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Sounds Found In the Lost & Found Sound

By Bryan Douglas

Geographically speaking, the “Seattle Sound” is Puget Sound, referring to Peter Puget who accompanied George Vancouver on an expedition in the Pacific Northwest back in the late 1700’s. There are some, including the USGS who argue that the complex estuary of the Pacific Northwest is really a Sea and should be classified as such. They are calling it the “Salish Sea” in honor of the Salish people native to this land. A sea is, of course, a large expanse of saline water that is connected to an Ocean. The waterways in question fit such a description. So it would be that school children in all the corners of the globe will learn about the Salish Sea of Seattle (most likely in some semester of Social Studies or Science). The Seattle sound is ever changing, you see. Call it what you will, this body of water existed prior to the Salish, who from best evidence settled the region around 9,000 B.C.

There is also the “Seattle Sound” which refers to music. According to popular modern mythology, this is reference to the 1990’s ‘grunge music’ movement. With the rise of independent music label Sub-Pop and others, Seattle brought forth Green River, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney and Soundgarden among others. So it seemed there may have been something in the water causing the Seattle Sound. Wait, to which “sound” am I referring? There’s salt in the water.

The whole business of nominatives is a silly one. About the time people start talking about ‘grunge’ music, they are already filtering it into another so-called genre known popularly as ‘Alternative’ music. ‘Alternative to what’ I wondered then as I do still now. Could it be that the ‘Seattle Sound’ and ‘Grunge’ are as convoluted and made up as the idea of ‘Alternative’ music? When I sit back and listen to these bands, I really do not get any sense that they are somehow related or similar any more than that they incorporate guitars with drums, bass and vocals. Here we are silly humans always trying to name things. If you can’t label it, you can’t market it.

Real or not, the movement struck a deal in America with our capitalist style leanings. Grunge then transcends music as a fashion sense moved from the Pacific Northwest idea of ‘wear what you want, wherever, it’s cool man, I just picked this up for fifty cents at Value Village Thrift Store’ to a mass sale of hundred-dollar designer jeans with pre-made holes in the knees. In one fell swoop, the stock in flannel skyrocketed overnight. Corner the market. Sell the Seattle Sound. Flannel is the new black!

I remember hearing about this ‘Seattle Sound’ back in Illinois while in Jr. High School. In the Eighth grade I was banging my head to Nirvana’s Nevermind album and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger. I was changed. I don’t know if I would call it ‘Alternative’ but it did outshine, outshine, outshine what I generally heard on the FM radio dial. My classmates typically did not share my enthusiasm with these sounds new to my ears. I remember being looked down upon and made fun of for liking the music I was falling in love with. Yet, who can argue with affairs of the heart? Whatever ridicule could be sent my way did nothing to sway me from the music. We were, of course, still in the honeymoon phase of the relationship. I picked up an old acoustic guitar and learned to play anything I could find that consisted of C, G and E chords, or anything with power chords.

Flash forward to the present, it’s the year 2010 and I’ve been living in Seattle almost ten years… long enough to call it home. Despite the promises of science fiction, we are not commuting via jet packs. New Years Day, Chris Cornell announces that Soundgarden is to reunite. He does so via the social networking website Twitter. Back in the 90’s before we really had internet, “twitter” was what you probably would have called someone in Special Class. But now we’re living in the future. The anticipation and excitement of the idea of the reunion, not to mention new Soundgarden songs made me feel like a kid back in Illinois again.

Then we come up on the downside. The other night, I am out at the pub down the street with some fellow local Seattle musicians (all of us from other cities originally, and all of us, now, coffee connoisseurs) talking about life and telling dirty jokes. I look over my shoulder. There at the bar also enjoying some fine hoppy local micro-brews is another Illinois ex-pat: Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil. So, I’ve got to ask, and I do: what’s up with all this reunion chatter? Nothing.

There’s a deal to re-release some old material, t-shirts and ephemera. That’s it. Chris, it seems, needs to make some cash perhaps. Whatever the case, the closest possibilities to seeing Soundgarden are as follows:

a) Go to the pub.

b) Go see the art installation "A Sound Garden" on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s property within Magnuson Park, a public park in Seattle on Lake Washington. The art installation is a sculpture in many pieces consisting of metal pipes and wind mills that harness the wind and make low frequency reverberations creating a splendid surreal atmosphere. (This sculpture was the inspiration for the band's name.) Be sure to bring proper identification with you since due to the tragic events of 11 September 2001, you’ll have to be screened by the authorities prior to entry. By any means possible, we must guard the Seattle Sound.

c) Who knows what the future will bring?

It’s sad. That’s life. (Or insert your own favorite cliché if you wish). Recently I’ve been working on my own time machine for the purposes of doing research for a piece of fiction I am writing on time travel and non-linear time processions. I will be sure to check out what went wrong with our jet pack technology as a kind of side excursion. Another on-the-side adventure will be to Seattle in the 90’s. Let me know if you want me to pick you up any vintage flannel. Though I’ve not gotten the machine to function properly yet, I did recently install iTunes in the main pod. Since I still have the majority of my Soundgarden collection on cassette tape, I asked a friend who was bragging about his music collection if I could upload some songs. He tells me that he’s got the entire discography of Soundgarden’s music. Cool. So I transfer the files and then due perhaps to the copious amounts of coffee I had consumed, felt a bit silly and on the edge. What did I need to hear then: “Circle of Power”. But the song was not in the iTunes. I thought it was my mistake.

I call my friend on the telephone. He confirms that indeed he gave me the entire Soundgarden library. So I ask him, just to be safe if he can find “Circle of Power” on his machine. He cannot. I warn him that his computer has deleted files. Who knows what else is gone! Okay, calm down. What albums do you have? He tells me… “Well, I have their first album, Bad Mother Finger or whatever it’s called…” I drop the phone to the floor. I can’t breathe. I need water. Everything goes black.

When I come to, I head to the music store across the street from the previously mentioned pub. There are two cd’s I need to buy for this misguided friend: the two cd’s Soundgarden released before 1991’s Badmotorfinger. At least they’ll be more widely available due to Cornell’s reunion (marketing).

While there may be no reunion, there is something afoot here about town. You’ll have to come see for yourself. Seattle is sometimes called the Emerald City and surely the Seattle Sound is the Emperor. The rest of the world sees the export: a massive figurehead with lightning bolts, columns of fire, and loud over-reaching booming sound. Out here, we’re toasting the world’s best beers made locally with the man behind the curtain. The rest of the world gets Starbucks. Enjoy that. We appreciate the tax dollars. Meantime we meet up at the local cafˇs serving some of the world’s finest coffees at prices often lower than Starby’s. When you’re here be sure to go to Victrola Coffee & Art and Espresso Vivace. While they aren’t paying me to write this, I should confess I rarely pay for coffee and yet most quite often there is enough caffeine in my system to generate enough power for a small Romanian village. Thank you fine baristas of Seattle!

Much like the large body of saline water in the Pacific Northwest, which is fed by a multitude of sources, was here long before someone put a name of Puget Sound or Salish Sea on it, there has been a complex web of music and sounds in Seattle from a multitude of places and sources. Jimmy Hendrix was a Seattleite. We so easily forget that when Ray Charles left Georgia in his youth, he wasn’t en route to great jazz cities like New York, Chicago or New Orleans. Ray left Georgia for Seattle because that was the place to be if he was going to make it. That, my friends, was many years before the movie Singles was filmed in my neighborhood, long before Kurt Cobain shot himself up with needles and bullets, and long before some people accuse Pearl Jam of selling out. Let’s not forget Quincy Jones is from Seattle. There are many other notables from Seattle including Sir Mix-a-Lot who despite becoming popular in the same general time frame as the so-called “Seattle Sound” is not considered grunge.

For the sake of rounding out this list, even though it makes me cringe and feel queasy to even think about typing the names, both Queensryche and Kenny G are Seattle musicians. They are all a part of the Seattle Sound?

The Seattle Sound was marketed otherwise: fictitiously. There was something going on all right, but then again, there always is. It is an ever changing conglomeration of different streams. Wait, which Seattle Sound am I talking about? We can announce loudly to all the world there is something big in Seattle, like a Sea. We will call it one thing today. We will call it something else tomorrow. The question persists: does the sound remain the same?

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