Reprinted without permission from Hit Parader, June
SOUNDGARDEN: A FOND FAREWELL
It's now been over two months since the surprising word first filtered across the rock wires that Soundgarden had decided to terminate their career as one of the most successful rock and roll bands of the '90s. During that time, countless questions have remained unanswered as to why Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron chose to end their historic decade-long run at this particular time - just when they seemed to be at the peek of their artistic and commercial powers. The band's most recent disk, Down On The Upside, spent 41 weeks on the charts, on its way to selling an impressive 3 million copies in the U.S. alone. And Soundgarden's last American tour - which included their most historic co-head-lining run at Lollapalooza with Metallica - helped solidify their reputation as one of the nation's premier hard rock attractions.
So what the hell happened? What possibly could have gone so wrong from the time Soundgarden left the tour trail late last year to the time they began making plans to record a new disk in April? What could have occured within the band's surprisingly delicate internal structure to so critically derail what had appeared to be one of the smoothest functionning functionning rock and roll machines on earth? Did Cornell's ego finally drive Thayil over the edge? Did the lure of a variety of potentially exciting and lucrative outside projects serve to tear the band asunder? Did Cornell's oft-discussed vocal problems (which had forced the band off the road back in 1995) once again reappear? Or did the pressures inherent with stardom simply grow too heavy for the band's broad shoulder's to bear? Unfortunately, perhaps we will never know the true answers to these questions.
"The members of Soundgarden have amicably and mutually decided to disband to pursue other interests," is how the band's record label announced the breakup. "There is no word at this time on any of the member's future plans."
That simple statement brought to a crashing conclusion one of the most critically acclaimed runs in the annals of popular music. Rising from the then-still-underground Seattle club scene of the late '80s, Soundgarden drew upon influences as widely divergent as Black Sabbath and the Beattles to forge a sound that was strikingly unlike else then being presented on the rock scene. Heavy yet ethereal, powerful yet always-in-control, Soundgarden's music was a study in contrasts - a brilliant display of technical proficancy tempered by heart-felt emotion. In sharp contrast to the still-burgeoning L.A. metal scene which was then ruling the rock scene a thousand miles to their south, Soundgarden believed in substance over style, and while they had to begin their career on a series of small independant labels, by the time their major label debut, Louder Than Love, was released in 1989 (making it the first Seattle Scene disc to receive major label attention), anyone with ears could tell that there was a signifigant musical change blowing in the wind - and Soundgarden was going to play a critical role in that change.
While their Emerald City compatriots in Nirvana were to steal some of their musical thunder when their major label debut, Nevermind, was to emerge a year later, to their fast-growing legion of supporters, no other band could touch the special brand of musical reactants that Soundgarden brought to the rock market place. In Cornell they had a dynamic frontman - an undeniably charsmatic, undauntingly sexy vocalist who seemed to pour every once of strength in his body into each note that he sang. In Thayil they had a nimble-fingered guitar hero - a bearded, fun-loving musical maestro who seemed to revel in laying down the heaviest riffs he could imagine. And in Shepherd and Cameron they had a rock-solid rhythm section - a unit that could meet any of the stringent demands placed on them by Soundgarden's eclectic musical catalog.
"We get along really well," Cornell said late last year. "In fact I'm amazed by how well we get along after I hang out with some other bands and see what goes on there. I'm not saying that it's always trouble-free. When you get four free-thinking, creative people in the same place at the same time there's going to occasionally be some tension. But considering everything that we've gone through, I think we're getting along better now than ever before."
In retrospect, how sad Cornell's words now sound. What is perhaps the most perplexing about Soundgarden's apparently abrupt and totally unexpected breakup is that of all the giants of the so-called Seattle Scene, this band gave off the impression of being the most unified, the most focused, the most "together". They seemed so unlike the others of their Emerald City rock fraternity; Nirvana suffered the tragedy that was Kurt Cobain, Alice in Chains wallows through the near-tragedy that is Layne Staley and Pearl Jam continues to deal with the nightmare that is Eddie Vedder. Soundgarden had the rock world fooled. At least superficially it seemed as if they had escaped the "Seattle Jinx", that they were the one band able to just get along, not to make font page headlines and to make the music they loved. Apparently there was a deep, dark secret within the band that even some of their closest advisors didn't know about - or even expect.
"I was shocked when I heard the news," a source at he group's record label said. "I dealt with them for years and never had a clue that breaking up was on their mind. I always thought that the band's structure was so flexible that it would allow for whatever freedom the band's members might want to incorporate. If Chris wanted to go off and record with other musicians, he did. So did the other guys. It seemed like the perfect arrangement. When they got that out of their system, they'd just get back together and be Soundgarden again. I'm as amazed as anyone that it's come to an end - especially at this time.
While it's always been speculated that leaving at the peak of one's powers is an ideal time to depart, in actuality, rarely is it done. Joe DiMaggio did it - Willie Mays didn't. Cary Grant did it - Marlon Brando didn't. Led Zeppelin did it - Motley Crue didn't. Soundgarden has recently done it. Of course, the rumor mill is already alive with stories of a band "reformation" some time next year. But unfortunately, no indication has been given at this time indicating that Soundgarden will ever function as a unit again. Certainly we will hear more music from each of the band's members - all reamin signed to "personal services" contracts with Soundgarden's label, A&M Records. But the simple fact is that Soundgarden is no more. We've all got to accept it, whether we like it or not.
Thankfully, we still have their brilliant albums, as well as their mind-warping vidoes, to keep reminding us of what a special and unique unit they were. Soundgarden may have chosen to be no more, but in our hearts they will continue to live on forever.