history is written by the whiners

by Art Chantry ( art@artchantry.com)

take a good close look at this. this is what sub pop originally looked like. this was back when bruce pavitt was still a student at evergreen college in olympia, washington (the “hippie hangover state college” where you could create your own degree and real grades weren’t ever issued. bruce virtually gave himself a degree in punk rock). ‘subterranean pop” was a ‘zine that he put out to write about punk music all over the world and get free records to review (the ancient time-honored ploy behind zines). it morphed into ‘sub pop. and this is what sub pop originally looked like before it hooked up with the amazing design talent stewing at the rocket magazine (in seattle, 100 miles to the north on interstate 5).

AC:but it'll never be like that again. it only happens once and then everything is different. like the haight, or swinging london, or cbgb's. these are isolated cultural explosions that are sorta like pop supernovas. you can't predict them, they just happen. in hindsight, they seem inevitable and you can see all the indicators clearly. at the time, it's big surprise.

one of the things that really opened my eyes to the process of history and it’s development was being able to watch the pop culture explosion that happened in seattle in the early 90’s up close and over a long period of time. one real eye-opener was how it was documented. the process almost never involved the locals. in fact virtually all of the histories of the northwest scene (outside of the efforts of clark humphrey and his book “loser”) were written by people from everywhere imaginable EXCEPT seattle – london, new york city, ohio, chicago, los angeles, etc. etc. when the feeding frenzy of media exploitation erupted (and it got real ugly) the stampede for ‘the scoop’ centered on a few businesses and individuals (managers, ceo’s, editors) all of whom had a personal financial interest (and an enormous ego) to massage. the results have been nothing short of stilted at best, outright fantasy at worst.

from this process i learned that history is not necessarily written by the winners, so much as by the whiners. those people with the biggest chip on their shoulder and the most to gain are those who get to write what becomes “historical truth.” the rest of us, somehow smitten by fame and elitism, simply follow their lead. THAT is the lesson of history. even minor amounts of research effort will tell a very different story. this is a lesson we desperately need to learn in today’s media/political/gibberish climate. truth is: read between the lines….

so, this is a little different take on how “grunge graphics’ emerged and “changed the world. a lot of historical tomes seem to credit the development of “grunge graphics” to david carson (the former pro surfer and school teacher in southern california.) in reality, the only connection he had to the development of ‘grunge’ as a style was by carefully reading the rocket and aping it. he used to write us fan letters.

sub pop was bruce pavitt’s creation to allow himself to stay in school. by “publishing’ he became legit even if it was a punk rock zine). he used connections with his college community and fellow ‘travelers’ in olympia (like john foster and dana leigh squiers work at the legendary “op” magazine.) he even talked fellow evergreen students like lynda barry to do a cover for his zine, and later convinced fellow evergreen student (and fellow native chicagoan) charles burns to draw covers for his little cassette compilations he began to release.

as sub pop developed and bruce’s collection of localized regional punk tapes and records grew, he began to release some of it (with permission) on a series of cassette releases. he numbered them as pat of the regular run of issue of the zine (thus was born the legendary marketing plan of numbering your releases. it was an accident.). being a naturally slacker kid, he just found it more fun to compile a cassette and “publish” them to order than actually write and edit a magazine of any sort. by issue number 5 of sub pop, it had become (yet another in a vast array of) small punk tape compilations flooding the underground market.

after bruce moved up to seattle, he managed to talk bob newman (now a famous editorial magazine designer) into letting him do a sort of regular monthly ‘column’ in the rocket. bob liked the idea because it gave the rocket a way to cover that weird outsider sliver of the punk world without having to go to the trouble of listening to all that really horrid music to find the few gems to parade in print. bruce, a classic stoner dude and fanboy, loved nothing more. it was marriage made in heaven.

that’s how sub pop became official. the logo we developed in the rocket design department for the column header eventually morphed into the corporate trademark for the recoding empire to follow (the actually mystery of whose hand actually created the logo is still vague, but is becoming clearer. the late wes anderson seems to have done the initial and most defining work. since his efforts, the work of myself, helene silverman, dale yarger and dana higgins all seem to left significant investment into it’s final form).

most importantly, it was how bruce was able to use the emerging rocket design sensibility and turn it into a personal corporate style. bob simply assigned an interested young beginner designer to ‘design’ bruce’s column 9a typical ploy to keep talent flowing through the art department and not having to pay them much to train them). at one time or another, the designers and artists who pasted-up and designed the sub pop column included myself, wes anderson, dale yarger, helene silverman, ashleigh talbot (!), kate thompson, and many others. one by one eve

dy wanted off of the gig because it was a drag working with bruce, the slacker. no joke.

to support himself, bruce continued to create those issues of “sub pop the cassette compilation”. he became involved with a local young zine editor (desperate times)/music promoter (holy war cadets)/indie record label owner (pravda) named maire masco. in fact, she worked at the rocket and was the one to introduce bob newman to the talents of bruce pavitt. when bruce and maire split, bruce talked maire into parting with her rolodex (she wanted out of the punk music biz entirely). since maire was the first to book all of those amazing touring monster punk bands into the seattle clubs (i like to point out that the butthole surfers slept on maire’s floor) it connected bruce into all the power players of the indie punk scene in the nation.

bruce also began to work at russ bataglia’s legendary local kiosk/hangout/ punk record store and primal skate punk enclave “bombshelter records.” using the good graces and immense empathy of the sympathetic russ (and his financing and distribution connections) they (together) formed “bombshelter records” and released a full LP of local seattle punk/trash stalwarts, the u-men.

the record sold reasonably but still lost money. russ and bruce parted ways amicably. but bruce had the fever. he loved doing what he was doing and loved the music passionately as only a true fan boy can. but, bruce also had great taste. his selections were always dead on. he even began a radio show on the local college radio fm station, KCMU. we would always listen to his show at the rocket because we’d laugh at his DJing (he would literally and actually YAWN in the middle of his talking, like he bored to death!), but he would also play the coolest hippest best music around. besides, he was one of our own.

he eventually compiled an actual LP of indie music and dubbed it “sub pop 100”. the cover was drawn by rocket regular (and local legend) carl smool. the design was put together by staff designer dale yarger. it was cool. it sold ok.

eventually another fellow transplant from chicago, kim thayill (of the band soundgarden) introduced bruce to another kcmu dj who was hosting “new indie band nights’ at the local u-district watering hole, the rainbow tavern. jonathan poneman had access to some money to invest. kim wanted to put out a record. bruce knew how to put out a record. it was a natural grouping. and it worked. before long soundgarden had a record released on the new sub pop records.

since bruce worked at the rocket and had access to the amazingly talented design staff (many of whom went on to design and art direct magazines as notable as the village voice, time, newsweek, vanity fair, metropolis, vibe, entertainment weekly, details, real simple, guitar world and many many more i forget), he simply asked his friends on staff to design the covers. linda owens and lisa orth designed a number of the initial covers and then bruce reluctantly began to ask me to do them (he owed too much money to the other two – and old pattern). between the three of use (all working secretively together at times) we cemented what would be the ‘sub pop style based on punk attitude, blue note records and snide snarky sarcastic humor (we always secretly picked on bruce’s failings as a business man). it gelled into a look.

linda owens (after designing the initial singles and soundgarden releases) moved away to indonesia. lisa orth walked away somewhat from design (after becoming the rocket art director and designing several initial classic releases like mudhoney’s ‘superfuzzbigmuff’ and nirvana’s ‘bleach’) to start making music. (today she is both a designer/artist and musician working in seattle).

i began to execute elaborate packeges for bands like TAD and hole and reverend horton heat and lovebattery. as soon as bruce ran up too big a bill, he’d jump tot he next designer on his list. dana higgins, (who played in bands with jonathan poneman and designed early video packaging) began to be the fourth major contributor to the emerging sub pop style. together, the four of us took what we did for the rocket (and our other freelance work) and simply transferred it to bruce’s record covers.

bruce, always working the angles he tripped across, began to look for a new word to use for the music he was releasing. he didn’t want it to be called “punk” because, “punk doesn’t sell.” that’s why the mainstream music industry coined the term “new wave” – to sell punk music without having to call it a negative word like ‘punk’ (which had become sales poison). so, bruce kept looking and looking and then tripped a cross a letter to the editor in maire masco’s zine ‘desperate times’. it was penned by a young mark mclaughlin of the band “mr. epp & the calculations” who happened to record on maire’s “pravda’ records (he later changed his name to mark arm and formed bands like green river and mudhoney.)

in this letter, mark goes into a tongue-in-cheek rant about how stupid “these punks are” and that this music, “isn’t even punk. it’s not good enough to be called punk. it should be called something like grunge! because it’s so grungy! that’s what we do, we play grunge rock.” or something like that. pure silly teenage humor. bruce played with that idea and eventually decided to label his releases “grunge rock” simply to sell punk as something else to an unsuspecting public fearful of punk.

then sub pop recorded a band from aberdeen, washington, called nirvana. and the world exploded around everybody’s heads. “grunge” became a piece of period history and the design style we had all been working in at the rocket became an internationally recognized cliche. i won’t go into all the sordid details of what and how all that happened. except to say, the efforts of a bunch friends having fun suddenly became the toy of international finance and the shallow whims of world popular culture.

watching your friends and community become a foil for every conceivable adoration and humiliation and financial outcome and fame monster killing machine was delicious and horrifying. it’s something i was extremely fortunate to been able to see up close. but, i sure hope i never see it again.


AC:for all of the human frailties that bruce has exhibited over the years (like we haven’t?) i have to say that he actually took his fortune and used a big chunk of it to help out his fiends from the scene. he actually re-invested in his community. he was would secretly loan his old punk rock pals no-interest money to start careers and businesses. he didn’t really care if ever got the money back. he was just returning favors, ya know? so, he was one of the coolest rich folks to come out of the seattle scene. all very quiet and hush hush.

those loose money days are sure gone now, but he did a great service for a lot of his old cohorts when he had the chance….sub pop made plenty of doe – but only after nirvana. their early catalog was never tracked because they didn’t want to worry about keeping track. it’s only an educated guess was to what any of those early record sold. it was mudhoney’s ‘every good boy…’ that saved them from bankruptcy the third time. then nevermind hit and they had points (their logo is even on the cover.) how much cash came out of that alone?

when they sold their 49% to warner’s, bruce’s personal take home cut was reportedly something like 10 million. good lord, sub pop had it’s best year ever recently. they are a big biz. they are just not CONSISTeNT. it mean, …

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