‘Seattle’ was a man before it was a city. Chief Seattle, or Si’ahl, his mother Duwamish and his father of the Suquamish tribe, once gave a warning to settlers who had come to take his land. Many believe that his words were a curse to those who would live in the place that bore his name.
The “Seattle Sound” could mean many things. The city itself rests on the hills overlooking the Puget Sound. I spent some time there, a little less than a year, after I graduated high school. It was where I best learned the lesson that dreams don’t come just because you dream them. I wanted to be a star, but wasn’t willing to immolate myself to shine.
Anyone who has been to Seattle, Washington usually remembers two things about the city. First, it’s strikingly beautiful. Second, it’s almost always covered in clouds.
There are sunny days here and there, and when they come they are a wonderful relief to the gray skies and damp air. But for those who live there year round, they know that the sun is only a fleeting visitor. These wet and cloudy days give birth to a mood, an atmosphere among the people, imparting a flavor to life that is reflected in its artists. It is this atmosphere, this soul of the city, that expresses itself in the Seattle sound.
The sound is often music of death.
As I write this post, I’m listening to the newest release from the band “Alice In Chains.” They were role models for my early attempts at rock stardom. I decorated myself with cornrows and pierced myself to become the model they’d made a preferred vessel to fame. They, and a few other bands – most notably “Nirvana” – paved the way for a new type of music quickly labeled “grunge.” It was the Seattle sound, and soon young hipsters from Los Angeles to London were sporting flannel shirts and growing their hair over their eyes. The lyrics were often of the desperation of life, the pain of the very act of existing, and the temptation of challenging death by embracing it. It was a dangerous mixture, and one that led me down a path to depression. Under those same, dark Seattle skies I also felt the pull of this spirit, tempted to the savagery that disguised itself in hopeless indifference. It is a pull so strong that, you might have noticed, not everyone survives.
The original singer for “Alice In Chains,” Layne Staley, was found dead a few years after the band’s celebrity peaked. It was said that his body, locked away in his apartment for a few weeks because no one had come to check on the star, was unrecognizable. The main themes of his music were death, suicide and heroin. Of course, he was not the only one. Another Seattle musician, Kurt Cobain, perhaps the most prolific artist of his time, shot the back of his head out in the room above his garage. He once wrote a song titled “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” People clapped when he sang it.
The Seattle sound didn’t really start in the early ’90s, though. Maybe the most well-known Seattleite is Jimi Hendrix. Seattle stayed in him even as he travelled far from home. He was found dead at age of 27 in a London hotel with enough drugs and alcohol in his system to kill him a few times.
There are others such as Andrew Wood from Mother Love Bone, Mike Starr – another member of Alice in Chains – and everyday there are more and more lesser-known musicians who succumb to something that comes disguised as depression, drugs, or whatever demon is available.
Some believe this is all the result of a warrior’s forgotten curse.
It was recorded that in 1854, Chief Seattle spoke to a gathering of men preparing to take the land from his tribe. He told them soon his people would vanish from the land, their memory gone with them. But it would not be the end.
“Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see. And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.”
That is what he said. Was it a curse? Maybe not. But if it was, perhaps that’s why so many of those who’ve come to live on his land have watched their children die.