The seed of what became the Grunge sound of the 1980s and 1990s was planted in Tacoma by friends just jamming together at house parties and all-age shows at places like Hell House and Community World Theatre. That sound would then grow into the Grunge music that defined the waning years of the 20th century.
Flash back for a moment, however. Tacoma’s musical pedigree already had roots in doo-wop, with the Barons in the 1950s and in rock with the Ventures, Sonics and Fabulous Wailers in the 1960s. Each new sound was crafted when friends just so happened to get together to do their own thing by playing music in garages and living rooms. That theme would repeat itself in the age of Grunge, a time when the Pacific Northwest was the center of the musical world all because friends jammed in basements and vacant spaces.
A menagerie of the who, where and whys of Tacoma’s musical scene of the 1980s that provided the fertile soil for that distinctly Northwest genre plays out in living color as the backdrop of Isaac Olsen’s documentary film, “Strictly Sacred: The Story of Girl Trouble.”
“It was great. It was also hard, but people just did it,” Olsen said of those times, with some skepticism of if Tacoma will see another musical Renaissance the likes of which birthed Grunge. “Now, you get together to talk about ways to create things and meet about it and don’t produce anything. It’s ass backwards.”
Tacoma of the 1980s was a town of few options. It had rough streets, under performing schools, chip-paint apartments and its famous “aroma” that came from the industrial operations on the tide sflats. What it did have was house parties, where high schoolers got together to play and share music because there wasn’t much else to do.
“This thing was totally organic in its development, and I would say even a bit tribal,” Girl Trouble drummer Bon Von Wheelie remembers about the mid-1980s music scene. “It was the Seattle kids, the Tacoma kids, and the Olympia kids.”
Those groups of kids rarely met in the early 1980s, because there was no place to play other than in garages and living rooms. They stayed local for those. That changed when Jim May, John Grant and Girl Trouble’s Bill ‘Kahuna’ Henderson rented a house on Tacoma’s Southside. It was dubbed “Hell House,” where friends would gather to play and share music. Then, in 1987, came the short-lived Community World Theater, an all-ages venue in a former movie theater where May pulled together bands to test new sounds, and for audiences to see live music that would give rise to musical legends.
“We all knew each other. We were all friends. There wasn’t this divide between musical styles at shows,” Von Wheelie said. “It was just bands who were friends that wanted to play shows. It didn’t matter if you were playing hard rock or garage or folk rock. We’d all play together. The kids from Olympia and Tacoma formed a close bond. They’d party together, see shows, date each other and influence each other’s music.”
Punk, alt and rock bands like the Accused, Circle Jerks, Danger Mouse, Girl Trouble, Melvins, White Zombie, and Soundgarden played at Community World or its sibling the Crescent Ballroom, which was later renamed Legends in those days. One of those bands was a scrappy, blue-collar group named Skid Row, but it would become the standard bearer of the Grunge sound under its later name – Nirvana, a name unveiled in Tacoma on March 19, 1988.
That’s where Sleeper Cell bandmember John Purkey befriended Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain, who later gave Purkey four demo tapes of songs that would appear on the Bleach and Nevermind albums. Purkey released them on Youtube earlier this year, alongside his book Paper Cuts about his memories of the band, creating a buzz of Grunge nostalgia.
“There are people around the world who are very interested in that time,” Purkey said. “I share as much as possible.”
His Youtube channel, the Observer, is a collection of his thoughts about music, song writing and reminiscences about the high point of Tacoma’s music scene.
“To have a group of people to come out to all your shows was pretty cool,” he said. “Everyone knew each other. We were all friends. We were all sharing not only what we were listening to but what our bands were working on.”
That’s why Cobain gave him the tapes of early versions of Paper Cuts, Downer, Pen Cap Chew and other songs that defined the Grunge genre.
“Tacoma has a place in all of that,” Purkey said.