The band explores rock & roll's heart of darkness
There's one," says Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd. "Look at that guy with those two huge surfboards of bread."
Most Americans driving through Paris would probably be craning their necks for a glimpse of some historic landmark right about now, but the members of Soundgarden are too busy scanning the horizon for stereotypical French people. The subject came up a few moments ago — thanks to the Old World picture presented by a craggy-faced gentleman who was watching the street from a window, eating his supper from a tin can — and it will be forgotten just as quickly. These are the sort of low-key observations that consistently keep Soundgarden in stitches and leave everyone around them wondering what's so funny. Nobody, they say, ever understands their sense of humor.
Soundgarden's tour bus lumbers on through Paris' red-light district en route to a show at the Elysee Montmartre, an old ballroom a few blocks away from the Moulin Rouge. It's April 8, and the band members have every reason to be exhausted. They spent January and February touring Australia, Japan and New Zealand; this European leg began in early March, and there's still a week to go before they return home to Seattle to rest up for a U.S. summer tour that begins on May 27. To make matters worse, a couple of them are still nursing hangovers from last night's festivities in Berlin, and some overzealous schmo with a jackhammer materialized outside their hotel at 6 this morning.
Still, Soundgarden are in good spirits. There's a bit of grumbling about the Cyclopean dentist's drill that interrupted their sleep, and Chris Cornell, Soundgarden's perpetually sleepy-looking frontman, is in I-don't-wanna mode, pestering the band's tour manager, D.C. Parmet, with a half-joking Top 10 list of reasons the band should cancel tonight's show. But otherwise, it's business as usual.
Almost. Though it's only sound-check time, 50 or 60 fans have already gathered outside the Elysee Montmartre; they're visible as soon as the bus rounds the corner. Lately, fans have been kicking up more of a fuss when the band is in their midst, and it's a ritual the members of Soundgarden find a little disconcerting.
"It can be pretty embarrassing," says Soundgarden's drummer, Matt Cameron, whose even-keeled disposition invariably prompts journalists to describe him as happy-go-lucky — a tag he says he's tired of. "It's something I don't feel worthy of. And it's probably gonna happen more now, on a larger scale than it ever has. I can normally get away with it 'cause I blend in. But Kim [Thayil, the band's guitarist] gets recognized instantly, and he feels kind of uncomfortable about it. And with his personality, it just magnifies it tenfold."
Thayil is something of an endearing curmudgeon; he always seems happiest when he's got something to grouse about. He's also probably the most paranoid member of Soundgarden — a trait he says has been with him since childhood.
"I just don't trust people that much," says Thayil. "In school, if someone did something bad in class and the teacher wanted to know who did it, I was always the kid whose eyes started shifting around: 'Maybe it was me, was it me? I don't think I did it, but maybe it was me.' She keeps looking at me. 'Fuck, I did do it, she thinks I did it…'"
Thayil normally tries to sidestep large groups of autograph hounds, but today, the guitarist steps off the bus and runs the gantlet with aplomb, even stopping to snap pictures of the boisterous throng with a disposable Kodak. Of the four, it's Shepherd who most looks as if he'd like to be invisible when the gathered mob starts screaming. The lanky bassist — a punker to the core who's weirded out by all manner of fandemonium ("Just skip my section of the article," he instructs. "That'd be cool") — takes huge, quick strides toward the door of the club, unable to suppress a mortified smile. Inside, when he's asked if he'll ever get used to this kind of commotion, Shepherd shakes his head. "No way," he says, laughing.
It's been 10 years, four albums and three EPs, and mainstream-rock fans have just opened their arms — and their ears — wide enough to embrace Soundgarden's distinct brand of bombastic psychodelia with the same fervor they've shown the band's Seattle brethren in recent years. The object of all this affection is Superunknown, a 70-minute, 15-song opus that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart on March 19 and has been hailed by fans and critics alike as the best record of Soundgarden's career.
"That's the ultimate compliment and the ultimate insult," says Cornell with a smile. "It makes you feel good to hear that, but at the same time, it's kind of like 'Oh, so our other records sucked?'"
Once Soundgarden are inside the Elysee, there's a frustrating development: a decibel-level law of which they weren't aware. Before they make it a few bars into "The Day I Tried to Live," a track from Superunknown, their soundman informs them that they've already exceeded the limit. Bummed, they finish their sound check and move to an upstairs room to eat.
Before long, the doors of the Elysee have opened and Tad, longtime friends of Soundgarden and the only Seattle band that can boast a frontman (the elegant Tad Doyle) as heavy as its sound, are bulldozing their way through their opening set. By the time they're through, they haven't been hampered by the decibel limit at all, but when it's remarked that they sounded pretty loud, Shepherd just laughs. "Not loud enough," he says.
Backstage in Soundgarden's dressing room, Cornell, who has discovered the goof value of baiting the local fans in their native tongue, is brushing up on his French. During a club show in Dusseldorf, Germany, earlier in the tour, Cornell mastered "Take off your pants" in German. (Many in the crowd eagerly complied; Thayil says several drunken U.S military officers spent the evening crowd-surfing in their boxer shorts.) Now, Randy Biro, Shepherd's bass tech and Soundgarden's resident French tutor, slowly repeats phrase he's teaching Cornell.
"Va… chiez … Paris," says Biro.
"Va shay Paree," Cornell intones obediently. "OK. Va shay Paree… Va shay Paree…"
As Cornell's band mates begin moving out into the corridor that leads to the stage, he follows, repeating the phrase to commit it to memory.
"What does it mean?" someone asks.
"Go shit, Paris," says Biro with a pleasant smile.
The Parisian fans have been well-primed by Tad's meaty, plodding assault; when Soundgarden strap on their guitars and Shepherd and Cameron begin laying the strobelike foundation for Badmotorfinger's "Jesus Christ Pose," the floor of the Elysee erupts in a roar of recognition, the crowd becoming a snarl of bodies, those in the first few rows mashed against the barricade like human Silly Putty. At the song's end, Cornell remembers his French lesson and steps to the mike.
"Va chiez Paris," the singer says a little woodenly, with a tiny, self-congratulatory smile that leaves the crew in the wings laughing.
If the fans are insulted, they aren't showing it. Soundgarden always seem to do their best shows when they're exhausted and punchy, and this one is no exception. Despite the sound limit, the band imbues the clutch of songs that open the set ("Spoonman"; "Let Me Drown"; the ode-to-pistol-packin'-postal-workers "Mailman"; "The Day I Tried to Live"; and "My Wave") with the unharnessed velocity of a tornado. The next hour finds the band wending its way through the majority of both Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, and the Elysee is transformed into a writhing steam pit. As Soundgarden pull the rip cord on Shepherd's hardcore romp "Face Pollution," they're wringing wet and exuberant: Shepherd caught up in his usual spastic contortions, lurching all over the stage, his bass nearly dragging on the ground; Cornell leaning over the barricade to high-five a few delirious fans; Thayil indulging in a few tongue-in-cheek rock-god poses; and Cameron, utterly in the pocket, bashing the cymbals with a big goofy smile.
They're all in their element, immersed in the moment. They never see the stricken look on Parmet's face as he walks up a stage-side ramp three-quarters of the way through the show, having just called the United States and received the most horrible news he's ever had the responsibility of telling them.
"Kurt Cobain killed himself," the tour manager tells me. "Don't say anything to the band. I'll tell 'em after the show."
Thayil is first to reach the backstage area after Soundgarden finish their set, and Tad bassist Kurt Danielson opens the door of Tad's dressing room as Thayil passes by. "Kim," Danielson says to the guitarist, motioning him inside, "I think you better come in here for a second."
Cornell, Shepherd and Cameron appear a few moments later; Parmet follows them into Soundgarden's dressing room and closes the door behind him. The hallway is quiet.
Half an hour later, a red-eyed Shepherd emerges from Soundgarden's dressing room and walks through the double doors that lead into the ballroom. As the doors close behind him, the fans gathered outside can be heard calling to the bassist, trying to get his attention. "Ben! Hey, Ben!" and "Can you sign this?"
Shepherd tells them to fuck off.
The following day, a day off in Manchester, England, passes in an alcohol-fueled blur. The hotel is a gloomy, sprawling old building with a lot of mahogany, dark wallpaper and gaudy gold fixtures; Thayil, Cornell and Cameron, holed up in their rooms, don't turn up all day. Shepherd, a few members of Tad and a few of the crew members spend the day in a neighborhood pub. After nightfall, Thayil turns up, and he and Shepherd take up residence in the hotel bar, drinking and talking until well into the morning. Neither of them talks much about Cobain, but when they do, it's clear they're still struggling to make sense of the tragedy. "I just wish I knew whether he won or lost," Thayil says at one point.
Spirits are higher on the following night during a show at the Manchester Academy. There's a familial air, a sense of both bands pulling together. Flashes of badly needed levity have begun to creep back into the proceedings, as well as a fair amount of cathartic rowdiness. Midway through Tad's set, a crew member throws open the door of Soundgarden's dressiÈg room and excitedly blurts, "Tad just stage-dived!" The announcement sends half the occupants of the room scrambling down the hallway; the remaining few are left to ponder the misfortune of whomever Doyle landed on
Soundgarden begin their set with "Jesus Christ Pose" and "Spoonman," the first single from Superunknown; after the latter, Cornell addresses the fans. "Are you guys up for this tonight?" he asks. They are. The fans in Manchester make the Parisians look tame, and Soundgarden turn in an unruly, inspired set that finds Shepherd rolling on the floor and Cornell using the between-song pauses to howl at the fans like a werewolf. The singer leaves his guitar squealing as Soundgarden quit the stage, capping the show with a long, fierce blast of feedback.
Both bands gather in Soundgarden's dressing room afterward to unwind — a process that involves ripping the steel door off its hinges and tearing a suspicious-looking motion detector from a corner of the ceiling. It's uncharacteristic for Soundgarden to hold any truck with rituals like this, and Parmet watches silently, his expression disapproving. There's a repeat performance after the Glasgow, Scotland, show on the following night. Alcohol is flowing freely, and before the bands leave the venue, a table has been demolished and a rousing game of dressing-room baseball has been played with one of the broken table legs and hunks of compressed white bread from the deli tray. Parmet, growing increasingly concerned, places a trans-Atlantic call to Susan Silver (Soundgarden's manager and Cornell's wife) for advice.
"Just let 'em go," Silver tells him.
Two weeks later, the tour is over, and a sense of normalcy has returned. Thayil is in his living room in Seattle, washing down a cheeseburger with a beer and occasionally stabbing at the air with a remote control. During one interlude of zapping, he stops on an all-night newscast just in time to hear the tail end of a voice-over:
"…we think that Generation X, with their grunge clothing and slacker lifestyles, need a history lesson…"
As a '60s montage fills the screen, the guitarist practically jumps out of his chair, his face a mask of disgust. Then he lets fly with a withering Thayil soliloquy.
"Fuck you, you fortynothing, yuppie, baby-booming piece of shit!" says the guitarist in a booming voice. "They think they invented rock & roll and pop culture because all the advertising has been directed at them since they were little kids. 'Let's show them that we were there first.' Fuck you. Pop culture is just this nonstop nostalgia trip, epitomized by Oliver Stone and his understanding of the Vietnam War and Watergate and Kennedy and the fucking Doors. It's this constant daily reminder of what it was like. The Big Chill. It's pretty fucking irritating.
"There's millions and millions of people in their 40s who think they're so fucking special," Thayil goes on, gathering steam. "They're this ultimate white-bread, suburban, upper-middle-class group that were spoiled little fuckers as kids 'cause they were all children of Dr. Spock, and then they were stupid, stinky hippies, and then they were spoiled little yuppie materialists. Now they're all at the age where they produce films and news reports, and it's the same nostalgia trip with that. And we get their understanding of history. They're denying other age groups their own memories.
"All I've heard from them, ever since Kurt killed himself, is this nonstop criticism of Generation X. 'What's so great about Kurt Cobain?' Fuck you. They don't even understand their own heroes. They're the ones who think Joseph Campbell meant that religious choice is arbitrary. I don't think that's what Joseph Campbell was ever trying to say. He was trying to say that common themes were shared, regardless of culture or time. But the fucking Catholic-refugee, ex-hippie people interpret that as 'We're all equally valid, maaan — Catholicism's a real bummer because it's totally paternalistic and they spank you, so I'm gonna be a Buddhist now and eat rice and not hurt any cows.' That's the way they are. They just don't want to be reminded that they're old, fucking-fat and bald. They thought they could stay young forever by marketing Frosted Flakes to 40-year-olds. Yeah, well, admit it: You hit 40 or 50, and life's gone.
"Why are they so freaked out about Kurt Cobain?" says Thayil. "Because they don't understand his music, and they don't know who Kurt spoke to. It's just something they missed. It just went right by 'em."
Thayil leans back in his chair and sighs. "They thought they had a monopoly on rock & roll, and all of a sudden they realize they don't," he says. "It belongs to someone else now. But they just won't let it go."
Caller: Hi. I was wondering if you guys are planning to participate in Woodstock II.
Thayil: No, I don't think we're gonna do that. I think we'd much rather play for the twentysomethings than have to do a little nostalgia bit for the fortynothings.
Host: The impression I think everyone's getting is that Woodstock is going to be for the new generation of rock to do their own thing.
Thayil: Well, I hope the other bands have a lot of fun doing it.
Thayil and Shepherd are seated in a control room at Bad Animals — the Seattle studio where Soundgarden recorded Superunknown — fielding questions from their fans on Modern Rock Live, a call-in radio program. A few minutes ago, when the two walked into the studio, they weren't looking forward to the show. Shepherd was preoccupied with the repairs he could be doing at the old house he just bought, and Thayil was complaining that he was "too tired to be articulate." But once the calls began coming in, they rose to the occasion.
Caller: Hi, my question's for Ben. I wanted to know what things influence your bass playing and what type of training you had on bass?
Shepherd: Influences are Kim, Matt and Chris. And to tell you the truth, I started playing bass when I joined the band. The only way to play an instrument is to play it.
Host: How tall are you, Ben?
Shepherd: Tall enough to touch the ground, like Lincoln said.
Caller: Hi, I read somewhere that Chris apologized for having a penis, and I was just wondering how you guys felt about the surge of grrrl bands like Bikini Kill.
Shepherd: I'm glad people are making bands, I don't care what sex they are.
Caller: Hi, there. Actually, this is on everyone's mind: boxers or briefs?
Thayil: I think you'd want to ask Chris that.
Caller: Hi, I was wondering what you guys were planning on doing for your next single.
Thayil: We're planning on wearing boxers.
Shepherd: "The Day I Tried to Live."
Thayil: Yeah, "Day I Tried to Live." Sorry about that, it's my penis.
The next day, Cornell is standing on a bluff at Discovery Park, one of his favorite gateways, trying to convince me that taking a shortcut down a steep, 20-foot sand cliff is a preferable route to the beach below than the longer path through the woods.
"Come on, even my littlest dogs go down there," says Cornell. "You can't really fall. Don't you ever want to just tackle your phobias?"
After a few moments of haggling, Cornell relents and heads for the path. "You don't have to drive too far outside of Seattle to get away from that feeling of 'The city's getting smaller, and things are changing,'" he says a few minutes later as he reaches the beach. He sits down on a log and looks out at the water.
"It's just not the same old city," Cornell explains. "None of the places we played are really there anymore, and it's an entirely different scene now creatively. I don't see it as being nearly as vital."
Watching the community that spawned their band transform itself into a haven for opportunistic soundalikes may have been disheartening for Soundgarden, but in general, they seem to have accepted the homogenization of their hometown music scene as an inevitable development and made their peace with it. It's the way they've always dealt with the disappointments and obstacles they encounter as a band. Susan Silver says that it often seems to her that there's a black cloud following Soundgarden around — that they seemed to have had to work twice as hard as their peers for everything they've achieved. Yet, she says, she's continually reminded that they're the best sports she knows. To be sure, it's been a long haul.
Back in the early '80s, Cornell was kicking around in local Seattle bands as a drummer. One of six siblings whose parents split when he was 14, Cornell had always been an independent spirit. From the age of 6, he says, his parents never knew where he was. ("I would just get up in the morning, go outside and disappear for the whole day.") After his parents divorced, Cornell quit high school and took a full-time cook's job at a seafood restaurant to help his mom with the bills. After bad experiences with several local bands due to what he calls the "Let's play Billy Idol covers so we can buy cigarettes and pay the rent" ethic, Cornell was looking to start a band that "didn't allow its inability to support itself to dictate what it did creatively."
At the time, Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto (Soundgarden's original bassist) were living in Park Forest, Ill. Thayil's parents, emigrants from India, were both working students; the guitarist grew up in what he calls an "educated, not much money" middle-class household, a self-described "spacey" kid who was an avid reader — particularly, he says, when it came to "things that scared me."
"I'd pick up the newspaper," Thayil says, "and if it said ‘murder’ or ‘rape’ or ‘people tortured in Bangladesh’ or something, I'd read that. Then I'd go to my dad — 'What's guerrilla mean?' So from a pretty early age, I didn't have much faith in human nature." Thayil gravitated toward the music that reflected his skeptical view of the world, his taste leading him from Kiss to the Stooges and the MC5 and eventually to underground bands like Chrome and Pere Ubu. Meanwhile, he was teaching himself guitar, co-founding Park Forest's first punk band, an outfit called Zippy and His Vast Army of Pinheads, which mixed Ramones and Devo covers with originals like "If I Were a Bomb, I'd Explode in Your Face."
Thayil and Yamamoto moved to Seattle — where Thayil's family had lived until he was 5 — right after they graduated from high school in 1981. Yamamoto took a job, and Thayil enrolled in the University of Washington, where he would go on to earn a degree in philosophy. The two met Cornell after Yamamoto moved in with him, and after a few satisfactory jams, they began playing around town as a trio, Cornell doubling on drums and vocals. They named themselves after a pipe sculpture in Seattle's Sand Point, and Soundgarden was officially born in 1984.
The band added drummer Scott Sundquist to free Cornell up as front-man and contributed three tracks to Deep Six, a 1986 C/Z Records compilation (recently re-released by A & M) that was widely regarded as the catalyst of the Great Seattle A&R Stampede. Sundquist bowed out that same year, and Soundgarden persuaded Cameron — a transplant from San Diego who'd picked up his first pair of sticks at age 11 and who was drumming for Skin Yard at the time — to replace him.
Soundgarden went on to record two EPs on Sub Pop — 1987's Screaming Life and 1988's Fopp — before signing with SST to record their first full-length LP, 1988's Grammy-nominated Ultramega OK. Ultramega, a pastiche of psychedelia, blistering hardcore and wrecking-ball blooze wrapped up with odd tunings and time signatures, was a sonic fuck-you to the candy-ass poodlehead bands that were clogging the charts at the time, and the major labels that had been sniffing around Soundgarden since the band's Sub Pop releases began coming around in droves. In 1988, deciding to make the jump, Soundgarden signed with A&M. The first of the Seattle bands to sign with a major, Soundgarden drew a lot of criticism for the move — most of it from bands that would shortly wind up on majors themselves. Soundgarden finished recording their A & M debut, Louder Than Love, in January 1989 and then set off on a European tour supporting the earlier Ultramega OK.
"Those were the days when we all piled in a van and slept on the soundman's floor from any given club," says Cameron. "It was so hand to mouth. We just had to survive however we could. It was really fun, though. It was an adventure."
Not everyone in the band agreed. A few months before the release of Louder Than Love, Yamamoto, tired of the constant touring and wanting to return to school, announced he was leaving the group. Soundgarden did a subsequent tour in support of Louder Than Love with Jason Everman (briefly a member of Nirvana) filling in on bass, but Everman was politely shown the door as soon as the tour was over.
Shortly afterward, Soundgarden weathered another blow: the death of Mother Love Bone frontman Andy Wood, a close friend of the band's and a onetime roommate of Cornell's. (Cornell would pay tribute to Wood a year later with Temple of the Dog, a stunning 1991 album that also featured Cameron and members of Pearl Jam.)
Still in need of a bassist, the band recruited Shepherd, who'd come up on the local punk scene as a guitarist in hardcore bands like 600 School and March of Crimes. Shepherd's songwriting sensibility, equal parts Dead Kennedys and Hank Williams Sr. and first in evidence on 1991's Badmotorfinger, afforded Soundgarden more versatility than every before. (Hater, a side project recorded by Shepherd, Cameron and John McBain of Monster Magnet after Soundgarden finished their Lollapalooza '92 tour, was one of the best records released in 1993.)
Compared to Soundgarden's previous releases, Superunknown has just as much oddball bite, but it's easily the most cohesive record the band has ever made — from the first sassy opening riff of "Let Me Drown" to the low-slung, plodding swing of "Fell on Black Days"; from the bar-band caterwaul of the title track to the gear-grinding roar of "4th of July." Unlike its predecessor, Superunknown isn't and album that sets the hook after a few listens. It reels you in like a big, helpless trout the first time around.
"I guess it's a certain feeling you get when you listen to it," says Cameron. "We've experimented a lot with musical styles on our records in the past, but I never felt like we really nailed it as a whole. I guess it was just a matter of refinement."
"It's less blowhard," adds Thayil. "Especially with the vocals and guitars. There's more restraint."
Soundgarden have never been especially restrained when it comes to spewing out great clouds of woe, and the songs on Superunknown continue that tradition. The lyrics, written mostly by Cornell, are apocalyptic and gloomy, snapshots of a world going to hell and a psyche under siege. On "Black Hole Sun," Cornell proclaims that "times are gone for honest men." "Limo Wreck," an indictment of greed and elitism, offers the warning "When the whole thing comes crashing down, don't ask me why." On "4th of July," "Jesus tries to crack a smile/Beneath another shovel load." Not exactly ear candy for Norman Vincent Peale disciples.
"Chris' lyrics deal with inner struggles he's gone through, but a lot of people can relate to them," says Cameron. "I think the angst this generation is experiencing is very valid, and I think it's a pretty important change that this generation of bands is actually dealing with those issues. When the early '60s bands were singing about anything, it was shallow babble stuff about them and their pleasures."
Most of the parents of those who are buying Superunknown were raised in a less-threatening environment than their kids were. It's likely that they would see Cornell's lyrics as just so much doom-mongering muck. For their kids, though, Soundgarden's vision of life probably just seems an accurate — if slightly metaphorical — reflection of reality.
"Now more than ever, there's so much information young people have to sift through to finally arrive at some sense of their own identity," says Cornell. "I think there's gonna be more and more people who just give up hope. This is the first generation that can look at the mortality of the human race pretty realistically. It isn't H.G. Wells anymore. It's not 'Well, three or four generations from now, we might not have any fish.' It's 'We don't have any fish.' You can't throw a young person into this environment in this day and age without any support. But there seems to be so much less of that. I mean, that's the way I feel. I'm successful in what I do, but I don't really have a clue where I'm going or how I fit into the rest of society.
"I guess the music industry didn't predict that this generation of songwriters was going to plug in so accurately and so unanimously to the group of people who were buying records," Cornell adds. "To me, it makes perfect sense. It's a representation of the generation that wasn't being accurately represented."
Ironically, it's to the character trait with which that generation is most often defined and for which it is most often criticized — namely, a raging glass-is-half-empty outlook — that Soundgarden attribute their continued survival and success as a band.
"Even from the beginning, no one could be a worse critic than we were," says Cornell. "We've been suspicious of everything ever since we started. Our worst fears and nightmares about the industry and fans and the paparazzi were always worse than the reality. We were jaded and cynical before we even met each other. Probably to a fault. I honestly believe that even if we had been an overnight success, we still would've been able to deal with it better than a lot of people do."
It's late afternoon by the time Cornell makes his way out of the park; the sky is a brilliant, cloudless blue, and it's sunny and warm, one of those picture-perfect days that make you think of other picture-perfect days. I tell Cornell that one of my finest summer memories is of a few minutes during a sunny day in Central Park last year, when "Seasons," the beautiful acoustic song he contributed to the Singles soundtrack, was on my Walkman.
"Cool," says Cornell, taking in the view. "That's one reason I'm glad 'Black Hole Sun' will be out as a single this summer. 'Cause that's the time when people start thinking back about all of their other summers."
The singer ponders this for a moment, then laughs. "Maybe I could rename it 'Endless Black Hole Summer.'"