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Soundgarden: Rock's Heavy Alternative

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Soundgarden's "week off" is over, and Cornell can't hide out in the woods any more: He and his cohorts have a show to do. It's four in the afternoon, and not long ago, Soundgarden's van crossed the Canadian border, en route to a gig tonight with the Melvins at Vancouver's 1000-capacity Commodore Ballroom. Thayil is up front in the passenger seat, serving as copilot for the band's road manager. Cameron is listening to something on his Walkman. Shepherd and Cornell, sitting in the back of the van, have been amusing themselves with lighthearted debate on the preferred methods of suicide (hanging yourself is out, they decide, because it's a drag for the person who finds you) and what animals they would like to be (Shepherd thinks it might be kind of cool to be a shark). There has also been some discussion about what to record during an upcoming date with the Peel Sessions people. But for the most part, the four-hour ride has been quiet.

When the van pulls up to the rear entrance of the Commodore, the band is met by a welcoming committee of eight or ten fans who begin mewling to come in and watch the sound check. There is a moment of uneasy silence, the band members thinking of the autograph and photo session that will probably ensue if they consent. Thayil, peering out from beneath the hood of his sweat shirt like a fugitive, deftly passes the buck: "You have to ask our road manager." Cornell, loudly enough to be heard by the road manager but not by the fans, barks out, "No!" in an exaggerated Billy Goats Gruff voice. As the van moves slowly past the fans, Cornell continues in a broken-record monotone: "No! . . . No! . . . No! . . . "

Once the van is parked, Shepherd and Cameron depart to do some radio IDs at a station down the block. Cornell and Thayil stick around for a chat with a Canadian journalist. (One of her first questions, directed at Thayil, is "Why do you think hard rock is so male dominated?") After their interview is finished, the band members scatter for dinner; they return just before the doors of the hall open.

When the Melvins start their set, Shepherd is out front watching happily – and serving as a self-deputized anti-asshole patrol. At one point, a fan on the floor throws a cup of beer at the stage, and Shepherd, scowling, darts onto the floor like a hawk. He stands behind the fan for a good ten minutes, waiting for a repeat offense. But the rest of the Melvins' set – a pounding, grinding four-star affair, owing to leader Buzz Osborne's wigged-out charisma and the band's heavier-than-heavy approach – passes without further infraction.

By the time Soundgarden takes the stage, the Commodore is packed; within a few bars of the set opener, "Searching With My Good Eye Closed," the floor of the place is a roiling sea of bodies. When Soundgarden is truly in its element – something that seems to occur most often in halls of about this size – it is difficult to decide who to watch. Cornell spends much of his time during the band's sets rolling on the floor, climbing the lighting rigs and occasionally diving into the pit to bodysurf on the hands of the crowd. Thayil is more low-key; an antithesis to the typical guitar god, he is more substance than flash, an accomplished player who is content to let the sound speak for itself, without any of the usual posturing. Shepherd's unique approach is often just plain funny, so clearly is he in the grip of some sort of goofy possession and not in any conscious control of his actions. Though he rarely seems to miss a note, it's difficult at times to understand why: The bassist lurches around the stage in a tortured, half-crouched gait that leaves him looking like, at turns, a drunken tin soldier and some kind of giant, prehistoric B-movie spider. His bass, which hangs nearly to his knees, more often than not appears to be playing him. "Sometimes that's how it feels," he says with a shy smile, when asked about it.

Canadian fans are a bit more reserved than America's hey-everybody-look-at-me mosh-pit hams, but not much – and the set that unfolds, which includes songs from Screaming Life to the present, as well as the band's Sherman-tank reworking of Black Sabbath's "Into the Void" – is a sweaty, intense jaw-dropper. (Tomorrow, after the first of their homecoming gigs at Seattle's Paramount, Shepherd will be spied glumly shaking his head, bummed that the show didn't quite match the energy level of this one.)

Backstage after their set, the members of Soundgarden greet Sebastian Bach, who's dropped by after a local Skid Row gig; they hang around for about an hour before piling back into the van for the long drive home.

About an hour later, back in the U.S., they make a food-and-cigarettes stop at a 7-Eleven. While Thayil is inside, one of the store clerks, who looks to be in his late teens and appears to be rather looped, comes walking up to the van and peers through the front passenger window at Cornell.

"Oh, man, could I get you to sign this?" the kid says in an annoying nasal voice, offering up a scrap of paper. "You're fucking hot, man. You guys, Pearl Jam and fucking everybody. You're fucking hot, man."

The exhausted Cornell, signing the paper, hands it over, and the clerk staggers back into the store. It's quiet in the van.

"Chris," someone says after a few minutes.

Cornell turns around. "Yeah?"

"You're fucking hot, man."

Cornell, looking like he wants to kill, turns back to the front of the van without a word. A few minutes later, he is asleep, dreaming of a world where you can play all of your shows and record all of your records without ever leaving Foster Island, and where phrases like fucking hot have been stricken from the lexicon.

This story is from the July 9, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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