THIS IS A STORY giving Seattle hipsters their proper historical due. Embrace our hipness.
We snicker at that description now, but what would you call the vibrant jazz scene in the late 1940s in the Jackson Street area?
A young Ray Charles had a regular gig at The Rocking Chair nightclub near 14th Avenue and East Yesler Way. He wrote a song about the joint: “I’m telling you, it’s the gonnest place in town.”
In May, another news release came in from another company touting another Top 10 list. Once again, Seattle had been named the country’s most hipster-friendly city.
This one was from Rent.com, but on lists compiled by Forbes magazine, to Travel + Leisure, to MoveHub’s U.S. Hipster Index (the company ships belongings, and hipsters are shipping them here), we have a reputation: “If you smoke a pipe, rock vintage specs and frequent indie-rock house parties — you’ll feel right at home here.”
Yes; it all can prove too much, as it did for Snoqualmie author Doug Walsh (video game strategy manuals, romantic thrillers).
“We here in the PNW seem to have a disproportionate share of the scourge of hipsterdom … they are quite literally multiplying by the tens,” he wrote in 2015 on Quora, a question-and-answer website.
Six years later, he says, “I haven’t noticed hipsters too much lately. Maybe hipsters have become so ubiquitous, I don’t notice them anymore.”
The thing is, by whatever name, hipsters/hepcats/beatniks/beats/bohemians have given us our own brand of cool here in the Northwest corner of the United States.
SOME SIX DECADES ago, the Northwest attracted visits from well-known beats.
In the summer of 1956, Jack Kerouac, trying to clean up from drugs and booze, spent 63 days as a U.S. Forest Service fire lookout in the Mount Baker National Forest. In his semi-autobiographical novel, “Desolation Angels,” he described a visit to Seattle and First Avenue: “Here’s all humanity hep and weird wandering … ”
Poet Allen Ginsberg backpacked around the Northwest in 1956 with Zen poet Gary Snyder. From that came the poem “Afternoon Seattle”:
“Seattle! — department stores full of fur coats and camping equipment, mad noontime businessmen in gaberdine coats talking on street corners to keep up the structure, I float past, birds cry … ”
Let’s bounce around a bit — not chronologically — in Seattle’s hip history. This is just a sampling. You might be surprised, maybe even wish you could have met some of these influencers, many now forgotten.
GRUNGE. THAT SCENE was so anti-hip that it now is enshrined in hipsterdom.
Tourists from Scandinavia, Spain, Portugal, Brazil — among the countries with hard-core fans — want to see where it all happened. Stalking Seattle and Seattle Grunge Redux are two tour companies specializing in grunge.
Eric Magnuson, who runs the latter, remembers getting a call a few years ago from the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard. The Danish ambassador was visiting for a culinary festival. He requested a grunge tour.
The scene in the late 1980s wasn’t quite the magical setting that tourists imagine, “like the Cavern Club in Liverpool, where the Beatles started,” says Charles R. Cross, the Seattle author whose books include profiles of Kurt Cobain, Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix and Heart.
Back then, he says, when a band such as Soundgarden played the long-gone Ditto Tavern on Fifth Avenue under the Monorail, “You never saw more than 30 people, and 20 of them would be friends of the band and other musicians. The number of people buying a ticket in 1987 was near zero. No one could make money over the ability to play live.”
One of the grunge tour highlights is the alley behind 2322 Second Ave., location of The Rendezvous & Jewelbox Theater.
That’s where, until 2017, Black Dog Forge used to produce high-quality metal work. It moved to another location when the building was sold.
In the alley, you can still see the metal dog hanging at the entrance, and its name painted on the wall, along with a collage of other graffiti, all framed by the lineup of garbage cans alongside. Now that’s grunge, at least for the tourists taking pictures.
The notoriety of the alley comes from the practice room that was below Black Dog Forge. It was here that in their early days, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney and The Presidents of the United States of America practiced.
At least that space has the metal dog to remember it by. Others have been replaced by development or a “For Lease” sign.
“Black Dog Forge is one example of 50 where there should be a plaque on the wall, or a Seattle musical scene digital app from the Chamber of Commerce,” says Cross. “We’ve thrown culture aside and plowed down all these buildings.”
He says Amazon and Starbucks should contribute to memorializing such Seattle cultural legacies.
One of the reasons Amazon can attract techies to come here, says Cross, “is Seattle’s hipness.”
BROADWAY AVENUE AND CAPITOL HILL. For Sir Mix-A-Lot, memories of hipness exist amid the changes.
Does the area still have “perhaps more than its share of aging hippies, students, starving artists, hip-hoppers, punk rockers, skateboarders and other members of what fall under the whole wide rubric of the ‘counterculture’ ”?
That was written in 2011 by John Caldbick, a retired attorney, former part-owner of the Blue Moon Tavern and associate editor of HistoryLink.
In the summer of 2020, he walked around the CHOP/CHAZ police-free area by Cal Anderson Park.
“Parts were reminiscent of early rock festivals, free food stands, kind of old hippie stuff,” he says. But, he adds, “There were quite a few people around with obvious mental problems. There was a dark edge around it.”
Much of Seattle’s social history since the 1960s has been made or started in this neighborhood, Caldbick says. You could get a cheap apartment or rent an old house and split the cost among a group.
It became the center of the city’s LGBTQ community, and a chic location for small ethnic restaurants, head shops, clothing stores and other small businesses.
In the 1980s, there were “fern bars” on Broadway with names like Boondock’s, Sundecker’s & Greenthumb’s.
Depending on your age, Broadway and its surroundings bring different memories of the scene on Capitol Hill.
In 1988, Sir Mix-A-Lot had the hit “Posse On Broadway.” It was about cruising and ending up at:
“Dick’s is the place where the cool hang out
“The swass like to play, and the rich flaunt clout
“Posse to the burger stand, so big we walk in twos
“We’re gettin’ dirty looks, from those other sucka crews.”
Sir Mix-A-Lot is Anthony Ray, of Auburn. He is best known for his No. 1 Billboard 1992 chart hit, “Baby Got Back.”
According to MRC Data, the music industry analytics firm, since 1991, when its SoundScan tracking began, Ray has sold more than 3.3 million albums, and has been streamed more than 350 million times.
He still does 100 to 150 shows a year, he says, and produces songs and licensing. On a recent Sunday, for a photo shoot, he and his wife showed up at the Dick’s in an Infiniti QX80 luxury SUV. Other vehicles he owns include a Lamborghini Aventador. Over the years, says Ray, he’s owned around 100 cars.
Ray is 57. He was 24 when “Posse On Broadway” was a hit.
He remembers some of the old places, such as playing pinball at Arnold’s Video Arcade near Broadway and Denny.
“It’s very different,” says Ray.
But not gone. “A lot of the culture is still there, for sure,” he says, going to stand in line for some burgers. The crowd doesn’t notice him. Just another customer.
JIMMY GINN, the front-page beatnik.
There he was, on Page One of the July 2, 1959, Seattle Times, posing Parisian-style with a scarf around his neck, a cigarette in his right hand. “Beatnik wars on mediocrity” was the headline.
It was among the first local newspaper mentions of this new phenomenon.
That was around the time that kids would see ads in comic books for a “Do-It-Yourself Beatnik Kit” that included a coffee cup, beatnik beard, striped T-shirt, white pants, “rope belt” and “six authentic Beatnik poems.” All for $9.95. (Around $90 in today’s dollars. Dad?)
The Times story said that Jimmy, 23, “a refugee” from the San Francisco North Beach beatnik scene (“too commercialized”), had opened an art gallery downtown at Ninth and Pine.
The story quoted “the beach-sandal-clad youth” as explaining, “I’m tired of being subtle. I’ve got something to say, a message to get across, and I can’t do it subtly.”
Jimmy was in the news a few more times. That same month, he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after cops rousted him at 3:45 in the morning as he slept on a walkway between his studio and an adjoining building. The cops said he could have rolled off and hurt himself in a 20-foot drop. Jimmy said he swore at them because they shined a flashlight in his eyes and questioned him in “machine-gun rapidity.” That got him 20 days in jail.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that while in jail, Jimmy received “all sorts of mail” from fans, including “the friendship of five women.”
After that, nothing shows up on Jimmy in newspaper archives, and various searches on his name and what happened to him turned up nothing.
SEATTLE HOUSEBOATS when they were, sometimes, party-hardy cheap rentals.
Some recent houseboat listings in Seattle: $3.95 million. $1.5 million. Oh; here is a cheaper one: $649,000 for 640 square feet.
Back in the early 1970s, Jann McFarland, now 79, got a loan from her dad for $6,000 (she paid it back) and bought a leaking houseboat she had been renting. She and her husband, Art Hemenway, still live in that same houseboat along the eastern shore of Lake Union.
“I didn’t have money back then. I was making leather belts with rock guys who stayed up all night. Really hippie,” she remembers.
Those were the days.
One evening, a guy in another houseboat invited her over. “He asked me which kind of dope I wanted to smoke. He had five different kinds from five different countries. I didn’t have any. I don’t like it. I like gin and tonics. I like beer, too,” says McFarland.
In the 1930s, there were 2,000 houseboats — floating homes in modern parlance — in Seattle. These days, after battles with the city, the state’s Department of Ecology, and locals who didn’t like looking down at them from their hillside neighborhoods, there are about 500, most on Lake Union.
Some early houseboats were floating shacks made from scrap boards, according to an essay by Peter Blecha in HistoryLink. “Because of their low-cost living, the colonies attracted bohemians, political radicals and a certain share of criminals.”
McFarland remembers the luaus, roasted pigs and “a deadly sangria” they had for 25 years until around 1995. That ended because so many strangers began showing up.
“People back then worked hard and partied hard,” she says. No more.
“Many of us are old and not staying up until all hours,” says McFarland. And the newcomers, well, “They have big-time jobs, lawyers, doctors, techies, a lot from Amazon, Microsofties.”
For sure, that’s quieted down a lot.
THE 1940s SEATTLE JAZZ CLUBS. More than three dozen jumping joints on a 14-block stretch on Jackson Street, beginning on First Avenue.
What a scene that was in those days, the war years, says former Seattle Times music writer Paul de Barros in his engrossing book “Jackson Street After Hours.” The clubs existed there because Black musicians were not hired for the downtown venues.
He quotes guitarist Al Turay: “Along Jackson Street, it was almost like Mardi Gras. Musicians would be traipsing up and down the street with their instrument cases, going in one club, sitting in and going from one place to another.”
The scene was wild.
Writes de Barros: “Whatever a young sailor or soldier wanted — liquor, drugs, gambling, women — he could pretty much get on demand.”
One famous place was The Rocking Chair.
Near 14th Avenue and East Yesler Way, the joint was where a young Ray Charles, who arrived in Seattle at age 17, played while he lived here from 1948 to 1949. He even wrote a song about the place, “Rocking Chair Blues.”
“Situated in a tall house with a fake-brick exterior and a tall chimney … The club ran from midnight till morning … If there was a raid, the doorman pressed a button under the carpet,” writes de Barros.
That house is long gone. It’s now the site of the Bailey Gatzert Elementary School.
What would the musicians who played at those clubs think of the Seattle scene now?
“The first thing they’d say is, ‘Wow; they finally integrated the music,’ ” says de Barros. “I think they’d be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the music, and shocked by the style and how it changed.”
THE BLUE MOON TAVERN, a place even Mikhail Gorbachev had heard about.
There are several taverns we could put in the pantheon of hip Seattle: the Comet Tavern and the Central Saloon, to name two. These are places that, whatever decade you frequented them, you have memories of the times when you were young and everything was just, you know, pretty good.
We’re picking the Blue Moon in the University District, the place where poet Theodore Roethke, a regular, was said to celebrate his 1954 Pulitzer Prize.
It was where Tom Robbins hung out between 1962 and 1969, when he worked as an art critic for The Seattle Times, and on The Seattle Post-Intelligencer copy desk.
In an Oct. 9, 2006, interview with Mike Seely of The Seattle Weekly, Robbins remembered those days: “On Wednesday nights, I wrote my art column for the Sunday edition. I’d usually finish at midnight and go to the Moon. I’d go there other nights, of course, but this was my ritual. There was a great cast of characters there. In those days, the Blue Moon was a place to have drinks and discussion, the occasional fistfight, and various bouts of lewdity and levity. [The poet] John Pym would slowly disrobe throughout the night, and eventually you realized he’d be sitting there nude.”
A regular at the tavern was the late Ross Lavroff, a well-known Russian interpreter who was born in Ukraine and was the interpreter for presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush in high-level meetings on nuclear disarmament.
Lavroff “routinely escorted Soviet officials to the Blue Moon at their request,” wrote historian Walt Crowley in “Forever Blue Moon.”
Presumably, that’s why Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, when meeting Lavroff in 1991, asked, “So you’re from Seattle. How is the Blue Moon?”
Closed for the pandemic, the Blue Moon is reopening. The old place, which opened in 1934, proudly shows its weathered looks, even if some of the wood has been replaced, and tables sanded.
It’s owned by Emma Hellthaler, 35, who bought it from her dad, Gustav Hellthaler, who saved it from eclipse in 1982 with two partners who called themselves Three Fools Inc.
“I was born because of the Blue Moon. My mother’s water broke at the front door,” says Hellthaler. She began working at the joint after hours at age 11, washing hand towels and reupholstering stools. At age 21, she was tending bar.
As for whether the 2021 version of the tavern could be home to a nascent Tom Robbins, she says, “We won’t know for another 20 or 30 years.”