New Life For Restored Memories From Seattle’s Female Rockers
You probably know the bands that put Seattle on the international music map in the early 1990s. Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam have become legends, but they're only part of the Seattle music story. Women rocked the scene, too. Gretta Harley came to Seattle in 1990, looking for her tribe, and she says she found it.
"I lived in a house with a bunch of other musicians," she recalls. "And the Screaming Trees lived across the street, Gas Huffer was around the corner, and Gorilla around the other corner." She reels off the names of some of that era's most popular bands, many of whom practiced in her basement. It was a big, mostly congenial community. Not long after her arrival, she and fellow musician Tess.Lotta formed Maxi Badd, one of the many female-fronted bands that appeared regularly in Seattle clubs.
Preserving The Past
Fast forward 25 years and Gretta Harley is still making music. She's one half of the duo We Are Golden, along with singer and musical theater performer Sarah Rudinoff. Two years ago, the women decided to branch out from traditional songwriting. "We wanted to do something more theatrical" Rudinoff says, something that reflected their lives as female artists over 40.
The idea was prompted, in part, by the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's album "Nevermind," and the retrospectives about the era that popped up in the media. Harley says, "We started looking at the books, and the women were almost completely absent." She and Rudinoff decided it was their job to rectify the omission.
They began a series of conversations with other women musicians who were actively performing in the early 1990s: Kim Warnick of The Fastbacks, Carla Torgerson of The Walkabouts, Susan Robb, Kim Virant; the list goes on. Guitarist Amy Stolzenbach played with Charlotte's Webb, Flood and Hell's Belles. These days she composes film scores, but Stolzenbach admits she's still a rocker at heart. Talking to Harley and Rudinoff brought back memories of the young woman who moved to Seattle with hopes of landing a record contract. "Funny," she says "what I thought was so important, so badass."
Creating New Life
The oral histories collected from these musicians form the backbone of the new play, "These Streets." Sarah Rudinoff and Gretta Harley invited actor and playwright Elizabeth Kenny to help them transform the interviews into something with more theatrical appeal. Kenny crafted 30 monologues that are woven around the fictitious character Kyla's story. Kyla was on the verge of making it in the early 90s when she left the music scene to get married and raise her kids. After a hiatus of more than a decade, she's released her first record.
"These Streets" bounces between Kyla's present day and her past. Each character in the play is portrayed by two actors: one young and the other older. Sarah Rudinoff plays present day Kyla. Her younger version is portrayed by hip-hop musician Hollis Wong-Wear, who was only two years old when Sub Pop Records released Nirvana's first album, "Bleach." The play has been an education in rock and roll history. But some things, like the male-centric music industry, haven't really changed.
"We still very much live within a man's world," says Wong-Wear. "It's hard for every woman that breaks into the national or international sphere."
Wong-Wear recently performed with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on their national tour. Now she's immersed in rock and roll, and she's loving it. Seattle bands like Hammerbox and 7 Year Bitch gave "These Streets" producers permission to perform their songs in the show. A five-piece band fronted by Gretta Harley is onstage for the entire production. Playwright Elizabeth Kenny explains that the play is an artistic experiment, as DIY as the punk rock movement that spawned it.
"These Streets" creators Gretta Harley and Sarah Rudinoff have no idea whether their show will have a life after its Seattle run. But the oral histories they collected will be archived at the University of Washington. And maybe the next time a rock music anniversary rolls around, historians will know where to find the stories of the women who were there.