Reprinted without permission from Select, July
Farewell white powder and spandex atrocity. Goodbye rockin' depravity in a bus full of porn vids. Soundgarden are a wire-walking mutation between unremitting heaviosity and post-Nirvana punk grunge. "We're perverting rock language..."
His torso bare and his dark brown hair in requisite two-foot long corskscrew curls, Soundgarden's hunksome singer Chris Cornell looks the part of a heavy metal icon. Behind him, on stage at Detroit's 3,500-capacity downtown rock venue the State Theatre, the rest of the band are squeezing out a protracted blues dirge called Incessant Mace. For you to believe you were actually watching Led Zeppelin do Dazed and Confused in 1968, Cornell would only have to step forward into a glorious red spotlight and warble awhile with legs splayed. Instead, he hooks his mike into its stand and swallow-dives into the crowd. Held aloft on a sea of hands, he floats across the auditorium and eventually clambers onto a ledge at the side. He rests a moment, surveying the scene, then picks his spot and dives a good ten feet back down. And the band plays on...
Strange behaviour from a band whose sound and vision finds much of its roots among the traditionally distanced, heroically crotch-grinding heavy rock riffers of the '70s. To that musical backdrop Soundgarden are adding the street upstart attititude of punk rock. So the same band who cover Black Sabbath's Into The Void amazingly trot out a revamped version of Girl U Want by Devo. The crowd is equally split between earnest (but bladdered) young college types and the HM stereotypes - denim-clad, greasy haired males and underdressed 'rock chicks'. For every Nirvana 'Baby-kissin Corporate Whores' T shirt, there's one that proclaims 'Yngwie is God'.
In tune with their chart-busting ex-label-mates Nirvana, Soundgarden are trying to give a fresh injection of radical thinking to the overblown world of rock, and that means altering the existing codes of conduct for a band on tour.
Your average pouting FM idol is obliged to psyche up for a show on a powder-format fuel inhaled off the cleavage of tonight's groupies. Check out the uniformly healthy nature of the rider - fresh fruit, fresh fruit juice, fresh bottled water - and figure that these guys won't pass their pre-gig time in the customary frenzy of stimulant consumption and costume arrangement. They wear the same clothes onstage as they do all day.
Breaking with the high tradition of any rock band claiming their descendence from Led Zeppelin, there's no Hammer Of The Gods-type debauchery going on on the tour bus either. Guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd occupy the front lounge in eleventh-hour meditation. No porn vids, no pills. The only thing that's addictive is a well-equipped Nintendo Gameboy. And without fear of observation behinds it's discreetly tinted mirror windows, Kim ponders the first half of the following equation...
"Sex and drugs and rock and roll...Hmmmm..."
Of Southern Indian descent, he ponders the subject hypothetically, stroking his long, fibrous black beard like some wizened Hindu sage. "That's what I think is wrong with rock and roll. They'll always be sex and drugs, but they just get in the way of the rock and roll, y'know? They can be separate. Why not just rock and roll?"
"Sex and drugs aren't unique to rock and roll, anyway. They're in religions, politics, professional athletics... Why the hell should a rock and roll person want anything to do with a lifestyle that's similar to that of politicians who do cocaine and get their lobbyists to give them blow jobs so they'll vote a certain way? This is rock and roll! It's suppposed to have bigger muscle than that so it shouldn't be seduced and weakened and corrupted by those kinds of temptations... (pause) I've probably felt this way since I stopped liking Kiss. I realise I'd had a soft-porn understanding of the world and this was the kind of music you just masturbate to. I like to think we do something on a much higher level than that!"
Suddenly, like the sound of nymphettes come to test these virtuous theories, there are knocks and timid giggles on the door of the bus. Kim - usually a man of Zen-like calm and consideration - completely flips out.
"Fuck!" he yells. "I can't help it but sometimes I wanna beat the fuck outta these people... but at the same time... (getting more reasonable) Phwwww, they just don't understand... I mean, there isn't enough time for me to be all their best friends, or to go to all their houses and eat dinner, or whatever the fuck it is they want."
"One of these days," notes Ben, smiling at Thayil's outburst, "we'll get this rock star thing down pat." The irony's so heavy you can almost hear it hit the floor.
As exemplified by the fate of their last single, Jesus Christ Pose, it seems Soundgarden are trapped in a Catch 22 of their own making. Cornell's song about rejecting the Messianic status conferred on rock stars was hopelessly misconstrued as an anti-Christian statement. With a healthy dose of MTV-banning scandal, it scuffed the edges of the UK Top 40, broadened their US audience considerably and put Chris even closer to rock deity.
You wouldn't think the band's stagefright and their moral scruples will stand them in good stead for a bottom-of-the-bill slot on Guns 'N' Roses' European tour, which they begin this month after completing their biggest US headlining jaunt to date. They've actually toured with G'N'R before - this time last year in America - and with some success. After appearing at the MTV awards sales of their third album, Badmotorfinger, began to pick up and then... Well, Nirvana happened. While they'll open for G'N'R and offer an apparently more marketable heavy metal, Soundgarden are cut of the same defiant cloth and have the same abashed modesty towards the media glare.
In what at first appears to be the decree of some weird internal democracy, Soundgarden choose to be interviewed in pairs - because no one in the band could bear to do it on their own. They hate it, almost as much as being photographed - Cornell enforces a no-flash policy at gigs.
They formed in Seattle in 1984 at the heart of a dawning scene in the sleepy Pacific North West, inspired by a sprawling history of music that took in staple alternative heroes - American post-punk outfits like Black Flag, Husker Du, Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers - but also the Motor City sounds of The Stooges and MC5 and the ear churning but long since ridiculed giants of '70s rock.
"It was just a mutation," drawls Cornell, neatly shaven but for a thin, downy fur of moustache, and a tiny goatee on his chin. "Being a punk band then wasn't daring any more - it was 1984. It was much more ballsy to come out in front of a punk audience and do a Sabbath cover or a Kiss cover and have them throw shit at you, and then have them adnit that they actually got off on that sort of stuff a few years earlier. It was just a way to create the kind of animosity you used to be able to get just by playing fast punk songs."
So, Soundgarden began with confrontation in mind, releasing their first LP on the hardcore label SST, calling it, as a sign of self-promotional disinterest, Ultramega OK, and moving to A&M for the second LP, 1989's Louder Than Love, which was pushed almost solely at the metal market.
On first airing, they could pass for grunge-orientated partners-in-spandex of Dave Lee Roth and his caricature ilk. Only this lot clearly don't play the game. They have brains. They don't behave like complete turds. They're ironic, especially when it comes it lyrics. And when it comes to talking about the lyrics Cornell will only mutter things about "how it'll eventually be as if I didn't even write them in the first place", but eventually concedes they aren't your average HM bollocks.
"Heavy rock lyric writers have never inspired me. They're either party words, or really silly, juvenile politics that you've known for years, or mystical stuff... At least we don't write about wizards and starships and cyclopses... We're kind of into perverting rock language."
"We're the kind of band that uses words like 'begat'!" adds Matt, suprisingly. Oh, right.
Like Nirvana, they've been staving off the pressures of rising stardom by staying on the road with only the odd week-long break, setting off around the States last November, taking in Europe during the Spring, and now this tour. Then straight into the stadia with G'N'R, then into the great outdoors on Lollapalooza 2. Don't these crowds - particularly the rather large ones - make them feel they're losing touch with the original idea of slowed-up grinding metal for speed hungry punks?
"It's the same feeling playing in front of a Guns audience that we used to get in some bar in Seattle when we first started out," Chris reckons. "There are a few fans of G'N'R, Metallica and Soundgarden out there, but it's mainly people who like G'N'R, Bon Jovi and Poison. Those people usually don't react too well."
"This tour's cool, but it's also cool to go out and depress people and knock the air out of their stupid fuckin' party. That's fun."
When the quartet come down from the dressing room, leave the bus (the mob have moved inside) and get together onstage, they're a model of rock and roll excitement that fizzes through the atmosphere in the over-capacity crowd. They rawk, and Detroit rawks back.
In what all Stateside bands view as a trend-hopping UK, Soundgarden would play a far tighter set of mostly new material off the outrageously cool Badmotorfinger. Here in the heartland of the Middle American 'white trash' audience, they stretch out the set over 90 minutes of unsparing volume and unremitting heaviosity, including Cornell's folkie acoustic version of Mind Riot and Thayil's tastefully brief solo slot. At the end, Jesus Christ Pose. It's immense.
If they play like this in Europe they'll blow G'N'R off the planet. Fact. Nobody could leave at the end feeling hard done by. At least not fans, many of whom are now giving it the trad metal 666 fist in the air. When, late on, Soundgarden crash through Beyond The Wheel, a Sabbath-type stomper from Ultramega OK, and the same thing happens, you're reminded the LP track had a short piece of amp interference on either side, respectively entitled 665 and 667.
It's getting harder and harder for them to avoid the number of the beast...