≡ Menu

The Musician and the Streets of Seattle

Every day it does not rain, and many days when it does, this man walks three miles to the Pike Street public market in Seattle to play long alien notes on his Chinese instrument.

You walk by him on your way to the Athenian Cafe in the market. He’s got a couple of bucks and change in his begging cup so you toss in a couple more. When you come out of the restaurant an hour or so later, he’s got what he had, what you gave him, and a couple of quarters more. Almost everyone is ignoring him. He plays on.

Seattle is a second-level city most famous in popular culture for a second-rate rock band who did not so much invent “grunge” as simply show up on stage playing and wearing it. The band and its lead singer have been in different stages of dead for decades now, but their style lives on in Seattle like the galvanic twitches in the corpse of a frog long after it has been pithed. Seattle’s left with a zombie pop culture whose only hope for survival is feeding on the brains of the bovine young. That’s thin gruel for a zombie, but Seattle’s “cultural scene” is eking out an undead living with inspirational shows such as this:

Lest you misunderstand, the names on the portable outhouse door are band names. If you attend this venue of “cutting-edgy” and oh-so-transgressive “creativity” you can hear hymns to little monsters, excrement, liquid excrement, maimed animals, and vague apocalyptic rumors. If you are fortunate your ears will not bleed as part of the “fun.” Make no mistake about it, the names of the bands will be the best thing about them. In fact, the poster itself tells you so in no uncertain terms.

I don’t think the old Chinese musician in the market will get into this club, unless it is to make five bucks for scraping the roaches, rubbers, and lost drugs works off the floor, and to mop out the toilets. It’s pretty much how “youth culture” rolls in this second-level city.

Postmortem effects. The twitching of the pithed.

But of course that’s just “pop” culture and it’s pretty much drained of the new, the beautiful and the true everywhere. There’s always “haute” culture to turn to, isn’t there?

Let us go then, you and I…. to the acclaimed and recently redone Seattle Museum of Art. It’s just a couple of blocks from the old Chinese musician in the market. It’s recently undergone one of its relentless expansions under the watchful gaze of Bill Gates mom. The entrance is vaulting. Vaulting enough to have room for an extremely awful sculpture of five or six bad cars hanging from the ceiling with sticks of lights spurting from them in a vague pattern. What does it all mean? Well, in the words of R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, “It don’t mean shit.”

But wait, surely with the Gates family doing the heavy fund-raising lifting, this cathedral to high art in the 21st century is light years beyond the grunge and excrement of the pop culture music scene? It just has to be, doesn’t it?

Of course not. Here’s what you see enshrined in the dead center of the main exhibit floor of the Seattle Art Museum:

Yes, that’s a museum-quality ceramic toilet by one of my old art teachers, the late Robert Arneson. I studied under him for a couple of terms at the University, and he was an amazing man, and not a bad sculptor, but still second-level when confined to his era. He’ll be virtually unknown in another 50 years and this particular piece will be part of the reason. Even though it gets pride of place in the Seattle Art Museum, it is — to say the least — one of the worst Arneson’s around and he has many. Still, a third-rate collection in a second-level city has to take what it can get.

On the wall to the right is, as it happens, another third-rate work by another of my instructors, the painter William Wiley. Wiley can be an interesting and amusing, if obtuse, painter, but the one seen here gives you no more close-up than it does as a smudge in this photograph. It fits right to the collection of SAM though. It’s a museum where many artists are represented but none well. The museum seems to buy the names but not the quality. Deep down, it’s shallow.

The single area in which the museum excels is the one area, of course, that is given short shrift; the totem poles, lodge carvings, masks, and ceremonial costumes of the Native American tribes of the Northwest Coast of North America. The collection, so I am told, is vast and world-class. Hence SAM hides most of it away so that more toilets of clay can be exhibited.

It’s to be expected since in culture high and low these days, we are it seems a country half in love with easeful death and half in love with excrement.

Long ago, the natives of Seattle wore clothes like this:

Today, the descendants of those same tribes wear clothes like this:

Just the gear for a great night out at The Funhouse listening to “Shit Gets Smashed” and “The Hershey Squirts.”

When I went back to the market to catch the bus I passed by the Chinese musician again. He’d made another couple of bucks from putting the music of a thousand years ago into the streets of the second-level city of Seattle. When the bus finally came, I was encouraged to see that there was even more haute culture coming our way:

First Published: 2009-05-04

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Skorpion August 11, 2021, 8:10 AM

    A toilet as “sculpture”? How *original*.
    Duchamp did that *one hundred years ago*.

  • Dirk August 11, 2021, 9:42 AM

    Fun, my wife and me have several friends who are in street bands in Seattle, mostly only known by the hipsters there in Seattle. Many years ago our friend Andrew managed the Rock n roll hall of fame “ Allen” of Microsoft’s gig.

    We got a free tour in the early days. Andrew went on to be the lead guitar player for Presidents of the United States. Many are small studio musicians, gifted talented. Should be top of the charts. That’s the thing,,,,, it’s more important to NOT be known to those outside the city. We collect their CDs as we can. My sons got most now. Loves the rawness of it all

    When traveling we often stop to listen to the street artists play. Many times their simply amazing. It’s the seemingly little things that make life so so wonderful. Discovering artist, or even amazing skateboarders in the streets. A few times we’ve invited these people to join us for lunch or dinner, want to here their story. Amazing tales come out of these contacts kinda friendships.


  • LadyBikki August 11, 2021, 12:26 PM

    ‘ Deep down, it’s shallow ‘ describes Seattle to a tee.
    Perfect turn of phrase.

  • ghostsniper August 11, 2021, 2:05 PM

    Came out of the big box the other day and at the first busy intersection was a 30ish mexicanish dood with his puta and 2 bambino’s. He was holding a hand made sign, scrawled:


    Keep in mind that within a quarter mile there were at least half a dozen fast food joints, and dozens of other businesses with help wanted signs.

    Maybe if motorists pelted him with half empty water bottles he’d get a clue.

  • gwbnyc August 11, 2021, 2:05 PM

    If no one has brains enough to add a roll of Chaz Bono toilet paper to, and take a dump in, that particolored commode at high noon at Michaelmas burn the whole damn building down and engage in a satanic weenie roast.

    -as it is written &c

  • PubliusII August 11, 2021, 7:12 PM

    The instrument in the top photo is an erhu. Beautiful sounds —


  • Casey Klahn August 12, 2021, 12:32 AM

    I’m very sorry, but fuck that shit. Kurt Cobain, et al, came not from Seattle , but from my own city of birth: Aberdeen. Another really famous artist came from Aberdeen, but disavowed it. That being: Robert Motherwell. He wants you to think he’s from NYC. That lying jackass son of a bitch.
    Truth sux but someone’s gotta tell it.
    Seattle was once a quaint ville of NW culture, and then it got uppity. The end of days for Seattle was the CHAZ. Mark my words.
    Seattle. I remember very well that sani can poster, and all of the grunge era stapled up posters. Seattle is prostrated to Marx. There. I said it.
    I had the privilege of seeing a few brush trucks full of Navaho fire crews, today, in the Spokane area. These youngsters were in the WalMart parking lot, which was suffering temperatures north of a hundred degrees. They wore: hoodies. Fukkin hoodies! They must’ve awoke this morning in some high areas; some fire camps on the front lines of fighting Western fires. When they came to the lower elevations to shop, they wore the same hoodies they’d slept in.
    If we can just hold out, the people will prevail.

  • MMinWA August 12, 2021, 5:07 AM

    When I lived 1500 miles away, I visited Seattle a couple times a year. Enjoyed the weather no matter what. The Space Needle, the monorail, great seafood, Eliot Bay…lots to keep myself and a companion busy for a couple happy days.

    Now I live on the Peninsula, a ferry ride away, and avoid that shithole like the plague.

  • Vanderleun August 12, 2021, 11:43 AM

    Aberdeen is a great place to get your bearings and get ready to paint “Elegy to the Spanish Republic.”

    At the University Berkeley many decades back my neighbor used an orthographic projector to paint a copy of Mothewell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic full size on his bedroom wall. Very impressive.

  • jwm August 12, 2021, 6:34 PM

    Re: toilet in the gallery.
    Jumping back about twenty years…
    After doing several small, desk top sized carvings I took on my first ‘large’ piece:a sixty five pound chunk of crystal alabaster. I spent a little over two months completing the sculpture. One of the local art associations was having a juried show, and I entered the new stone. It got accepted, and I was all kinds of stoked. But the stone did not take an award. What took the award in the 3-D category was a pile of green and brown plastic toy soldiers that some guy melted in the oven.
    I was pissed. So I talked to Janet Church, who was a master painter, and dear friend, mentor, and teacher to both my wife and me. I told Janet I was too pissed to go to the reception. Janet would have none of that. She was a tough old bird (picture a female Casey Klahn, only loud, and cranky) She told me, in no uncertain terms that I was going to that reception.
    So I did. And I knew I would have to *keep my mouth shut* about the award thing. The La Mirada Art Colony held a very nice reception at their gallery. I was walking around, stopped to look at my piece on display. A guy came up, and remarked on how cool he thought the stone was. I thanked him. We talked a little, I seem to remember that he was a nice guy. He showed me his piece which was: (guess) The toy soldier thing.
    Really. I had to just laugh. I congratulated him on the award.


  • Casey Klahn August 12, 2021, 7:16 PM

    That projection is fascinating! Wish I’d seen that. I’m a fan of Motherwell’s art, but when he began his video biography with: “I arrived in New York,” I just about had a cow. Sumbich was born in Aberdeen, WA, in 1915. He immediately disdained it. I was born in the same, in 1958. Because my head is not inserted that tightly up my anal cavity, I respect and honor my provenance.

    At least Jackson Pollock had the good grace to say, “I came out of the West, and arrived in New York.” Man, fuhk New York. Wait…I’m in a show there. But I’m a speck on the wall, and although pretentious, not in that league of fuckery. Motherwell can bite me.

    jmw: you’re a bright light in a sea of bullshit. The same piece in another show would take an award. It’s very much more subjective than we realize.

    My family would tell you I’m loud. LOL. I use my voice like a weapon, because: military. I’m mostly full of shit, but at least I know it. Then, there’s Motherwell….grrRRR.