19 Dec Jon Cartu Declares: The joyful era of grunge shines through in ‘The Flannel
SEATTLE — There’s a scene in the 2011 documentary Pearl Jam Twenty in which frontman Eddie Vedder is giving director Cameron Crowe a tour of his house. At one point, Vedder stands on a stairway, pointing out photos from years past. One of them is from what he believes is the band’s third show.
Watching this in the dark of a movie theater, photographer Karen Mason Blair was confused: “I thought, ‘Why didn’t he have a picture from their first concert?’”
She knew one existed because she had taken 36 of them — and that they had been tucked away, in one of four file cabinets in her Edmonds, Wash., home, for the last 20 years.
Mason Blair went home and started pulling photos that she had shot between 1989 and 1992. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden, the Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains. The bands who played Seattle clubs, who made up her community — and who would burst upon the national and international music scenes within months of those early shows.
After editing hundreds of photos and captioning them with her memories, Mason Blair has released The Flannel Years, a book of more than 150 photographs from a pivotal time in Seattle. The foreword was written by Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic.
Released last month after Mason Blair held small photo exhibits all around Seattle, the book, already in its third printing, is available at select bookstores and on Mason Blair’s website.
Going through her photos, Mason Blair, 54, wasn’t surprised at what she had in her collection. She remembered standing in front of the stages, shooting two or three shows a night, then catching more personal photos of the crowd gathered backstage.
She also remembered how bad the lighting was in those clubs, racing around the city in her old Camaro, being the only female shooter — and getting knocked around by some of the male photographers. A few years of that, and she needed to take a break.
“I had been in the shadow of male photographers for a very long time, so I got tired and sat down,” she says. “I got so tired of that shadow, so I just gave up, thinking, ‘My time will come.'”
She got married, moved to suburbia, had two kids and became a wedding photographer. Meanwhile, the bands she used to photograph and pal around with backstage took off like rockets.
But she also watched people fall to drugs and depression: Andrew Wood. Kurt Cobain. Layne Staley. And, two years ago, Chris Cornell.
“It was totally emotional,” Mason Blair says of seeing their faces in her photos after all that time. “I had to sit down and cry. But I wanted people to know that we were having the time of our lives. Before Andrew Wood died, we were having a great time. And before he died, Kurt Cobain was my friend.
”I wanted to tell that story.“
Mason Blair and her Nikon were regulars at places like The Central Tavern, Ditto, The Vogue and The Weathered Wall. Then came the grunge gold rush of the early ‘90s, when record labels seemingly sent planeloads of agents to Seattle with contracts and pens at the ready. Those same bands started asking Mason Blair to shoot promotional photos, which she did in a small studio in Pioneer Square.
”We were just happy,“ Mason Blair says. ”Before the record companies, before the drugs. It’s heavy.“
Easy Street owner Matt Vaughan agreed that Mason Blair’s photos are unique in that they captured the joy of the time.
”She makes us remember and realize just how fun it was,“ says Vaughan, who managed the band Gruntruck back then. ”There is a lot of darkness associated with that scene in the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s. It was such a blast and a lot of fun and a lot of smiles, and Karen brought that out in everybody.“
He also noted Mason Blair’s role in ”the feminine part“ of that era, along with Soundgarden, Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains manager Susan Silver, plus the riot grrrl movement out of Olympia: ”She was in it, and she went to all the shows,“ Vaughan says. ”She didn’t just select the shows she was going to. She was at all of them, as a fan.“
But the darkness did come. The book includes one photo of Cobain, in a misshapen, holey brown sweater and dirty jeans, his hair hanging over his face while he plays guitar.
”It was a lot for me to show that photo,“ Mason Blair says, quietly, recalling Cobain’s struggle with drugs. ”That’s what he looked like.“
As a counterpoint, she found a happier photo of Cobain — wearing white sunglasses, smiling — and used it for…