I was in Seattle this weekend as part of the great annual migration of literature professors known as the Modern Language Association. This year the convention organizers planned a couple of outings to local places of interest--a first, as far as I can remember. I've always been a fan of convention tourism--I've skipped unmemorable panels for memorable visits to a swamp garden in Charleston, shopping in San Francisco, and the Art Institute in Chicago among many others--so I jumped on the shuttle bus to EMP, the Experience Music Project, a relatively new Seattle institution that is a museum like no other.
To start with there's the stunning Frank Gehry-designed 140,000-sq-ft building, a destination in itself. Moving through the museum is like being inside a sci-fi seashell. The MLA had arranged for us to hear presentations by Jacob McMurray, senior curator and director of the museum's Oral History Project, and Lincoln Ballard, director of its Education Department. McMurray, sporting a jazzman fedora and indie-band workshirt, has been with the Experience Music Project since 1993, when it was just an organization collecting oral histories related to Jimi Hendrix.
McMurray told us that EMP was started when Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a huge Hendrix fan, began looking for a place to donate his collection of memorabilia from the life and career of the Seattle-born musician.
The project started with interviews of those who had known Hendrix, either in Seattle or later in his career. Ultimately the building was commissioned and EMP opened initially as a museum focusing on Hendrix (The Experience, get it?) as well as the music of the Pacific Northwest more generally. This, of course, is when EMP started collecting materials about Nirvana. As McMurray, who is quite the raconteur, tells it, around 2005 Paul Allen said to the museum's board of directors, "You know what else I really like? Sci-fi. And I just bought Captain Kirk's command chair from the Starship Enterprise. Let's put that in the museum too."
(That's what McMurray said, but according to the interwebs, Christian Slater actually owns the chair. Sorting this one out is above my pay grade so I will simply let the mystery be.) Anyway, there is no doubt that Allen had a huge collection of sci-fi memorabilia as well, since it's now all in the EMP. In order to smooth over the giant semantic chasm between these two collections, the museum recently re-launched as EMP: Music + Sci Fi + Popular Culture. Yeah, that makes it less weird.
Under this broader rubric, McMurray says (if we can believe him after that Christian Slater thing) that the museum now has almost a thousand oral histories on video. He showed us fascinating clips of his conversations with horror director Roger Corman, Chris Squire of Yes (about opening for Hendrix), and Megan Jasper of Sub Pop Records, the label that first signed Nirvana. Then he led us into the galleries for a guided tour, which I had been quite excited about. We started in the Nirvana exhibition and I was immediately drawn so far into it that I never saw the tour again and had to be kicked out when the museum closed hours later.
I owned Nevermind in the 90s like everyone else, and have enjoyed belting out "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at karaoke bars, but I would not consider myself an especially knowledgeable Nirvana, punk or grunge fan. Perhaps for that very reason, I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about that history from this fabulous exhibition (organized, BTW, by Jacob McMurray). The exhibition makes the case that the American music scene was transformed in the 1980s when idiosyncratic local scenes from Athens to Boise edged out the monopoly of the big record labels. Punk's DIY aesthetic meant that the bands, often formed from inexperienced musicians who were still teenagers, not only developed their own sounds in isolation from the commercial mainstream, but also booked their own shows (often in unsanctioned venues, often closed down by the police), were their own roadies, did their own cover art, distributed their own tapes and albums, and had a direct relationship with their fans based on a mutual identification as outsiders. As one commentator (from the band Minor Threat) said in an oral history that's part of the exhibition: "We didn't cross over to the mainstream. The mainstream came to us."
I probably spent an hour in front of one exhibit, a map of the United States that showed the locations of the punk and indie bands that shaped this transformation. Each location had numbers associated with it, each number represented a band or album, and you could listen to a short intro and three songs from each one. One song led to another in what turned out to be a dizzying variety. Who knew the Pixies were from D.C.? What did R.E.M. have to do with punk? The Butthole Surfers--right, they were still performing when I moved to Austin in 1991.