Notes on Seattle, November 29, 2008, Pt. II - A Sonic Disappointment, A Visual Skullpoke

Anyone that knows me even slightly well understands how much music means to me. Those that know me pretty well are aware that I have an immense affection for Louie Louie (with comma or without) which gained massive prominence via the music scene in the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s, and that after collecting music most of my life, I now own and cherish a great many versions of the song. Those that know me extremely well know that I rave once in a while about a band from the Pacific Northwest called the Sonics, and that I would devour the souls of those that would come in between me and the music of the Sonics.

And so I find myself in the Experience Music Project, basically a shrine to Jimi Hendrix and the Seattle scene overall throughout the history of music, staring at what amounts to a "oh, yeah... there were these guys" plaque and a couple of album covers as the main testament to the fact that the Sonics even crawled out of the local area. Of course, they would say, space is limited, and most of the bands here, even the really, really famous ones are only given a small area and a handful of pictures and/or merchandising in which to tell their tale. Such a response is understandable. But it is fairly obvious to anyone even remotely familiar with developments of the Seattle sound in the late '80s through the early '90s, or even any punk scene anywhere in the freaking world, that the Sonics played a far larger influence on music than most of their counterparts, even through today, as is often attested to by many current or recent stars of the form. The Sonics were the shit, my friends, not shit itself.

And so it was thoroughly mind-boggling to me that I was staring at this relatively minute, low set section of a window dedicated to what the EMP made look like something they scraped off their shoe on the way into setting up the place, while right across the hallway lied a massive window devoted to Paul Revere and the Raiders. Costumes with frilly shirts, instruments, microphones, 45s and all manner of paraphernalia. Sure, the Raiders had a zillion hits and have toured constantly in various forms (hell, I've seen them live twice in the last 20 years). Certainly they are, in the general public's eye, far more famous than the Sonics ever have been. I grew up loving Revere and the Raiders, even if I constantly confused them with the Royal Guardsmen of Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron infamy. And they are definitely connected forever to Louie, Louie, and in fact, the Raiders' window lies in conjunction with an area devoted to the Battle of the Louies, which occurred in 1963 when the Kingsmen released their amazingly endearing, crazily sloppy version of Richard Berry's original song (who introduced his own minor hit when he toured the area in the late '50s.

The Raiders followed up with their own version (recorded in the same studio in the same month) and the battle ensued. But nearly every local band had a version of Louie Louie in their repertoire, including seminal bands like the Wailers (who also have too small an area devoted to them in the EMP, which my old acquaintance Terrific Counterguy is probably rightly pissed off about way more than I am) and the Sonics. I have always been "eh" about the Raiders' version (though it is clearly the most danceable take out of this group), and naturally I adore the Kingsmen, but predictably, once you hear the Sonics' take on the song, that's it. If you are going to rock up what used to be a lilting, piano-based, Jamaican-flavored triviality, do it right. The Sonics' version is the song done right and done stylistically far ahead of its time, and to hear it is to wonder how Gerry Roslie's vocal chords ever recovered. If it had actually broken huge, the Sonics' version may have been as ground-breaking as the Kinks' You Really Got Me, itself a glorious and highly influential misappropriating of Louie Louie's chord structure (and admittedly so by Ray Davies).

But, apart from the pocket history and those album covers, the Sonics get only a few quick mentions here in this museum devoted to the "Seattle sound." This is not to dismiss the whole of the EMP, but merely to point out in my normal long-winded way that a terrible crime is being committed right before our eyes. Outside of this, though, visually, the place is stunning and the use of space internally very well used considering the dramatic structure in which the museum has been heaped. Naturally, size matters in rock as much as in the bedroom, and this place is all about thrusting massive video screens and giant sculptures created from piles of instruments straight through the visitor's corneas. It is hard not to be impressed by the size of everything, but for me, even with an abiding passion for a good portion of the bands on display (including the Young Fresh Fellows and the Posies, again, with not enough material on hand), I found the place intriguing but essentially soulless. Not quite bringing my experience down the level of going to Knott's, I felt the EMP was the theme attraction equivalent of Jong's zipless fuck: it was there, I did it, and I moved on. Unlike the usual sense of zipless banging, I had to pay to feel nothing.

There were moments where this could have changed. The Hendrix room is a fantastic place to enter, but with so many people in there, it was nearly impossible to stop and reflect on anything, including the line of guitars and the history of blues in the Pacific Northwest. What I did like was something that I mentioned to the Eel as we hung in a corner of the room watching from mid-'60s footage of Jimi playing onstage in London. I noted that the place, with people sitting about on couches chatting or milling about casually watching the walls and video screens, that the Hendrix room almost feels like a party in someone's home, only without the actual party. I felt oddly at home in the room, but I couldn't wait to leave, since there was really no reason to stay in there. So it was for the Music Lab areas of the EMP, where I had no interest in recording my own music or mixing it or dubbing vocals or any of that bullshit. I love music, but I will never be a musician, so it held little appeal for me. Likewise the photo stage area where you could pose for pix on a rigged stage like you were members of your own band, and while this might be something fun to do with a larger group of people like the Bohemians, now was not the time. Plus, the board at work had already taken a similar photo when they were up there a couple years back, and it is ridiculous thing to behold. The Eel and I walked right past the area once we realized what is was.

What else that did hold appeal for me in the EMP should not have been in the EMP at all, but over near the Science Fiction Museum: a theatre. Inside, we found a quartet of teens watching a video on a big screen of Death Cab for Cutie preparing their next album, and we couldn't care less. While videos and films are a major part of rock culture, to think of such an effect for the rock area but not the science-fiction area smacked to me of horrible planning on their part. If I find out that there are indeed occasional sci-fi flicks shown in the EMP's theatre, and that there is some dual usage going on, I will take back my criticism. But for now, even this proved a disappointment.

The Eel and I did find something of great interest upstairs: the Hatch Show Print Collection, which held tens and possibly hundreds of examples of poster printwork done on the Hatch Brothers' letterpress for musicians, advertising companies and various theatrical acts over the past 130 years. To see the giant printing blocks was amazing, and the artwork, the vast majority of it country artists though it expands more to rock in recent years, was supplemented by a generous sampling of country-and-western costumes for people such as Hank Snow (who looks like he was about 5'2"), Patsy Cline, Minnie Pearl, Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams. Senior, that is... the real deal. The Hatch collection was a nice capper on what was overall rather an underwhelming experience. We left the EMP, and after we took a couple of photos outside, I reflected on my experience and realized that I would probably return to it again, but probably not for a few years, and only to see if they have developed the Science-Fiction Museum more fully. Well, OK... also to see if they pay the Sonics (and the Wailers in tandem) the proper obeisance.

(To be continued...)

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