Rock of Ages

Take a tour of Portland’s indie-rock landmarks.

By Zach Dundas May 19, 2009 Published in the September 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Troy Cummings

IF VIRGINIA is for lovers and Las Vegas is for those who want to forget who they are (at least for a weekend), what’s Portland’s tourist shtick? How about: Portland is for indie-rock lovers. Yup. A new campaign devised by Travel Portland, our local tourism board, looks to lure skinny, white-belt-wearing travelers with vacation packages created around our music scene. Book a room at the Jupiter Hotel, for instance, and you’ll get a compilation CD of local bands like Blitzen Trapper and Faux Hoax, along with tickets to a show at the Doug Fir Lounge. We hope it works. But we don’t think our new tourists should just shop for vinyl and drink microbrew all day. What about our rock heritage? To that end, we offer this map of Portland’s essential indie-rock landmarks. Let the pilgrimage begin.


NW Quimby St
Sure, decadent popsters the Dandy Warhols and their lead singer, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, have been accused of having egos the size of Mount Hood. But at least they’ve used those big heads to score a big real-estate deal: The band members plowed their profits into a quarter-block clubhouse beneath the Fremont Bridge, where they record songs, host parties, shoot videos, and do whatever it is you do when you’re living in a re-creation of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Go on, knock. You never know who might be home.


4620 NE Glisan St
Once, Colin Meloy was just a mild-mannered Montanan who came to Portland with a guitar and some marketable pie-making skills, which he put to use at this unassuming eatery. Here the future Decemberists front man humbly rolled his dough while dreaming up pop ballads about dead Civil War soldiers, Chinese acrobats, and Japanese folklore heroines. Who knew the formula would vault him from opening the till to opening for Barack Obama in front of 75,000
Portlanders? American Dream, indeed.


SE Ninth Ave & Ash St
Everyone from grunge bands to college-rock icons played this drafty old barn back in its early 1990s heyday—and everyone drank heavily. (The Replacements did both. And got naked.) But as the age of Mudhoney faded into the era of Eminem, La Luna couldn’t keep up. It closed in ’99 and since then has hosted more than 20 businesses, including—quelle horreur!—a rave club. Today the building houses two restaurants: the upscale-rustic Simpatica Dining Hall and raucous Japanese joint Biwa.


This isn’t just any old stretch of gum-and-cigarette-specked sidewalk. This is where the feminist-punk trio Sleater-Kinney shot the cover of its 1999 album, The Hot Rock, in which guitarist Carrie Brownstein hails a Radio Cab while singer Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss look bored by everything around them. Should you and two of your best friends be moved to re-enact the scene, just remember, no one actually hails cabs in Portland. Although you may well succeed in flagging down a bike messenger or a Greenpeace canvasser with a clipboard.


Elliott Smith, the gloomy poet of melodic anomie, recorded his first album, Roman Candle, in a house on this block near SE Division Street before skipping town and meeting a tragic end. In 2001, James Mercer of the Shins bought the place, oblivious to its history but clearly attuned to its musical vibrations: He wrote the band’s 2007 album, Wincing the Night Away, here and still calls the place home. (And no, we’re not giving up the address. Use your indie-rock divining rod to figure out which of the block’s seven houses is emitting the most musical energy.)

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