SUB POP GRUNGE PARADE PT.1 Green River

Seattle Savants: In 1987 they sparked a regional
scene and spawned the grunge movement.

BY GILLIAN G. GAAR

 

 

In honor of Sub Pop’s
20th anniversary celebration in July, we take a look at two of the
label’s acts that reunited especially for the event — Green
River, and the Fluid. For our Fluid coverage go to our companion
feature “Sub Pop Grunge Parade Pt .2.” And for our blow-by-blow coverage of Sub
Pop 20 itself, along with links to killer photos from the even, go to our
feature “Swingin’ On The Flippity Flop.”

 

 

Mark Arm can still remember Green River’s first show, in Seattle in 1984. The venue
was a storefront where the headliners, Positive Mental Attitude, also happened
to be living, and it was the band’s only show as a four piece, as newly
recruited guitarist Stone Gossard didn’t feel he knew the material well enough
yet. “There were maybe like 20, 30 people or something,” Arm recalls, “and the
show was a lot of fun; really positive, really great. And I can remember the
second show too, which was the exact opposite! For some reason, nothing gelled,
and I remember thinking, ‘Maybe this whole singing in a band thing isn’t what I
should be doing…’”

 

But Arm, and Green River, persevered,
becoming the first of what would come to be called “grunge” acts to actually
release a record in 1985. Their second EP, 1987’s Dry As A Bone, was grunge personified, all fuzzy guitars and
abrasive howlings, that also, not incidentally, helped establish a fledgling Seattle label called Sub
Pop. The band imploded by the end of ’87. But among the many acts reuniting for
Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary concerts, Green River, who laid the
groundwork for so much of what would follow in the Seattle music scene, are
undoubtedly the most appropriate choice for a series of shows, that, in the
words of Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman, “are not so much about Sub Pop as
much they are about our community, and the culture at large.”

 

The first Green River line up consisted of Arm, guitarist
Steve Turner, drummer Alex Vincent (aka Alex Shumway), and bassist Jeff Ament,
from Montana punk act Deranged Diction. The band’s name not only referenced the
Creedence Clearwater Revival album, it was also sparked by the name given to a
then-unknown serial killer who left the bodies of his victims in the Green
River, outside of Seattle
(the killer, Gary Ridgway, was finally arrested in November 2001). Gossard was
soon brought in so Arm could quit guitar in favor of concentrating on his
vocals.

 

The band’s music meshed together influences from punk to
metal, and early demos reveal Arm’s struggle to develop a distinctive vocal
style. “It’s the worst singing imaginable,” he says of his work on the band’s
first recordings. “I was screaming in this low growl and it’s just awful.” On
the EP Come On Down, released on
Homestead in 1985, the musical blend is smoother, though Arm calls it “kind of
a schizophrenic record,” contrasting the simplicity of “Swallow My Pride” (an
intriguing mix of sexual braggadocio and anti-war rant) with “ginormous epics”
like “Tunnel of Love.” “Which is just an absolutely ridiculous song,” he says.
“We were for the most part kids who grew up playing hardcore and started
testing the waters and trying things out — it might have better had we not
actually recorded that stuff, just done it and left it by the wayside.”

 

Turner left the group when the EP was finished, replaced by
another Deranged Diction cohort, Bruce Fairweather, who joined in time for the
band’s first tour. Though that tour was ostensibly to promote
the EP, the record wasn’t actually released until after the cross-country trek
(which consisted a mere handful of shows) was over. The band somehow secured a
late night spot at CBGB’s (Arm: “We basically played to the bar staff. And they
liked us!”) while other dates were more hazardous, such as a gig opening for
death rockers Samhain in Detroit.
“The audience was really there to see them,” says Fairweather, “and we were
like long-haired freaks with eyeliner and makeup on. And Jeff had a pink shirt
on that said ‘San Francisco’!”
(“In purple cursive script,” Arm notes). Inevitably, a fight erupted. “The only
thing that saved us was that the security guy was an actual off-duty cop with a
gun,” says Arm. “And after the show we were presented with a skinned deer head
by some punk dude,” adds Fairweather. “We didn’t get killed; that was the
important thing!”

 

The atmosphere in the Pacific Northwest
was more conducive, though shows could be just as fraught. “Mark used to throw
shit onto the crowd all the time,” Fairweather says. “Which I was always
worried about, because they could just throw it back at you!” At one Seattle show, Arm placed
a foam cooler with green Jello on the stage, planning to stick his head in it
and then shake it over the crowd. But when the cooler broke, he instead flung
the Jello around at random, landing some hits on the club’s big screen TV
system. “We got 86’d,” says Fairweather, still chuckling at the memory.
“They’re like, ‘You’re never playing here again!’ And a month later they’re
like, ‘Hey, you guys want to open for Sonic Youth?’” Agent Orange was also
displeased when a fish that Arm swung around during a set ended up leaving an
odorous mess on their drum carpet. “Love Battery [Fairweather’s subsequent
band] ended up opening for Agent Orange years later and I reminded Mike Palm
[the band’s singer/guitarist] of the story, and he still wasn’t pleased!” says
Fairweather. “I was totally laughing about it and he was just like, ‘Yeah. Whatever.’”

 

Though the Homestead
release fizzled, Arm’s friend Bruce Pavitt stepped up for the next EP. Pavitt’s
Sub Pop label had started out as a fanzine in 1979, later becoming a “cassette
zine,” and 1986 saw the release of the label’s first vinyl album, Sub Pop 100 (Pavitt also used the name
“Sub Pop” as for a radio show and music magazine column). But though
technically not the label’s first release, Dry
As A Bone
crystallizes the moment when the “Seattle scene” aesthetic came into being,
encompassing not just the music but the look of movement, particularly Charles
Peterson’s blunt, arresting photographs. “Charles’ photography was instrumental
in inspiring me to try and focus on Seattle,”
says Pavitt. “Because I realized that with a consistent visual representation,
the label could help develop a form.”

 

“It seemed to me like Dry
As A Bone
was our best record,” says Arm today. “I think that’s where we’re
hitting our stride.” The band’s growing confidence is evident from the bracing
assault of the opening track, “This Town,” and there’s a fresh energy that
keeps the excitement up throughout — Poneman’s assessment “There is no fat, no
dross on that record at all; it’s pure intensity,” isn’t so much an opinion as
a simple statement of fact. As the first non-compilation release on Sub Pop, it
seemed to herald the beginning of new regional musical sensibility as well, and
Sub Pop’s catalogue inadvertently gave the movement its name when they
described the release as “ultra-loose GRUNGE that destroyed the morals of a
generation.” By the time of the EP’s release, Pavitt had joined forces with
Poneman (then a promoter and radio
DJ) through their mutual love of Soundgarden. Poneman was not only interested
in releasing a Soundgarden record, he also had the cash on hand to make that
happen, so the band’s guitarist, Kim Thayil, suggested he partner with his
friend Bruce Pavitt, who also wanted to release a Soundgarden record and had a
label already established.

 

Soundgarden’s Screaming
Life
EP was released a few months after Dry
As A Bone
, and with Green River then in
the studio working on a follow up, Pavitt and Poneman decided to make the leap
and give up their day jobs. But as it turned out, Green
River was on its last legs.

 

Ament, Gossard, and Fairweather had begun jamming with Malfunkshun
singer/guitarist Andrew “Landrew” Wood, whose glam-metal tastes were a better
match with where they wanted to go musically. And though Arm doesn’t recall any
undue tensions during the sessions for their last record, Rehab Doll, he has no trouble identifying the musical chasm that
had developed in the band. “The riffs are these kind of Aerosmithy riffs, and
I’m just spewing angst and black humor over the top of it,” he says. “It
doesn’t really mix very well. Landrew’s approach was much more light-hearted at
the time than mine was. And the sound is horrible. It’s got that big ‘80s
production on the drums and it’s overwhelming. And I’m not alone in thinking
that. But that was unfortunately the style of production of the day.”

 

The end came during a West Coast tour in the fall which saw
Arm blow out his voice just in time for an LA date opening for Jane’s Addiction
that they hoped would attract A&R reps. “I could barely croak out a note,”
he says. “I’m sure that let everyone else, including myself, down.” Back in Seattle, he arrived for what he thought was a practice,
and was told by the other band members that Green River
was over. For their part, Pavitt and Poneman were dismayed by this sudden
development. “Frankly, Jon and I were a little shocked,” Pavitt admits. “We
quit our day jobs, and as soon as we opened the doors we got the tape for Rehab Doll, and it was like, ‘Here’s
your tape, we just broke up last night.’ Great!”

 

But Arm soon rallied, forming Mudhoney with Steve Turner,
and 1988 would see the release of their landmark single, “Touch Me, I’m Sick.”
Soundgarden was still a going concern, and by the end of 1988 Sub Pop had
released the first record by Nirvana, a move that would reap an unexpected
windfall sooner than anyone would have guessed. The rest of Green
River formed Mother Love Bone, whose career ended prematurely with
the death of Wood in 1990; Ament and Gossard then formed Pearl Jam, while
Fairweather ended up in Love Battery.

 

At a November 30, 1993, date in Las
Vegas, Arm joined Pearl Jam onstage to perform two Green River songs during the encore. “Which I’m sure just
bummed out all the kids there,” he jokes. “Because that was the height of not
even Pearl Jam mania but Eddie Vedder mania — they weren’t screaming ‘Pearl Jam’
between songs, they were going ‘Ed-die! Ed-die!’” Last year, Poneman asked Arm,
now working as Sub Pop’s warehouse manager, if Green River
would be up for a more formal reunion, and everyone proved to be agreeable.
“Our first rehearsal was a little sloppy,” Fairweather says, “but the second
time was quite a bit better. It was fun to see all those guys again.” Turner
came back to the fold as well for the occasion. “It’ll be a three guitar
onslaught,” says Fairweather. “Like Molly Hatchet! Or 38 Special, take your
pick” (Fairweather and Ament are even working on a Deranged Diction reunion;
check myspace.com/derangeddiction).

 

At present there are no plans to take the reunion beyond the
Sub Pop show. “Even if we got shows with guarantees that were good in Mudhoney
terms, it would be nothing compared to guarantees that Pearl Jam gets!” says
Arm. “It would be like, ‘Come on you guys, you want to do a little van tour
with us?’ That doesn’t seem like a reality! And I don’t think anyone really
wants to put that much effort into it. It’s like kind of a fun thing to do.”

 

Not to mention providing a reminder to audience and band
alike of how far the Seattle
scene has come since those days when “grunge” merely referred to dirt. “It was
a great time because we were all basically trying to make a career,” says
Fairweather. “We were so cocky. We were just like, ‘Oh man, we’re the be all
and end all of the Seattle
music scene!’”

 

And in many ways, that’s exactly what they were.

 

 

***

 

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

 

 

Come On Down EP (Homestead,
1985)

“Together We’ll Never” / “Ain’t Nothing To Do”  7” (Tasque Force, 1986)

Dry As a Bone EP (Sub Pop, 1987)

Rehab Doll (Sub Pop, 1988)

Rehab Doll/Dry As a Bone CD (Sub Pop, 1990)

 

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