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Sunday, December 9, 2012 - Page updated at 06:00 p.m.
Rock bands' Queen Anne dream house closes
By Danny Westneat
Seattle Times staff columnist
In Lower Queen Anne, on one of those side streets of dull, low-slung offices and '50s-era apartment buildings, there's a battered purple door with a tantalizing message.
"Private Members Only," it reads.
The country-club sound of that must have irritated somebody. Because taped under it is a hand-lettered correction: "Rock stars only!!"
It's true, through the purple door have passed a few genuine rock stars. But the impromptu sign is at least a thousand times more fantasy than reality, laughs the "club" owner, Bill Whelan.
"Everybody who came here was gunning after the same dream," he said. "Cut a $500 demo and hit it big. That lure brought thousands of musicians through here for more than 20 years."
Whelan owns The Jambox, a 60-room band-rehearsal space that is closing, for good, on Monday. It's not much more than a ring of cramped, dirty rooms with the flat-beer feel of a college dorm after a party weekend.
But over the years it became part of the soul of Seattle music.
It's being torn down to make way for a 71-unit mixed-use development.
"Just what Seattle needs, more cupcake dispensers in the unique approach of retail below with living spaces above," said Steve Winter, a now-displaced bass player for the rock group Niacin Easy.
The Jambox isn't on the grunge sightseeing tours, but maybe it should have been. Whelan opened it at the height of grunge mania, in the early 1990s, after his own band's practice space, a legendary pit called the Ballard Music Bank, was shut down by the cops because it also housed a huge marijuana grow operation.
"Down the hall from me was this crazy metal band called Diamond Lie," Whelan recalled. "They eventually changed their name to Alice In Chains."
Amazingly to Whelan — because he didn't really know what he was doing — his musicians' dormitory filled to capacity with 80 bands almost overnight. It has been sold out since, with a perpetual waiting list of several dozen — a testament to the vitality of this city's music scene.
Two of the early bands to walk through the purple door were Blind Melon, which used Room #42 to rehearse for a debut album that went quadruple platinum. And Ellensburg's Screaming Trees, one of the godfathers of grunge.
Whelan, 66, is a Seattle University philosophy major who dropped that lucrative career track to become a roadie for the Northwest orchestral rock band Big Horn. In 1978, Big Horn went on a world tour as the opening act for Van Halen.
"I made $150 a week," he says. "I figured I was on top of the music world."
His organizing principle for the Jambox was a perfect fit for grunge and later generations of metalheads and alt-rockers.
"The philosophy here is: It's OK," he said. "It's OK to dress like you want, act like you want and play the music you want as loud as you want. I just wanted to make a place where you come in to get high and let it rip. That's it. No other rules."
He is the antithesis of the uptight Seattleite. He said manning his front desk has been like a sociological voyage through outcast culture, fashion, drugs and other trends.
"As soon as Kurt Cobain came along, the big hair disappeared and even the men were coming in wearing dresses and Doc Martens," he laughs. "He turned the whole scene of big rock on its head, overnight."
The Jambox has housed everything from alt-country (Legendary Oaks) to horror punk (Schoolyard Heroes) to experimental jazz (Wayne Horvitz) to disco (Hit Explosion).
Biggest band, in size, at least, if not in fame? George Clinton's Parliament Funkadelic, which rented the old Blind Melon Room #42 a few times when it was playing in town. (The current tenants of this room are the hard rockers Windowpane, who toured last year in support of the Bellevue supermetal group Queensryche.)
"We've probably had a thousand bands, representing four or five thousand musicians," Whelan says. "The beauty of it is that most of them you've never heard of."
The longest-running tenant is an "old-school dark prog rock" outfit called Kings of Oblivion that bills itself as "Seattle's most reclusive rock band." They've rented a room at the Jambox since the mid-1990s.
"Sometimes you get 20, 30 bands playing at once, all in their separate rooms, and it's cacophony," says Cecil Brower, by night the band's bass player, by day a library technician for UW Tacoma. "It's a rock refuge. If you're into rock, anything else seems sterile."
The neighbors probably won't mourn its demise. Whelan said that at times nearby apartment managers were close to getting the city to shut him down.
"Nobody ever came in here to play smooth jazz," he shrugs.
I asked him if he was sad it was ending. He answered instantly: "No."
He said he views the bands as like the conquistadors, each one setting sail for fame or greatness or the perfect guitar riff, though most "get lost on the way and end in oblivion."
"We had a great run, but this is our oblivion," he said, as we watched a drummer hauling equipment out of a graffiti-covered room.
"It's been a privilege to be a part of it," he said, "of the pursuit of all those thousands of dreams."
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
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