New Play 'These Streets' Draws On Oral History To Tell Story Of Women Of Grunge Rock Era Two years ago, the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind sparked a slew of retrospectives about the Seattle grunge scene. But those narratives left something out: the influence of women. A new play by Gretta Harley and Sarah Rudinoff aims to update the historical record.

Women Of Grunge Reclaim Rock History In 'These Streets'

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When it comes to music, for better or for worse, Seattle equals grunge. Two decades ago, bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden turned the city into the epicenter of rock. Just a few years ago, a slew of retrospectives in Seattle marked the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's album "Nevermind." But some women who played alongside men in grunge say their presence was written out of those narratives.

Marcie Sillman of member station KUOW has this story about how they're trying to update the historical record. Among their efforts, a new play.

MARCIE SILLMAN, BYLINE: When Gretta Harley arrived in Seattle in 1990, she was a punk rock guitarist searching for her tribe.

GRETTA HARLEY: And I found it. I lived in a home, a house with a bunch of other musicians and The Screaming Trees lived across the street, Gus Huffer lived around the corner, and Gorilla lived around the corner...

SILLMAN: Harley reels off a sting of popular Northwest bands. It wasn't long before she co-founded her own.


SILLMAN: Almost 25 years have passed, but Harley stayed with music. She teaches now and she still performs as half of the duo We Are Golden with singer Sarah Rudinoff.


SILLMAN: Rudinoff and Harley went to a songwriting retreat together two years ago, where they got an idea for a play, one that would address a question that faced them and other women like them.

HARLEY: How does a woman in her 40s still create with a passion in a world that is largely held by the young?

SILLMAN: That question didn't come out of the blue. The 2011 Nirvana "Nevermind" tributes really didn't capture the Seattle music community they remembered.

HARLEY: Then we started looking at the books that were written by different authors, you know, the women were absent, almost completely absent. And we thought, wow, this is a story that really hasn't happened yet.

SILLMAN: So, Harley and Rudinoff set out to tell it. They started talking to women who'd been part of Seattle's rock community. Eventually, they videotaped more than 30 conversations with folks like Valerie Agnew and Elizabeth Davis, the drummer and the bassist for the band 7 Year Bitch.

They recalled that the female musicians of the Pacific Northwest were not invisible, especially when they toured Europe.

HARLEY: I remember posters for shows, it would be like 7 Year Bitch, the godmothers of Riot Grrls from Nirvana-town.

SILLMAN: Actually, the Riot Grrl movement got its start 60 miles south of Seattle, in Olympia. In the oral histories, many of the Seattle women say they were more into music than Riot Grrl feminism. And a lot of them singled out Amy Stolzenbach as one of the best musicians of the era. Stolzenbach played guitar in a number of bands, including the all-female ACDC cover band Hell's Bells.

HARLEY: "Back In Black" was one of the first, like, I plugged into my friend's amp, play that and I was like, oh, my god, what just happened?


SILLMAN: Stolzenbach says in Seattle, most of the male musicians were supportive of their female bandmates, although there were the occasional jerks. Some of them show up in the new play. Actor Imogen Love performs a monologue inspired by one of the oral histories.

IMOGEN LOVE: I had this band in the 6th grade, and our drummer was this guy at school, Joey Akimpura. We started learning how to play Peter Frampton, Queen, it was great. Then I went over to Joey's house one day and saw our band photo. I wasn't in it. I never heard about the photo shoot and I was like, what is this?

And Joey said, oh, this is our band and you can't be in it. And I was like, what are you talking about? And he said, no girls allowed, and I thought, oh yeah?

SILLMAN: Twenty years later, those attitudes linger in the music industry, according to hip-hop artist Hollis Wong-Wear. She just finished a tour with one of the nation's top acts, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Although Wong-Wear feels like she's had a lot of opportunities, she says women still have to prove themselves.

HOLLIS WONG-WEAR: There's not enough women for us to feel like it's normal for women to rise due to their talent and what they have to say.

SILLMAN: Wong-Wear plays the younger version of one of Seattle's rockers of Yore in "These Streets." Fifty-year-old Gretta Harley essentially plays herself as she fronts the four-piece band that's onstage for the entire production.


HARLEY: There's an incredible amount of power that comes from turning on an amplifier and getting that real loud sound and just, you know, screaming it out over the mike. It's just an incredible source of power.

SILLMAN: Maybe so, but guitarist Amy Stolzenbach says she's kind of relieved the rock musician phase of her life is over.

AMY STOLZENBACH: When I look back with the wisdom that I have now, I'm kind of glad that I never quote-unquote "made it." At the time, there was heartache because I wasn't making it, and I wanted that more than anything. But, you know, when you stop fighting and follow that path of least resistance, you can still use your talents, you can still have this really productive career and have everything else that goes along with having a life.

SILLMAN: Amy Stolzenbach was also interviewed by the creators of the new play, "These Streets." That and the other oral histories will be archived at the University of Washington. For NPR News, I'm Marcie Sillman in Seattle.

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