In 1990, using money borrowed from his mother, drummer Dave Grohl flew to Seattle to join a then up-and-coming band called Nirvana. There, he found everything he wanted in a city—a striking landscape, remarkable food, and a group of musicians that inspired and relied on each other, linked by a shared love of creating music. Through a lucky combination of talent and coincidence, Grohl arrived just as Seattle’s previously insulated music scene was set to explode internationally, ushering in the grunge era, one of rock ’n’ roll’s most pivotal movements.
Seattle’s notoriously rainy Pacific Northwest climate encouraged the formation of the music scene, according to Grohl. “During those hard five or six months where you don’t see sun, you retreat to basements or bars and, in that, you develop these little communities,” Grohl says in the “Dear Seattle” video he directed, one of a series of short tribute films to the city that premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and now airs through SundanceTV and YouTube. “I had this incredible coming of age experience while I was there and then probably the most devastating time of my life.”
Even as Grohl moved on after Kurt Cobain’s death, starting his band the Foo Fighters and relocating to sunny Los Angeles, a part of Grohl has never left Seattle. “It became this part of my DNA that serves as this divining rod wherever I go. I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for Seattle.” Through grunge, many world travelers discovered a Seattle that was more than the Space Needle.
And though grunge might be over, you can still plant your feet in the same locales where Grohl and other musicians have spent time in the city then and now. Based on Grohl’s presentation of his film at Sundance, an interview with his producer, and a trip to the Emerald City itself, here’s how to see Seattle, rock ’n’ roller style.
Where to jam out to the latest (and greatest) tunes
Grohl believes that as long as venues that support local bands exist, a new musical surge is always gathering in the wings in Seattle.
One of those places is The Crocodile, where history literally hangs on the walls. Photos of Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Nirvana, and Alice in Chains document the Seattle legends that have set up their instruments in the downtown Seattle club since 1991, when it began its reign as one of the epicenters of the Seattle music scene and a hot spot for touring acts. Meanwhile, a gallery area of posters marks the bands that have passed through over the last 10 years, since the club underwent an upgrade. Its superior sound system, good sightlines to the stage from almost anywhere in the club, and its friendly staff contributed to music insiders and musicians ranking “The Croc” as one of the best U.S. music clubs. If you go, score a spot on the upper balcony for a bird’s-eye view of the audience and the pop, rock, rap, electronic, country, as well as locals bands that still regularly inhabit the stage. And yes, many shows are all ages.
It is widely accepted in music lore that Nirvana performed its first Seattle show at the Central Saloon in historic downtown Pioneer Square. A long narrow space with an elevated stage at one end, the bar showcased Alice in Chains and Soundgarden in their early days and many local and touring groups and performers since the place opened 125 years ago. At its best, the Central Saloon is still a little crowded, a little sweaty, and a little magical as a place to discover up-and-coming bands from the Northwest region and beyond.
Nirvana’s performance at the historic Paramount Theatre was significant enough to be documented in the 2011 film Nirvana: Live at The Paramount. Opening in 1928 as a “movie palace,” the theatre restored its gilded gold leaf and sparkling chandelier Beaux Arts style glory, down to the Wurlitzer organ that rises from the beneath the stage. Regularly hosting musicals and dance, jazz, and popular music concerts by the likes of David Byrne, Tori Amos, and Morrissey, the Paramount celebrates its 90th anniversary this year with free concerts and events this summer.
Another way to experience the city’s current vibrant music is at Upstream, the June 1-3, 2018 music fest in Seattle. Now in its second year, the event showcases 200 emerging Northwest bands. Preserving and encouraging regional music scenes that are removed from industry influences is a cause near to Grohl’s heart. “Seattle is a city that no one imagined would become a music capital and because of that, it produced something really different,” he says. Grohl’s Nirvana bandmate, Krist Novoselic, serves as a guest curator of Upstream this year and will perform with his new band, Giants in the Trees.
Where to shred your hunger and thirst
It’s uncertain whether Grohl ever developed a taste for the grilled octopus he encountered on his first night in Seattle. (His face actually curls into a grimace when he revisits the memory in the film.) However, Grohl, now a world-famous rock star for more than two decades, does demonstrate a taste for steak at the Metropolitan Grill. Located in a historic building, the downtown restaurant dry ages its steaks in a room lined with blocks of Himalayan salt then sears them over mesquite charcoal. Its wine list holds more than 2,000 selections, including Washington State and West Coast reds.
“Seattle is a city that no one imagined would become a music capital and because of that, it produced something really different,” says Grohl.
When in the city, Grohl has been known to partake in the offerings at the Kimpton Alexis Hotel’s Bookstore Bar, a chic yet discreet downtown meeting place for locals as well as visitors, with 200 varieties of whiskey and scotch, some of them so rare they are difficult to find elsewhere.
“Going to Seattle with Dave Grohl is like visiting the city with the Pope,” grins Grohl’s film producer, John Ramsay, recalling what it was like to shoot in the city with him. “We would walk into a place and a handful of people might be in it. Then, word got out that Dave Grohl was there and suddenly it filled up.”
Where to take your pop culture knowledge to 11
The love affair between Grohl and the city that launched him continues. You can experience it through the exhibition Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses at the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP). The large collection tells the Nirvana story through rare artifacts such as the band’s first demo tape, their early cheap guitars, Grohl’s drum kit, the casting call flyer for the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video, handwritten lyrics, and Cobain’s holey cardigan sweater. The museum intended to exhibit the show for a one-year run, but it proved to be such an essential Seattle story that it is now on display indefinitely.
MoPOP is worth a visit, even if you’re not a Nirvana fan. Founded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, designed by architect Frank Gehry, and starting its life as the Experience Music Project, the museum grew in scope and identity and eventually changed its name to MoPOP in November 2016. Now, it produces deep dives into pop culture passions, including science fiction, fantasy, and, currently, Marvel Comics superheroes, its largest exhibit ever, which runs through the end of 2018. Jimi Hendrix remains MoPOP’s patron saint, however, with ongoing shows devoted to the Seattle-born guitar god.