The half-dozen people who gathered under a drizzling sky by a gazebo in Olympia’s Sylvester Park last month were keeping a fragile tradition alive. Sometime in 1983 or 1984 — nobody quite remembers — the Washington state capital’s young residents started holding more or less annual "Go Olympia" walking tours. They don’t show off the tourist attractions; as one former Olympian told me, "the thing about Olympia is that there’s really nothing there." Instead, they tell their own stories: what specific spots mean to them. That bank there, for instance, used to be a (relatively) fancy restaurant, and if you knocked on the back window at 10 p.m., when they were closing up, the dishwasher would open up and give you their extra baked potatoes. And there’s the alley where everyone used to bring candles and have dances in the early ’80s. And the apartment where Calvin lived until they raised the rent from $103 a month to $110.
"Calvin" is Calvin Johnson, the de facto mayor-for-life of Olympia’s demi-monde. In 1983, he formed the rudimentary band Beat Happening with Heather Lewis, Bret Lunsford, one cheap guitar, and a pair of maracas, and he created the still-extant indie label K Records to document the music he and his friends were making. Beat Happening, they declared, were part of the "international pop underground" — and having declared it, they more or less willed that underground into existence, with Olympia as its epicenter, and led it for close to 10 years. The new boxed set Crashing Through (K) collects Beat Happening’s entire recorded output, which in its way is as revolutionary as any band’s: five albums (the first of which is expanded from 10 songs to 23), an extra disc of singles and miscellany, and a CD-ROM with live performances and videos. Indie pop as we know it starts here.
That wouldn’t have happened, of course, if the trio hadn’t been phenomenal songwriters. The much-covered "Indian Summer" is evocative of the end of youth ("That’s the motorbike from ‘Indian Summer,’ " someone pointed out on this year’s Go Olympia tour); "Cast a Shadow" and "Bad Seeds" are marvels of deceptive simplicity, far deeper and darker than they sound at first. The band’s brutal primitivism has less to do with ineptitude than with the raw power of Link Wray and the Cramps. And now that all of Beat Happening’s songs are in one place, it’s clearer than ever that they’re dripping with sex, from Calvin chanting "giveittome giveittome giveittome giveittome" until his lungs give out on one of their earliest tapes to Heather’s rapturous nine-minute "Godsend" on their farewell album, You Turn Me On. For some reason, their live performances don’t come across well on tape — the ones on Crashing Through’s CD-ROM seem awkward and embarrassed — but I remember them as being inspirational, from a band convinced that what they were doing mattered more than anything. And I remember Calvin, on stage, locking eyes with every single person in the room. He still does.
"Calvin Johnson Has Ruined Rock for an Entire Generation," read an infamous T-shirt in the early ’90s. A few bands did get the wrong message from Beat Happening’s haphazard, out-of-tune performances and childhood-obsessed lyrics and stick-figure graphics. The point was not that unprofessional music is good; it was that great music doesn’t have to fit anybody’s idea of professional, and that you can achieve a maximum effect with minimal means. Calvin, Bret, and Heather weren’t rock stars in any sense (okay, Bret and Heather weren’t), but they had the same right everyone has to make culture of their own that they care about, and to share it. Thousands of people they played for got the message.
Rich Jensen was part of the very earliest Go Olympia tours. At the end of this year’s, taking shelter from the rain in a bus depot, he sang us the Go Olympia themesong, from an old K cassette — it starts, "Olympia, Olympia, how are you?" Then he opened a battered briefcase and showed us a crumpled paper badge and a black-and-white photo marked "second Go Olympia tour." A couple of the same people were with us this time. The photo was taken almost 20 years ago, but the people who built their world around their little town still look young.