Reprinted without permission from KERRANG!, July 7,
A TATTOO OF AN AMERICAN BREAKFAST
'Don't worry, everything's clean/Roadworthy, hungry and mean' (Get on the Snake)
The sand for the beach in the Italian holiday resort of Rimini is brought in by trucks. It covers the stink of the pebble shoreline, though not the eye-watering sewage tributary that leads into the sea.
Myself and photographer, Dave Willis, sit on our hotel balcony taking all of this in. Willis is happy enough that he's able to sport a pair of his ridiculous surf shorts. I'm just a little concerned as to where exactly Soundgarden have gotten to.
The phone rings on a distorted line from London, then Paris, then from a neighbouring town called Cannalotti. Soundgarden went through our town an hour ago. We may even have seen their tour bus from our balcony's vantage point.
The cab that takes us to Soundgarden's Hotel Al Diana journeys through an out-of-season Italy, at that time still looking forward to the World Cup. We drive past shuttered windows and blank hotel fronts. "Ghost town," murmurs Willis.
Soundgarden tour manager, Dutch Michaels, meets us quite accidentally at the end of the unfinished road leading to the band's hotel. It seems the band's troubles so far make our own hashed schedule of wrong flights and a general lack of the native tongue seem quite petty.
Soundgarden's show in Naples the day before had to be cancelled when their bus' brakes failed halfway down an Austrian mountain. By the time they'd come to a halt, a good half of their braking system had been reduced to black smoke, and the Naples show just another day struck off the calendar.
Once inside the hotel lobby, Dutch takes us dramatically aside. "Uh, don't ask about the tour at the moment, the promoter's standing about. We have to get out before the Italians start rioting," he informs us in a hurried whisper. Willis stands behind him making circular motions with his finger against his temple.
Vocalist Chris Cornell makes a sudden appearance, so I attempt to pin him with a vital question: what is Dutch talking about?
"That's how they do things overhere. Apparently, after we failed to make the Naples show last night, the Italians started wrecking the place. There was something like $31,000 worth of damage..."
So why would that affect tonight's perfomance? "Matt isn't feeling too good, so we may have to cancel this show too."
Matt makes his appearance on cue, doubled over, his eyes glassy, face ashen. We later learn he has appendicitis, and three days before the offending organ pops in a dramatic and deadly fashion, he's heading back to their home town of Seattle.
Dutch calls a band meeting because tomorrow there's an Italian press conference, and suddenly Soundgarden have something to tell them. Chris announces that he'll play the drums and sing tonight, and we'll take it from there. He sits across from me dejectedly. I assume it's the current state of bad luck, though he's in a funk over the aforementioned press conference.
"One Italian interview is enough. Their interviews are so boring, everyone's so intense. Like, I used to write our set lists on our posters - I'd fold them, then rip them into four to write on. There was a crowd of people outside one of our shows in Italy once, and I went up, tore down a poster and started to rip it up. And they all wanted to know what the significance was, it's meaning, the philosophy behind it. I think they were pretty disappointed when they found out."
So how do you feel about playing both parts, as it were, tonight? "It'll be entertainment of a different sort. A kind of comedy troupe!"
As we head out to the bus and the soundcheck, Chris wrinkles his nose. "Algae, man! It smelt even worse the last time we were here... Er, I haven't played drums for two years."
Dutch is at the bus, attempting to explain to the promoter's assistant, a bottle blond Mancunian called Steve, just what the situation is. Steve doesn't look too clear on it. "Well, perhaps if this drummer's good enough he can do the rest of the tour?"
Dutch: "He isn't a drummer... he's the guitarist, the singer."
"Eat your heart out, Lars!" he adds, rather cryptically.
The venue, the Modern Casino Club, is 20 minutes away. Cornell stares out of the window, while bassist Jason Everman scowls quietly in the back. Jason has since been replaced by Ben Shepherd... perhaps they'd just told him of his imminent demise.
Guitarist Kim Thayil reaches over for a small bottle of Becks, only to find that they've been supplied with rather daunting half litre cans.
"That's kind of a big one." Snurf! Snurf!
As I say it, I regret it. Kim's face takes on a suspicious frown. Then to my amazement: "Fnaar, fnaar! Ha! Hey!" He breaks into laughter and slaps my hands in the manner of all casual American five.
That's odd! All the Americans I know don't know about, much less like, the Viz comic. He indicates the shelf above his head.
"No, uh, we've got The Dog's Bollocks, the Big Pink Stiff One, a couple of issues, we love it. We had a Scottish tour manager and he kpt going on about it. He had this real heavy Glaswegian accent and he's say 'Viz' and I wouldn't know if it was a real word or not. Then we got to see it and really got into it. Finbarr, Tina's Tits. I really like the Pathetic Sharks..."
As the soundcheck progresses it becomes more and more obvious that Cornell's chances of drumming and singing a whole set that night are, at best, slim. Kim and myself sit out by the loading door, enjoying the cool evening air.
"Have you met Gunny yet?"
"His real name is Eric Johnson, we call him Gunny Junk; it's a parody of all those LA rock 'n' roll names. He's like our fifth member, he does merchandise, he's our morale booster. He also used to dance at our shows with black duct tape over his nipples."
Just then, Gunny walks past looking not unlike a wigged-out General Custer. We're introduced and he's showing me the tattoo of an American breakfast pinpricked round his ankle. "The guy who did it gave me a good price, he likes doing food."
Kim: "If we ever do one of those sexy girl videos, we're going to have Gunny in a cage in bikini briefs, with black tape over his nipples. He can do his Tiffany."
The evening sky turns blue ot pink with the tint of pollution. Kim wanders inside as Gunny tells me of the time he totalled the merchandise bus in the middle of winter and lost half his record collection.
Kim returns, tutting. "We're going to have to call Matt. Chris just tried and he can't maintain it. It's a very difficult thing to do. We'll have to hope that Matt can do his best."
You think he's unfit to play, Gunny? "I think he's unfit to live."
Inside, the three fit members of the band throw some shapes for Willis. Gunny is quickly in the middle of it. The obvious concern for Matt is forgotten momentarily.
Chris is talking throughout the shoot, reasoning: "As far as riot potential goes, it'd be worse if I played and sang than if the band didn't go on!" He raises his arm to the low ceiling, gripping his air guitar. "I can do Billy Duffy for you. Look at Willis, he's shaking too much to take the photo. I'm going to check him for a woody. We got a lot of homosexuals turning up at our shows in Germany trying to give us a kiss. It's happened here as well. I didn't think they let that stuff go on in the Med. I guess it's a throwback to the decadence of Rome."
The shoot ends, Gunny grabbing his shirt from Cornell. "Chris, you came on my shirt!"
The show that follows is a finger in the face of circumstance. Matt makes the gig, though drops out on the option of an encore. 10 minutes afterwards, he's claiming that he can fulfil the rest of the tour obligation. Three days later he's hospitalised somewhere in Seattle. The press conference was called, at least some of the story told, and the rest of the tour wiped out.
Now Gunny is looking for someone to ink an English breakfast on his other ankle. By why, Gunny?
"It's my favourite meal of the day..."