Seattle Music History: A Four-Hour Tour From Nirvana To The Shins

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SEATTLE — I had four hours. That should be enough to take in the past 20 years of Seattle music history, right?

Didn’t matter. Four hours was what I had and I needed to make quick work of my 24-hour visit to the birthplace of Jimi Hendrix, grunge and the indie-rock revolution of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

My first stop was the Experience Music Project, the eye-catching sculptural paean to the Emerald City’s music heritage funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and designed by that master of curved metal forms and cloud-like structures, architect Frank Gehry. I was ostensibly in town to get a sneak preview of “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses,” an exhibit tracing the influences and impact of the band that helped put Seattle on the map. But just five days before the doors were set to open, things were still far from ready-for-prime-time.

(Check out photos of Kurt Cobain’s art, smashed guitars and Nirvana flyers.)

Workers shuttled around with tool-laden carts in the dark, reverent curved space, placing signs alongside such curios as the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sweater the late Kurt Cobain wore in the video that ignited a revolution and putting together the wooden display cases (made from salvaged wood that Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic works with in his Washington-state hometown) that would house one of Novoselic’s prized black Gibson Ripper bass guitars and the iconic Mosrite Gospel guitar that Cobain strummed at Seattle’s OK Hotel show on April 17, 1991, where he played “Teen Spirit” in public for the first time.

(Not for nothing, but, literally, as I write this the song “Floyd the Barber” popped up on shuffle among the 11,000 possible songs on my iPod . Weird, right?)

Curator Jacob McMurray walked me through the space for an hour, telling the story of the early Cobain sketches, the oral histories of punk scenes from around the nation that helped fuel the grunge revolution and the MTV Video Music Award that congratulates the group for their massive hit, “Smells Like Team Spirit.” [Look for a series of Newsroom blogs and MTV News stories later this week spotlighting some of the other artifacts from the Nirvana exhibit.]

After basking in the glow of the artifacts that read like a time capsule from my own musical youth, I headed over to the offices of legendary label Sub Pop Records, which just happened to be across the street from my downtown hotel.

Along the way, I passed posters on lamp posts advertising the EMP Nirvana exhibit, pasted alongside ads for Tuesday night shows (apparently Tuesday is the night you want to play a showcase in Seattle if you want to get noticed) at local dive bars, environmental expos and way-way-way-off Broadway musicals.

MTV News visited the Sub Pop offices in 2008, for the label’s 20th anniversary, but it was my first visit. And for a music geek like me, it was like a trip to Mecca. The walls are plastered with classic Charles Peterson photos of Nirvana, Mudhoney and Tad in action. The lounge is papered with a thick patina of show posters and stickers from a who’s who of Sub Pop icons, from Green River and Soundgarden to modern comedian David Cross, the Shins and Iron & Wine.

Along the way, one of the label’s publicists pointed to a colorful slab of spray painted drywall, a relic from their old office. As if she was giving a tour of the Dead Sea Scrolls museum, she asked me to look closely for a scrawled note from Cobain demanding payment from the then cash-strapped label. No trip is complete without a visit to the Sub Pop warehouse, where visitors are greeted by a long-standing staffer. Wait, is that, yeah, it’s Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, the amiable former rocker who works diligently away as the warehouse manager.

And though Sub Pop is an institution now and doesn’t always get the same hype it did back in the “Hype!” days, it’s worth mentioning that during the 10 minutes we cooled our heels in the lobby, the receptionist fielded a call from a budding rock star wanting to talk to one of SP’s founder (or at least an A&R guy) to see if they’d listen to his demo. “It has to be submitted on CD,” she politely told him, noting after hanging up that we’d be surprised how many of those calls still come in on a daily basis.

Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of my Seattle rock tour.