— by Stephanie Constable
Our beloved Tacoma tends to get a bad reputation. Known for an unavoidable unpleasant smell, high crime rate, and having many rundown areas, we are often considered to be the wayward younger sibling of Seattle who could never quite find their way. While many people will set aside these shortcomings and look toward the brighter spots of our city, it is rare that anyone settles in and highlights the beauty that is the grit. One notable exception to this is singer-songwriter and Tacoma native, Neko Case, who has taken inspiration from this “dusty old jewel in the South Puget Sound”.
A Little Bit of Context
Case, who was born in 1970 in Virginia to Ukrainian immigrant parents, has lived in about a dozen cities throughout the United States and Canada and is currently settled down in Vermont, but she considers her hometown to be Tacoma. Spending the bulk of her formative years here, it is the place where she learned the intricacies of life, love, and making it on your own. Case has described her childhood as lonely and unstable; her parents being emotionally unequipped to raise children and having divorced when she was a young child. After leaving home at the age of fifteen, she spent a few years couch surfing around the city and meandering amongst the Pacific Northwest punk scene where she began developing an outlet in music, eventually earning her GED, and moving to Vancouver to attend the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design at the age of eighteen. As either a vocalist or drummer, she experimented with a number of punk rock and alternative bands including the Del Logs, the Corn Sisters, Cub, Maow, the Propanes, the Dodos, and most notably, the New Pornographers. She began writing her own music in the mid 1990’s, however she found that it was not punk enough for the bands she was performing with and soon realized she would have to break off on her own if she wanted to use her own material and find success as a writer. It was not until 1997 that she began her solo career as a country artist (specifically excluding herself from the “alt-country” genre that repulses her) and found freedom in performing songs she wrote herself, which is where we can hear the appreciation for the hard lessons and sleepy energy of our city.
To date, Case has released eight critically acclaimed solo albums, but there are a few songs in particular that come to mind when you consider her connections to Tacoma: “Thrice All American”, “South Tacoma Way”, and “Red Tide”. What I find to most special about these tracks is that, on several occasions, Case has talked about the joy she finds in writing her own music because she is able to use it as an opportunity for story telling rather than talking about her own experiences, but knowing her history with Tacoma, you can find an extra layer of vulnerability here that may not be present in most of her other songs.
“Thrice All American”
There was nothing to put me in love with the good life
I’m in league with the gangs, guns, and the crime
There was no hollow promise that life would reward you
There was nowhere to hide in Tacoma
People who built it they loved it like I do
There was hope in the trainyard of something inspired
Once was I on it, but it’s been painted shutI found passion for life in Tacoma
Also known as “Tacoma”, this song was named giving recognition to Tacoma being awarded an All-American City title three times in 1956, 1984, and 1998. Case honors our city by finding beauty in what many consider to be a wreckage, reminding us that it is okay to slow down and appreciate that we are not an over gentrified mega city. Making no attempt to hide the less savory parts of our history, she lovingly holds these pieces and acknowledges the valuable lessons taken from them. Growing up in the working class, crime heavy heart of Tacoma provided her with a realistic view of the hard work that it takes to make something of yourself in this world. Rather than developing resentment toward these characteristics, we are reminded that these struggles can light the fire needed to break out of our circumstances and not be held back by the safety net that being brought up in other places might provide. In the very last line of the song Case sings, “I hope they don’t find you Tacoma”, referring to the masses of people moving to the west coast and commercializing all the beautiful small towns, ruining their charm in attempt to make them “bigger and better”. This struck me as it turned out to be quite prophetic with Tacoma often being referred to as “New Seattle”. I, too, hope they stop finding us.
“South Tacoma Way”
Now I’m traveling down Tacoma Way
And the world turns in slow motion
It’s the twilight of our old home
And I’m still in love with you
Oh here on South Tacoma Way
We’ve memories for matinees
And the tears come warm and heavy
And the cross streets bear your name
And the cross streets bear your name
While this song is not so much about Tacoma itself, it plays tribute to the grief and memories that a hometown can hold. For Case, love and loss were discovered in the streets of our gritty city. As a transplant, it can be easy to feel removed from this place, but after hearing this song I was able to drive along these roads with fresh eyes and have a new respect for the experiences of those who have grown up here. It is a beautiful reminder that everywhere is someone’s home, and it is always worth looking deeper and appreciating the history in things that can seem mundane because it could mean everything to somebody.
There’s a smell here that stands my hairs on end
Dog hair in the heater, gas pumps and cedar
And jackknifes on the nine
And seabirds choked on fishing line
I want to go back and die at the drive in
Die before strangers can say
I hate the rain
I hate the rain
“Red Tide” is something of a reprise of “Thrice All American”. Released nine years later, it gives a glimpse of the way gentrification has begun to change the attitude in the town. The perspective of this song is less of an admiration and more of a longing for the times before people started viewing Tacoma as an investment, sacrificing all the grunge and quirks for promise of shiny new profits.
And life goes by slow in Tacoma
Whether you have been in Tacoma for your whole life or just arrived here last week, Neko Case reminds us of the importance of stopping to appreciate our town for its’ roots, not for what you might want or hope for it to be. The message she shares is simple: Love it for the simple gritty place it is or leave it for the people who do. Included below is a link to a playlist with the songs described above plus a couple of bonus tracks. If you have not already, take this as an opportunity to dedicate some time in your day to be grateful for the parts of Tacoma that many people are working to erase.
The last photo was taken by the author, it is a page out of the album jacket from Neko Case’s album Middle Cyclone, the artwork was done by Neko.
Stephanie Constable wrote this article as her final project for Musical History of Tacoma, a class taught by Kim Davenport at the University of Washington Tacoma.