What did Soundgarden mean to me?
More than I can ever properly say. Some of us have been moved to tears over the death of this performer or this musician, people that have left a direct impact specifically on you. And I guess Chris Cornell had that same impact on me.
Or maybe not. We’ve all raised our fists in anger at a god that would take this person away from us. Shake our fists, commiserate together and then move on some months later. Yes we might go back and remember when that one hit comes on the radio and go, “yeah I remember.” But I don’t feel many of us do.
I was nothing but a little guy when John Lennon was murdered. Dad had raised me on the Beatles. It was just one of those bands and I was aware of the music, and sang along as best as I could never fully appreciating the music. Although I was little and my emotions were undeveloped I remember watching the world around me in confusion at what had happened. I didn’t really know what death meant--- at least not yet. I couldn’t tie in these things in my brain together. But Lennon’s death left an indelible impression on me and the full appreciation of the Beatles really came full circle as I tried my whole life to understand this genius songwriter that had so impacted everyone, and how his indelible impression on the world at large never ever went away.
Even though that was way back in 1980, I still remember that twist in my stomach, that pervasive feeling of emptiness, like everything I thought I knew or understood about the world had been forever changed in that moment when that trigger was pulled. This was the moment that the darkness creeped into my life. Or more importantly, when the darkness crossed over and decided to sit in at the table, an everpresent companion for me.
There had been several bands that did it for me as I grew away from that genius of the Beatles into the post Lennon world. My tastes drifted away from the power chords of Kiss into something darker. Heavy Metal had some of that. And that was when I found Soundgarden.
Before the “Seattle Sound”, there was this band that came along that got lumped in with heavy metal. At the time though, Soundgarden had this difference. It was Sabbath, but not. It was Zeppelin but not. It was the Smiths, the Cure, the Pixies, but not. There was some unique distinction in their sound, the chords they used, the strange tunings, the growls and shrieks. Even the rhythm section was completely different with strange time signatures, backbeats and unusual note progressions.
And that video that came on. Loud Love was something else. Visually this was different. Post apocalyptic and dirty, yet pretty. There was a style there that was anti-style. The drummer looked like some preppy kid, but pounded on that kit like it was more than a drumset. Kim Thayil was some wizened technician of sound, using dissonance strange patterns, attacking his instrument. Hiro was Hiro, kinetic energy and pulsing behind everything. And then Cornell walks out, somehow the antithesis of what a frontman should be. Wearing shorts, no top and boots and that mane of hair. This was not a real band. They weren’t trying to impress anyone and by doing so, really nailed it. They didn’t play for their audience. This was ceremony, this was catharsis, this was playing music because it was a release, because what they needed to say had to be said, whether it was ugly or not, because they didn’t have a choice.
This video and Hands All Over was punch to the gut, making me catch my breath. Somehow, this connected with that darkness that found it’s way to me, that fear of the world that was so pervasive that I wanted to push back but was afraid to. It made me realize I too could safely channel what I was feeling into music. In my best moments as I was learning to write songs was when I was honest like Soundgarden was. I think those songs scared people, as I suspect Soundgarden was scaring people. This was too real, too reflective of the world we were living in. I almost wanted people to not like what I was writing. I wanted people to feel--- or more importantly for people to admit what they were feeling.
And lurking through all that music and what was coming out in my own was that sense of not being good enough. That sense of failure. That sense of never having a future. My perception at the time was make it or break it, but I felt I never could. I was spinning my wheels in university. The longer I remained there, the longer I could delay getting into the world and confirming that failure. I had to get a good education so I could get a great job. And I had to knock it out of the park. There were no second considerations. I had to completely succeed in school and completely succeed on getting an amazing well paying job.
I was incredibly disillusioned by the way the world around me was built.
In Soundgarden, I could bury myself in and be human. And there might be an assumption it was the words that hit me. Yes, they did have an impact, but nothing that band wrote lyrically was more important than the music itself. The lyrics were a reflection of the music. And vice versa. There was a true marriage between the two, in a synergy that made the songs mean so much more. Even in a song like Big Dumb Sex, which could be played off as a joke song had an intense second side to it that wasn’t funny. Listen along and have fun, but there was an undercurrent that wasn’t humorous, that was scary and reflective. Full On Kev’s Mom was horrible in its message (at least to me) and treaded that line between the hot mom in the neighborhood but also could be interpreted to being molested. These were not happy topics.
I felt that Soundgarden was holding up a mirror to the world and their songs were reflective of the dark sides of the world. The underbelly.
I was completely intimidated. As a young kid, I discovered Kiss and dreamt of being Peter Criss and dreamed of one day affording a drum set of my own. One day, maybe I could play as well as Criss did on the Alive album. I air drummed over and over, imagining I was playing on a real set until that Christmas morning. I played my heart out playing every Kiss song I could. That’s where it was at. As my playing became better and started trying new things, once I tried to play along to the Louder Than Love album. Once.
Matt Cameron was a freak of nature. He was like Neil Peart in that he tried different beats all the time. While Peart had this pristine technical savvy to this playing, Cameron had this counter to that was also equally original. It was dirtier though. What they each did was not settle into finding a common beat and applying that to a song, they reinvented a beat for the song, never conforming to just proving a heartbeat to the song. Their drums were lead instruments, not just something to keep time.
I have not gone back and tried to emulate Cameron. There is only one Matt Cameron. Praise the drum god.
I dug back into the Soundgarden catalogue and discovered their Sub Pop stuff until Badmotorfinger came around. I was more than happy to live with their Sub Pop albums and their only major label album up til then. If Soundgarden had never released another album I would have been happy. What has been released had been really great for me. And really, I had this thought that they would not maintain this incredibly creative stride they had hit. And really, what they had brought to the table I was already moving on from. There was a wave of industrial like Ministry, there was Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Propagandhi… my angry side had places to go to already.
I had already gone through the phase of dressing like Cornell. I probably just looked silly. I went shirtless with my long hair hanging over my torso. I was a drummer and a singer, just like Cornell was. Man, I really thought I had cred. I didn’t have a lick of his talent, and I wasn’t in a band at all.
So when Badmotorfinger came out, it reminded me that evolution in a band was still possible and could be good and could still push the limits. Badmotorfinger was a departure from Louder Than Love in many ways. There were two sides to the album. The first side had the anger in Jesus Christ Pose and Rusty Cage, and Slaves and Bulldozers. This was an evolution to the classic sound with more intensity. Flip the cassette, turn over the album and side 2 brought on a completely different side. Staring at the image inside the cassette, I felt the preppy Matt Cameron and this new guy Ben Sheppard replacing Hiro paved the way for a weird boring side 2. Cornell and Thayil looked heavy and imposing in the photo next to these two guys that didn’t look like they fit in at all and I felt this anger that the band only released half a great album.
But that side 2 had something going for it. There was some depth, a different side of the coin, a different perspective to Soundgarden which would see further development on the next album. Side 2 was the segue way essentially. Now, many years later, I find myself really enjoying Drawing Flies and New Damage, Searching With My Good Eye Closed and Holy Water.
As I reflexively starting liking the second side of the album and bore through the cassette hundreds of time I started challenging my own vocal. While I never will sound like Cornell, and never expect to, I was learning to sing, channeling the words and the tone of the song. I was sing-songing along like some karaoke bar. Cornell’s gift in his vocal style was all in the delivery, being able to emote the song, acting out for all to see through it, and show us what he was feeling. Every word, every chord meant something. And all of that feeling came through.
Superunknown changed the game. Easily my favourite album from Soundgarden, if not one of my favourite albums of all time, this album taught me the most about songcraft. I was duly impressed by every song Matt Cameron crafted, like Limo Wreck, Fresh Tendrils, and Mailman. And these were my favourites. There was a more tender side to Cornell now. While the old songs felt like they held up a mirror to the world around us all, now the songs felt more self-reflective. There was a lot of depression floating through that album. With obvious titles like Fell On Black Days, The Day I Tried To Live, 4th Of July, and Like Suicide, there was a trending pattern to this album. Stuck in the dregs of what my own life had evolved into at that point, this album really stuck to me and was the coat I wore, like it or not. Cornell’s vocal had evolved again. Two albums ago was Cornell singing at the top of his register, shouting out to the world about Loud Love and Jesus Christ Poses. Now it was emotive songs that he sung. I was more able to sing along now which is likely what helped propel this album into the stratosphere for sales. The held back production on the album also resonated the mood of the music. There were no frills here. It was the songs speaking for themselves, not hiding behind anything. There was a courage to this album different than the ones before. While there was a certain bravado before in their anger at what was outside. Now there was a vulnerability. I’m not perfect. Look at me.
Better represented than any of their other albums, Superunknown became my companion. I felt every song. I knew what was being emoted. Chris Cornell and I were bedmates by now. There no longer was separation between us, as the album, and the singer showing us the songs was no longer that other side of me but the actual real side of me. We both were hiding behind these ugly feelings of self loathing and depression. We were both hiding behind songs that said everything and no one really caught on.
Down On The Upside was the last album and the band broke up. There was still a nihilistic take in this one but by this time, I think the band was done. And I was becoming done with them. It had been a harrowing ride to follow them, to live in their songs and to identify too much with their music. By then I had moved on. I was trying to put behind that dark side and hide it again.