Former Screaming Trees/Mad Season drummer Barrett Martin recently released an excerpt from his forthcoming book, The Singing Earth on his Facebook page.
VERSE 1 SEATTLE: THE LEADEN SKIES OF GRUNGE
“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” -Bruce Lee, Kung Fu master and Seattleite
I have to acknowledge that my musical career would have had a much different trajectory if I hadn’t had the good fortune of growing up in the Pacific Northwest and moving to Seattle right as a verdant music scene was just starting to grow. Dozens of books and countless newspaper and magazine articles have devoted their pages to the Seattle music scene, so my addition to the commentary is more of a personal one, the way I experienced it. By the time I arrived in Seattle in 1987, there had already been nearly a century of musical innovation going on in the Pacific Northwest. The grunge revolution that I was a part of was just one style of music in a very long tradition of great music that has emanated from the forests, mountains, basements, and bars of this special place. It must also be said that this musical region is not just limited to Seattle, but extends from Vancouver, BC in the north, all the way south to Portland, Oregon in the south, and includes many smaller towns and communities in between. Music up here in the PNW is a way of life. We live and breathe it, and it defines our character in the most unique of ways.
Music up here really started with the Coast Salish indigenous tribes, which are numerous and noted by the early pioneers for their drumming, dancing, and singing abilities. Much later, in the early 20th century, came the blues and jazz of the Mississippi Delta, which transplanted itself onto Jackson Street in downtown Seattle in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Mississippi Delta and have noticed many similarities between the Delta and the Pacific Northwest. And perhaps that’s why the working class roots of blues and jazz have always had such a strong hold up here. Because like the Mississippi Delta, Washington State has a huge river running through it, the Columbia River, which supports the agricultural and shipping economy between eastern and western Washington. And like the Delta region, the Northwest is peppered with small working class towns that survive on everything from farming, to forestry, to fishing, and the same small trades that every little town has. I also think there’s a natural salt-of-the-earth feeling that exists in both regions, where the people love the land, the waterways, and the natural habitats that exist in these places. As a result, very distinct styles of music have emerged in both the Delta and Washington state, and even if the branches of the tree have diverged, the roots go back to the same source – indigenous and African American music mixed with a working class ethos.
My very first band was a kind of British-styled punk band that was more in the vein of the Clash and the Damned than what the early grunge bands sounded like. We were called Thin Men (because we were tall and skinny) and it consisted of me on drums, Pat Pederson on bass, and Ben Floresca and Tom Gnoza on dueling guitars and vocal duties. It was a high-energy punk band with good songs but we just couldn’t catch a break in grungy Seattle. I mean, we had a following, but we didn’t look or sound anything close to grunge. Some would say that’s the coolest kind of band to be in because we weren’t following trends, but the flip side was we had a hard time getting gigs, which is what a band really needs in order to function. We had just released a cassette-only album with the independent label Ensign Records titled, A Round Hear (a clever title except that cassettes are rectangular). Still, we couldn’t get a gig at the Vogue or the Central because of our “un-grunginess.” I remember walking into the office of the Vogue’s booking agent to try and get us a gig. I was wearing one of those brand new, crisp Levi’s denim trucker jackets, the mainstay of the modern hipster. Except back then it wasn’t hip yet, it was just a new denim jacket and it certainly wasn’t grungy. The agent just looked me up and down when I handed him our tape and said with a smirk, “Nice denim.”
Later that same year, Thin Men finally recorded a single with Sub Pop producer Jack Endino. Jack became one of my best friends and my first real mentor. He’s a man of deep wisdom and great mystical importance to all of the great Seattle bands. But back in 1989, I just wanted Jack to produce Thin Men and make us cool, so we spent one long day and night at his studio, the legendary Reciprocal Studios, where every Sub Pop band had recorded, including Nirvana when they made the Bleach album. We emerged with three very good songs, but we never found a label to release them. They remained in Ben Floresca’s closet in his home, that is, until we decided to release the best song on the soundtrack to this book, almost 30 years later.