Northwest Music History: 1980s

THE SPECTATORS

The Spectators played fewer than 20 gigs. They performed only 15 songs live. But their reputation as one of the most original and accomplished bands of the early Seattle alternative scene continues to grow into the 21st century. Their first gig was December 8th 1980, the same day John Lennon was gunned down in New York City. It was just like most other nights at Seattle’s legendary Gorilla Room on Second Avenue; a handful of people showed up, and more free beer was drunk up by the bar staff and their under-aged buddies than was ever sold. But that night one of the finest Seattle bands of the era played to the nearly empty club. Over the next few months the band would be regulars at the Gorilla Room and WREX and end up on the stage of Seattle’s Showbox Theater at least twice, as co-headliners, and as openers for The Stranglers. Later, Bob Mould, having played three dates with The Spectators while on the first national tour by Hüsker Dü , called them “the greatest unsigned band in America“. Less than a yearlater The Spectators were gone.

The Spectators combination of surf, metal, jazz and punk predates most alt bands with similar influences by a full decade. They were a power-trio, but one that dealt their deadly blows with intricate and subtle precision rather than blind swings. This was a band that had brains as well as brawn. By using a limited amount ofeffects, guitarist Byron Duff and bass player Stanford “Stan” Filarca created a sound so tightly woven that it was hard totell who was playing lead, where the rhythm was coming from and how they could possibly sound so big and layered at the same time. Add to the mix the powerful, inventive and perfect tempo of drummer Jeff Farrand and it’s hard to think of any finer trio in rock, signed or unsigned, even today.

During their short life The Spectators recorded very little of their output in the studio-about six studio tracks still exist. Unfortunately most of it has been lost or the tapes have degraded so badly they’re practically unlistenable.  Fortunately there still are some fairly high quality mono recording caught on a cassette player using a condenser mike! Some of these cassettes and board mixes have been discovered, including this recording of Call It Chaos. One-time Seattle promoter and indie label owner Maire Masco found an almost-perfect copy of the song (and four others) hidden away in an attic. Another notable tape that has surfaces is a live-in-studio session they did with producer/engineer Ed Shepard at his Seattle space The Funhole. Two of those songs were released on Masco’s 1982 cassette-only compilation release PRAVDA Volume I. The cassette is incredibly rare, and those that remain are worn-out, but the brilliance of The Spectators still shines through. They show the deft ability to meld bass, rhythm and lead guitar sections into their music so effectively that it can confound the listener into thinking there are far more instrument than a simple trio at work.  Oddly enough, The Spectators biggest influence wasn’t punk…it was the Prog Rock of the 1970s and early 80s.  It’s hard to envision that in their music.

After The Spectators disbanded, guitarist Byron Duff faded from the Seattle scene, much to it loss. Drummer Jeff Farrand left the NW for San Francisco. Bassist Stan Filarca managed to fill duties-although a bit funkier-for another of Seattle’s best bands to emerge in the 1980s The Beat Pagodas. He used the same creative arsenal as he did in The Spectators allowing for them to revel in their “no guitar“ ethos. Byron Duff re-emerged briefly in the late 1980s with his band Dive, Moth and more recently as guitarist for the band Idiot Culture, who finally released a brilliant album in 2012.

Duff was no slacker in the lyrics department either. That first night the band played at Seattle’s notorious Gorilla Room an old beat-up big-screen TV projected flickering images behind them. As someone behind the bar changed channels back and forth they stopped on an old sci-fi flick. Giant locusts were attacking a horrified city. At that moment, by coincidence, the band lit into one of their signature tunes, Idiot Culture – a title Duff would later take as a band name. As the creatures wrecked havoc and terrified the population Byron sang:

There is

Something of great size

Out of control in the head

Of an insect

Of an INSECT!

“Great size and out of control”…it’s a perfect metaphor for The Spectators

Call it Chaos is one of the few remaining songs from sessions produced by Jack Weaver at Seattle’s Triangle Studio.  A few years later the studio was re-named “Reciprocal Recording” and the room became the home of seminal grunge recordings engineered and produced by Jack Endino. The song begins in a slightly more pop style than typical of The Spectators, but it was soon apparent the song wasn’t going for the radio-friendly new wave sound popular at the time. It implodes into a pile of chaotic, but intentional sonic bricks…each one falling on another in an almost precise way. It’s an example of what The Spectators were best at; simplicity appearing as much more than the sum of it’s parts.

-Dennis R. White. Sources: Byron Duff, Stanford Filarca

 

THE REFUZORS

During the early to mid 1980s The Refuzors were A-list Seattle punk rockers. They were one of the best live bands around. Uncompromising, edgy and raw.  They could have been lumped in with alot of hardcore bands from that era but for one thing. The songwriting, mostly by guitarist and vocalist Mike Refuzor set them far ahead of other great hardcore Seattle bands.  And they were always unexpectedly fun.  The Refuzors started out as a trio, and it’s probably their original line-up or Mike Refuzor (Mike Lambert) Bass and Vocals, Danny Refuzor (Danny Barton) on guitar and Roach Refuzor Dan Bradshaw) on drums that is most memorable. Other incarnations included Ward Refuzor (Ward Nelson) on guitar, Al Dams, Mike Purdon on bass  and Renee Refuzor (Renee Vazquez) doing some of the vocals.

The Refuzors were good at creating controversy-but some of it was also the cause of the press.  In a revew of the band local rock critic (at the time) printed her views of The Refuzors (and Mike specifically) of being neo-Nazi, white supremecists and fascists.  The comments were made in the widely read but now defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  Her pronouncement wasn’t based on the lyrics or outward signs of Nazism.  The Refuzors never associated themselves with the neo-Nazi or white supremacist movements.  Hackett based her opinon on their dress; the all black, all leather uniform that many punks adhered to in the early 1980s.  The result of the public accusation led Mike to write one of his best songs, “White Power”.  And of course, once more the media went wild.  How could any major band write such a song?
The fact is the song’s lyrics make clear that they did NOT support white supremacy.  The lyrics start:

People may say things about me.
Some of them things are true, some are lies
With the power of the press you labeled me a Nazi
I bet you can’t even look me in the eyes

Later in the chorus Mike sings;

I never said White Power
I never said White Power to you
White Power
I’m sayin’ it now
You put those words in my mouth…

A studio version of the song was included on the near-legendary “Seattle Syndrome” compilation, but it seems as of this writing there are only very poorly recorded live versions of the song available on the internet.  Aside from the inclusion on The Seattle Syndrome The Refuzors released a cassette-only project in 1987 titled “Q. Why Do It, You’ll Never Get Rich A. Cuz I’m A Refuser” as well as Idol Records’ i987 release of a compilation called “Flashback”.

Other controversies were totally staged by The Refuzors themselves. For instance swinging a dead cat into the audience while playing their song “Splat Goes The Cat” to an all-ages audience. The mainstream press was not amused.  Rock critic Regina Hackett took another stab at denouncing the band.  She publicly accused Mike Refuzor of not having morals, while Mike countered “The cat was already dead anyway”.  No matter.  The fans loved it and it has become local Seattle lore-and one of the most memorable antics in the city’s rock history.

The Refuzors never made it out of the confines of the Seattle/Portland alt vortex. They probably never made a penny, but they Refuzors were the real deal. Totally without guile or bullshit, their lives and music were undistinguishable. They were hombres, outside the lines, with fiercely loyal fans. By the late 80s, though, the band slowly unraveled from drugs, alcohol and limited recognition outside the Northwest. They called it quits in 1989.  It’s a typical story, but it’s without a typical ending. Read on.

In the early to mid-90s Mike had met the proto-punk, psychedelic “creator of Flower Power” Sky Saxon formerly of “The Seeds” (Pushin’ Too Hard, Can’t Seem to Make You Mine)  Sky was currently living in Seattle after going broke near the height of his career, ending up on the streets, and later joining a “The Source Family” in Hawaii and re-naming himself “Sunshine”. Mike palled around with Sky, did a few shows together as The Wolf Pack and took part in the kind of over-the-top-escapist drug use that both were known for

In 1993 Mike put The Refuzors back together, although with a completely different line-up that included several members of Seattle’s “The Accused”.  The reconstituted  band recorded two sides for the now defunct Seattle label ‘Bag of Hammers’. The songs had been long been in The Refuzors repertoire and results were spectacular. The single Think I Lost My Faith b/w Jim Jones’ might just be the true missing link between the brilliant NW underground punk scene of the 1980’s and the equally brilliant, but over-hyped ‘grunge’ of the 90’s. Unfortunately ‘Bag of Hammers’ released only 800 copies of the single and without any promotion it went nowhere.   An additional 200 of the singles were pressed on clear vinyl, making it a true rarity.

Meanwhile Mike sank lower and lower, eventually ending up on the street and in the 2000’s he suffered a mild stroke and lost some of his sight. Without support from his old friends and fans he ended up nearly forgotten by music fans who thought “grunge”

Both ‘Think I Lost My Faith’ and ‘Jim Jones’ along with the 1981 release “White Power” have upfront drums & bass that was typical punk of rhythm section.  But The Refuzors weren’t above a heavy guitar sound and the occasional solo. Mike’s vocals were torn, ragged and raw, but not like every other cookie-cutter hardcore vocalist. This was real pain. It’s not fake suburban angst. There was a beautiful, passionate cruelty at work here. These songs are a brilliant mix of writing and delivery.  Stuff that makes people want to howl and cry and bang my head at the same time. It proves the theory that the greatest bands in the world will probably never be heard, or at least only heard by a few. Most will never make it outside their garage door.  Luckily The Refuzors were able to be an important, influential part of the 80s Seattle music scene.

The Refuzors may never end up onstage again. Mike is somewhat disabled, and living the life of a hermit, although he’s spotted around town now and again, and has even appeared onstage with The Fags, and with his good friend Charlie Thunders of the band “Thankless Dogs. Sadly, Roach Refuzor (Dan Bradshaw) passed away in early 2015.  I don’t know if The Refuzors were some of the ‘Shoulders of Giants’ grunge bands stood on, or if they were just garage-bound guys that got stepped on and tossed aside when the music biz smelled cash. It doesn’t matter. They were brilliant, beautiful, caustic and heart-wrenching in their honesty.  Maybe one day they’ll receive the belated respect that’s been overdue for many years.

-Dennis R. White. Sources: Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011)  Garage Punk Hideout Forum, June 25-27, 2009, Discogs.com, Charlie Thunders, Mike Refuzor.

THE VISIBLE TARGETS

The Visible Targets, with the frontline of sisters Pamela Golden, Laura Keane and Rebecca Hamilton could have dressed up as babes.  They could have played covers for frat parties.  They could have been a “novelty band”.  Instead they chose to work within Seattle’s alternative scene, playing alongside art bands, punks and “loser” bands as well as the innovators.  It’s no wonder that the band was often scoffed at by the supposedly hip, more cynical and “serious bands.   The irony is those “hipper” more cynical audiences always showed-up at their shows.  The truth is The Visible Targets were original, musically talented and…fun.  They were secure in their musical talent and determination.  It’s fair to say they were the forerunners of the riot grrl movement that wouldn’t flourish for another

decade.  The sisters, originally from Yakima WA had paid their dues in cover bands and had even spent time in England trying to jump-start their career.  But it wasn’t until they returned to the US and recruited Ron Simmons as drummer.  Ron was an old friend of theirs from school, and he fit in perfectly.  With the sisters in front and Simmons in the back providing an excellent behind them the band (then known as Wreckless) set out to conquer Seattle-and further.  With their name change to The Visible Targets, and their musical and lyrical dexterity popularity was to come quickly with a dedicated fan base who loved their approach, their look, and most of all their musical and lyrical talent.

The Visible Targets first came to light via Bruce Pavitt’s 1980 ‘cassettezine’ Sub Pop 5. The band then caught the attention of Bob Jenniker, a successful record store owner in Portland and Seattle that had begun the Park Avenue Records label. Bob had released the The Wipers’ Alien Boy, Youth of America and Is This Real, all of them seminal recordings from the American underground. Jenniker was scouting for new talent for his label, and when he found The Visible Targets. He was so impressed he not only signed them; he became the band’s manager and dedicated friend.

The band reflected everything good about the ‘power pop” and new wave” music of the 1980’s. They had an incredible pop sensibility, a talented line-up with enough edge to satisfy serious musicians while appealing to fans that were more interested in being entertained than any of the complexities of what they were hearing. During their five year career they garnered major label interest, and took on national tours.  One of their tours was the Canadian leg of a worldwide tour by Simple Minds who were then at the height of their success. The tour gave them great exposure in Canada, but the US market still alluded them.

After touring with the The Simple Minds the Visible Targets had the great fortune to snag the legendary “Spider From Mars” guitarist Mick Ronson as a producer.   The result was their second EP “Autistic Savant”.  The EP omitted several songs that Ronson produced for them-one featuring Mick on piano.  He’s The Boy, which had been the the b-side of Little Eva’s monster hit The Loco-Motion was a fan favorite but not included on the Autistic Savant EP. The Ronson produced song from these sessions was finally released in 2012 on dadastic! sounds compilation That’s Dadastic!  At least two other songs have never been released, although the band members have the intention of releasing them on a CD/digital retrospective of their career some time in the future.

Their two EP’s ‘The Visible Targets’ and ‘Autistic Savant’ were well-received, but they never made as big a dent nationally as they should have. Their single, Life In The Twilight Zone is undoubtedly one of the most well-known songs to come out of Seattle’s 1980s music scene. But the hit was only a regional one and despite excellent live performances they were always on the look-out for that hit to provide them the national hit they sought.  In those days vinyl records and tapes by indie bands were poorly distributed.  Having to rely on self-promotion and the guidance of their friend and manager Bob Jenniker was not enough to send them over the top.  After a five year career, the band were gone and seemed to fade into history despite a large following of rabid Northwest fans…fans that remain to this day

Drummer Ron Simmons later explained in an interview with DJ El Toro of Seattle’s KEXP radio:

“One summer in the mid-’80s we all decided that we needed a long overdue break. We had been performing, writing and practicing pretty much all the time, five to six days a week, for five years. During that time most of us worked day gigs to make a living. We were all exhausted and decided to take the summer off. After the summer, we just kept putting off getting back together, taking time to do other projects that we now had time to do. Pamela started visiting Nancy Wilson (of Heart) briefly and did some jamming. She then started working on a solo project with the help of Tony Levin (bass player for King Crimson/David Bowie/Material, et al). She put out one CD shortly after. Rebecca spent some time with various musicians mixing tunes and writing new ones. Laura spent more time with her family. I threw myself into painting and various art projects that I had a passion for; I showed my work quite a bit in the late 80’s through the mid 90’s in the Seattle area“.

After the demise of The Visible Targets Pamela and Rebecca, with the help of another close friend, wrote a CD’s worth of music (actually quite good), and called me to get back together for a possible reunion. I had already made a commitment to move to the Portland area and start up a publishing company for a close friend, so our reunion never materialized

A CD full of new material was self-released by the sisters.  The music is a broadening of what would probably been the trajectory would have gone forth with.  Unfortunately the problem of distribution still prohibited a wider release, and the band’s new moniker, “Wonderland” may have confused fans.  There were several groups using that name in the 90s.  No matter how great the music and musicianship it’s always difficult to amass a following when exposure is a problem.  Remember, the digital age had not taken hold yet, especially not in terms of independent artists to make their music available to millions of listeners.
According to Ron Simmons “Today, Laura is working for a college in the area, and Pamela and Rebecca started their own business in the service industry. They still pick up their guitars and jam. I am North Regional Publisher for a regional publication, still painting and showing my work in the area. We all still stay in contact. Bob Jeniker our manager and best friend, died around the late ’90s of cancer. He kept encouraging us to get back together, but it was just not in the cards”.

Even though The Visible Targets broke up decades ago they are fondly remembered by those who had the experience of seeing or hearing them in their heyday.  Life In The Twilight Zone is still regularly requested on local stations.  In 2007 former members of the band did an interview on Seattle’s KEXP.  The station also has a very strong presence on the internet with listeners around the world.  The lead-up to the interview garnered a great deal of interest, with many fans waiting to hear plans of a reunion-or at least a career retrospective that has not yet come to fruition.  One can only hope a compilation of all their recorded music is released one day.  It will be a testament to the power of well-written, well executed power-pop.  The music of The Visible Targets is timeless.

-Dennis R. White.  Sources: Ron Simmons, Rebecca Hamilton, DJ El Toro “Weird At My School” KEXP blog, August 4, 2008.  Photograph Jo David

 

WREX

WREX was established in Belltown, Seattle by Michael Clay, Wes Bradley, and Aaron McKiernan in the early Fall of 1979.  The venue, at 2018 First Avenue, was formerly a leather gay bar called Johnny’s Handlebar, located on the ground floor of a former brothel. Johnny’s Handlebar, at the time it closed was said to be the oldest, continuously open gay bar on the West Coast.  For the first few months of it’s life WREX remained a typical 70s/80s gay bar, catering to local gay men.  The unique décor inside WREX included old car seats in the back, old airplane seats in the side area, and Seattle’s first music video system curated by Ted Ladd.  A DJ spun the popular music found in thousands of gay discos around the nation (and in Seattle) which also included a handful of the poppier “new wave” hits that most gay bars also included among their playlists. As the novelty of the new gay bar wore off the gay clientele retreated to many of their previous haunts around town.  The Brass Door, Neighbors, The Park Avenue, and a plethora of other LGBT venues that  were popping up with regularity.  WREX was still viable as a business, but they needed something more to bring in customers.  One of the targets WREX had not yet tapped into was the growing popularity of punk in the LGBT community  Many who came of age during the punk era rejected the “clone” culture that pervaded the  gay scene at the time.  Not only that, alot of younger straight adults interested in punk barely regarded a difference between themselves and their queer friends. They all gravitated  toward punk as an alternative, so they were all one tribe. It’s not surprising that gays bars were regularly part of the punk scene of the late 70’s and early 80’s.  They were always ready to allow punk rock in their midst because it represented the same kind of outsidership, and it’s no wonder so many gay youth were willing to embrace more outré artists that had emerged from gay disco-artists like Sylvester and the iconic Grace Jones.

Seattle’s punk and gay communities have often mingled together, and the subcultural mise-en-scène at WREX was no exception to that general rule. Occasionally, former Johnny’s Handlebar clientele would drop in after WREX’s opening, not yet knowing about the change in management and regular crowd. Since both gays and punks were then equally shunned by mainstream Seattleites, there was no true clash between the two subcultures.

Armed with that knowledge two gay young men who were familiar with the cross-pollination between punk and gay culture approached Aaron McKiernan, the principle investor in WREX with a proposal.  One night a week WREX would host dances showcasing the latest independent, alternative and punk rock. The two DJs there were Charles “Upchuck” Gerra, then a prominent figure within Seattle’s punk scene, and Dennis R. White who would later become a graphic designer. promoter. manager and part of the staff of The Rocket.  Although Gerra spun a few records each night, his real strength was hosting, mingling with and entertaining the crowd and promoting the fact that WREX had now become a haven for young gay and lesbians searching for their own space.  And with them came their allies and friends in the punk community.  All-ages clubs and all-ages shows had come and gone in Seattle, but no single club had devoted itself to punk and alternative dance music.  There was a ready audience waiting, so, on a rainy night in December 1979 just after 8PM the needle dropped onto “Orphans” by Teenage Jesus and The Jerks.  A new chapter in Seattle music had begun.

At first the crowds were sparse, but they grew throughout 1980 and eventually the club was just as much a “gay” venue as a “punk” venue that welcomed anyone with a love for the alternative scene.  Some time during this period, Mike Vraney (of Time Travellers and Modern Productions) began to book live music at the club.  His sights were high and he intended to showcase the best of popular local alternative bands with rising stars on the indie scene both in the US and Europe.  The first live band to play WREX was The Fastbacks (with a young Duff McKagen on drums).  Their set was meant to work out any kinks in presenting live music, and in anticipation of the first official show at WREX.  The next night The Blackouts and The Beakers opened for Delta 5 from Leeds, England.  Delta 5’s politically infused feminist politics had made them stand-outs in the early post-punk years.

From then on bands played at WREX three nights a week, originally booked by Vraney.  During his very successful run of bookings Vraney brought national and international acts to the club, as well as booking the cream of the crop of Seattle alternative bands.  The job was eventually turned over to WREX manager/publicist Wes Bradley.  Bradley had extensive ties within the established music business, so it wasn’t hard for him to get his foot in the door of the labels promoting alternative acts that were finally seeing some success in the wider music business.   Bookings were also handed over to independent agents as well as bookings by members of WREX’s own staff.  At the same time Ted Ladd, a video artist and curator was in the process of making headway with both video wallpaper and showing music videos between DJ’s and live music sets.

The shows filled it’s tiny space for most of the time WREX existed. Along with almost every local band then playing original music (starting with the Enemy), touring acts who played at WREX included Grace Jones, Joan Jett, X, The Fleshtones, Romeo Void, Wall of Voodoo, Los Microwaves, Hüsker Dü and others who were then becoming staples of alternative and college radio.  The frequency of shows — and their apparent local popularity — inspired other bars around Seattle to start booking original-music bands, thus giving a crucial boost to Seattle’s punk scene at a crucial time in its development. Additionally, certain bars near WREX in Belltown — such as the Frontier Room and the Rendezvous — soon became local punk hangouts. One gay bar that had always been punk-friendly was Tugs, Belltown.  The proximity of Tugs and WREX exponentially help create what would be one of the city’s best strips to enjoy music on, First Avenue.  A little further south down road lay The Showbox, and during the heyday of it’s operation was a showcase for everyone from Captain Beefheart to John Cale to The Specials to James Brown.  Smaller all-ages venues like Danceland and one-off store front gigs and artists’ studios became common.

By the height of WREX’s popularity Upchuck had continued pursuing his career as a rock performer, Dennis White was spinning records  one night a week, and involved in The Rocket, his own musical side projects, churning out hundreds of rock posters and producing a few band’s recordings on his Pravda label.  But the bulk of the music was presented by DJ’s Michael Clay and Ross Bostwick.  Bostwick would become the one single DJ that was the powerhouse behind the dance music at WREX.  He also made  the transition to the most popular DJ when the space became The Vogue, a few years later. His excellent taste in what was new, progressive, alternative or downright spooky kept the audience intrigued.  Meanwhile Ted Ladd continued to curate punk and new wave videos-a job he continued after the club became The Vogue.

Along with the fertile subcultural ferment that thrived at WREX, there was also an inevitable element of sleaze. At the end of many nights there, spilled beer lingered an inch or two thick on the concrete floor, and young couples often had sex openly on the back staircase during shows. Such was the standard punk nightlife during that time, in Seattle and elsewhere. The nature of its clientele wasn’t WREX’s most important problem: it also had constant problems with cash flow. Dennis White once lamented,

WREX was always out of cash. Toward the end I was buying the keg off the truck in the afternoon out of my own pocket, hoping they’d sell enough that night to pay me back.

Money-or lack of it-is the most common downfall of great nightclubs, so WREX officially closed on March 18, 1982. One year later, the same venue would reopen as The Vogue (in honor of the original hotel’s name-something lost on many of WREX’s former clientele). While focusing on recorded dance music played by DJs, also The Vogue hosted live music acts on off nights — including Nirvana’s first Seattle gig before a full audience on April 24, 1988.  Perhaps it was Nirvana’s “first Seattle gig before a live audience” Most rock historians consider this show the band’s first Seattle gig, but Bruce Pavitt, founder of Sub Pop Reocrds insisted that a Nirvana showcase he attended on April 10, 1988, at the Central Saloon was the band’s very first in Seattle.  He claims “No one else remembers it because it was just me, the doorman and about three other people.”

Some people see The Vogue as one of the first venues to host bands that would one day be known as “grunge”…but like the transition from the 80s to 90s Seattle music scene, it’s hard to escape that WREX had been important to that which would emerge around The Vogue and other clubs like Gorilla Gardens, The OK Hotel and The Metropolis.  Anyone old enough or with a good fake ID who would go onto become part of the late 80s/early 90s movement had stepped inside the doors of WREX at least once. “We all stand on the shoulders of giants” as has been pointed out so many times.

 

–Jeff Stevens & Dennis R. White Sources: Clark Humphrey, “Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story” (Feral House, 1995; MiscMedia, 1999, 2016); Clark Humphrey, “Seattle’s Belltown” (Arcadia Publishing, 2007); Peter Blecha, “Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from ‘Louie Louie’ to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’” (Backbeat Books, 2009); Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011),
 

STUDENT NURSE

By the early 1980s Student Nurse was a mainstay of the alternative Seattle music scene.  Their angular. slightly dissonant and dance-driven sound set them apart from the darker, punkier and heavier bands they shared bills with.  Bands like Audio Leter, The Fags, Red Dress, and The Refuzors.  Like the best of their contemporaries they honed-in on their particular, unique sound and the band expanded outward, sending them on a trajectory somewhere between subversion and art-damage.

Student Nurse started as the brainchild of married couple John Rogers (drums) Helena Rogers (guitar and vocals) along with bassist Joe Harris and rhythm guitarist Al Davis.  In 1979 the band self-released their first single, (“Disco Dog b/w Lies).  The songs stood perilously between weirdness and pop-exactly as the band had anticipated.  One other song from this line-up was included on the ground-breaking “Seattle Syndrome” compilation released on Engram Records in 1981. By that time Harris and Davis had left the band and the jittery guitar leads of Helena Rogers were accompanied by new members guitarist Tom Boetcher and bassist Eric Muhs.  Helena’s vocals were disjointed, pointalist and determined. John’s jazz-influenced drumming and rhythms were the perfect foil to the rest of the band which left the impression the music had fallen on it’s face-in the best possible way.

Their next vinyl outing was the one-sided 12″ “As Seen On TV” with individually hand-screened artwork by Helena on the cover-as had been the case with the first single.  This is the kind of stuff collectors drool over nowadays, but Helena and the rest of the band weren’t interested in collectors of the growing market for oddball packaging that would later cater to a pre-manufactured market for Seattle music, and the rest of the alternative/independent scene.  For Student Nurse it was all about the aesthetics and ethics they held.

In 1981 Student Nurse entered Triangle Studios-later to be renamed as the famous “Triad Studios” where so many other successful bands would record.  The choice of the material for their next single  may have seemed odd, as they chose two of their more accessible songs, the Dutch-lyriced “Recht Op Staan” (“Stand Up Straight” in English-a song referring to the importance of good posture).  The B-side was an instrumental called “Electronic Pop Smash”.  Both choices were designed to catch listeners and fans off-guard.  Maire Masco, one of the heads of Pravda, the label that released “Recht Op Staan” remarked “Who the hell sings a rock song in Dutch?  Not even the Dutch!”  And that was exactly the subversive kind of thing that could have been expected of Student Nurse.

David Javelosa (of “Los Microwaves” and” Baby Buddha”) was brought in to produce-another purposeful anomaly since Student Nurse were ostensibly a guitar-driven band while Javelosa was known more for his work in synthesizer-based outfits.  The fascination of weirdo-influenced pop made it a good fit for the band and Javelosa.  A totally unexpected lyric sung in an almost-obscure language backed with a song who’s title denoted electronic synth sound (yet contained no synthesizers) was not only an inside joke.  It was a decision to thumb the nose at everything American alternative music was becoming.  Over three decades later it’s easier to see this was an “inside job” calculated to challenge listeners and their perceptions.

Although it was clear John and Helena were the core of the band, it remained fairly democratic, but onstage Student Nurse belonged to Helena.  Skinny with piercing silver eyes and a Phranc-ish hair she was the epitome of lesbian-chic before lesbian-chic was even a thing.  All shouts and smiles, she provided the hyper-caffeinated energy at the center of the band.  The staccato performances combined with Helena’s butch persona scared many of the top booking agents from putting them on the bill with larger touring acts.  The band was too oddball and too difficult to pigeonhole…in fact they might even upset the sensibilities of a MOR audience.  But a few clubs regularly welcomed them, and the band was expert at putting together shows with other “unbookable” acts at private venues, lodges, halls and dance studios.  They did quite well without having to assuage the mass crowds and bookers that were starting to catch onto the poppier side of new wave.  Student Nurse didn’t spend time calculating what would have been best for their career-they simply did what they loved for as long as people wanted to hear them.  They were far more interested in being architects of their own very unique sound and approach to the art and dance.

GARY HEFFERN

Gary Heffern began his career the late 70’s singing with San Diego punk band The Penetrators alongside Country Dick Montana. Heffern’s done poetry readings with everyone from John Doe, to Nina Hagen, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Henry Rollins. His first two solo albums ‘Bald Tires in the Rain’ and ‘Painful Days’ have featured some of the incredible cadre of his admirers. John Doe, Mojo Nixon, Country Dick Montana, The Walkabouts, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Mark Arm of Mudhoney.

Heffern spent a good part of his career as part of the Seattle music scene, but his muse has taken him to Finland, living near the Arctic Circle where an incredible video of his song ‘La La Land’ was shot in 2008. It’s an epic, sad, beautiful, and reflective observation of the fading away of a parent…It’s touching without ever slipping into the sentimentality one would expect.

His album “Consolation” featured a who’s who of American roots music; Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Alejandro Escovedo, Peter Case, Mark Lanegan, Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows/R.E.M.) Chris and Carla of The Walkabouts, Jim Roth from ‘Built to Spill‘, and on and on. The depth and breadth of Heffern’s friends and admirers who join him on Consolation and currently as “Gary Heffern And The Beautiful People” and is a continuing testament to his position as an important songwriter whose work rises to the top of the heap.

Seattle rock critic and well-known author Charles R. Cross writes:”In Heffern’s own songs there is a constant struggle between darkness and light, between failed dreams and reckless prayer, between a world where all hope is lost and one where a consoling friend offers a sliver of deliverance. Even on a song as haunting as “(I Am Your) Destroyer” from the album “Consulation” sounds like Iggy Pop could have written it. There is still a core of sweetness among the ruins. “That’s the Beauty (Of the Little Things in Life)” truly rings with a ghost: It was written in Seattle’s Comet Tavern on the very night that Gits’ singer Mia Zapata went missing (and later turned up murdered). Not only a remarkable timepiece, “That’s the Beauty” demonstrates Heffern’s skill at creating a story arc that celebrates the fragility of life at the same time it bemoans it. It’s the kind of re-framing that is uniquely Gary Heffern”.
Aside from his songwriting, albums. online music and live performances, Gary has also been the subject of Finnish filmmaker Erkki Määttänen’s “Sweet Kisses From Mommy” It recounts Gary’s birth in Finland as Veli-Matti Tervaneimi through his adoption, childhood and renaming and growing up in 1950s and 60s San Diego.

Dennis R. White: Sources, Gary Heffern, Charles R. Cross, liner notes for the album Consolation (2008).  Video Janne Huotari / Wolf Productions.