Before Nirvana, there was Joey Kline.
Songwriter, guitarist, gin-soaked crooner, jokerman, melodramatist, stand-out wacko and near-casualty of Seattle's early-'90s music boom, Joseph D. Kline has surfed the wild currents of what's-next - all those tidal-wave tides of changing style and taste and hair color - holding on to his trusty six-string acoustic for dear life. Kline's what people used to call an "entertainer," a musician in the purest sense. A prodigious songwriter, he has hundreds of songs in his repertoire: ballads, rockers, pop confection. He's good at what he does. He's hardworking. Talent to spare.
And he nearly gave it all up a few years back.
To understand why, one must revert to an older, unreconstructed Seattle, and then recall that thunderous blast of dilating distortion that came whumping and thumping from the amps of squirrely, shaggy punks, an admittedly lovely noise that, unfortunately, worked to overpower the music of the generations that came before - like some sort of melodic imperialism, a Soundgarden squall conquering all in its stampeding path.
Kline was part of that generation - the generation of the Young Fresh Fellows and, reaching even further back, the Sonics. Nearly 20 years ago, Kline packed his bags and left his hometown of Helena, Mont. - the old country mouse bolting - making his way to the Northwest, where he headed up or played in a handful of strong bands, such as Prudence Dredge, the Cropdusters, the Squirrels and the Tractors. He put out a handful of strong records. He backed Bo Diddley and opened up for such acts as Mojo Nixon, Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Squeeze.
Wrote some great songs.
Kept plugging away.
And somewhere in there, a kid named Kurt Cobain started up a little band called Nirvana and took snoozy old Seattle - and then the world - by storm, momentarily eclipsing the sort of country-tinged, well-constructed classic rock/pop music at which Kline excels.
He describes his music thus (with tongue half-planted in cheek): "It's an eclectic yet accessible blend of Americana, with language drawing from the entire musical spectrum and range of human emotion. It's appropriate for all ages and fans of all kinds of music."
At times, it seemed to Kline that the word "grunge" had become a synonym for music itself. And although things have changed, and Seattle's music scene seems to have opened itself to all sorts of genres, still Kline found himself discouraged by what he saw around him.
"Currently, it seems very fragmented," he said of the local music scene. "There doesn't seem to be as much community as there was at one time, but certain venues create their own community and subculture."
Things got so bad that, not too far back, he tried to put away his guitar for good. He might as well have tried to stop breathing.
"I tried to retire for a while," Kline said, "but I felt like I'd abandoned part of my heart and soul. It's who I am; it's how I express myself. Denying your passion doesn't make it go away."
Kline jumped back into the studio with a new band, the Plaintiffs, and recorded an album called "To Helen, a Handbasket." The new lineup was so inspiring to him that he decided to re-record one of his oldest, and best, songs, "Back to the Gills," a powerful, catchy tune that is beautiful in its depiction of resignation.
"It's held up as a composition better than most of my catalogue," he said. "I'm happy with how it turned out."
Kline said he considers himself more of an old-fashioned, heart-on-your-sleeve romantic songwriter - sometimes with an edge - in the tradition of Elvis Costello, Paul Westerberg or Waylon Jennings. "I write lyrics directly from the mood I happen to be in that day," he said. "If I'm really giddy and drunken, it's going to be awfully silly. If I'm in a more introspective and dark mood, it will reflect that with equal intensity."
However his mood goes, Kline is nothing if not prolific. With the latest just barely off the presses, he's already at work on another album.
"We already have a few songs written toward the next project," he said. "There are elements of ska, Tex-Mex and glam rock already creeping in." He said largely it is the band that has inspired him to jump back into the ring with such enthusiasms.
A big part of Kline's self-styled revival is a weekly Saturday-night gig at Angelo's in Magnolia, where he plays three solo sets, drawing from his substantial and diverse oeuvre of songsmithery. "I'm proud to say I'm at the center of the burgeoning Magnolia music scene," he said, adding that the venue is perfect for a night of cocktails, food and quiet yet engaging music.
"It's a nice, cozy, ambient little room," he said. "It's been a gas so far. The crowds have been building steadily. We've been seeing more and more neighbors wandering in, introducing themselves."
Neighbors, eh? Well. It appears that where once the waves of grunge crashed, stentorian and unignorable, upon these northerly shores, people again are returning to lighter, yet no less enthralling, shades of man-and-guitar. It might not smell like teen spirit, but spirit it is, nonetheless.
Joey Kline plays every Saturday at 9 p.m. at Angelo's in Magnolia, 3656 34th Ave. W. Come on down this Friday, Nov. 15, and celebrate the CD release for "To Helen, a Handbasket," the new Plaintiff's album.