Soundgarden and the Days of Grunge-Gone-By
It’s hard to tell what common trait placed the disparate sounds of early ’90s Seattle bands under the term “grunge”. As united as this vanguard of authentic rock ‘n’ roll resurgence appeared, the ‘Big Four’ Seattle bands seemed to be fighting their battles on different fronts. Listening to albums from the age, there is little linking Pearl Jam’s classic rock vibes, Nirvana’s post-Punk sonic anarchy and the eerie harmonised aggression of Alice in Chains. Except plaid shirts, of course. Perhaps it was a convenient industry spin, or perhaps it was what these bands were not. They were not hair-teased icons of rock excess. They did not make power ballads which oozed pathos and cheese in equal measure. They were the breath of fresh air that rock needed, lest it die a noisome death at the hands of the kitschy synth-rock mainstream. And in my opinion, nothing from that decade was as fresh and exciting as Soundgarden.
I came to the grunge thing a little late in life. By the time I chomped my way through the Beatles and various other classic rock heavyweights, I found myself slowly discovering grunge, albeit a good 15 years after the crest of the wave. But I come from a generation stuck in the middle: when ‘Nevermind’ was released, we were too young to have much to be rebellious about, and when we were old enough, we got N’Sync. Hard times, I tell you, hard times.
They were the breath of fresh air that rock needed, lest it die a noisome death at the hands of the kitschy synth-rock mainstream. And in my opinion, nothing from that decade was as fresh and exciting as Soundgarden.
But my post-adolescent entry to the world of the alternate was heralded with the epic fanfare that is ‘Superunknown’. In the spectrum of “alternative” sounds, Soundgarden was probably the closest to heavy metal, and ‘Superunknown’ definitely ran in a heavier vein than what I was used to. But a few listens in, I was hopelessly hooked.
What really caught my ear was Sardar-looking, Mallu-bred, Chicago-born guitarist Kim Thayil with his thick tone and angular, often dissonant approach that gave Soundgarden its signature sound. But their most obvious calling card was vocalist Chris Cornell. His range and virtuosity drew comparisons to early Robert Plant, and indeed Soundgarden embraced much of the restless experimental spirit of Zeppelin. Drummer Matt Cameron’s melodic style created a perfect foil for bassist Ben Shepherd, and a near prog-rock edge to Soundgarden’s rhythms.
Soundgarden’s lyrical approach also placed them in a different, and arguably superior, category. Their peers took the ability to focus on personal emotions, faults, angst and self-loathing to a depressing, even narcissistic pitch. But more than angst, Soundgarden’s lyrics delved into matters with heavy doses of irony, at times slipping into the sardonic. They showed a side that the rest seemed to be reluctant to reveal: a sense of humour.
But perhaps there’s no other way to look at the fate of grunge’s poster boys than with a sense of humour. AIC has replaced Staley, Dave Grohl’s gone Foo, and in a recent issue of Gentleman’s Quarterly, I saw Eddie Vedder posing in a photo spread, with a surf board and winning smile to boot. (DON’T ask me why I was flipping through GQ.) Chris Cornell, on the other hand, can now be seen strutting down red carpets dressed in a sharp Armani suit with a pretty wife in tow. On stage with the boys from Audioslave, he even attempts Rage-style rap or two. Yes, the times, they are a-changing. Perhaps it’s his own prophesy fulfilled:
“Whatsoever I’ve feared has / Come to life / Whatsoever I’ve fought off / Became my life.”
Indeed, the irony has come full circle.