Note: This column is part of this week's cover story, Tuesday Night Music Club, which includes profiles of nine Seattle bands.
John Roderick is the singer and songwriter responsible for Seattle's the Long Winters. His Reverb column appears every week.
I don't remember the exact first time I played the Crocodile. I'd been there so many times as a customer and concertgoer that those early years are a dim smear of bleach smell and cigarette ash across my memory. But I remember distinctly a time BEFORE I ever played the old, pre-renovation Crocodile, when it was still my highest ambition to get a show there, and I remember submitting my cassette-tape demos in manila envelopes with hand-drawn cover art and One Hour Photo press kits. And I remember not hearing back from Christine, the booker, and calling her and leaving messages, and not having my calls returned. And calling again. And again.
So although I don't remember the actual first time I played the Croc, I remember pining for it and dreaming of it, certain that it must be the finest feeling, that there was no surer sign of arrival, of belonging. And when I finally did play that first show, it was on a Tuesday night, as the first of three bands, to a virtually empty house, a smattering of supportive friends and the supportive friends of our fellow striving bands. And we played our asses off, startled that we could hear ourselves in the monitors, half-aware that somewhere in the shadows maybe Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman was watching, or maybe R.E.M.'s Peter Buck was sauntering through his wife's club, and maybe they'd be impressed by our dedication and "chops," and we'd get signed. I remember all those feelings, and in Seattle in the 1990s, the gateway to the other side was Tuesday night at the Croc.Tuesday night was when they started you if they'd never heard of you, if you didn't have any famous friends, if you weren't drinking buddies with someone, or sleeping with someone, and in many cases even if you were. Everybody started by playing a Tuesday night at the Croc, and the only reason it was Tuesday is that the Croc wasn't open on Monday. I know Modest Mouse did it, Death Cab did it, Harvey Danger, Murder City Devils, Band of Horses, Pedro the Lion, Blood Brothers, 764-HERO, Elliott Smith, the Decemberists, and ten thousand other bands did it. Everybody started there, Tuesday night, first of three, and from there your fortunes rose or fell determined largely by your own merit. It was an exceptionally level playing field. Though there were as many clubs in town then as there are now, though there were almost as many musical styles, there was one aperture through which everyone eventually tried to squeeze.
Admittedly, some bands were introduced to the Crocodile stage soon after their first show, propelled by early buzz or the helping hand of a powerful friend, while others played dozens upon dozens of house parties and shows at the Rendezvous, the Lake Union Pub, the Storeroom--the beer-soaked viscera of Seattle--before landing their first Croc show. And to be sure, hundreds of bands never did play the Croc, looking askance at it even then, dismissing it as a hipster hangout before the word was common, contemptuous of the tightfisted booking policies and bitter over the cliquishness of the Seattle scene. Plenty of bands with vibrant local careers hardly played there at all, content to be the masters of their own circuit, ill-suited for the slightly more downtown vibe of Second and Blanchard.
But for those of us intoxicated by the idea that banging on a guitar could sweep you up and out into the wider world, a Tuesday night at the Crocodile was the first in a long string of narrow, swaying, unsafe bridges you would have to cross. Once you'd played your Tuesday--almost always a disappointment, no crowd, no pay, no screaming girls, no Jonathan Poneman or Peter Buck, not even enough drink tickets to catch a buzz--the rest was kind of up to you.
It took me a long time to understand that media coverage didn't work the same way. The music sections of the Weekly and The Stranger made no references to bands just breaking into the scene. I naively assumed any band that could land a Tuesday night at the Croc was worth a few column inches, a capsule review, or a little star, but week after week the papers were silent. It sounds slightly ridiculous now, but I felt like things were happening, man, that affected people's lives! The clubs were the proving grounds where experiments were happening and mistakes were being made. I'd never been so excited before in my life as in those early years of seeing a dozen bands a week. There were spectacular failures, sure, but even they were instructive and hilarious. I kept thinking "Where is everybody? Why aren't these Tuesday-night shows sold out, week after week?"
The newspapers focused on their buzz bands, or "up and coming" bands, and ignored the rest of the scene as you would glance over moldy cheese in the back of your refrigerator. Sure, a newspaper is going to anoint certain bands and slam others--that's only natural--but how could they so blithely ignore whole swaths of the city's various scenes, and make almost no attempt to have their music sections present what was happening in the city at large? Conspiracy! Infamy! My young heart surged with outrage.
The way I saw it, every night of the week there were, at minimum, a dozen clubs in the city featuring original music, three bands per club playing 40-minute sets each: 30 bands a night, averaging six days a week. Even assuming that 95 percent of those bands had the charisma of limp asparagus, there must have been at least 10 bands a week worth a quick blurb of critical appraisal. Surely in the course of promoting their favorite bands, the local rags could widen their focus a little to wink at the enormous variety of music being made in the city. Would that be so hard? Certain genres are never going to be fashionable, and not all small scenes are "cutting-edge"--some are just crap--but the vast majority of local musicians would never see their names in print, their art appraised, or their fans acknowledged. It didn't seem right.
Now I'm not some softhearted kindergarten teacher who thinks every suburban ding-dong who claps his hands in rhythm is making a sacred communion with the gods of music, but come on. It's not as though every town is blessed with an embarrassment of decent music venues and hundreds of working bands. And every three-band bill in town also represents work for bartenders, doormen, soundmen, and the armies of support people radiating from them. If the music scene doesn't support itself, and if casual fans have no way to learn about new local music, the whole enterprise could wither on the vine and Seattle could end up with a music scene like that of Phoenix, or Oklahoma City, forced to steal some other city's basketball team.
When my own band finally gained a little profile, I chastised the reporters and editors I met, still smarting after years of feeling as though the bands I loved and the scenes I came up in had been laboring in obscurity. "Why the hell didn't you write about my band two years ago?" I groused. Their sudden fascination with me seemed proof of the fundamental dishonesty of the system, like the way Jack Nicholson gets his meals comped in restaurants. Why the hell does Jack Nicholson need a free dinner? Writing about a band only once it got popular seemed like a fundamental misapprehension of the job. The music editors would roll their eyes at me and patiently explain that their newspaper was a business, not a social-service organization obligated to publish an unerring record of events. They were trying to earn advertising revenue to keep the lights on, and they didn't have the resources to exhaustively cover every little musical eddy. They were obligated only to give due diligence to the inescapable. It was an obvious truth. Like most young artists, I was on the threshold of having my idealistic illusions fed back to me with bitter greens, and I've spent 15 years trying to accept that people seek refinement only until it is no longer cost-effective.
Still, I never stopped believing that Seattle could do better. Believe me, I'm not trying to reform the entire American music business. I've seen smarter and more energetic people than me come back from that battlefield holding their genitals in a sack. But Seattle is a world unto itself, and we have always bent the wheel to fit our own peculiar gait. So I kept hammering people in the local press about my idea, my "Tuesday night" principle that the real heart of a city is found not in the big stars who pop from the firmament every year or so but in the shimmering glow of unsung constellations. I remained convinced that casting a wider net might, if not produce a city of philosophers and poets, at least give a broader sense of the culture we share. Who wouldn't rather read a well-penned review of some earnest Cornish jazz-funk trio playing Tuesday night at Tula's than another review of Radiohead by a flippant dickhole dreaming of a job at The Onion? I've listened to a large sampling of Cornish jazz-funk over the years, and let me tell you, it ain't gonna kill you. If you think you're too smart or too cool to listen to some six-string-bass solos every once in a while, then you're a snob and a dick. That's nothing to be proud of, so quit smirking and go stare in the bathroom mirror until you sob.
To my never-ending surprise and delight, I described my "Tuesday night" theory to my editors here at Seattle Weekly, and they jumped at it excitedly. Music Editor Chris Kornelis took the idea and ran, expanding it not only to this week's cover story--in which the paper dispatched writers to profile nine different bands in the city's current Tuesday-night class--but to more commitment to coverage of bands in the trenches. It's a commitment, I'm told, that is only going to get more pronounced. Check Reverb every Wednesday morning, to see a review of an up-and-coming local band that played the night before.
It's not just a question of discovering the new Modest Mouse before anyone else, it's also about pushing back a little against the feeling that everything is homogenous, that culture is watered-down and dull-witted, and that new music is increasingly a pale imitation of past giants. Hundreds of bands in Seattle are unmentioned, undiscovered, and unknown, and every one is a creative collaboration of your neighbors and friends that strives to entertain and enlighten. Live music is our public square. Don't wait to hear what the next big thing is; go out and discover something new on your own. There's no shortage.