Reprinted without permission from the Seattle Weekly,
April 23, 1997
SOUNDGARDEN SIGNS OFF
It may be a shock, but it's no surprise that Soundgarden is breaking up after 12 years. That's a long time in rock years and pretty much an ideal for the most creative bands. Led Zeppelin lasted 12 years. Even though they ended because of drummer John Bonham's death, their hearts just weren't in it anymore. By stepping away when happy and healthy, the members of Soundgarden are taking responsibility for a collective past and an individual future.
Most of my friends - girlfriends especially - could never understand why I like Soundgarden so much. It all sounded like so much noise - too loud, too hard, too oppressive, too full of bluster for someone with sensible cool to care about. Soundgarden was the music you listened to in high school, and, man, why would you even want to go there anyway?
I never tried to explain, same as I never tried to explain a comparable joy I found in Led Zep, the Soundgarden of the '70s. It's like when Ella Fitzgerald was once asked to justify her music: "If you don't know, I can't tell you."
Soundgarden shook up popular music in the 1990s, first from its fringe and then from its very heart. Beginning in clubland and on after their appearance on the Deep Six compilation in 1985, their rock put a rattle in your head without rattling your brain. "Nothing to Say," "Get on the Snake," "Big Dumb Sex," "Outshined," "Jesus Christ Pose," "Like Suicide"; these were ambitious songs that allowed plenty of room for elaborate jamming. Then came "Black Hole Sun" on 1994's Superunknown, and the name Soundgarden was spoken with reverence by the masses.
A lot has been made of Soundgarden's rise from the grunge trenches when Seattle blasted into pop culture orbit seven or eight years ago. The band did help spawn the scene that ultimately made their clout with the media so honorable (Screaming Life, their 1987 debut EP, was one of Sub Pop's first releases). But Soundgarden also showed fierce musical independence. Theirs was a sound that insisted on reinventing the proto-punk legacy of Black Sabbath, Mountain, Grand Funk, Led Zep. The soggy guitars and pummeling riffs were there, but there was a new sense of melody and finesse besides. It was neoclassic rock, and they continued to refine this original style with every album.
Soundgarden was the biggest thing to emerge from Seattle's biggest renaissance; bigger than Screaming Trees, more enduring than Candlebox, more representative than Pearl Jam's bland genre rock, and achieving even greater mythic status than the supernova of Nirvana. They were smart, they worked really hard whether in the studio or on a progressively busier touring schedule. In spite of the sultry image, their no-bullshit attitude gained the band respect across all quarters of their business. Even Johnny Cash paid homage by covering "Rusty Cage," which was on his own career-capping album, Unchained.
Dark, somber, and intense as it was, Soundgarden's music was also undeniably uplifting. This was music for getting high in a field of midsummer sunshine, music for cranking into the night while a TV silently blared shadows across the semi-circular haze of a bong-a thon. Stoner music, to be sure, but nimbly able to elicit an essential stoner attitude, even for those who never smoked dope.
I fell hardest for Soundgarden after they played the Coliseum at Bumbershoot, 1990. As the grandiose fanfare of "Hands All Over' rippled through daylight darkness in that cavern, a hook jerked and I saw them pretty much for the first time. They were already an arena band, even though it took a couple of years for the rest of the world to realize it. This was Soundgarden: strong, true guitars, thundering bass, a tidal wave of drums and thrilling vocals that put a spin and a chill on every line. It was an experience I wished I'd had about 15 years earlier for the way it woke me up to the real meaning of the word "classic" as used to describe rock.
It's appropriate that Soundgarden are ending on the laurels of last year's Down on the Upside. Except for a few MTV favorites ("Pretty Noose," "Burden In My Hand"), a lot of people were thrown by the album's stark return to heaviness. Chris Cornell was still singing sexy and high, Kim Thayil ground the chords with extra vengeance, Matt Cameron busted his hi-hat biceps, and Ben Shepherd trounced all over his bass, but it was too much of a divergence for too many. Better to say goodbye on such an honest note than drift apart. Soundgarden will always represent the epitome of neoclassic rock. Their terminus merely is the beginning of a new phase in influence.
Ted Fry is former music writer for 'Seattle Weekly.'