By Glenn McDonald
It’s been called the Cradle of Grunge.
For a good chunk of the 1990s, the Seattle music club The Crocodile – a.k.a. The Crocodile Cafe or The Croc – was the closest thing the grunge scene had to a home. Located at the corner of Second Avenue and Blanchard Street in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, the Crocodile hosted several of Nirvana’s early shows, along with performances from local scene stalwarts like Mudhoney, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains.
The Croc would later be a regular performance venue for second-wave bands in the Seattle music scene of the late 1990s, like Harvey Danger and The Presidents of the United States of America. In the years since, the Croc has helped launch the careers of even more Seattle luminaries such as Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie.
The Croc has been a fixture on the city’s music scene for almost 25 years now – with a brief hiatus – but it will forever be associated with the grunge era. In fact, the club opened its doors just months before the release of Nevermind, the Nirvana album that would spark a popular music revolution in the 1990s.
Seattle’s most famous rock venue opened its doors in April of 1991. Christened The Crocodile Cafe by owner Stephanie Dorgan, a local attorney, the club opened in the rundown Belltown neighborhood, which has since been transformed into one of the city’s prime hotspots.
For the next several years, the Croc would be closely affiliated with grunge and the Seattle sound, along with the Sub Pop record label and its sizable stable of bands. The term “grunge” was popularized by Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt, who used it in official press releases to describe several bands on the label roster.
By the beginning of 1992, Nirvana had skyrocketed to fame and introduced so-called “alternative rock” to the mainstream. Even now, it’s hard to overstate the impact of the Nevermind. When the album bumped Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of the charts in January 1992, it was a defining moment of the new rock revolution.
All eyes turned to Seattle. Nirvana, now the World’s Biggest Band, had just come off a European tour in which crowds seems to grow exponentially with each show. In a testimony to the Croc’s status in the burgeoning scene, Nirvana played a secret show at the club with Mudhoney in 1992. (You can see footage from the show here.)
The Post-Grunge Era
As the grunge wave crested and broke, the Croc remained in the heart of Belltown, a popular nighttime destination for music lovers, local and otherwise. Tourists coming to town flocked to the Crocodile to experience the city’s most famous rock club.
Meanwhile, Dorgan met and eventually married Peter Buck, guitarist for another alt-rock standard-bearer, R.E.M. Buck moved to Seattle, became co-owner of the club, and would often take the stage with various local outfits. In rock gossip circles, the union brought still more clout to the Seattle venue.
But the new millennium brought changes. Dozens of competing clubs, looking to book the same bands, were sprouting up around the city. As the Belltown district became more trendy – huge condominium towers, high-end restaurants – the Croc’s grungy energy suddenly didn’t jibe with the neighborhood.
As former manager Val Kiossovski told the Seattle Times: “I don’t think we were able to adjust ourselves to the new Belltown.”
For the next several years the Croc operated at a loss, according to court papers later filed by Dorgan. She and Buck divorced in 2006. In December 2007, the Croc abruptly closed its doors after a wild ride of a little more than 15 years.
The Croc would not be quieted for long. In March of 2009, a fully renovated Crocodile reopened under new ownership and management. Thanks to a group of local investors, the new venue boasted a spirit and sheen to match the revitalized Belltown environs. With a new stage four times the size of the original, the Crocodile got back to business – bringing in national and regional touring acts while also promoting local bands.
Opening night saw the Seattle music community rallying around the historic nightspot. Buck, Bill Rieflin, Scott McCaughey and Robyn Hitchcock – a.k.a. Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 – took the stage. The crowd was packed with veteran Seattle scenesters, including Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil.
For the last four years, the Crocodile has been hosting musical events of all stripes – rock, hip hop, electronic, folk, metal, punk – plus a wide variety of special events. The Crocodile Back Bar hosts weekly karaoke and stand-up comedy shows, plus Happy Hour every night. Actually, twice per night, in three-hour blocks, for a total of six hours. That’s rock-and-roll math for you.
A list of recent acts in the main showroom: Nada Surf, The Melvins, Meat Puppets, Zola Jesus, Ben Gibbard, Macklemore, Wolves in the Throneroom, Thee Silver Mt Zion, Thee Oh Sees, Neon Indian, Explosions in the Sky, Grynch, Allen Stone, Wye Oak, The Lonely Forest, Intelligence, Doomtree, The Head and the Heart, Cults, Joy Formidable, Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Loch Lomond, Tune Yards, Fresh Espresso, Bear in Heaven, Thee Satisfaction, Hieroglyphics, Kulture Shock, Wovenhand.
The Crocodile’s place in the history of rock is secure. The former Cradle of Grunge has found a second wind, and it’s still bringing the noise.