Emerald City

People who know me from my novels associate me with Leeds. That’s perfectly natural, as my series of books are set there – in the 1730s. But the city where I spent the longest period is somewhere else. Not even on the same continent.

I moved to Seattle in January 1986 and remained there until August 2005. Before that I’d spent 10 years in Cincinnati. I moved to Seattle on the recommendation of a friend who’d gone there a couple of years before. I had no job, no place to live except my friend’s floor, and precious little money. But it was the new start I needed.

Seattle was the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived, the only one I know where you can look out and see both saltwater and mountains, beaches and a city skyline. In the months I was discovering it, the place was a backwater in the Northwest, just up at the top left-hand corner of the US map. It had a small, vital music scene, a very active gay and lesbian community and fabulous book and record shops. And lovely independent coffee shops and cafes (such as Paradiso and the original Café Septieme)

Fast forward just a few years and Seattle was America’s Most Liveable City, which brought people flooding in. Microsoft meant that it was on the forward edge of technology (never mind that the company was on the other side of Lake Washington). That local music started to find an international audience as first Pearl Jam, then Nirvana and Soundgarden sold albums in ridiculous quantities and grunge became a word and a fashion.

The BoHo area of Belltown was gentrified, artists’ lofts turned into condos, rents and house prices all over the city rose. New clubs opened – hello Crocodile Café and Moe. The old underpinnings remained in places like the Two Bells and new ones joined them as the Tractor emerged. But the city had received a gloss.

One thing that remained a constant was The Rocket, the local free music paper. It was more than just listings. There were reviews, interviews and some damned good writing. I was lucky enough to write for the paper for several years until its demise in 2000. I’d published a little music journalism back in Cincy, but it was in Seattle that my writing career began in earnest, pushing out into non-fiction books (yes, they were mostly quickie unauthorized celebrity bios and some of them were written under a pseudonym that is better left unknown).

The Rocket was a remarkable publication, highly professional yet still wonderfully quirky, every bit as good as anything national, but still ineffably Northwest (there was also a Portland edition). It’s still missed by people who knew it, and I probably still have more pride in being associated with it (by the end I was on the masthead as a senior writer) than almost any other music journalism. It led me to so many things – local radio and then National Public Radio, reviewing CDs for Amazon when they began selling them and all the other magazines who’ve been kind enough to use my work.

My son was born in Seattle and still lives there (although a few more months and he’ll be moving to Bellingham for college). I still have friends there. The ties remain strong.

And now, in three months, I’ll be publishing my first love letter to Seattle. Not just to the Emerald City, but to the music that surged in the underground there before breaking out, to the dark side that stayed in the shadows, and most definitely to The Rocket. I’m sure the city’s changed immensely since I left. I’m not sure I’ll ever return. But it still has a big, big place in my heart, right next to Leeds.

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