Reprinted without permission from Guitar World, July
REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT
Seattle journalist Grant Alden looks back at the vibrant life and unhappy demise of grunge institution Soundgarden.
It's a summer night in Seattle, maybe 1985, who can remember? Down by the freeway, walking distance from the University of Washington if you haven't already had too much to drink, is the Rainbow Tavern. Sooner or later pretty much everybody plays this place, coming up or headed down.
You could fit a couple hundred people in the Rainbow, more than that if the fire marshal hadn't visited recently. Enough fun was had inside and outside that building that, when the lease finally ran out, the neighbors allowed a topless club to open in the space, figuring that would somehow be less troublesome.
This Tuesday night, anyway, Soundgarden is getting ready to play for the maybe 40 people scuffling around inside the Fabulous Rainbow. On hand is Jonathan Poneman, who books Tuesday nights as a benefit for college radio station KCMU. He doesn't know it, but the job allows him to do some preliminary A&R work for Sub Pop, the record label he will launch not too far down the line.
It's altogether possible that if you were one of the 40 people nursing your beer, waiting for Soundgarden to play, you probably went home early because they sucked and the beer in your refrigerator was cheaper.
Dumb name, Soundgarden. Preposterous and arty, named for a steel tube sculpture that's meant to play with the wind, one of those public art projects that leaves a lost of people wondering why we spend tax dollars on public art. But there were a fair number of preposterous and arty post-punk bands running around Seattle back then, and Soundgarden came by it naturally: Kim Thayil, the guitar player had come west from Chicago to study philosophy; Hiro Yamamoto, the bass player, ended up getting his master's degree in physical chemistry. And maybe they sucked but Chris Cornell, that skinny guy singing, had some set of pipes and Thayil's guitar work was just flat weird enough to stick in your head.
And they were good enough, Soundgarden were, that Poneman put down his guitar to concentrate on that record label he had started with Bruce Pavitt, who had actually gone to high school with Thayil back in Chicago. Well, Pavitt started the label as a fanzine and a cassette sampler when he was interning for OP magazine (which became Option), but Jonathan knew how to get some money. So they put out a Green River EP, and Green River later split into Mudhoney and this band called Pearl Jam. And then there was a single on blue vinyl from Soundgarden, and an EP called Screaming Life. That would have been 1987. The FOPP EP came out a year later, complete with producer Steve Fisk's masterful remix of the Ohio Players classic. Screaming Life even took a nod at their labelmates, covering Green River's "Swallow My Pride."
And, uh, Soundgarden didn't suck much anymore. The band rocked, in a big, bold, and very cerebral way. It helped that Cornell had given up the drums to sing full time ("Chris was actually a pretty good drummer," Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament remembered later), and that San Diego transplant Matt Cameron had been acquired from Skin Yard (they also got some use out of Skin Yard's guitar player, Jack Endino, as a producer) to replace him on the skins.
But it was all pretty much in place by then, the roots of grunge, if you must. A slow, throbbing rhythm (though Cameron's drum work has always been tastefully intricate inside those beats), matched against Thayil's guitar textures, punctuated by the operatic vocals of Chris Cornell. The result somehow fused the art impulses of punk rock kids against the physicality of heavy metal. In the end, they'd picked the right name, or grown into it.
There was probably a kind of bidding war for Soundgarden, though the big bonus babies were fronted by Cornell's ex-roommate, Andy Wood, and Mother Love Bone got the first big check of their generation. And, anyway, nobody from Seattle ever made it in the music business. The rumor locally was that Cornell suffered from performance anxiety (it wasn't true, but Soundgarden never did much like touring), but the band cagily put out their first LP (and an EP) on the once great punk rock label SST instead of jumping straight to a major.
Ultramega OK would never have dome for a major label debut, anyway, especially in 1988 when the hair farmers were making spandex a growth industry, for it is the most psychedelic of Soundgarden's outings. Nevertheless, it won a Grammy nomination. Ultramega OK also revealed the band's egalitarian songwriting strengths, as they wrote in every possible combination. Only two tracks were Cornell's solo compositions, though he wrote most of the lyrics.
Already, however, the comparison was being made to Led Zeppelin. It was a natural in Seattle, where Zeppelin still ruled rock radio, even though only Cornell was a native. "I never was a huge Zeppelin fan," Thayil would say later. "Robert Plant doesn't believe that, but I couldn't get past the vocals, and some of the fantasy and the indulgence stuff."
They did finally sign to A&M and recorded with Terry Date at the helm. Cornell figured more prominently as a songwriter, and 1989's Louder Than Love was as blunt an album as the band would make. It was still very much a collaborative exploration of their brooding, black-and-blue sound, though; Yamamoto came in one day with a lyric sheet to "I Awake," but Cornell read the other side of the paper, a note from Yamamoto's girlfriend, and so Kate McDonald ended up with a songwriting credit.
After recording Louder Than Love, Yamamoto announced that it was time for him to leave the band. He returned to college, where he recently completed a master's degree in physical chemistry; he now plays in the trio Truly. Urgently needing a bass player to go on tour, Soundgarden auditioned a batch and grabbed Jason Everman, who'd been playing second guitar with their friends in a band called Nirvana.
"Jason knew the material already, and we sort of took that to mean he would be more into what we were doing," Cornell said. Soundgarden toured for the better part of a year, including stints opening for Faith No More and then Guns N' Roses, and the album sold a respectable -- but not world-beating -- 150,000.
They came home in time for Andrew Wood's funeral. The mercurial lead singer of Mother Love Bone had accidentally overdosed on heroin a few months before his band's debut LP was to come out. Seattle was still a tight-knit scene in those days, and Wood was much beloved.
One of the results of Wood's death was the Temple of the Dog album, a collaboration between Cornell and Cameron and Love Bone's Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, plus a guitar player named Mike McCready and some vocals by and unknown from San Diego name Eddie Vedder. (When Vedder's mug showed up in the promotional photo for the project, the A&M publicist looked puzzled. "Who's he and what's he doing in this picture?")
"Temple was mostly stuff I wrote on tour, or previous to Andrew's death," Cornell said, but the record was clearly intended as an homage to their fallen friend, and to the music he loved. Little was done to promote Temple of the Dog on its release, partly, it was said, in deference to the other two members of Soundgarden, and it initially sold about 70,000 copies. Later commercial success by both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam turned it into a Gold album.
"I remember when that record was coming out," Ament said, "we had just picked our name, and we said, 'Can you put Pearl Jam on the sticker because it'll be a good thing for us?' We didn't want it to say Mother Love Bone, and they refused."
Much of the Temple of the Dog crew also ended up in Cameron Crowe's movie, Singles, which produced a splendid soundtrack and a very curious vision of what life in Seattle was really like. Crow had left a cassette tape on the set, just a prop with some fake song titles on it. Cornell found it, and took up the challenge.
"I'd always thought it's be really cool just to write down 10 or 12 titles in order, as though it was a record already, and then write the songs later, based on those titles, just for fun," he said. "I was supposed to come out of the Matt Dillon character's apartment, and the cassette package was in there, and I just picked it up. Cameron was laughing, saying how he thought it was the typical titles for the introspective solo tape from a local musician guy, and it just clicked at that point. I thought I'd just do it for him as a surprise. That's kind of what I do really, for fun. That's pretty much all I do, just sit around and write songs, record some stuff."
One of those songs, "Seasons," ended up on the Singles soundtrack, just as Cornell had recorded it at home. "If you ever want a laugh," he said, "listen to it with headphones on, and you'll hear all sorts of wonderful things because I record in a closet. The microphone is in the same room with the machine, so you can hear the machine running and turning on and off."
Soundgarden's "Birth Ritual" also ended up on the Singles soundtrack, though they had initially offered "Jesus Christ Pose" to the movie. At least one other song from Cameron Crowe's now not-so-fictional tape survived. "There's a possibility Soundgarden might do one of those songs," Cornell said at the time. "A different version. One of the songs is called 'Spoonman,' and it was a song everyone in the band really wanted to do." "Spoonman," of course, ended up some years later as a single on the band's most commercially successful album, Superunknown.
While all this was going on (Cornell also found time to help produce Screaming Trees' Uncle Anesthesia during this period), Soundgarden needed to find another bass player. They settled on an old friend, someone they'd almost picked during the first round of auditions.
His name was Hunter Shepherd, but he went by Ben, and if anybody locally knew of him it was from a punk band called March of Crimes. He came from Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride across Puget Sound from Seattle, and the same small community of musicians which had produced Mother Love Bone's Andrew Wood. Matt Cameron was ecstatic at the time. "Basically Ben and Kim and I are pretty much improv-based players," he said, "and when we play live we pretty much improvise all over the place. So we definitely wanted a musician who could stretch. And besides, his songwriting skills are really good and he has really good instincts as a musician."
Like Everman before him, Shepherd had a curious -- if less public -- Nirvana connection, having toured with them once. "I didn't play at all on that tour, I was going as more like a personality check or something," he said, still puzzled. "They just invited me to go. I was trying out for them at the time, and I knew all their new songs, but they didn't teach me any of their old songs; we didn't ever work on the old songs when I jammed with them. The whole time I was telling them, 'No way, you guys don't even need an extra guy'."
Well, Soundgarden needed an extra guy, and Shepherd's influence was felt immediately on Badmotorfinger. He wrote both music and lyrics, and added a kind of barely controlled fury to the bottom end of their sound. Perhaps in deference to the growing perception, following Temple of the Dog and Singles, that Chris Cornell was the dominant member of Soundgarden, songwriting credits for Badmotorfinger were spread pretty evenly among the members. And, once again, they worked with producer Terry Date.
Thayil even wrote his first set of lyrics, to Cameron's composition "Room A Thousand Years Wide."
"I am into guitar riffs and grooves and ambiences," he said. "Those are the things I concern myself with, not lyrics. I said before that I though lyrics were kind of worthless, but that's not to demean Chris's lyrics. I think Chris's lyrics, they're quite interesting, they're definitely some quotable lines there, and in many cases beautiful. I just don't think that rock audiences generally glom onto a lyric unless it's really anthemic. They aren't anything which I concerned myself with, until this song, a song Matt had written instrumentally, that may not have been pursued had I not decided to write lyrics for it."
Billed as Vince Whirlwind and the Nude Dragons, Soundgarden played a short, unannounced opening set for local glam band Witch Dokktor to break Ben in, and took to the road with Badmotorfinger. It was a hit, notching their second Grammy nomination and their first Platinum album award. They played with Metallica, and on the second season of Lollapalooza.
Hell, everything from Seattle was a hit that year. Badmotorfinger was initially scheduled for release the same day Nirvana's DGC debut Nevermind came out, but got pushed back two weeks for one reason or another. All those years of Kim Thayil wearing Nirvana T-shirts on stage. Oh, yeah, and Pearl Jam, the boys from Temple of the Dog, were on Lollapalooza, too, on the strength of an album called Ten. Alice In Chains, Screaming Trees-even the ever-iconoclastic Mudhoney signed to a major label. Suddenly the whole bloody world was wearing flannel.
Soundgarden were on the road a long time, always hard on Cornell's voice and difficult for Thayil, who hates to fly. And suddenly the punk rock band who used to play Tuesday nights at the Rainbow Tavern every few months, if they were lucky, were major stars.
It was not a transition they made easily.
Ben and Matt, along with Andrew Wood's brother Brian and Monster Magnet's John McBain, cut a record as Hater in 1993. It was a way to relieve the tension, a wonderful, Kinks-ish kind of album, and they hadn't even planned to release it. (Another side project, the Wellwater Conspiracy, put out a few singles; a full-length has been threatened for years.) "I wanted to do it for the fun of it, to escape the whole industry," Shepherd said during sessions for the next Soundgarden disc. "Well, it took on a life of its own."
Soundgarden's most commercially successful album was just ahead of them. Produced by Michael Beinhorn, 1994's Superunknown produced hit singles (the title track, "Black Hole Sun," and the reborn "Spoonman") and huge crowds. It was a very polished record. Cornell had a hand in most of the songwriting and had begun to be more of a presence as a guitar player.
They were, at last, a big rock band, which was not necessarily something Soundgarden had ever quite intended. "When I was very young I'd dream about things like that," Thayil said in 1991. "And with this band, people were saying, 'I can imagine you guys in an arena,' and stuff, so I never thought it was out of the question. There was never a point in time when I did not want..." and then he trailed off.
The crowd of friends and fans who might have dropped by Soundgarden at the Rainbow Tavern, or the Central Tavern, or the Vogue, or whatever hall some fledgling promoter had rented for the night, those people no longer made up Soundgarden's audience. Superunknown was a far cry from the experiments of Ultramega OK, or even from the black humor and blunt rage of Louder Than Love. Doubtless that's why the record sold so well, but the challenge had inescapably moved from making music to selling units.
One more time for the Seattle mantra: Money changes everything.
They spent a long time in the studio crafting the follow-up, Down On the Upside. A long time. Six months, off and on, a far cry from the creative spasms forced by indie budgets a decade earlier. Thayil found time to play on the Presidents of the United States of America's second record (they were recording in the same studio, and old friends), to add a few textures to the second Pigeonhead CD, and to play in the all-star band which backed Johnny Cash on the Twisted Willie Nelson tribute. For one reason or another many of the guitar leads on what would be Soundgarden's last album came from Chris Cornell.
Nevertheless, Down On the Upside was a smart savvy record, produced by the band themselves with Adam Kaspar. In many ways it is a restatement of themes and musical ideas Soundgarden had offered up over the years, but it is also a tight album with moments of unbridled fury (like "Ty Cobb").
And of course they toured, playing Lollapalooza for a second summer. Only this time their discomfort on stage was palpable. There was a distance between band members that seemed more pronounced on stage, the impulse to improvise live had been muted, and the performances seemed joyless. The boundaries which had once been theirs to push had finally hemmed them in.
After protracted internal deliberations, the band finally decided to call it quits -- unanimously.