Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden. These all-male bands arose from Seattle’s heady early ’90s rock scene to become major recording artists.
But what about Hammerbox? Faster Tiger? 66 Saints, Maxi Badd, The 7 Year Bitch?
If you were alert to the Seattle rock-music scene that flourished at the time, you may well have heard these bands, which flared brightly but are no more. All of them included women musicians, in a heady era when a wave of female drummers, guitarists and singers were rocking the Seattle sound alongside their male counterparts.
As a member of Maxi Badd and other groups, Gretta Harley was in the thick of the music craze. Now the musician, composer and educator is revisiting those times in “These Streets,” a new musical play premiering at ACT Theatre on Friday.
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In a recent interview at an Eastlake cafe along with the show’s co-creators, Sarah Rudinoff and Elizabeth Kenny, Harley talked about a production that has expanded beyond the stage to include an oral-history project to be archived at the University of Washington, and an exhibit of posters, photos and other memorabilia at The Project Room, on Capitol Hill. (The show also coincides with the annual Women Who Rock conference, to be held at Washington Hall on March 9.)
The idea for “These Streets” germinated in 2011, when Rudinoff, a well-known actress-singer, and Harley, who teaches at Cornish College, were working together in their own band, We Are Golden. During a 2011 retreat on Vashon Island, the two were devising material for a new recording when they discovered they’d each come up with the same concept for the album.
“It would be about a woman in her 40s, who had been a successful Seattle rock musician in her 20s,” said Harley, “and now she’s wondering how to stay relevant, how to keep doing interesting and creative work.”
Out of that writing session came a new song, “These Streets.” The next step: a dinner party at Rudinoff’s house. “We invited a lot of women from local ’90s bands over for dinner,” recalled Harley. “We all talked and talked about the Seattle music scene back then, the incredible bubbling up of energy in bars, cafes, all the people involved.”
After taping the colorful, dinner-table memories of ex-members of Hammerbox, Lazy Susan and other groups, Harley and Rudinoff dug deeper in interviews with dozens of others from the so-called “grunge” era.
They got the skinny from musicians, but also band managers and scenemakers like Steve Wells, ex-owner of the Rebar nightclub who, Harley noted, “hosted the release party for Nirvana’s album ‘Nevermind,’ but kicked the band out because they were too rowdy.”
Altogether, 40 people were interviewed, generating over 100 hours of tape. Much of it is fresh historical material: though the histories of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam have been heavily documented, the saga of Seattle’s female rock contingent has been largely unsung.
Actor-writer Kenny came aboard to help shape a script for “These Streets,” which by then was deemed a stage drama. “It’s about several women musicians who shared a house in Seattle between 1989 and 1994,” she said. “One is now a successful deejay, another one is releasing her first record in a long time.”
Their story and the others’ are told in flashbacks, with actors playing young and older versions of characters. There are also a dozen songs performed live in the show — some original but most, says Harley, “period pieces” from the 1990s.
Harley doesn’t like to collectively brand this music as “grunge” — a term many (male and female) musicians rejected as basically a marketing label (and a fashion reference to the ripped jeans and flannel shirts some players sported).
She also differentiates the scene depicted from the so-called riot grrrl community that arose out of Olympia. “They had a strong feminist political agenda. Some of us shared some of their political views, but there were women who played in bands with men and were not part of that movement.”
Rudinoff and Harley have created successful one-woman shows and director Amy Poisson is another Seattle theater veteran. But “These Streets” is an elaborate, financially challenging reach for its creators. “It has 11 actors and four musicians,” said Rudinoff, who, like Kenny and Harley, appears in the show. “And we really hope to tour it, to Portland and maybe other cities.”
So far $75,000 of the $100,000 budget for the premiere has been raised. Rudinoff is hoping ticket sales will be strong for the run. She swears “These Streets” isn’t just for 40-somethings reliving their flamboyant youth.
“It’s going to be super enjoyable for them,” she said. “But anyone who’s ever been young and passionate about something should get into it, too.”
As she looks backward and ahead, Harley is glad that women have made strides on the rock scene since her salad days. “There’s been maybe a paradigm shift,” she reflected. “Women in bands are finally becoming something of a norm.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org