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Coming of age with Soundgarden: A look back at the origins of grunge

Soundgarden circa 1987 (photo by Charles Peterson)

 

For a teenage kid from suburban Milwaukee, getting to drive my parents’ car into Chicago, unsupervised, for the first time was a really big deal. That I was making that trek to see Soundgarden (also for the first time) at the Riviera Theatre in 1992 made the experience that much more momentous. So it’s no wonder why the dark, sludgy sound of the celebrated Seattle quartet has always sounded liberating and youthful to me, an appeal that still lingers evocatively to this day.

As Soundgarden are set to make their grand return to the Twin Cities at the Orpheum Theatre after a lengthy 19-year absence, it’s a good time to reflect on why the band initially captured the rapt attention of kids like me throughout the late ’80s and ’90s, and why their music still continues to resonate loudly nearly 30 years after their formation.

Looking back on the musical maelstrom that was Seattle during grunge’s heyday, people tend to forget that it was actually Soundgarden who was the first band in that celebrated scene to sign to a major label. The modern blend of Kim Thayil’s gloomy, Sabbath-like guitar riffs with Chris Cornell’s volatile, piercing wail was not only a musical call to arms for capricious youth who had long since grown tired of the flagrant artificiality of hair metal, but their untamed sound also captured the attention and financial backing of drooling record executives who realized early on that the winds of change were indeed storming in from the Northwest.

So, after rattling the rusty cages of underground music fans with two well-received Sub Pop EPs, Soundgarden signed with the punk indie label SST Records for their Grammy-nominated debut full-length, 1988’s Ultramega OK. When the major labels began courting the band in earnest they signed with the illustrious A&M Records, and it was a decidedly controversial move that was viewed as selling-out by their hardcore fan base in Seattle who were blissfully unaware of how commercial their city was soon to become.

While most bands tend to balk under the pressure of major label expectations—losing the urgent, underdog spirit which made them appealing in the first place—Soundgarden instead confidently rose to the challenge and silenced most of their critics with the raw intensity of Louder Than Love. The album fluidly blended smoldering guitar riffs and churning rhythms with Cornell’s heady, socially enlightened lyrics that tackled decidedly non-metal issues like environmental awareness (“Hands All Over”) and the perils and power of an armed proletariat (“Gun”), while also cheekily giving the finger to the laughable, clichéd eroticism of the dying hair metal scene (“Big Dumb Sex”). While the record successfully blurred the lines between the modern metal scene and the emerging grunge sound coming out of Seattle, the turbulent, salacious songs proved to be hard to market nationally, and Louder Than Love failed to crack the Top 100 album chart.

That formative time was also filled with both professional and personal turmoil for the band, as their original bassist, Hiro Yamamoto, surprisingly quit the band. He was temporarily replaced by former Nirvana guitarist Jason Everman, before the group settled on their current bassist Ben Shepherd. But far more troublesome and tragic was the death of Cornell’s best friend and former roommate, Andrew Wood, a loss which not only shook Chris inwardly, but would also darken his songwriting for years to come—especially on the mournful tribute to his departed friend, Temple Of The Dog, a grief-stricken album that Cornell wrote along with some of Wood’s surviving Mother Love Bone bandmates who were in the process of forming their own new group, Pearl Jam.

But rather than wallow in his despair, Cornell and the rest of the group, bolstered by Shephard’s fuzzed-out low end forming a perfect compliment to Matt Cameron’s insistent drumming, delivered their brooding masterstroke, Badmotorfinger, in the fall of ’91. It was unequivocally a landmark three months for the Seattle scene, which also saw the August release of Pearl Jam’s stellar debut, Ten, followed by Nirvana’s legendary breakthrough, Nevermind, in September. Grunge had forcefully taken over the modern music scene, leaving its antiquated landscape scorched by their collective creative fire and the industry forever changed and struggling to catch up.

In retrospect, Badmotorfinger might just be the best album of the three, even though it hasn’t earned the hallowed reverence of the other two acclaimed records. If anything, it’s certainly the most sonically adventurous and ambitious. From the ominous See ‘n Say narration at the start of “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” to the brazen use of free-jazz freakouts in “Room A Thousand Years Wide” and “Drawing Flies,” these intrepid studio techniques and flourishes just weren’t happening in rock records at the time, and the double-platinum album rightfully brought Soundgarden a new level of mainstream success.

For an agitated Midwestern high-school kid half the country away, those three albums arrived like sacred creative thunderbolts while providing me with a musical lifeline that I clung to desperately. It was at this point in my life that I no longer merely liked music, I fell in love with it. These songs became my anthems of unrest, and I clearly wasn’t alone. The country (and the world) was filled with fed up and frustrated kids who were tired of the blatant artificiality of the Top 40, and we were now given something forceful and real by a truly talented collection of artists who didn’t seem to give a damn about authority or success, but ultimately would end up topping the charts anyway.

That monumental sea change in modern music would eventually lead to the over-saturation of grunge itself (and the countless, nameless knock-offs who tried to capitalize on the movement), as well as the sad demise of Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and most of the bands from that era. But for those first few years, there was an electricity and an edge to everything coming out of Seattle that emphatically resonated in the unsettled hearts of listeners throughout the world. And while alternative music had an angry edge to it, I couldn’t have been happier to immerse myself entirely within that tumultuous scene and those thunderous sounds.

Three months following my epic journey to see Soundgarden’s incredible Riviera Theatre show in support of Badmotorfinger (to this day one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen—after which I proudly wore Cornell’s Doc Marten boot mark on my face like a badge of honor), it was finally time for grunge’s grand coming out party at the second Lollapalooza in the summer of ’92. I had just graduated from high school, and was set to move to Minneapolis for the first time that fall as a freshman at the University of Minnesota. (There, I inevitably was drawn into many heated dorm-room debates about the relative merits of Cornell’s lyrical put-down in “Outshined,” “I’m looking California, but feeling Minnesota”—which I still insist is a brilliant line despite proudly calling myself a Minnesotan for the past 20 years.)

My college-bound friends and I were justifiably in a celebratory mood that glorious late summer day at Alpine Valley, and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden (who stole the show from Ministry, Ice Cube, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and headliners Red Hot Chili Peppers) provided an emphatic soundtrack that continued to ring true throughout our educational odyssey while also serving clear notice that the bands from Seattle were onto something special and significant, with fierce and feisty live shows to match their rousing, spirited songs.

Soundgarden only built on that creative momentum throughout the rest of their successful career, reaching their commercial peak with 1994’s Superunknown, a sprawling 15-song, 70-plus minute monster of an album that garnered the band an arena-sized following everywhere they went as well as multiple Grammy Awards and nominations. On the strength of smash hits like “Spoonman,” “Black Hole Sun,” “Fell On Black Days,” and my personal favorite, the unheralded “Fresh Tendrils,” the record went quintuple-platinum in the United States alone, and has sold over 9 million copies worldwide–impressive figures, especially when compared to today’s meager music sales.

And while most music fans thought that 1996’s adventurous but uneven Down On The Upside was a fitting swan-song for a band who wisely quit while they were on top, Soundgarden are now back with a highly-charged new record, King Animal, that is, quite frankly, better than it has any right to be. And rather than trotting out a tired, cash-grab tour full of mostly new songs while turning their back on their past, the band are playing ferocious sets filled with explosive tracks from throughout their legendary, distinctive career.

I, for one, can’t wait to see them live once again on Saturday night. For while I own my own car now, and most likely won’t get kicked in the face while Cornell crowd surfs (as awesome as that still would be), Soundgarden’s stirring songs will always hold a soft spot in my musical heart because they have the eternal power of making me feel young once again.

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  • http://twitter.com/ViaChicago59 ViaChicago59

    Nice job Erik Thompson. Great subject matter a personal story and very well written.