Seattle survivors face down the middle age bulge

Watching the recently released documentary “Pearl Jam 20,” an insiders look at the formative years and continuing career of one of the most influential bands of the last two decades, I was reminded of just how powerful that moment was when, seemingly out of nowhere, a handful of bands broke out of an insulated Seattle music scene in the early 1990s and resuscitated a music world that seemed to be in the last throes of terminal self indulgence and creative stagnation.

The film follows an arc familiar to most music documentaries about massively successful acts: The early struggle to pull the band together and overcome adversity; the sudden, nearly overwhelming acclaim; the band members fight to hold onto their sanity and artistic integrity; and finally, the equally strenuous endeavor to stay relevant as fickle audiences move on to newer, younger acts.

Thought the tale is writ large in Pearl Jam’s case, the same scenario holds for many of the band’s lesser-known Seattle brethren, as well. While none of these acts reached the same commercial pinnacle, many of them continue to produce vital, challenging music that serves as an adult antidote to the hyper-caffeinated, joyless blitz of modern pop.

Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan are two veterans of that era who have emerged with their sense of purpose and humor firmly intact. The former leaders of the critically lauded bands Afghan Whigs and Screaming Trees, respectively, the pair met after the Whigs became the firs act from outside the Pacific Northwest to sign with Seattle’s pioneering underground music label, Sub Pop, in 1989. They have since moved on to successful solo careers, producing some of the emotionally toughest, most uncompromising blues and R&B-based music in recent memory.

In 2007 Dulli and Lanegan joined efforts as The Gutter Twins to release “Saturnalia” a sunless grotto of a record that conjoins black ravines of brute force and sly insinuation throughout its diverse chambers of sound. Since that time Dulli has released several albums with his current band, Twilight Singers, which build on the experimental mix of funk-laced rock he perfected in the mid 90s. Lanegan, meanwhile, has worked with artists as diverse as Belle and Sebastian ingénue Isobell Campbell, Queens of the Stone Age, and British electronic act Soulsavers, quietly compiling a musical legacy that, combined with his solo work and past band efforts, ranks with the finest of the last 20 years.

Lanegan is set to release a new disc, “Blues Funeral,” in February.

In their present incarnations, neither artist has made the slightest effort to recapture the waves of teenage fans and alternative hipsters that swarmed to their previous acts during the height of the early 90s “grunge” hysteria. While any random snap shot from the red carpet of the latest Grammy Awards will reveal a sad race of Botox, collagen, and silicone-infused mutants locked in a desperate struggle with fading youth, both Dulli and Lanegan have all-too-happily succumbed to the ravages of their debauched pasts, weathered faces, faded tattoos, and protruding paunches proudly displayed in publicity photos and on stages across the world.

That lack of pretense and artifice may be due, in part, to a unique aspect of the Seattle scene detailed in the Pearl Jam documentary — its insulation from the mainstream music world and the degree to which its bands depended upon one another’s cooperation and friendship.

Inevitably, of course, that era also produced its fair share of cautionary tales to stand hand-in-hand with its successes; musicians that were never able to fully navigate the strange new waters of adulthood.

Former Soundgarden singer, Chris Cornell, long recognized as one of the most gifted singers in rock, has run through a series of incarnations since the group disbanded in 1997. Recording three albums with ex-members of Rage Against the Machine in the group Audioslave and working most recently as a solo artist, the man seems stymied by the sheer number of choices available to someone clearly vying to place himself in the same commercial peer group as Beyonce and Justin Timberlake.

While I’ll be the first to applaud artistic experimentation and risk taking, covering Michael Jackson songs and subsuming one of the most recognizable voices in music beneath layers of synthesized beats and production tricks simply reeks of self-doubt and confusion.

On a brighter note, Cornell is reportedly working on new material with the reunited members of Soundgarden for an album release sometime in 2012. The move highlights what may be the easiest way to deal with the uncertainty of the present — by simply picking up where you left off 15 years ago and carrying on.

Others, of course, have found their own, darker devices to carry them across their pre-fame years, with former Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr being only the latest in a depressingly lengthy roll call of Seattle music veterans to succumb to that place and time’s fascination with all things narcotic.

The questions that the artists who emerged from the Seattle music scene of the early 90s have struggled with aren’t unique to musicians, but affect anyone who’s not yet content to settle back into a middle age of flaccid complacency and nostalgia: How does one remain vital after that initial rush and energy of youth has fled, when the vice of family and finances begins to press and distort the dreams that were once inseparable from your waking life? What does it mean to be an adult who refuses to play the same sad, self-defeating games that the inhabitants of this world have fashioned into their everyday lives? How do you grow up without giving up?

Pearl Jam and the best of their contemporaries have emerged into a new century battered and changed but ultimately determined to stay true to the vision that sustained them through their pre-fame years of dank practice basements and broom closet-sized clubs.

Anyone working out their own path through the strange land beyond the Valley of the Wonder Years, myself included, should take heart from their example.


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