Gretta Harley arrived in Seattle in 1990, when grunge was redefining the city. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were turning Seattle into the epicenter of the music world. Harley was a punk rock guitarist searching for her tribe, and in Seattle's thriving music scene, she found it.
"I lived in a house with a bunch of other musicians," Harley says. "And The Screaming Trees lived across the street, Gus Huffer lived around the corner, and Gorilla lived around the corner." While living in close proximity to so many popular Northwestern bands, Harley soon co-founded her own. She and Tess. Lotta formed Maxi Badd, which later became the Danger Gens. Almost 25 years on, Harley is still in music. She teaches and she performs as half of the duo We Are Golden with singer Sarah Rudinoff.
Two years ago, Rudinoff and Harley went to a songwriting retreat and got an idea — not for a song, but for a play. Harley wanted to address a question that hit close to home: "How does a woman in her 40s still create with a passion in a world that is largely held by the young?"
Harley and Rudinoff also wanted to address the disconnect between the history they had lived and the histories they saw written. In 2011, the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind sparked numerous tributes to the grunge era that didn't capture the Seattle music community they remembered. "We started looking at the books that were written by different authors, and the women were absent, almost completely absent," Harley says. "And we thought, 'Wow, this is a story that really hasn't happened yet.' "
So Harley and Rudinoff set out to tell that story. They starting talking to women who'd been part of Seattle's rock community, and eventually videotaped more than 30 conversations with women like Valerie Agnew and Elizabeth Davis, the drummer and the bassist for the band 7 Year Bitch. Davis and Agnew recall that the female musicians of the Pacific Northwest were far from invisible, especially when they toured Europe. Their promotion was a little inaccurate, though: Show posters would advertise them as "the godmothers of Riot Grrls," even though the Riot Grrl movement got its start 60 miles south of Seattle, in Olympia, and many of the Seattle women say they were more into music than Riot Grrl feminism.
Using the oral histories they gathered, Harley and Rudinoff created the play These Streets. While the plot is fictional, the play draws on the real experiences of the women who shared their memories, including Amy Stolzenbach. Other women in the project identified Stolzenbach as one of the best musicians of the era; she played guitar in a number of bands, including the all-female AC/DC cover band Hell's Belles. She says most of Seattle's male musicians were supportive of their female bandmates, although there were the occasional jerks. Some of those jerks are represented in the play, as in this monologue:
"I had a band in 6th grade, and our drummer was this guy at school, Joey Akimpura. We started learning how to play Peter Frampton, Queen, it was great. Then I went over to Joey's house one day and saw our band photo. I wasn't in it. I never heard about the photo shoot, and I was like, 'What is this?' Joey said, 'This is our band, and you can't be in it.' And I was like, 'What are you talking about?' And he said, 'No girls allowed,' and I thought, 'Oh yeah?' "
Twenty years later, those attitudes linger in the music industry, according to hip-hop artist Hollis Wong-Wear. In These Streets, Wong-Wear plays the younger version of one of Seattle's rockers of yore. In real life, she just finished a tour with one of the nation's top acts, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Although Wong-Wear feels like she's had a lot of opportunities, she says women still have to prove themselves: "There's not enough women for us to feel like it's normal for them to rise due to their talent and what they have to say."
While Wong-Wear plays a younger rocker in These Streets, 50-year-old Harley essentially plays herself: She fronts the band that's onstage for the entire production. "There's a power that comes from turning on the amp and getting that real loud sound and screaming it over the mike," she says. "It's an incredible source of power."
While that may be true, Stolzenbach says she's kind of relieved the rock musician phase of her life is over. "When I look back with the wisdom that I have now, I'm kind of glad I never quote-unquote made it," she says. "At the time, there was heartache, because I wasn't making it, and I wanted that more than anything. But, you know, when you stop fighting and follow that path of least resistance, you can still use your talents, you can still have this really productive career and have everything else that goes along with having a life."
The oral histories Harley and Rudinoff collected will be archived at the University of Washington. Meanwhile, These Streets is taking those stories to the stage; the play opened last Friday in Seattle.