ARTICLE WILLIAM VAN METER
PHOTOGRAPHY CHARLES PETERSON
PHOTOJOURNALIST AND SEATTLE SCENESTER CHARLES PETERSON HAD AN ALL-ACCESS PASS TO THE GREATEST MOMENTS IN GRUNGE
The music scene in the early ’90s was a blur of gold MC Hammer pants vertically dancing back and forth across the MTV nation. But a dirty, scuzzed-out version of punk and metal was brewing in the Pacific Northwest, and soon the entire world was snorting the smell of teen spirit and lollapalosin’ it. Grunge swept the country, and photographer Charles Peterson was there to shoot it. Touch Me I’m Sick (powerHouse) is a collection of Peterson’s work from the era. Like other lens crafters—Mick Rock, with his iconic ’70s glam-rock shots, and Neil Zlozower with his ’80s metal excess—Peterson’s work took on a more important role than simply documenting the times. His photos embodied the music. Not just a music photojournalist but a Seattle scene fixture, Peterson was there when Nirvana and Pearl Jam were playing empty bars and when they were playing stadiums in Japan. We talked to Peterson from his home about all things grunge.
How did you get into music?
CHARLES PETERSON The first record I remember owning when I was really young was by the Beach Boys—one of those double-album television compilations. In junior high school I listened to Rush and Judas Priest and hard rock. One time at the record store at the mall, I ran across the first Clash album. I thought it looked really different and interesting. I was 15 or 16 at the time, and I went home and played it and was like, “Holy shit!” I immediately sold all of my heavy metal records to the kid down the street and bought punk records from that point on. I grew up in Bothell, Washington, which is about a half-hour drive north of Seattle. I was the one and only Bothell punk kid. We’re talking 1980 or ’82, pre-MTV. I was pretty much the outsider, but at the same time I was staff photographer for the high school annual and newspaper and was very involved.
When did you first start taking photographs?
CP When I was 12. I had an uncle who had a darkroom in my grandmother’s laundry room. It smelled like a combination of Tide and developer. I was endlessly fascinated with watching prints come up in the tray. I never really thought about doing anything else.
Did you always want to be a music photographer?
CP No, in college I was thinking more of being a fine art photographer. But really, I had no idea what that meant or how you made money doing it. So, to photograph my friends’ bands just seemed like something to do—natural and utilitarian because I knew how to take photographs and make prints and they needed decent photos for their record covers, publicity, and whatnot. My mother was constantly harping on me to do something else, like shoot catalog fashion. I had an instinct to hang in there, and once Nirvana broke she was sending me clippings in the mail. There have been some lean times, and well, actually, there still are.
Did you ever think this local music was going to be so significant?
CP Honestly, no. I think we all had an inkling that as Nirvana progressed they would probably be the most significant, but nothing to happen on the level that it did.
It must have seemed that being in Seattle, success wasn’t really an option. I mean, Heart came from there, but that’s about it.
CP Seattle wasn’t even on the map, period—not in music, art, or commerce.
At that time wasn’t Seattle quite economically depressed?
CP It is actually more depressed now. It’s kind of funny, but it’s true. We have the highest unemployment rate in the country. Seattle at the moment—god, you drive around and there are for rent and for sale signs everywhere. Seattle is very provincial and insular. It’s made up of pioneers and lumbermen, essentially.
What is the music scene out there like now?
CP There’s not much that inspires me, but I’m going to be 40 six months from now and I don’t get out as often as I used to! But I still listen to rock and roll and all kinds of music. Lately in Seattle the few things I find interesting are the hip-hop nights and break-dancers.
I was going to ask you if you are a rock purist.
CP Oh, no, not at all. I have always been open to a lot of things. Back in the grunge days I was always the one playing Public Enemy and Run-DMC. It was like, “Yeah, you’re going to party at my house? You’re going to shake your ass to some hip-hop.”
Do you think there has been a significant rock movement since the grunge explosion?
CP I think the way the industry is now set up has a lot to do with creating the current explosions out of nowhere. All of a sudden the record labels had to sit up and take notice, and now they are taking too much notice and not letting things bubble up from the underground organically. That and MTV and the Internet are making things happen too fast to be as special and localized as grunge was.
With the Internet making fads so universal, you can’t tell what kind of music someone is listening to by looking at them; they all have on hooded sweatshirts.
CP They can all have dyed orange hair now and parents don’t blink an eye.
That is because of grunge and the mainstreaming of the underground. All of the soccer jocks in high school have bleached hair now.
CP Where do you go next? There are little movements, like the electroclash thing. Drum and bass never took off here like it did in England, and it’s not really happening over there anymore, either.
What do you think signaled the end of that era?
CP I mean, it sounds somewhat cliché, but really, Kurt’s death.
It’s not a cliché because it’s true!
CP It is true! It was like, holy shit, this has just gotten way out of control.
That event was the “Where were you when Kennedy died?” for our generation. I remember I was in Panama City Beach, Florida, for spring break, sniffing VCR head cleaner. Were you good friends with him? You took the first publicity shots of them, even before Dave Grohl joined.
CP Yeah, I did their first publicity pictures. Really, Nirvana were the outsiders. They were from a much smaller, more depressed town than even Seattle! Aberdeen. And they’re kinda more trailer trash, in a sense, than we thought of ourselves. It’s like in hip-hop, a battle of who is more street—grunge is who is more lumberjack.
CP Yeah. And you know me and Mark and Kim Thaill from Soundgarden were all college graduates. I don’t know ultimately what that all meant, but Nirvana were kind of the outsiders. I would see Courtney out more than I would see Kurt, and she would be like, “Oh, Charles, Kurt likes you. He loves you. You should go be his friend.” But you know, it’s really tough to be friends with someone who is disappearing into the bathroom every half hour and the TV is constantly on and they’re nodding off and all of that. I mean, it’s no secret, the guy had a massive drug problem. What was Kurt Cobain like when you first met him?
CP He was very shy and very accommodating and a very, very nice guy. He liked what I did and I certainly liked what he did. The first time I said to Jonathan Poneman at Subpop, “Are you sure you want to sign these guys?” They were awful. It was just bad noise. And Kurt in interviews has said that this first show in Seattle was one of the worst they ever did. Hindsight is everything—I thought they were so bad that I didn’t even bother to take pictures that night. When people speak of grunge there is this sense of exasperation, unlike punk, which totally went mainstream, too. There is a sense of disgust. Some really good music is overshadowed by visions of flannel and long underwear worn as outerwear.
CP It definitely got overshadowed by the hype, and grunge became sort of an expletive or a dirty word. When we were going through title ideas for the book, one of my ideas was just to reclaim that word and call the book “Grunge.” But I’m glad everyone shot me down on it!