America’s Strange ‘White Other’

‘He has a very traditional Metal voice’, remarked a senior editor of Raiot as Reach Down by Temple of the Dog was playing. I disagreed and tried explaining that it was, in fact, the voice of ‘grunge’. Not the voice but certainly an influential one. A voice that harked back to the metal of the 80s and yet promised something new – a future of metal and punk utopia that would unfortunately be commodified as Grunge. And just then, the song reached its beautiful harmony section where the full range of the ‘traditional metal voice’ could be heard. It filtered the blues, doo wop, soul, gospel and my heart was ready to burst as it did when I first heard the song 15 years ago. That was the voice of Chris Cornell.

The Doc Marten boots, cut offs and lumberjack shirts. It was all they could afford

He died a few days ago and now joins Kurt Kobain, Layne Staley and Scott Weiland as a famous quartet of the departed who shaped rock music in the 1990s. It was the era of my youth and back then, even if just superficially, rock (alternative/grunge, whatever floats your boat) stood up for the underdog. This remarkable scene from Seattle had reached Shillong and these unkempt boys in their Doc Martens, lumberjack shirts and cut off jeans playing an exhilarating mix of metal, hardcore and punk just blew the GnRs and the Metallicas out of the water. Kurt Kobain was by far the most gifted and his singular style and talent transcended everything but Soundgarden – Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron and Hiro Yamomoto (the original line up) were the air and soil of Seattle. They enjoyed the hometown metal of Metal Church as much as the hardcore of Black Flag and along with Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Andrew Wood and Kurt Cobain, they formed the core of what would become the much imitated Seattle Sound. (Eddie Vedder was an out of towner, then, who came to Seattle when its music was beginning to take off). Chris Cornell always stood out for his ability with both guitar and voice and very quickly became a much respected figure. Cornell was also a bit peculiar because of his vocal range – it could accommodate the metal wail, the ferocity of punk, the drawl of Seattle and yet it could be soulful and bluesy too.

The bedrock of the Seattle musicians at the time was a version of punk called hardcore but Chris Cornell and Soundgarden were to find it too limiting. 

As the pieces of the Seattle Sound were beginning to form, local labels like Sub Pop came up and started putting bands on their roster. Soundgarden released their first EP ‘Screaming Life’ on Sub Pop and their sound at the time was something like MC 5 meets Sabbath/Zeppelin. It wasn’t received well and it is to be remembered that labels like Sub Pop were taking a huge risk at the time. The Seattle Sound was very much a vanguardist style movement because it was led by a core of musicians with shared sensibilities and a disdain for mainstream rock. There was, however, a very small following and typical shows in Seattle at the time would be held in abandoned warehouses with 3 or 4 bands on the line up. While one band played, the audience would mainly consist of the other bands waiting their turn.

Temple of the Dog – Chris Cornell, Matt Cameron, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard and a very unknown Eddie Vedder

But this was also a fertile period for those musicians as they cut their teeth in the critical gaze of their peers and it is no wonder that they would go on to form the spine of such bands as Tad, Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam and of course, Soundgarden.  The bedrock of the Seattle musicians at the time was a version of punk called hardcore but Chris Cornell and Soundgarden were to find it too limiting. Cornell’s range was far too wide and in Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron, they had two of Seattle’s most accomplished musicians. Hence, their initial EPs and even their first album ‘Ultramega OK’ would be a search that would traverse the Stooges, MC 5, Black Flag, Black Sabbath and underground metal. But through all this, Cornell was finding his range as a lyric writer and he certainly had a thing for religious themes. ‘The day will finally come in/Cause we have conquered a kingdom/And a place of rage/Covered with assholes’ or in the song ‘665’ playing on Santa/Satan, he sings ‘Santa, I love you baby/My Christmas king/Santa, you’re my king…’. All of this would, of course, come to a head with their big label debut ‘Badmotorfinger’ and particularly the song Jesus Christ Pose – ‘Arms held out, in your Jesus Christ pose/Thorns and shroud/Like it’s the coming of the Lord…../But your staring at me/Like I, like I’m driving the nails…’. Cornell would explain later that it was merely a critique of public figures who use religion but at the time it was almost banned for being anti-Christian and MTV initially refused to play the corresponding music video. He would fan the flames of this controversy remarking in an interview about his failure to understand people’s obsession with that guy ‘…nailed to a cross’.

Badmotorfinger would eventually be drowned out by the popularity of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ but the Seattle Sound was on the map and every other guitar slinger was now dropping his ‘D’  and trying to sound like Cobain, Thayil and Gossard/McCready. For a scene that prided itself on its anti establishment and non mainstream values, these Seattle musicians were now certainly in a conundrum. Pearl Jam, in particular, would continually be accused of pandering too much to mainstream tastes.

Grunge as Fashion – what was born out of need for the Seattle musicians later became a million dollar industry

But looking back now, the Seattle Sound was very much a thing of the imagination and certainly the fevered, moneyed imagination of the music industry. Between Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Tad, one would be hard pressed to find a unifying, reassuring commonality. Nirvana derived heavily from the punk of the Pixies and Black Flag, Pearl Jam mined Classic Rock while Soundgarden had their own, unique blend of punk and metal.

the Seattle Sound was very much a thing of the imagination and certainly the fevered, moneyed imagination of the music industry. 

As mentioned, the core musicians of these bands shared a disdain for what they called ‘straight ahead butt rock’ as typified by Guns and Roses at the time but they were also smarter and addressed far weightier themes than girls and cars. It is not their fault that the music industry would dig into Cobain’s personal demons for millions nor it is their doing that their sartorial preferences, born out a need for thrift stores, would be commodified as the ‘Grunge look’. Every teenage boy was now wearing cut offs, Doc Martens and lumberjack shirts and musically, for every genuine Stone Temple Pilot there was a Silverchair and a Bush.

(L-R) Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron, Chris Cornell and Ben Shepherd

Cornell would find himself caught in this storm as his good looks were just readymade for the ‘Rock God’ tag – the new Jim Morrison. He would rail and rant in interviews about this (even calling Morrison a wanker or something like that) and for his troubles, he would earn the reputation of being a ‘whiner’. Seattle’s disdain for mainstream rock and metal was a mutual affair. They were derided by many mainstream artists like Axl Rose and Jon Bon Jovi for, among other things, their ‘femininity’ and for ‘selling depression’. In fact, Rose tried assaulting Cobain in an awards show once, which Kurt would later laugh off as a position ‘….he hadn’t been in since 3rd Grade’. Despite their success, the Seattle bands were still seen as oddities – Cornell, despite being a strapping 6ft 2”, had a strange vulnerability about him. His long, flowing locks, slender frame and his smart, metaphor filled lyrics often confused people who, in turn, took the easy way out by ridiculing Seattle’s music as this disturbing ‘other’. They were hated for their daring to address dark themes and partly out of Seattle’s musicians’ own record of suicides and drug addiction, they were held responsible for America’s woes on these issues.

Kurt Cobain – a member of the tragic ’27’ club

It would be easy to accuse Kurt Cobain of playing out his personal demons for a profit, and a lot of people did, but these same demons led him to take his own life at the age of 27 (that cursed age for rock stars). By this time Seattle’s music was being taken over by imitators who all thought they could ape a sound and an attitude, and for them and the music industry that attitude was self hate and depression. It is infuriating that this would become Kurt Cobain’s legacy and that the memory of this beautiful, troubled songwriter who wrote some of the most insightful and original lyrics on the American condition will always be tainted by, what his critics call, Prozac Rock.

At the time of Cobain’s death, Cornell was entering his most prolific phase and he wrote, co-guitared and masterminded, what I think is, the most important and distinctive Seattle album since Nevermind. It is, and this is a testimony to the Seattle musicians’ original vision, as different from Nevermind as chalk from cheese. Soundgarden’s ‘Superunknown’ expanded the borders of the Seattle Sound and left the dropped jaws of its imitators (and their reductive, regressive reading of Seattle’s music) in its wake. It encompassed the darkness of everything; subversion, the apocalypse, mindfuck, the blues et al.  Black Hole Sun was a wicked take on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and (as Pitchfork says) with a tune so pretty that even ‘Paul Anka can dig it’, the title track was a masterclass by Kim Thayil on what rock guitar can be and ‘Spoonman’ was a delicious rendition of the blues. Tune after tune, they belted out what Kim Thayil calls ‘12 ways of approaching heaviness’ and this album remains a benchmark of what hard rock can achieve when its thematic and musical vision is unimpeded – in this case, the vision of Chris Cornell. With Superunknown he became the blues singer that he had always threatened to be since Temple of the Dog and Soundgarden, for once, outsold Pearl Jam and became America’s most popular band.

It is strange but Cornell’s career hit two peaks, once in the beginning with Temple of the Dog and once in the middle with Superunknown; the rest was all exploratory and even middle of the road stuff. It is in these two peaks, though, that lays the measure of an artist who achieved what very few have – singing the blues and expanding its scope. Temple of the Dog was a tribute by Soundgarden and members of Mookie Blaylock (they would later become Pearl Jam) to the dear departed Andrew Wood; founder of Mother Love Bone and the ‘thinker’ of the early Seattle Sound. This was in 1991 and the album is a beautiful collection of everything that rock had forgotten to be – from the evocation of soul, gospel and the blues in ‘Reach Down’ and ‘Hunger Strike’ to the delightful, simple melody of ‘All Night Thing’. It was a prime example of musicians going back to their roots, not merely as a tribute but more importantly, to understand them so that something new may emerge. Cornell in hitting these two peaks covered an entire history of rock n roll and also shaped a future for it.

It is, therefore, ironic that personally and as Soundgarden, what followed was a consistent but unremarkable body of work. Soundgarden’s next album ‘Down on the Upside’ didn’t cover any new territory and after 13 years as a band they decided to part ways. We all know that Chris Cornell teamed up with Morello and the Machine (minus Zack the Rage) to form Audioslave but this band, despite its platinum selling status, was the opposite of what they themselves wrote, ‘I am not your rolling wheels/I am the highway/I am not your carpet ride/I am the sky’. I’m afraid, they were not true to this boast. Cornell still showed that he could do anything – from collaborations with Timbaland to impromptu renditions of ‘Redemption Song’ with his daughter but the best was always behind him.

The harmonies of Reach Down will always ring in my ears as will the wail of Jesus Christ Pose but of the great triumvirate of Cobain, Cornell and Vedder only the latter remains. Long may he continue!

Tributes will flow, as they should, to this gentle artist and a moving one can be found right here in Shillong by Aaron Pyngrope – a musician and fan of Chris Cornell. How many of us will die with such a tribute?

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K Mark Swer Written by:

K Mark Swer is a filmmaker, writer and a radio artist. He is a resident rock critic for raiot.

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