific Northwest developed its iconography organically over the decades while most of North America (whose key media markets were located incredibly far away to the South and East) largely ignored it for a variety of reasons. Until the 1990s, only a privileged minority owned personal computers, and only a small subset of music nerds were aware of Seattle’s musical progeny (Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones notwithstanding, though both left the Northwest in search of bigger things in their day).  In fact, one of the best hitters of his era, Edgar Martinez, toiled in relative obscurity on an overlooked Mariners franchise. It wasn’t really until Ken Griffey Jr. and an amazing playoff victory over the Yankees in 1995 (and the Yankees bought Jeff Nelson, the pitcher who had embarrassed them in the subsequent year… I guess Randy Johnson wouldn’t budge initially) that America started taking notice.

By about two decades ago, though, Seattle became an overindulged exporter of technology, “unwashed” music, and overpriced coffee (see below), and an importer of ambitious yuppies and bohemians.

Some Seattle natives no doubt complain about the past two decades as an era of overindulgence and cultural appropriation, but in reality, the city (as my friend, who moved there a few years back, was telling me) has always been defined by a degree of entrepreneurship and yuppie interest. Seattle (like Portland, not to exclude that wonderful place) has succeeded in maintaining a strong native balance between a time of rapid change and development, and a tribute to the city’s longstanding history as an industrial center, a core of Asian-American legacy, seafood Mecca, and icon of progress. The biggest surprise about Seattle (particularly for somebody who’s only been there twice now) is how hilly it is. I don’t remember Eddie Vedder singing about that. Actually, he could have been… (get it? Okay, moving on…)

Anyway, I’m in Vancouver now (this city is great but dear god is it expen$ive), so I need to get going. Enjoy a brief Pacific Northwest Soundtrack, everyone.

The Sonics – “Psycho” (1964)
It wasn’t until NPR or Pitchfork or some other tastemakers decided to shine a light on this long-forgotten Tacoma punk band that their classic LPs were reissued and the old guys decided to give these jams another whirl. Once, a middle-aged couple from Seattle approached me in Florence and asked me about my Kung Fu Records hoodie (quiet, it was on sale). I mentioned it was a punk label, and he brought up a band he remembered from his youth who had recently decided to reform. I asked if it was the Sonics and we wound up having an amazing twenty-minute conversation about the band. At a hotel in Italy. The morals of this story are: don’t be afraid to embrace potential conversation pieces, and the Sonics rule. BAAA-BAYUH!

Sunny Day Real Estate – “Guitar and Video Games” (1999)
Even well after Kurt Cobain died in 1994, Seattle was still the most overplayed city on American radio, largely due to record companies’ insistence that “the kids” were mad and wanted musicians equally pissed off that they could relate to, giving us a solid decade of discordant bands who did Black Flag’s post-1983 output proud. Sunny Day Real Estate, the Kings of Northwest Emo, began along similar lines, but gradually got beautiful, then got influential, then got Jesus, then got eventually reunited to bask in the spoils. This is my favorite song from their 1999 masterpiece, “How It Feels to Be Something On,” but if you really want to know what people REALLY mean when they use the term “emo,” enjoy their ’94 LP Diary.

Sleater Kinney – “One More Hour” (1997)
I didn’t get a chance to return to Olympia on this trip, which is a shame, since I had such a good time there during the APCG Conference last fall. It was great being able to present my paper on masculinized and feminized spaces at punk shows down the street from where Riot Grrrl began, the movement that actively smashed bore holes in the patriarchy, so to speak. The political in-fighting and tension aside, the bands associated with Riot Grrrl did produce a spate of pretty great music, particularly the survivors Sleater-Kinney (named after a road off the highway between Seattle and Oly). Today, Carrie Brownstein is doing for Portland what MTV did for the Jersey Shore (just more artistically), but back in the 90’s she rocked the hell out on the regular and this was my favorite song by her old band. (Also, Wikipedia told me that Jeremy Enigk of SDRE taught her the guitar… how about that).

And because why not…
MxPx – “Move to Bremerton” (1997)
Bremerton is a small town across the sound from Seattle. MxPx for years, functioned as an excellent Tyco My-First-Punk-Band. This was their best song off of their best album, and it still sounds great, sappy lyrics and all.

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