Peter Blecha, Seattle rock historian and writer, has a new book, "Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock from 'Louie Louie' to 'Smells like Teen Spirit.' " He'll sign books and DJ in Seattle at Sonic Boom Records at 1 p.m. April 18.
Peter Blecha fell in love with music because of a bad grade in elementary school. Blecha, a local historian and former senior curator at the Experience Music Project, was promised a transistor radio if he raised a grade from a “D” to a “B.” He did just that and got the radio — and was hooked on Top 40 tunes.
“That’s where I first discovered that local bands could have an equal footing with national bands and international bands, which I found to be fascinating,” he said.
Blecha has taken that fascination to a whole new level with his new book, “Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock from ‘Louie Louie’ to ‘Smells like Teen Spirit.’ ” The Seattle author recently spoke by phone about creating this oeuvre, and what he’d like readers to know.
Q: What’s your definition of a rock ‘n’ roll “archaeologist”?
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A: That’s what happens when you let a publisher name your book for you. (Chuckles.) But I consider it more of a humorous honorific. I do enjoy digging deep, trying to document otherwise undocumented stories, solving regional mysteries of history, and turning up rare and strange historic artifacts. Between those three things, it dabbles in the actual realm of archaeology a little bit.
Q: What early bands covered in your book do you feel kids today should know about?
A: In some ways, my wishes don’t necessarily count. Here we are in the 21st century, and people all over the globe are rediscovering the Sonics. I and a few other journalists have been touting the joys of the Sonics for a long, long time. Here they are, reunited and playing concerts all over the world. It’s a nice payoff to hear that a quality band like that can rise from the ashes and build a new audience.
Q: In the book, you offer some critiques of Seattle Times writers, including the music critics. Could you talk a little about that?
A: I did have fun poking at The Seattle Times a little bit. Certainly the Times was not alone either locally, nationally or internationally in having an early negative reaction to the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. I wrote a lot about that in a book, “Taboo Tunes,” which documented the negative reaction to rock ‘n’ roll when it was new. It took many forms, from newspaper editorials to pickets and boycotts. In some ways, I quoted a lot from Seattle Times editorials because they were written so well.
This was a regional book, and it just so happened that The Seattle Times had some vitriolic reactions to rock ‘n’ roll. I tried to have fun with it in the book. I pointed out that what the newspapers were reacting against sounded terrible in the terms they were putting it in. But when we look back at it, we’re talking about a simple teenage dance where nothing happened. In some cases, the editorials were against the music itself. They couldn’t stand the teen culture.
Q: It was interesting to read about bands like Green River, which has had some recent gigs locally. Is this a type of resurgence in retro bands?
A: It’s fun that some of the bands from the immediate pre-grunge era like Green River have enough sense of fun on their own that they want to reunite. It’s also strange how many bands from the 1960s have had the opposite example, where they’ve refused to reunite.
The Sonics, again, are a great example. They didn’t play a single show between 1972 and 2007, and that was in the face of public demand, both locally and all the way to England and France. Places were clamoring for this Tacoma band to reunite, and they were offered a lot of money to do so.
Q: The book covers the death from an overdose of Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood in detail. How much of an impact did Wood’s death have, compared with Kurt Cobain’s suicide?
A: It cast a pall around town when Andrew died. Part of it was just the sheer bad timing of it, since it was a day or so before they were supposed to head out on tour, and promote their new album. It seemed tragic on multiple levels — for Andrew, his family, band members and others. It took a bit of the wind out the scene for a bit.
One difference would be the level of fame that each of those guys had achieved. In Cobain’s case, it was just off the charts in terms of sheer fame versus Andrew, who was a popular local guy with a popular local band who had signed a major label contract. He hadn’t made a global impact yet.
Q: You’ll be DJ-ing Saturday at the book release. Is that a new profession?
A: It is something new for me. I’ve played plenty of records at house parties and when I worked in radio, but I’m looking forward to this. As a special treat, I’m bringing along some recordings that nobody has heard.
I’ll be playing a “B” side to the first rock ‘n’ roll record ever issued in the Northwest, by Joe Boot & The Fabulous Winds. The other thing I’m going to play is a 1959 recording of “Louie, Louie,” previously unreleased, and recorded in Seattle by the Thunderbirds.
As one more treat for people, I’ll be playing something from my most recent project. The last prominent Seattle record label from the 1960s has never released anything on compact disc until now. Camelot Records, which has been out of print for 45 years, has a “best of” CD coming out and I’m going to be playing some rarities at Sonic Boom. These are such rare records that they go for hundreds and hundreds of dollars apiece. It’s just really good Northwest soul music, and Northwest rock.
Q: What do record-store owners think about your book title?
A: We have chuckled about it. I will tell you at least one other store in town that I won’t name opted to not have me come in on record-store day. They thought maybe there was some nefarious collusion going on with me and Sonic Boom Records. But I can assure everyone that’s not the case. I came up with the book title independently.
Mary Guiden: MKGseattle@aol.com