Seattle has billed itself as a city of music. But access to that music hasn’t always been equitable. Starting in the mid-80s, when the area was entering the national spotlight for grunge, the city excluded people under 21 from seeing shows. As Hans Anderson explains, that decision had far-reaching consequences, some that are still being felt today.
On this week's episode of Sound & Vision, we dive into this tumultuous time for Seattle's music scene and how it plays into the current music scene. Listen to the report and read a transcript below.
I’d like to take you back to November 26th, 1985. There was a riot on Nickerson Street. It started around 10 pm. Seattle Police Officers arrived at the rock venue Gorilla Gardens to break up a punk rock show.
David Portnow was there collecting money at the door that night and saw the police show up.
“When they came in, they didn’t stop at the front door. They just burst in and did what they had to with no warning whatsoever,” Portnow says.
What they had to do, was end the show and kick everybody out of the building. The fire marshal cuts the power before a high profile touring punk band, called The Circle Jerks, goes on.
“They didn’t get to play which people were angry about,” Portnow says.
The night ends with police hitting punks with billy clubs and a handful of arrests. Punks are throwing snowballs and, eventually, bricks at police.
“And the police were not going to back down. They just kept hurting and attacking. Then some of the older people, the more criminal ones, started siphoning gas tanks and making Molotov cocktails. And then the news media showed up,” Portnow says.
Both sides point the finger at each other. Attendees contend that police are unduly harsh and violent. Saying they’re stoking conflict. For Portnow, it’s a battle in the long war over booking all-ages shows.
“They were singling out a group of youths that. . . didn’t create too many problems. And were at a place where youths go. If you don’t give youths activity, what do you expect? And they took it away,” Portnow says.
But technically, the show was illegal. The owner of the club was cited for, among other things, not obtaining an all-ages dance permit, which was a relatively new requirement. Earlier that year, the Seattle City council passed the Teen Dance Ordinance. The law mandates that, if minors are at a show, venues had to pay for expensive liability insurance and hired security guards. And these costs are much higher than what most venues could cover with ticket sales. So… why the law?
Jacob McMurray is director of curatorial affairs at MOPop. He points to a teen dance club called The Monastery.
“Apparently there were a lot of reports of dealing drugs to underage kids and all sorts of shenanigans going on. Which who knows if any of that was true or not, I mean probably there’s a hint of truth to that,” McMurray says.
At the time, people in Seattle were concerned with runaway teens and youth homelessness. The Monastery, which acted as a shelter for youth during the day and a dance club at night, was seen as a haven for runaways and drug use.
“I can totally see this idea of oh, let’s make this club an example of all the ills and evils that can happen to youth if they get put in front of music or art or anything like that,” McMurray says.
Parent groups advocated for the teen dance ordinance as was a way to discourage kids from running away and using drugs. The ordinance doesn’t end homelessness. But, McMurray says, it did give police a way to regulate youth and art.
“If you were into underground culture, if you’re into punk rock or metal, or hardcore or just into weird art stuff and you were in these spaces – the authority figures automatically assumed that you were doing something nefarious and wrong,” McMurray says.
And people like David Portnow are caught up in the law. Punk music was his life as a kid. He wrote for a punk zine called The Subway. He was 12 when he went to his first punk show. By 13 he’s making a dollar an hour working for Gorilla Gardens – at first putting up posters and later booking shows. Portnow says he tried to abide by the teen dance ordinance.
“And yet, any show you did was shut down,” Portnow says.
He tried everything, like booking shows in the middle of the day.
“We decided, let’s to do it at 2 pm in the afternoon. There are no problems. We got a hall with everything right,” Portnow says.
And he thought, no dancing – no violation of the Teen Dance Ordinance.
“We had signs: ‘No dancing – this includes slam dancing’. We had facetious signs up, ‘keep your movements to a bare minimum’. 2 PM in the afternoon, they shut it down,” Portnow says.
A lot of other people gave up, too. They started booking shows outside of the city. Portnow started putting on events in garages in Tacoma, skating rinks in Bremerton and Juanita. And new all-ages music venues started popping up outside of Seattle, in the suburbs. . . like the Old Firehouse in Redmond and Ground Zero in Bellevue. Jacob McMurray from MOPop says this was all happening in the time of grunge when the Seattle music scene was gaining national prominence.
“It’s such a weird thing to think that, all of a sudden, Seattle is the center of the media spotlight but at the same time, if you’re under 21, you can’t go and see any of those shows,” McMurray says.
The Teen Dance Ordinance was repealed after a long fight in 2002. But, McMurray says, the damage was already done.
“We still aren’t in a place as a city as we necessarily would be if we never had it in the first place. All ages shows should be baked into every venue and every single space that music play in Seattle, and that just isn’t the case. We’re several decades behind the eight ball. We’re not as far as we could be,” McMurray says.
The venues became more spread out. Teens in Seattle still don’t have many options to see music. And the inequity created by the Teen Dance Ordinance still exists and impacts young music lovers today.
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