The Black ‘Godmother of Grunge’ Who Inspired Your Fav Bands
When you think of grunge, do you picture a bunch of long-haired White guys in plaid shirts, singing about teenage angst and self-loathing? Time to expand that viewpoint. Standing above them all should be Tina Bell, a tiny Black woman with an outsized stage presence, and her band, Bam Bam. It’s only recently that the 1980s phenom has begun to be recognized as a godmother of grunge.
This modern genre’s sound was, in many ways, molded by a Black woman. The reason she is mostly unknown has everything to do with racism and misogyny. Looking back at the beginnings of grunge, with the preconception that “everybody involved” was White and/or male, means ignoring the Black woman who was standing at the front of the line.
Bam Bam was formed as a punk band in 1983 in Seattle. Bell, a petite brown-skinned spitfire with more hairstyle changes than David Bowie, sang lead vocals and wrote most of the lyrics. Her then-husband Tommy Martin was on guitars (the band’s name is an acronym of their last names: Bell And Martin), Scotty “Buttocks” Ledgerwood played bass, and Matt Cameron was on drums. Cameron would leave the band in its first year and go on to fame as the drummer for Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. But he paid homage to his beginnings by wearing a Tina Bell T-shirt in a photoshoot for Pearl Jam’s 2017 Anthology: the Complete Scores book.
“For some reason a couple of skinheads are up front, calling her [the N-word] And all of the sudden, Bell grabs a microphone stand and she starts swirling it around her head like a lasso… She swung that fuckin’ thing around her head and about the fourth time, she smashed that son of a bitch.”
Bam Bam’s sound straddled the line between punk and something so new that it didn’t have a name yet. Their music combined a driving, thrumming bass line; downtuned, sludgy guitars; thrashy, pulsing drums; melodic vocals that range from sultry to haunting to screamy; and lyrics about the existential tension of trying to exist in a world not designed for you. The band’s 1984 music video for their single “Ground Zero” is low-budget, but Bell’s charisma seeps through.
“She was fucking badass. That’s all there is to it. She was amazing as a performer. I’ve only seen one White male lead singer command the stage in a similar way that Tina Bell did, and that was Bon Scott of AC/DC,” says Om Johari, who attended Bam Bam shows as a Black teenager in the ’80s and who would go on to lead all-female AC/DC cover band Hell’s Belles.
Christina King, a Seattle scenester who was close friends with Bell from 1984 until the early ’90s, says the singer’s talent was obvious. But she believes a lot of people dismissed Bell as a gimmick.
Among those attending their shows: Future members of grunge bands like Nirvana (Kurt Cobain did a stint as a Bam Bam roadie), Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam.
“I remember one person saying to me that they didn’t get ‘the whole Black girl singer thing,’ it just didn’t fit whatever they were into,” says King. “They were too ahead of their time.”
Bam Bam came into being in an era when hundreds of bands and musicians crammed into Seattle’s underground clubs, taverns, bars, and social halls — any venue that had an open corner. Bam Bam played almost all of them, and often to big crowds: The Vogue, The OK Hotel, Gorilla Gardens, Squid Row — just to name a few.
Among those attending their shows: Future members of history-making grunge bands like Nirvana (Kurt Cobain did a stint as a Bam Bam roadie), Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam. Not to mention all the other people, mostly White and male, who would become prime targets for music labels trying to market this new sound.
Bell “already possessed everything they were trying to attain. She had a truer rock and roll spirit than almost any of those guys in that town. Everything they tried to do, she naturally was,” says Ledgerwood, still a loyal bandmate.
One Seattle club, The Metropolis, became “like our fucking living room,” says Ledgerwood. It was also the site of an overtly racist verbal assault against Tina Bell.
“For some reason a couple of skinheads are up front, calling her [the N-word],” Ledgerwood recalls. “And all of the sudden, Bell grabs a microphone stand and she starts swirling it around her head like a lasso… She swung that fuckin’ thing around her head and about the fourth time, she smashed that son of a bitch… She nailed that fucker right in the temple of his head. Split like a melon. And the other guy next to him caught it too, they go down, and we’re like, ‘What the fuck?’”
Ledgerwood says that after going backstage for a while to regroup, Bell came back “and put out the most blistering set of our fucking career.”
This could easily be an anecdote about Bell’s power, her resilience, and willingness to fight back against oppressive forces. But it’s also a story about the cost of being a Black woman who does something that some people don’t expect or approve of.
“She’s being pulled out of her zone because somebody is acknowledging how the rest of the world can see her,” says Johari, empathizing with the star rocker. “And even to react to it by picking up a microphone and smashing someone in the face, that means that that incident cost her not only that moment it takes to get back into the song, but the whole [effects of her] action will last for weeks.
“She’ll replay that over and over and over and over again. And then the people she sees that were there when it happened, they’re gonna come up to her and they’re gonna forget everything that she’s saying, all the stuff that she had did, and they’re only going to focus on, ‘I was at that show where you knocked a dude in the head for calling you an N-word,’” Johari says. “It has nothing to do with her artistry. But it reminds her of the way in which she has to be prepared, just in case it happens again.”
King remembers Bell also felt that some of the other men in the band’s changing lineup failed to treat her as an equal partner: “She’s getting that from her own band members — what do you think audience people are like?”
A European tour in the late ’80s gained Bam Bam international fans, but ended after Bell and Martin split up, and Bell was caught in an immigration enforcement dragnet in the Netherlands.
When they returned to the Pacific Northwest, Bam Bam continued playing shows until 1990, when Bell abruptly quit as they were packing up to head to the studio in Portland, Ore.
“She had just had enough,” Ledgerwood says. “For almost eight years she had almost literally eviscerated herself for the audience.”
But that work never resulted in the national recognition they deserved.
“Grunge, whatever that means, is being identified as from your community, your colleagues, your sound that you were a participant in help shaping, and you’re not even mentioned in any of it.”
“Sometimes you need to be a little bit of an asshole to protect yourself. And Bell wasn’t much of an asshole,” Ledgerwood adds. “She was a pure-hearted person and had a really hard time believing that people couldn’t accept her over something as stupid as race.”
Bell didn’t just quit the band, she withdrew from music completely, says her son, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker TJ Martin. Not out of resentment, he adds, but perhaps to escape the painful reminders that the music she helped pioneer was now earning other bands multimillion-dollar record contracts.
“Grunge, whatever that means, is being identified as from your community, your colleagues, your sound that you were a participant in help shaping, and you’re not even mentioned in any of it,” Martin says. “I can’t even fathom what that would feel like for it to be sort of spit back in your face with such frequency.”
Ledgerwood believes Bell died of a broken heart. But when Bell died alone in her Las Vegas apartment in 2012, the official cause of death listed was cirrhosis of the liver. She had struggled with alcohol and depression. Her son says the coroner estimated her time of death as a couple weeks before her body was discovered. She was 55 years old.
The things that could have told Tina Bell’s story in her own voice are lost. Martin arrived in Las Vegas to find that the contents of his mother’s apartment — except for a DVD player, a poster, and a chair — had been thrown away. All of her writings — lyrics, poems, diaries — along with Bam Bam music, videos, and other memorabilia — went in the trash without her family even being notified.
If you think you were in Seattle in the ’80s, in the grunge scene, and you don’t remember Tina Bell and Bam Bam, you probably weren’t really fucking there.
“I couldn’t help draw a parallel between her not being respected and seen in the first chapter of her life, as the front person of a punk band, and then even in death being disrespected and not being seen for the merits of the life she lived,” says Martin.
Bell’s death is also an indictment of the way she was written out of her own story. The way grunge’s almighty gatekeepers chose to look through her instead of at her. Grunge became the domain of alienated young White men in flannel shirts, and Tina Bell didn’t fit the narrative they were trying to sell.
“Black herstory can suffer immense amounts of erasure if somebody is not brave enough to ensure that women get counted,” Johari says.
To many of those who were part of the scene at the time, the amnesia seems intentional. Ledgerwood brings up the seminal history of Seattle’s grunge era, Everybody Loves Our Town. In it, the author refers to Bam Bam as a three-piece instrumental band mainly notable because Matt Cameron was the drummer. Tina Bell isn’t even mentioned.
“How in the hell would he have a recollection of how great Bam Bam and its drummer was, and not this unbelievably beautiful woman, this firecracker, this explosive rock and roll goddess?” Ledgerwood asks. “Even if he thought she sucked, to not remember the only Black woman on the whole fuckin’ scene is — well, it’s like that old joke about the ’60s: If you think you were in Seattle in the ’80s, in the grunge scene, and you don’t remember Tina Bell and Bam Bam, you probably weren’t really fucking there.”