December 7, 1984: Gorilla Gardens

Skin Yard play at Gorilla Gardens, July 1985From left: Jack Endino, Matt Cameron, Ben McMillan, and Daniel House
Photo by Cam Garrett
Skin Yard play at Gorilla Gardens, July 1985
From left: Jack Endino, Matt Cameron, Ben McMillan, and Daniel House
Photo by Cam Garrett

Seattle is known worldwide as the birthplace of grunge. Which specific venue in Seattle can rightfully claim that same title? Consider Gorilla Gardens, the erstwhile all-ages underground music club that held its first official concert on the date in focus here.

Located at the western edge of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District at 410 Fifth Avenue South, Gorilla Gardens uniquely featured two different rooms for bands to play in: Gorilla Gardens and the Omni Room. The venue’s official name was Rock Theater, but it quickly became known as Gorilla Gardens by its regular clientele.

What now qualifies Gorilla Gardens as the ultimate birthplace of grunge was the character of that clientele: a mixture of hardcore punk rockers and suburban heavy metal fans — a potentially volatile combination at the time of the venue’s debut. It’s easy these days for underground rock music fans to forget that, prior to the mid-1980s, the American hardcore punk and heavy metal scenes were often hostile towards each other — especially in Seattle, where punk and metal youth often engaged in fights on school grounds and at house parties to express that reciprocal hostility.

The opening of Gorilla Gardens changed that situation positively by offering two separate shows in the same venue at the same time. As a result, punk and metal touring acts often played there on the same nights, thus leading locally to the softening of relations between the two subcultures. Each night’s cover charge paid for admission to both shows — a crucial factor in the creation of the musical miscegenation that would commence in Seattle at the zenith of the venue’s local popularity. Art Chantry, the Seattle-born graphic designer best known as the former art director of The Rocket, Seattle’s reigning music magazine circa 1984, has explained the situation like so:

“Now, in those days, the guys in these two musical camps hated each other, and many expected lobby riots [at Gorilla Gardens] as a matter of course. Instead, these disparate subcultures heard each others’ sounds and liked them. In fact, aside from the haircuts, they liked each other in general, the punks and the metalheads.”

Occupying a building that was originally an old Chinese two-screen movie theater, Gorilla Gardens was founded and operated by Tony Chu, the son of an affluent Taiwanese family and the former proprietor of the Gorilla Room, a Pioneer Square punk/new wave club that operated from 1980 to 1982. Chu gained a bad reputation among Seattle underground bands based on his management style: many bands from that era have complained about not getting paid for playing at Gorilla Gardens — despite, in some cases, a full house.

sonic gorilla 1985

During its brief year of existence, Gorilla Gardens hosted several now-legendary underground bands, both local and national. The opening night’s headliner was the infamous Butthole Surfers, from San Antonio, Texas, with Seattle’s Green River — now considered by many the first true grunge band — opening. Soon after, Sonic Youth played their premiere Seattle show there, on January 19, 1985. The opening acts at that show were Green River and the U-Men — the latter another now-legendary Seattle band from the mid-1980s. Other noteworthy acts who played at Gorilla Gardens included Guns N’ Roses (who made their Seattle debut there on June 8, 1985), Hüsker Dü, Violent Femmes, and Seattle’s own Soundgarden.

The Violent Femmes show on January 25, 1985, was the scene of an amusing anecdote revealing the fly-by-night character of Gorilla Gardens. Enter the chainsaw: the show was oversold, leading to an overflow crowd spilling out onto the street. The Seattle police and fire departments came to investigate, and they soon discovered that the building lacked a sufficient number of fire exits and threatened to close the venue. Out of desperation, a Gorilla Gardens employee grabbed a chainsaw and cut a hole in the side of the building. Art Chantry would later gently reminisce: “I mean, how can you argue with that shit? It was like, perfect. ‘You want a fire exit? We’ll give you a fuckin’ fire exit!'”

After less than one year in the original Chinatown location, Gorilla Gardens would move to a former auto-parts warehouse in Seattle’s North Queen Anne neighborhood at 307 Nickerson Street, where it would soon gain local notoriety from an incident there on November 26, 1985, when the popular Los Angeles hardcore punk band Circle Jerks headlined there during an historically heavy snowstorm.

Shortly after the Circle Jerks’ set began, the Seattle fire marshal and several Seattle police officers entered the venue and shut down the show, citing fire code violations. For obvious reasons, the crowd was not pleased. Bottles began flying and cops began beating people with cop clubs. As people ran outside the punk club to escape the cops, further chaos ensued: cops chased punks, punks threw snowballs at cops, more kids were beaten, dumpsters were lit on fire, cars were tipped over. Enhancing the spectacular mayhem, a pickup truck filled with bricks was parked serendipitously nearby, and when the punks discovered the truck, the bricks were added to the anti-cop snowball arsenal. Soon some twenty Seattle police cars and dozens of police officers were on the scene, along with a local news crew from KING-TV to document the aftermath for the following evening’s pearl-clutching broadcast.

Tony Chu was arrested that night along with six other persons, and the club was evicted the following morning. Thus, the Circle Jerks riot marked the official end of Gorilla Gardens. The Seattle grunge scene, meanwhile, was then only just beginning.

Sources: Joe Quintana, “Teen-club owner criticizes police acts in riot,” The Seattle Times, November 27, 1985, p. C1; Michael A. Barber, “Rock nightclub evicted after patrons clash with police,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 28, 1985, p. D2; Marc Ramirez, “Bliss Out: The Scene’s a Moving Target,” The Seattle Times, April 26, 1992, Pacific magazine, p. 6; Jonathan Poneman, “Digging the Garden,” SPIN magazine, September 1992, p. 61; Clark Humphrey, Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story (Feral House, 1995; MiscMedia, 1999, 2016); Leah Greenblatt and James Bush, “In Memoriam: 20 Clubs That Came and Went,” Seattle Weekly, May 3, 2001, p. 44; Tom Scanlon, “R.I.P.: The dead nightclubs tour,” The Seattle Times, January 31, 2008, p. C1; Greg Prato, Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music (ECW Press, 2009); Justin Henderson, Grunge Seattle (Roaring Forties Press, 2010); Stephen Tow, The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge (Sasquatch Books, 2011); Mark Yarm, Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge (Crown Archetype, 2011).

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