For Seattle’s underground music scene, the 1980s began with great promise. The Rocket began publishing in October 1979, giving the scene a much-needed venue for media promotion as the new decade began. Early in 1980, two crucial concert venues for underground music opened downtown: the Gorilla Room, which opened in March, and WREX, which opened on the date in focus here.
WREX was established in Belltown by Michael Clay, Wes Bradley, and Aaron McKiernan. The venue, at 2018 First Avenue, was formerly a leather gay bar called Johnny’s Handlebar, located on the ground floor of a former brothel. The unique décor inside WREX included old car seats in the back, old airplane seats in the side area, and Seattle’s first music video system.
Bands played at WREX three nights a week, originally booked by Wes Bradley. Both WREX and the Gorilla Room filled their tiny spaces for most of their three-nights-a-week shows. Along with almost every local band then playing original music (starting with the Enemy), touring acts who played at WREX included Grace Jones, Joan Jett, X, the Fleshtones, Delta 5, and Romeo Void. The frequency of shows at both venues — and their apparent local popularity — inspired other bars around Seattle to start booking original-music bands, thus giving a crucial boost to Seattle’s punk scene at a crucial time in its development. Additionally, certain bars near WREX in Belltown — such as the Frontier Room and the Rendezvous — soon became local punk hangouts.
On nights when live acts weren’t featured, WREX would host DJ nights. Among the regular DJs there were Charles “Upchuck” Gerra, then a prominent figure within Seattle’s punk scene, and British immigrant (and Rocket staff member) Dennis White.
Seattle’s punk and gay communities have often mingled together, and the subcultural mise-en-scène at WREX was no exception to that general rule. Occasionally, former Johnny’s Handlebar clientele would drop in after WREX’s opening, not yet knowing about the change in management and regular crowd. Since both gays and punks were then equally shunned by mainstream Seattleites, there was usually no true clash between the two subcultures.
Along with the fertile subcultural ferment that thrived at WREX, there was also an inevitable element of sleaze. At the end of many nights there, spilled beer lingered an inch or two thick on the concrete floor, and young couples often had sex openly on the back staircase during shows. Such was the standard punk nightlife during that time, in Seattle and elsewhere.
The sleazy nature of its clientele wasn’t WREX’s only problem: it also had constant problems with cash flow. Dennis White once lamented, “WREX was always out of cash. Toward the end I was buying the keg off the truck in the afternoon out of my own pocket, hoping they’d sell enough that night to pay me back.”
WREX officially closed on March 18, 1982. One year later, the same venue would reopen as the Vogue, which, while focusing on recorded dance music played by DJs, also hosted live music acts on off nights — including Nirvana’s first Seattle gig before a full audience on April 24, 1988.
–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Clark Humphrey, “Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story” (Feral House, 1995; MiscMedia, 1999, 2016); Clark Humphrey, “Seattle’s Belltown” (Arcadia Publishing, 2007); Peter Blecha, “Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from ‘Louie Louie’ to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit'” (Backbeat Books, 2009); Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011).