Reprinted without permission from The Rocket, March
BIG UGLY TRUTH
Soundgarden have been banging heads from Seattle to New York for six months. This is work. No groupies, little sleep, just 90 minutes a night of the screaming life...
If you can make it in New York, Frank Sinatra once sang, you can make it anywhere. Whether or not you buy into, that sort of rose colored romanticism, you gotta admit, the way he sings it sure sounds easy. Bright lights, big city, fast-paced glamour and glitz. For some of us, the lure to be a part of it is just too great.
Maybe ol' Blue Eyes played some rough places early in his career. But it's doubtful he was ever spit on, or had beer bottles thrown at him by some skinhead in clubs like CBGB's or the Ritz. If he had, he might have sung a different tune. (How about "Take This Job and Shove It"?)
Soundgarden have yet to actually "make it" - in New York, or elsewhere - but the Ritz stage belongs to them tonight, on their fourth trip through the Big Apple. And for the Seattle band, making it isn't about groupies, limos, or big dumb sex. It's about being able to survive on your terms, getting to the next show, and selling enough records to pay the rent.
New York is still a rough town. In Manhattan, ambulances yield to horn-blowing cabs. Crack dealers take American Express. And in the inner city's McDonalds, Ronald wears a black leather jacket ("Yo, you want that Egg McMotherfucker to go, or what?"). Those who come here to take a bite out of the Big Apple usually end up getting bitten off, their dreams torn in huge, bleeding chunks of flesh. And not by the rats who really own the city.
Soundgarden arrived in Times Square earlier in the day, barely in time for their scheduled noon taping for MTV. Singer Chris Cornell and guitarist Kim Thayil look like unmade beds. They performed the previous night in Washington, D.C., then drove all night to New York. On two hours of sleep, Chris and Kim are preparing to go before the cameras for their first live appearance on MTV's "Headbanger's Ball." Beaming into four million homes, America's first prime time glimpse of Soundgarden will be puffy red eyes and unwashed hair. Chris and Kim wait in a small room above the Geraldo Rivera studios (MTV shares the building) with band manager Susan Silver, and their A&M record rep, Lauren Zelisko. They all stare at a small monitor as tourmates Faith No More are clumsily interviewed by "Headbanger's Ball" host, Rikki Rachtman.
Thirty minutes later Soundgarden are led onto the set. Rachtman looks uptight. He has to interview three bands today, two of which are Grammy nominees, and he doesn't know a thing about any of them. Kim, yawning continuously, lights a cigarette and patiently goes through the tedious sound checking routine.
Finally, the cameras roll.
Rachtman: Welcome to "Headbanger's Ball." Joining me now in the studio are Chris and Kim from Soundgarden. Thanks for dropping by.
Chris: Thanks for having us.
Rachtman: So. you come from Seatle; are you a Seattle-based band?
Kim: Yeah, I suppose you could call us a Seattle-based band.
Rachtman: (fidgets with the typed interview questions in his hand) I see that Soundgarden are nominated for a Grammy. Where were you when you first heard you were nominated?
Rachtman: What did you do when you found out?
Kim: Went back to sleep. (Rachtman, glancing nervously at the producer off-camera, doesn't get it.)
Chris: Sleep is pretty hard to come by when you're on the road, and since Grammies are a dime a dozen...
Rachtman breaks to a video. He's out of his league with his hairy, wisecracking guest hosts. and it's showing. A make-up girl is called to apply more hairspray and powder (presumably to help cover his red face). Like Soundgarden, it's going to be a long day for Rachtman.
Swarming out of their climate controlled office buildings, thousands of homeward-bound suits and ties, like packs of street rats, flood the filthy streets and subways of Times Square. After a 90-minute interview for MJI's national radio program, "Metal Shop" (located, oddly enough, in the 666 Building), the band have yet to get any sleep, or a meal for that matter.
A photo session is sandwiched in during their ten minute soundcheck. Soundgarden look haggard. Chris is losing a battle with an oncoming flu virus, and only manages to sing through half of "Hands All Over." Drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Jason Everman are in slightly better shape, having slept most of the afternoon. Kim, going on 24 hours without sleep, is pondering "beer o'clock." "When I'm in Seattle, beer time is about 4 pm." he rationalizes. "But this is the east coast, so I can't drink until eight." The band heads back to the hotel. Already several hundred people are waiting in line for the doors to open.
Soundgarden are on the first leg of a grueling, SRO tour with the equally popular Faith No More, and Montreal metal sensation Voivod. It's a brutal schedule that has each band working 12 days in a row, with only one or two days off every two weeks. Tonight's show, like most on the tour, is oversold.
Capacity of the Ritz (formerly the infamous Studio 54), is 2400. Later, road manager Mark Sokol's paperwork reveals 2800 people were squeezed through the door. "There were over 300 people on the guest list." he adds, going over the figures. "Everyone in the New York music industry is on the list."
Two hours after their soundcheck, the freshly showered Soundgarden emerge from a cab a block away from the Ritz. Kim decides to take a walk around the front of the club. Immediatly beggars and ticket scalpers circle him. One persistant scalper tries to sell him a ticket for tonights show.
"Yo, you need a ticket? I have Iots of tickets!"
No, that's okay," Kim says trying to walk around him. Several dozen people waiting in line recognize Kim and start hollering and waiving. The scalper is still on him, clenching several tickets in his fist.
"Yo, look I can give you a good deal..."
"I don't need one, I'm a roadie for the band."
"Really? You think you could get me backstage?"
The house lights go down and Soundgarden take their positions on the stage. The fenced off area in front of the stage looks like the display window of a camera shop. With the opening chord to "Flower," the band is bathed in a strobe-like shower of camera flashes.
Swinging the mic stand over his head, Chris begins stomping and banging all over the stage like an amphetamine addict. "This isn't Club MTV," he yells, "so you don't have to feel stupid." A camera crew, filming Soundgarden for a documentary, chase the fast moving singer around the stage and bump into band members.
Chris isn't making it easy for the crew, not wanting to compromise the show to look good on film. At one point, a camera man narrowly misses getting his head smashed into by Jason Everman's bass. From the audience, it looks intentional.
There is a problem with the PA, and the sound doesn't kick in until the third song. It is now midnight. Soundgarden have driven 300 miles, slept for two hours, appeared on national television, done three interviews, sat through a photo session, got stuck in downtown traffic, and eaten one meal. The crowd could care less. This is New Fucking York, not Seattle. This is the Ritz, not the Vogue on a Wednesday night. Three thousand people came to see Soundgarden play their nuts off. And that's what they get.
Rachtman: Axl Rose seems to like your band. What do you say about that?
Chris: (deadpan) Wow. As long as the checks we send him clear, he seems to keep saying good things about us.
Rachtman: So the checks keep coming. We talked a little earlier that you guys are from Seattle. Did you create a big buzz there and the record companies came to you, or did you go out to LA?
Kim: (long pause) No, the record companies came to see us in Seattle before we ever went and played Los Angeles.
Rachtman looks confused, and the producer calls for another take.
Early the next day the road crew loads baggage and equipment from the lobby of the Milburn Hotel onto their 40-foot tour bus. The entire bus is stuffed with guitars, clothes. and gear, leaving little available sleeping space for its 13 passengers. As a lifestyle, the whole idea of travelling around the country for five months in a cramped bus full of guitars and musicians seems both natural and surreal. Soundgarden are living out what would be an adolescent fantasy, except the reality is that this is a job. The band tours to sell records. Without record sales, there is no record label. And without a label, you play at the Vogue on Wednesday nights. Once a month.
The bathrooms in the Sundance club smell like they've never been cleaned. Among the knife-etched graffiti above the stained urinals is a deeply carved message: "If Elvis is alive, let's kill him!" Decorated in dark brown and spit, the club is located in a suburban shopping mall in deep Long Island, and seems as out of place as the M&M candy machine next to the bar. The wood-planked walls are stapled with posters of bands who played a year ago, and the neon beer signs are all that remain of the club's redneck origins.
"This place sucks," says the usually smiling soundman, Stu Hallerman. Dubbed the "roadie's nightmare," the Sundance ceiling is just several feet above the performer's heads. and the barricade in front of the stage (a piece of nailed plywood) comes up to the knees, offering a compact view of the band. "I've played this club hundreds of times," says road manager Sokol, "and I've hated it every time."
Dinner finally arrives shortly after soundcheck, brought by a runner for the club. After having to eat "promoter's pasta" for the last nine days in a row, everyone is looking forward to the Chinese food their road manager has ordered.
"Hey, you guys ever need a good engineer, give me a call," pitches the delivery boy, handing out some 20 cartons of egg rolls and chow mein. "I worked on Aerosmith's new album. I mixed four tracks on Pump. Didn't get credit, though. They fucked me over. I used to drive the Silver Bullet truck for Coors, too."
"And now you're delivering Chinese food for Soundgarden," says Kim. Everyone on the bus laughs. "Maybe we should get his number," Stu says after the kid leaves. "Pump's a good record."
People start showing up for the concert as early as 8 pm. The crowd outside is decked out in ripped jeans and faded Metallica t-shirts. Even though it's 30 degrees and raining, there's a summer party atmosphere in the parking lot. Kids swill cans of Budweiser and smoke pot in muscle cars, cranking up Slayer tapes with the windows down. "These goddamned shows always run late at the Sundance." complains Phil, another roadie. (The set ends at 2 am.)
"We came here to have fun tonight. but we don't want no corny 'devil' shit," says Chris to the crowd. who were flashing him the two-fingered devil sign. "This is what we like, okay?" Giving them the finger, it's clear Soundgarden are speaking their language. Hundreds of arms rise in the one-fingered salute as the band breaks into "Full On Kevin's Mom." The floor erupts into a spontaneous slam dance. The fingers stay raised all through Soundgarden's set.
Lighting rigs, hanging low from the ceiling, take a beating as flailing body parts are easily within smashing reach. Jumping down off his overhead perch, the club's lighting man charges onstage, ready to stop the show. Sokol, standing on the side of the stage, intercepts him, and a shouting match - unheard over the horrendous volume - ensues.
Promising to make good on any damages, Sokol has the technician thrown off the stage. All this is taking place as Chris, wielding the microphone stand, punches a skylight into the club's ceiling. Chunks of plaster covered wood fall onto the crowd, and the battered remains of lighting dangle precariously from the beaten roof.
"It was a good night; only $285 in damages!" Chris says afterward, still sweating and happy with the band's performance. "We have a good road manager. He talked the club owner down from $500." Later, the pleased promoter sends out several large pizzas and a case of Heineken to the Soundgarden bus. It's all over at 3:30 in the morning. Voivod invite Kim, a fellow Nintendo enthusiast, on their bus for a drunken competition of Super Mario Bros III, as the road crew packs up the gear. Kim, nursing a fresh beer, is on Level Eight when the buses pull out at 5:30 am.
Rachtman: The record that's nominated for a Grammy, that's not Louder Than Love, it's the prior one, right?
Kim: Right. The SST release, Ultramega OK.
Rachtman: We're about to show the debut of your new video. "Hands All Over." Do you guys like making videos?
Kim: Nope, making faces, usually.
Chris: Making this video was fun because we were in a steel foundry. And there was like a black cancer dust all over everything. We're all gonna get cancer from it and die. so I hope you enjoy it. This will be the video that killed Soundgarden.
Unable to sleep on the constantly shifting bus, the band is still wide awake when they arrive in Boston at 10:30 am. Massachusetts is buried under five inches of snow, and there's a thunderstorm looming in the distance. Soundgarden's driver, Ron Wells - a ten-year veteran whose clients have included U2 and Public Enemy - is concerned. And there's a possibility of cancellation. Because of the snow, the show at the Paradise Club is early tonight, with the doors opening at 5 pm.
Voivod play "Loud Love" at their soundcheck, and Mike Patton sits in with Soundgarden. Chris gargles apple vinegar and stays at the hotel until showtime, not wanting his flu to get worse. On the last tour, due to lack of sleep and stress, an unchecked cold cost the band $5000 in lost gigs. This time, he says, the band literally can't afford him getting sick. The bus still costs them $400 a day whether the band plays or not.
Brad Pollak, A&M's energetic radio rep, has invited everyone to eat something other than pasta before the show. Dinner is at a Thai restaurant with some college and AOR radio jocks. This leaves two hours for Matt, Jason, and Kim to catch up on phone interviews. "This tour is a lot easier than last time, because we did most of our interviews then," says Kim, "about 15 or 16 a day. People still want to talk to us, which is cool, but we say the same things we did on the last tour."
Sipping a beer on the bus later, Kim closes the curtains to "keep the rock dudes who think this is Voivod's bus from looking in the window." Several fans with mohawks stand huddled alongside the club wall, trying to keep warm in the 29 degrees (and dropping) temperature. "They look like 'punksicles,'" he laughs. Probably because Soundgarden don't wear spandex, the only fans knocking on the tour bus door are guys. "Chicks might think Chris is cool, but they haven't seen him enough on MTV," smirks Kim. "Hey, it's beer o'clock!" and he happily reaches into the cooler for another Heineken.
"Hello you Boston shits!" Chris greets the mostly college crowd. "This is Kim Thayil, guitar guru. Don't bother him, he's in a trance." The show is loud and sweaty. Crawling out from behind his drum kit, Matt joins the rest of the band on the front of the stage, and they all dive head first into the ecstatic mob. It takes Soundgarden's crew ten minutes to extract the band from the crowd. Upstairs in a garage-like dressing room after the show. Soundgarden are still wearing soaked clothes while signing posters and autographs for 40 or so "Boston shits." One girl stuffs three bottles of Rolling Rock in her purse and wants her picture taken with Chris.
Rachtman: That was the new video from Soundgarden, "Hands All Over." It seems like there are a lot of lyrics in the song, and it goes through a lot of different subjects.
Chris: Actually, it's just sort of an environmental thing. Not strictly environmental, but mostly. it's basically about how we humans tend to screw up everything that's good enough as it is...
Kim: But not our mothers.
Chris: ...or everything that we're attracted to, we love to go and defile it.
Kim: But not our moms.
Several snow plows were out clearing the streets of Boston during the concert. The tour buses. parked for ten hours, end up deeply wedged in by the plowed snow. Shovel-wielding roadies managed to free Faith's bus, and Ron manages to rock the Soundgarden coach out of the packed ice. Voivod's crew has a much simpler solution. Rounding up all available glands, they gather around the snow covered wheel wells and melt the ice by urinating on it. Cheers (and steam) go up as Voivod resume the tour.
For the eight-hour drive to Philidelphia, Soundgarden trades video tapes with Faith No More, giving up Robocop for Grandma Lust and The Simpson's. The show in Boston was good for everyone. Local television crews were on hand an the show was taped for a special on college radio. Sokol tells Kim that the radio people at dinner all added Louder Than Love, even though Kim managed to embarrass everyone sitting at the restaurant table with his off-color jokes. The Simpson's is watched twice, and Kim stinks up the whole bus by putting a salad in the microwave. Everyone finally seems relaxed.
It's 60 degrees and overcast when the buses pull into Philadelphia at 8:30 am. Tonight's show is at the Trocadero, a beat-up, San Francisco style theatre in the heart of Philly's Chinatown. It's going to be another early show, so everyone is looking for the opportunity to get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. The rooms at the Ramada Inn are spacious, and Stu and Phil, lucky roadies, get a bi-level suite due to a hotel fuck-up - complete with a full kitchen and balcony.
It's the last show with Faith No More on the bill, and Soundgarden's crew have whipped up a few surprises for them. During Faith's finale, Soundgarden and crew douse the band with gobs of silly string and don unplugged guitars for a spontaneous version of Sabbath's "War Pigs." The theatre is jammed, and it's already reaching 95 degrees inside the building.
Outside, Kim is trying to get in the back door when a grey-haired woman in her late 40s wearing a dumpy overcoat stops him on the sidewalk with an arm-load of Soundgarden photos and albums. "Are you in Soundgarden? Could I get you to sign these pictures?" She is talking fast. "Do you think you'll win the Grammies?"
Kim tries dodging her. "l'm not really in the band," he says. "l'm just a roadie."
The woman. oblivious, insists that he sign all the photos. Lighting a cigarette, Kim takes her pen and starts scribbling his unreadable name on the album jackets.
"Are you Cornell?" she asks.
All three bands share a tiny dressing room no bigger than a jail cell, and the sink serves as an improvised toilet. What little room there is backstage is cluttered with schmoozers. There are only a handful of clean towels and Sokol hoards them for Soundgarden. Security is lax, and five kids milling around the back door manage to slip in unnoticed. The stage is still layered with silly string when the lights go down.
"We got a surprise for you," announces Chris. "We've been on tour with Faith No More a couple of weeks now, but tonight's our last show with them. We really love those guys and we're gonna miss them." Bringing out Patton and Voivod guitarist Piggy for a house-wrecking rendition of "I Awake," Chris turns over the mic to Patton, and dives head-first into the audience. The stage security pushes him back into the crowd during the song, thinking he's a fan trying to get onstage.
Afterwards in the claustrophobic dressing room, the band guzzles beer and Kim pisses on the untouched deli tray. "This is a very 'rock' thing to do," he says, emptying his bladder on slices of stale roast beef and cheese. Tomorrow, Soundgarden head back to New York for two rare days off, with nothing to do but sleep and maybe wash their clothes. "Kim's been wearing the same pants since last tour," says Chris. But, then, so has he. You gotta pay the rent, get up every morning, and do your own laundry.