Who Was Rocker Tina Bell? And Why It Matters

In Seattle, an important, perhaps genre-defining conversation has been going for the past six months about one local artist more than any other. That person is not Macklemore or Ryan Lewis, Ann or Nancy Wilson, Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix. It’s Bam Bam frontwoman, Tina Bell.

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Haven’t heard of her? You’re not alone.

Tina Bell, who is Black, led the early ’80s Seattle rock band, Bam Bam. From all accounts, she was a dynamo on stage, as compelling as any Seattle has seen before or since. Bell, who died nine years ago today (October 10, 2012) at 55 years old, is remembered as being small in size—about five-foot-two—beautiful and ready to use her microphone stand as a weapon on stage whenever she felt someone disrespected her or encroached on her space.

Tina Bell at Reciprocal Recording Studio

Today, Bell’s story is representative of a large problem: erasure. While Bell was a contemporary and even predecessor of big rock names like Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain, she is nowhere near as remembered. To some, that’s a crime of racism. A Black frontwoman forgotten in place of many, many more white frontmen (who are, themselves, likely afforded more opportunities early on). It also wouldn’t be the first time: bands like IMIJ (below) and even its reverse namesake, Jimi Hendrix, never found early footing in the Emerald City. The great Quincy Jones, too.

There is likely much truth to this “erasure” explanation, as to why Bell is not more widely and positively known today in Seattle or outside of it. There are certainly plenty of examples of it in the past nationally; trailblazers in music, who are Black, are often discarded for those with lighter skin. Think Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Elvis.

To many who listen to Bell today, she is the rediscovered and right Queen of Grunge. The energetic stage presence who sang and shrieked and moaned of a troubled, unfair life over sludgy, often dark, brooding guitars and rhythms. She wore a Mohawk, black eyeliner. She snarled. And she came years before the big Seattle four of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains.

In fact, Bam Bam recorded its 1984 EP, Villains (Also Wear White), before the Seattle band Green River recorded its first 1985 record Come On Down, which is often credited as starting the grunge genre. And Bam Bam, with Bell in tow, recorded their album in the same studio with the same producer who’d been there later for Green River. Is it possible that folks in the room remembered a few of Bell’s tricks and sound preferences while working with Green River later? Of course.

But still, some others who were around at the time of Bam Bam, from journalists to musicians, say the band wasn’t the beginning of grunge. In fact, they say, the band wasn’t even all that popular, playing to rooms to about 30 people. Though, other accounts recall them playing to packed bars and clubs. Yes, they’ll say, the members of Bam Bam knew the grunge stars to be, hung out with them, even inspired them some, but they—Bell and Bam Bam—did not invent grunge. (Let’s come back to this in a moment.)

Bam Bam, which everyone says was a great live band, does not boast many studio recordings, especially in its heyday, which hurts its legacy. To date, the band with Bell at the lead has put out one EP, Villains (Also Wear White); two singles, “Ground Zero” and “Show What You Know”; and two albums, Bam Bam House Demo and Free Fall From Space. All were recorded in 1983-84. But—and this is crucial—for years, Villains (Also Wear White) was their only available release. The group, which was comprised of Bell, her husband and guitarist Tommy Martin (who has also since passed), bassist Scotty Ledgerwood and drummer Matt Cameron, was essentially only a live act.

By the way, yes, that’s the Matt Cameron, who would later play in Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Today, Cameron is one of Bam Bam’s biggest proponents, telling anyone he can of Bell’s prowess and abilities way back when. Here’s where a critic might say: “But Matt, why didn’t you stay in Bam Bam?” Whatever Cameron’s answer is to this question, while mildly interesting, it’s ultimately not crucial. Lineups change. Bands morph. A little blow-up in rehearsal can lead to the end of a group. Maybe there’s a good reason for Cameron’s departure or maybe Bam Bam really wasn’t as promising to him at the time compared to other bands he’d play in, like Soundgarden.

These specifics aren’t especially important if you ask me. I’m not interested in whether Tina Bell started grunge or why Matt Cameron ultimately left the band. I’m much more interested in why whatever Tina and Bam Bam were doing in the ‘80s, which from all accounts was influential and interesting, was almost entirely forgotten until recently? How could that happen?

Bell, who was one of the first to make those sludgy sounds (though some, like Seattle guitarist, Jimmy James, notes Jimi Hendrix may have actually sparked grunge), also dabbled in new wave and punk music. And she was excellent in those, too. So, how was all this talent lost to history? That’s what I’d like to know; not if Bell “invented grunge.”

The reality of an art form is that no one person starts an entire genre by themselves; there are always influences and helpful contemporaries. Though it is also the case that those Black folks at the beginning of movements are often forgotten first in place of white counterparts in America. And that is the core issue here, too.

As the proto-grunge sounds and styles and swagger were being shaped in the Northwest, Bell was there, very much contributing to it, day in and day out. So, why hadn’t so many in Seattle heard of her? That is until a recent story popped up and went viral around the region (and world) from Please Kill Me magazine by writer Jen B. Larson, which described the band’s history in detail. The piece has since reignited a conversation about Bell and Bam Bam in Seattle and abroad that has left many in the city wondering: why was Bell’s secret kept?

Today, Bell’s story continues to both shock and inspire. She and Martin had a son, T.J., who grew up to be an Oscar and Emmy winner. And TJ, speaking to Larry Mizell, Jr. recently on the excellent KEXP re-telling of Bell’s life story, talks about his mother’s death in Las Vegas from cirrhosis of the liver. Bell died alone, isolated, found about two weeks after she’d passed, without the success or notoriety she deserved. Ledgerwood had been working with T.J. to find an apartment but when Bell went radio silent for too long, he knew something had gone wrong. And her belongings? Thrown out because they were “contaminated,” T.J. was told.

Bell and Mozart are now tied for the saddest musical burial.

As a songwriter, Bell was one of the best in the city in her time—that’s clear just by the peers she kept. To wit, Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan even sat in on drums with the band one night. One listen through her work and it’s also evident she was onto something, and that variations of those same sounds would later end up on platinum albums from the Upper Left. Again, the point here isn’t whether to adjudicate who started what (not for me, at least).

The point is that Tina Bell and Bam Bam were definitely good—maybe even great. Bell and Bam Bam were also definitely a large influence. And Bell and Bam Bam were also definitely forgotten. And that definitely sucks.

Bell is now being remembered again thanks to outlets like Please Kill Me (their story was shared over 20,000 times), writers like Brazilian journalist Tania Seles and local Seattleites like musician Om Johari, who, upon seeing a groundswell, organized a recent Bam Bam tribute show this past summer, which featured Cameron, Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard, guitarist Ayron Jones and many others. (Rumor has it Ron Howard’s people were attending and filming.)

Johari was there in the ‘80s, revering and watching Bam Bam, inspired by one of the few Black faces on stage. Around the time of Johari’s tribute show, CBS News was also in the beginning stages of putting together a piece on Bell, as well. That piece aired recently and now the ring of Bell’s name is beginning to find more ears. She deserves that. There is hope and forward momentum. Ledgerwood says he’s also recently got the band signed to a new record deal with Bric-a-Brac Records, which will be re-releasing some material, mixed and mastered by grunge legend Jack Endino. More outlets are noticing, places like The Seattle Times.

But it’s silly—unfair, even—to hold Bell’s legacy up to the standard of Godmother-of-Grunge or bust. There are plenty of perfectly good and noteworthy Northwest bands who get love from fans who didn’t have to invent an entire genre. They’re simply musicians and they’re good so they get the requisite shine. We remember many of them but somehow we lost Tina. And even if we never find an answer to why Bell and Bam Bam were lost for decades, let’s collectively make sure moving forward that it doesn’t happen again. 

For the now-32-year-old Seattle-born rock ‘n’ roll frontwoman Eva Walker, of the popular band The Black Tones, representation matters for the next generation:

“It would have helped a hell of a lot earlier had I known about Tina Bell as a kid,” Walker says. “Because I thought liking rock as a black kid made me weird or unusual, because I was made to feel that way by others, who, in their defense, weren’t seeing us being represented in the genre.

“Knowing about her now, in addition to rock legends like Jimi Hendrix, further validates why I can be here pursuing what I’m pursuing. Representation matters and we were never alone in this rock journey. It further contributes to the push that I have, to keep doing this and be seen.”

(All photos courtesy of Buttocks Productions/Scott Ledgerwood)

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