Reprinted without permission from RIP Magazine, July
Chris Cornell is bathed in whte light. Maybe it's just a trick of the lamp on my Denver hotel room's dresser, but I swear, there's something special about his presence. (I know it sounds loonk, but afford me a little literary latitude here.) Clad in a pair of standard Seattle below-the-knee baggy shorts, a Guns N' Roses T-shirt and black Doc Martens (even though they're dirty, they somehow shine like they've been recently spit-polished), he sips a diet Coke and relaxes in a chair, fully prepared for my journalistic bombardment. Chris' wife/manager, Susan Silver, has briefed the dark-haired, hazel-eyed vocalist that your humble editor has not traveled a thousand miles just to make idle chitchat. I want something more.
Soundgarden has fought its way from the humble halls of Sub Pop all the way to big label (A&M) gold. With this new visibility comes the scrutiny of the metal and mainstream masses, who now hunger for the whys and wherefores of this exceptional rock band. They want to hear their take on the world and its wonders. I've got my own agenda for this interview though. I've chosen to focus on something considerably less glamorous than MTV rotation and screaming arena crowds, but profoundly heavy in its relation to the torrent of amazing music that's poured down from the great Northwest over the past year. I could have called this article "What Price Grunge?" but why dance around the issue? Read on and discover, through the eyes and minds of Soundgarden's iconoclastic singer, Chris Cornell, and opinionated guitarist, Kim Thayil, the dark cloud that hangs over the Emerald City.
Four incredible songs put Seattle on the modern hard-rock map; Alice In Chains' "Man in the Box," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Pearl Jam's "Alive" and Soundgarden's "Outshined." Each awesome track, in its own way, tells of psychological struggle and youthful angst, yet each bears the personal stamp of the band that created it. Fabulous success has come to those who penned and marketed these songs and the LPs to which they're attached. Nirvana's Nevermind alone has eclipsed four million in domestic sales and shows no signs of slowing down. The Seattle scene is the focus of the rock world and, as we speak, countless "grungy" clone bands are being signed with hopes that others can capitalize on this movement. (I don't call it a fad or trend, because this music is too real, too heavy, to be a commercially motivated creation.) And while all eyes are on Seattle, one band sits back and observes the phenomenon that they are not only a part of now, but were also instigators of in the beginning.
A brief history lesson from Chris Cornell, "The Seattle scene, if you want to call it that, started with four bands," he remembers,."Green River, the Melvins, Malfunkshun and Soundgarden. The Melvins are still together in San Francisco. They began in, like, '83. Their bass player ended up in Mudhoney. Green River ended up being Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam. Andy Wood, from Mother Love Bone, was originally in Malfunkshun. The first record released by a Seattle band was Come on Down, by Green River, on Homestead Records. Slash Records was trying to pursue Green River at the same time we had a Homestead and a Sub Pop record coming out. A&M got a copy of this compilation of 12 bands sent out by a local radio station, KCMU. They liked the song we had on it and started coming up to check out the scene, seeing us play and stuff. We put out an EP [Soundgarden released two EPs, Screaming Life in '87 and Fopp in '88], and, well, that's it in a nutshell."
Soundgarden have been called the Godfathers of Grunge, and for good reason. Their longevity and consistency are an example to the successful acts that have come along since their inception. Their 1989 A&M debut LP, Louder Than Love, was critically acclaimed, and sold well enough to set them up for hit status with the release of last year's magnificent Badmotorfinger. Examining the opening guitar strains of "Swallow My Pride," from Fopp, one can't help but hear the similarity to the now-classic intro riff of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Soundgarden, however, is not just a musical cornerstone of the Seattle scene. The lives of its bandmembers are intertwined with what is transpiring up there right now. And herein lies the rub: There is a pall hovering over the city, despite its artistic boom-town feel and natural beauty. A serious drug-abuse problem is festering in the streets. Heroin use among young adults in Seattle is among the highest of any city in the United States, and some of this abuse is taking place in the rock community. It's not just fledgling bands looking for a record deal that find solace in the needle. Tragically, the monkey is riding the backs of several of Seattle's brightest stars. Out of respect for the privacy of those individuals currently grappling with drug problems (names you would certainly recognize), I'm choosing to keep their identities secret. These unfortunates are well known to Chris and Kim, though, who view their plight with thoughtful compassion.
"I don't do drugs, and the band doesn't do drugs," says Chris firmly. "It's sort of helped us stay together. We all had, and still have, friends that do that shit. It just creates a different world for the person who's using. You can't really function or coexist in someone else's world if they're on drugs and you're not. It isn't that I'm necessarily a really together guy and that I can handle stress better than somebody who's using drugs, it's just that I choose not to do it. It's nothing but self-destruction. I think the pressure of success, or striving for that success, sometimes causes you to implode. It's like, it's really great playing shows, making records and writing songs; and then you're successful, and you say, 'Now what do we do?' That drive to succeed is part anger and part determination. The end of that, sometimes, drives a person to drugs.
"From eleven to 14, I did drugs every single day," Chris admits. "I grew up with the guys that had the nervous twitches and half their brains dead because of the shit they did. In Seattle, when I was young, the drug culture wasn't the same as in San Francisco in the '60s. It wasn't really a philosophy of, 'Free your mind with drugs.' It was more like, 'F?!k up your mind with drugs.' To create alternate realities doesn't necessarily help you understand your own reality. To me, music is recreation. Music is my drug. I realized this at 15. I was lucky to see it then."
Backstage at Denver's McNichol's Arena, Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil is unwinding after the band's set. They've been chewing up the road for eight months now, on a marathon trek that included the opening spot on Guns N' Roses' massive "Get in the Ring" tour. "Spending time with Axl on the Guns tour, I realized how much stuff written about them is really bullshit," Chris told me back at the hotel. "They treated us better than any band ever has." Tonight, though, they are on a bill with Skid Row and Pantera. Clutching a Budweiser, SG's bearded axe shuts the dressing-room door and sits down on a tattered sofa that looks like it might have been there when Hendrix played (another Seattle-ite). "It's not tragic, it's a cartoon," he observes about Seattle's drug scene. "I think it's more a deplorable situation than a true tragedy. I don't know if anyone is a great hero done in by their own weakness, in the Greek tragic sense. I think it's just a cartoon--albeit, a dark cartoon.
"I'm not being flippant or disregarding the issue," Kim adds emphatically. "The issue troubles me deeply, but I must assume that people are intelligent. They can make decisions regarding their lives themselves--although I am constantly shown that they can't."
The heroin problem in Seattle was brought to media attention by the death of Andy Wood in March of 1990. Mother Love Bone's charismatic frontman was beloved by many in the Seattle scene. His death from a heroin overdose at age 24 shook up the local rock community. It even inspired an incredibly emotional collaboration LP, Temple of the Dog. The title of the A&M release was taken from Andy's words in an MLB song. The band featured Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, formerly of Love Bone (and currently of Pearl Jam), Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, and Matt Cameron and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden.
Everybody knew Andy, but, as Chris recalls, his untimely passing did little to shock the needles out of the arms of the addicted. "I knew several people who were doing smack when Andy died," Chris remembers. "A few of them were like, 'This is it. I don't want to die. Let's start going to meetings and kick this shit.' But just as many were out there on a bender somewhere, because of what happened. Lots of people had opposite reactions. They'd say to themselves, 'He's dead because of something that could kill me, and I'm doing it because I can't deal with his death. So I'm just going to go out and do more.'
"I felt really alone when Andy died," Chris continues. "I spent a lot of time with him and tried to work out his pain creatively. Most of the time I really didn't know Andy was using. I offered to have him live with me, because he had just gotten out of treatment. He was going to live on the island with his parents, where he grew up. I thought that would be harder for him. Most of the time it was me watching him struggle not to shoot up, not to drink. It wasn't like observing Andy's high; it was more like experiencing him squirming."
"The last time I cried was when Andy died," sighs Kim. "Actually, that's not true. I cried the whole week, every time I thought about it. I missed him so much. And it wasn't because of the heroin. He could've been mountain climbing. He could have been driving his car real fast, Andy did drugs because he enjoyed doing it. It made him feel good. I remember teasing him about the marks in his arms. 'Say, what ya got there, man, a rash?' He started laughing, 'Yeah, a little rash.' We worked together at a cafe. I never said, 'What the f?!k is wrong with you?' I'm sure there were enough people in his life saying that to him. There were people that didn't want him to drink. I remember a night when we were at a Nirvana show at a small club downtown. I bought a six-pack at the 7-Eleven. We hid in the back, behind this piano, and drank it. He was telling me that he shouldn't be drinking. I said to him, 'Do you want me to tell you not to drink, 'cause I'm gonna drink this?' If he didn't want it, I wouldn't have given it to him. In the two weeks after Andy's death there were people that blamed the drug. 'It's a disease,' they said. They implied that Andy didn't have a will, and they were taking away the little respect he should have been afforded-that he could make choices on his behalf. I don't agree with the disease model of substance abuse at all. I think it's a medical cartel scam fostered by the insurance companies. The disease model takes away where the problem lies, which is how a person exercises his or her will. You make that person responsible. The moment you suggest that the drug has a will, you are taking away the individual's power of personal responsibility. You've got to say people are making their own decision. They may not be wise decisions, but they certainly know what's good or bad for them.
"Bruce Fairweather [Mother Love Bone guitarist] is one of my closest friends now," Kim adds. "When we put on Apple [MLBs 1990 LP], we make jokes, we drink, we laugh. We remember the good times. There was no one like Andy, and regardless of when in his life he died, he did live all of his life. That's the way he lived it. There are a lot of people acting as if Andy has taken something away from them. When I cried for Andy, was I weeping for his loss or mine? Maybe both. We were on tour last year, listening to Love Bone, and I was silent for an hour. Then, all of a sudden, I punched out this glass globe on the bus. I just sat there afterwards, shaking. And periodically I hear Andy's voice. It gives me this rush. It really hits me, especially when I'm sitting there with Bruce. [Pause] God, I was just thinking about him now. It's weird. Shit, I've known too many people who have died now. One thing that really bugs me is the list keeps growing."
As individuals, Chris, Kim, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron bleed for their lost peers and hold continuous supportive court with the past, present and future artists of the gifted rock community they helped foster. As a band, however, Soundgarden are tight knit. "It's Soundgarden against the world," cries Kim, semi-sarcastically. "We're a serious circle of four who put our shields up and shut out lookers. We yell at people to get off our bus and spit and flip people off--whatever it takes. We are not your heroes."
"I don't know how everyone else feels," Chris says, "but I definitely go through periods of extreme self-confidence, feeling like I can do anything. Perhaps a fan will sense that, like in a performance, and the hero image creeps out. But then someone will say something, however insignificant, or I'll get something in my head and, all of a sudden, I'm plummeting in the opposite direction, I'm a piece of shit, and I really can't do anything about it. That's where 'Outshined' comes from, and why I'll never consider myself a hero."
The real ones never do, Chris....