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Crocodile Cafe: Seattle's Icon of the Grunge Rock Era.
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A beloved local live music venue, the Crocodile Cafe & Live Bait Lounge (located in Belltown in Seattle at 2200 2nd Avenue), was founded by Seattle attorney and local music fan Stephanie Dorgan, along with a couple of other business partners. The "Croc" opened in April 1991 and for 16 years was hopping with live performances. As the grunge scene exploded, it became a leading venue for local bands and for numerous famous touring stars. On the night of Saturday December 15, 2007, the Croc closed abruptly after a final show. And although reports and rumors of the Belltown neighborhood fixture’s financial woes had been circulating for some time, it was still an event that shocked the area’s music scene for its sheer finality. (On March 21, 2009, the Crocodile reopened under new management.)
“The Croc” -- as locals called it -- was established at the former location of the Athens Café. A Greek restaurant that had experimented with rock shows back in 1980s, the Athens had closed down nearly a decade prior, leaving the building vacant all those years before Seattle’s Belltown district experienced a full-on real estate boom.
On the night of Tuesday April 30, 1991, Seattle’s Crocodile Cafe opened without fanfare (or an advertising budget), but with performances by a neo-psychedelic Sub Pop label band, Love Battery, and the Bellingham-based Power Pop group, the Posies, who gigged under the pseudonym P.O.T. (i.e. “Posies On Tour”).
Live at the Crocodile Cafe
In 1992 Dorgan met R.E.M. guitarist, Peter Buck (who resettled here from that famous band’s home of Athens, Georgia) and the duo eventually married and created a family. Ironically, while the buzz on the street initially speculated that his riches would help support the fledgling club, in time that storyline eventually shifted to one where Dorgan’s increasing absence (due to her tailing along on R.E.M.’s tours) ultimately had a negative impact on the venue’s overall success.
But in those early days of the Croc’s existence, all seemed well. The three-room facility (restaurant, full liquor bar, and a small “soundproof” performance hall) initially provided a great performance spot for the local music scene’s most promising pre-grunge bands – including the Young Fresh Fellows and the Fastbacks (who recorded their Live at The Crocodile Cafe album there).
But as the grunge scene exploded into the dominant rock trend of the entire decade, many of the leading local bands of the day – including Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Tad, Mad Season, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Everclear -- played there. In February, 1996, Seattle’s Popllama Records issued their Bite Back: Live at the Crocodile Cafe compilation album which purposefully featured a wide range of the rock ‘n’ roll sounds being made locally at that time, with songs by such popular bands as the Walkabouts, Girl Trouble, Flop, and Gas Huffer.
The Croc was also the site of awesome performances by numerous famous touring stars – including the Beastie Boys, Beck, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Green Day, Hootie and the Blowfish, Los Lobos, the Strokes, and Yoko Ono -- who chose to play the intimate room rather than larger rooms (where they could presumably have pulled in much more money), thus providing a serious thrill to a few hundred ecstatic attendees.
A Legend Forged
Over its 16-year span of operations, the Croc presented thousands of shows – often three bands a night for between $5 and $20. Among those were up-and-coming bands, current stars, legends from the past, along with many special events like regular local art exhibitions, monthly urban craft fairs, the annual Elvis Birthday celebrations, political fundraisers, community fashion shows, a salute to the music of Billie Holiday in 1992, and a 2006 George Harrison Jam tribute show.
Particularly legendary nights there include the ($3) Mudhoney show on October 4, 1992, when attendees expected to see some unknown band promoted under the silly name of “Pen Cap Chew” also perform, only to experience the surprise of their life when the then-most-famous band on planet Earth take the stage. So stunned were they by Nirvana’s arrival that the ritual mosh-pit frenzy reportedly gave way to gaga staring and rapturous ovations. Another “secret show” -- one of the Croc’s specialties -- was Pearl Jam’s unpublicized appearance (October 10, 1998) opening for a tour-stop by the esteemed Midwestern 70s band, Cheap Trick.
And along the way the Croc earned a well-deserved reputation as a bastion of great live music -- one that spread far and wide: Film director Cameron Crowe included it as a setting for his 1992 hit film Singles featuring Matt Dillon and Bridget Fonda; the 1995 indie film Georgia, featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh and punk musician/actor John Doe (ex-X), did likewise; prominent British musician Robyn Hitchcock name-checked the joint in his 2006 song “Belltown Ramble”; and for many years after the grunge tsunami had crested, the place still remained a must-see mecca for tour busloads of giddy grunge-hungry tourists.
Meanwhile, a whole subsequent generation of top Northwest bands played important early gigs there including: the Presidents of the United States of America, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Harvey Danger, Death Cab for Cutie, Sleater-Kinney, and the Decemberists.
Troubles at the Crocodile
Early word of the venue’s troubles surfaced publicly in September 2007, when a news feature in the Seattle Weekly reported that the room had been experiencing financial, staffing, and other difficulties for many years (including a lawsuit between the original partners over accounting practices way back in 1992).
But then suddenly on Sunday September 16, 2007 -- the day after musicians David Bazan, Josh Tillman, and Robin Pecknold performed to a decent crowd – the scene’s grapevine began sounding the alarm that the Croc had been suddenly locked up and the staff brusquely cut loose via emailed notices. Sadly, this bad news quickly proved to be no false rumor.
Even though the Croc had solid bookings on its calendar up through May 2008, those ongoing financial woes and various other problems had finally overwhelmed the ownership. The Croc had miraculously outlasted many of its contemporary clubs -- including the OK Hotel, RKCNDY, Sit ‘N’ Spin, Moe’s, Speakeasy, Off Ramp, Colourbox, Fenix Underground -- and perhaps it was that very fortitude that had fooled many fans into believing that it was immortal.
Tears (and Jeers)
Upon the Crocodile Cafe’s sudden and untimely passing, one popular local blog, Three Imaginary Girls, decried the event as marking the “Decline and Fall of Northwestern Civilization.” The venue was also saluted post mortem as “legendary” by both Billboard and England’s New Musical Express; hailed as having “a reputation as the CBGB of grunge” by the Washington Post and as “a destination for grunge rock pilgrims from around the country” by the Associated Press, and as a “central meeting place for Seattle’s world famous music scene” by the Seattle Weekly.
Of course, opinions about the place were not uniformly positive: for every person who thought that “The sound was always good, the staff was always friendly” (The Stranger) there were others who felt otherwise. Bloggers would disparage it as the “Crock,” call it out for offering “a sub-par experience,” and deeming it a “dingy, smelly, uncomfortable,” place with “bad lighting,” sound quality that “was worse,” sight-lines that “were terrible,” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) and a food and bar-service staff that were described variously as “really nice,” and “THE COOLEST” all the way to “unreceptive, unhelpful, unfriendly,” “S-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o sl-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-w,” and “rude people that think that they are rock stars” (Cityguide/Seattle).
The Croc: RIP
In the immediate wake of the club’s demise, emotions were running high and some bereaved locals theorized in various online discussions that the Croc’s success had been fatally impacted by the 2005 imposition of a statewide indoor smoking ban and/or the ongoing condo-driven gentrification of downtown. Even the Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest chapter of the prestigious GRAMMY Foundation-associated Recording Academy, Ben London, was quoted by the Associated Press asserting that the arrival of a senior citizens' center nearby had contributed to the Croc’s demise.
But whatever combination of factors did, or did not, play a direct role, the fact remains: the Crocodile Cafe was now gone -- a realization made perfectly stark when within mere hours of its closure a clinically dry real-estate listing appeared offering the storied 6,400 square foot site as a “Seattle Area Business Opportunity: $495,000.”
On March 21, 2009, the Crocodile Café reopened under new management, and -- after an extensive remodel (which greatly opened the room up, and provided a new viewing balcony plus a much larger stage against the north wall) -- a new era commenced for the history-steeped room.
Clark Humphrey, Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story (Portland: Feral House, 1995) p. 156, 160; Gene Stout, “The Party Rolls on as the Crocodile Marks 10 Remarkable Years of Rock," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 4, 2001; Paul Iorio, “Nirvanapalooza: Following in the Seattle Footsteps of Kurt Cobain, Grunge and All,” The Washington Post, November 10, 2002, p. E-01; "The Crocodile Cafe," User Reviews,” various blog postings, 2002-2007 cityguide/Seattle website accessed December 28, 2007 (cityguide.aol.com); Clark Humphrey, Seattle’s Belltown (San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2007), p. 86; Laura Onstot, “Confronted With a Perfect Storm of Challenges, Belltown’s Legendary Crocodile Cafe Fights for Its Life,” Seattle Weekly, September 19, 2007; Laura Onstot, “More Troubles at the Crocodile ‘Cafe,’ Seattle Weekly, December 12, 2007; Hannah Levin, “Crocodile Closed For Good,” Seattle Weekly, December 16, 2007 (Seattleweekly.com); Jonathan Zwickel, “Croc Closed?,” The Stranger, December 16, 2007 (www.thestranger.com); Gene Johnson, “Crocodile Cafe, Seattle’s ‘Living Room’ Of Grunge, Closes” Associated Press via Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 17, 2007; Tom Scanlon, “Music Dies at Renowned Crocodile,” The Seattle Times, December 18, 2007; John Marshall, “Seattle’s Crocodile Cafe Closes,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 18, 2007; Cortney Harding, “Seattle’s Crocodile Cafe Shutters,” Billboard.Biz website, December 18, 2007, (http://www.billboard.biz/bbbiz/index.jsp); “Legendary Seattle Venue Shuts its Doors,” NME website, December 18, 2007 (http://www.nme.com/news); Hannah Levin, “The Croc Is Closed For Good: And We Never Even Got to Say Goodbye,” Seattle Weekly, December 19, 2007 (www.seattleweekly.com); and author’s archives.
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