Words: Dylan Brewerton-Harper (he/him)
Kurt Cobain sits, hugging his knees, eyes transfixed. This is before MTV Unplugged. Before the wheelchair at Reading. Before Nevermind. Before everything. Cobain, a roadie for the band Bam Bam in the early 1980s, was sat staring at its frontwoman Tina Bell – the ‘Godmother of Grunge.’And yes: she was a young Black woman, and yes, you’ve never heard of her.
Seattle, the birthplace of a particular genre of alternative rock that would come to dominate the music world of the 1990s, not only produced Nirvana but also Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Green River (later Mudhoney), Alice in Chains, Mother Love Bone. Ask anyone who knows a thing or two about grunge to name the bands that ‘made’ the genre, and these are the names they’d rattle off. They might go back even further, to Malfunkshun, U-Men, and Melvins. Yet, no Bam Bam. No Tina Bell.
History is written by the winners ey! And Tina Bell, the young Black woman posthumously being considered the founder of the Seattle sound, has not been one of the winners.
Black cultural erasure is a familiar experience to artists and musicians in white America. As Wesley Morris wrote back in 2019 in The New York Times, whilst the illusion of “racial separateness” is one that America has made a political investment in, American music has in fact been “fated to thrive in an elaborate tangle” since the very beginning. In the case of Tina Bell, as in the case of so many other unrecognised and maligned Black musicians throughout history, this is less tangle and more stranglehold.
The later success and acclaim of grunge as a genre was not shared by Tina Bell. Bam Bam, which Bell formed in 1983 with her husband, Tommy Martin, alongside Scott Ledgerwood on bass, and Matt Cameron on drums, would only last until 1990 – just as grunge began to solidify its position as the genre of an American generation. Bam Bam had become notorious in the Seattle club scene, principally for Bell’s outlandish, domineering stage presence and a classic punk image that encased a genuine punk attitude – Ledgerwood recalling her cracking the heads of two neo-Nazis who were racially abusing her on stage by swinging her microphone round “like a lasso” and sticking them one in the temple. She then delivered “the most blistering set of our fucking career”.
Could we extrapolate and maybe say that grunge, a genre defined by its angsty, dark lyrics over even more angsty, dark and distorted guitar, was formed in the fires of Tina Bell’s experience as a Black woman in a white world? The overt, violent racism and sexism, the undermining and the unrecognition mirrored in the music. Art is a reflection of life, so they say.
Ledgerwood has also detailed the more underhanded racism that Bell faced, saying that “people back then expected a Black girl to be Hip-Hop, a soul diva, or pop singer…fronting a hard rock band was inconceivable to many in the general public it seemed, despite how brilliant she was.” This pigeonholing of Bell, and of Black artists more generally, is a social and cultural phenomenon that can be found across any profession. Earlier this year the seminal writer Gary Younge, interviewed in the Guardian, wrote of the “crippling anxieties” and fear of pigeonholing as a minority, writing that “being seen only as the thing that makes you different by those with the power to make that difference matter really is limiting”.
And so it was with Tina Bell. The world outside of the underground scene in Seattle couldn’t handle a young Black woman being a rock pioneer – and has chosen not to forget, but to erase.
It has been noted by several that before Green River recorded and released their first EP Come On Down in 1985, once considered the touchstone record in the foundation of grunge, Bam Bam had recorded their first and only EP, Villains (Also Wear White), a year before in the same studio with the same producer. No doubt then can we trace the musical lineage of grunge to Bam Bam: their warped, dirty sound resonating through Seattle studios, clubs and on the major grunge records that came after.
Tina Bell was found dead in her Las Vegas apartment on 10th October 2012, aged 55. The coroner had estimated that she’d been dead several weeks before being found, having died of cirrhosis of the liver. Struggling for many years with alcohol abuse and depression, Bell had become somewhat of a recluse – her barebones, one-bed apartment hiding a rich personal history enmeshed in a music history that had banished her to the periphery.
By the time her son, Oscar-winning filmmaker T. J. Martin, had arrived at the apartment, the building’s management had thrown out almost all of her belongings – lyrics, poems, diaries, memorabilia. A whole life. Physical erasure mirroring cultural erasure. A tragedy beyond recognition.
On Ground Zero, one of Bam Bam’s better-known songs, Bell sang “Don’t want to be a dead hero.” A cruel, foreshadowing irony for both herself and that young roadie called Kurt Cobain, his eyes glued to the ‘godmother of grunge’. Two histories intertwined, two radically divergent paths, and yet the same troubled fate.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and a renewed excavation of hidden Black stories, Tina Bell may now be getting some of the spotlight that she deserved back then. There is no grunge without Tina Bell. Listen to Smells Like Teen Spirit and think of Tina Bell. Listen to Black and think of Tina Bell. Listen to Rusty Cage and think of Tina Bell. History is an active process of negotiation, conflict and tussling for a place in its books. It’s high time that Tina Bell has her moment in the sun.