Chris Cornell 'Spoonman' History: Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament Inspired Song - Rolling Stone
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Flashback: Chris Cornell Writes ‘Spoonman’ Based on a Fake ‘Singles’ Tape

As Soundgarden’s ‘Superunkown’ turns 25, we look back at the unlikely origins of its Grammy-winning first single

In a deleted scene from Cameron Crowe’s grunge-steeped 1992 rom com Singles, Matt Dillon’s character, Cliff Poncier, busks on a Seattle street. A friend walks by and asks him what happened to his band, Citizen Dick. “They didn’t get it; they weren’t with the program,” the dudely, long-haired singer-songwriter says. “But I’m solo now — I’m doing some really, really interesting things.”

At that point, he reaches down and grabs a homemade demo tape from a box. “That’s my latest,” he says of the cassette, adorned with his silhouette and simply titled Poncier. “They’re playing that record in France.”

At the time, Poncier wasn’t real, but the fictional tape — the brainchild of Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament — served as the inspiration for “Spoonman,” a future classic by Soundgarden, one of the bands featured in the film.

“The idea was that Matt Dillon’s character, Cliff Poncier, in the course of the movie, he loses his band, and he loses his girlfriend, and he gains soul,” Crowe told Rolling Stone of the origins of the Poncier tape “So, there’s a period where he’s on a street corner busking, having lost his band, but beginning his solo career. And there would be, in reality, these guys standing on the corner outside the clubs in Seattle hawking their solo cassettes. So we wanted Cliff Poncier to have his own solo cassette. And Jeff Ament, in classic style, designed this cassette cover and wrote out these fictitious song names for the cassette.

“And Chris Cornell was another guy who was close to us when we were making the record and still is a good friend,” Crowe continued. “I really loved Soundgarden; they were my favorite band. I originally thought Chris could play the lead, but then I think that turned into too big of a commitment for everybody and so he became the guy he is in the movie, but in the course of making the movie he was close to all of us. He was always around.

“Anyway, Jeff Ament had designed this solo cassette which we thought was hilarious because it had all of these cool song titles like ‘Flutter Girl,” and ‘Spoonman,’ and just like a really true-type ‘I’ve lost my band, and now I’m a soulful guy — these are my songs now’ feeling. So we loved that Jeff had played out the fictitious life of Cliff Poncier. And one night, I stayed home, and Nancy [Wilson], we were then married, she went out to a club, and she came back home, and she said, ‘Man, I met this guy, and he was selling solo cassettes, and so I got one for you.’ And she hands me the Cliff Poncier cassette. And I was like, ‘That’s funny, haha.’ And then she said, ‘You should listen to it.’ So I put on the cassette. And holy shit, this is Chris Cornell, as Cliff Poncier, recording all of these songs, with lyrics, and total creative vision, and he has recorded the entire fake, solo cassette.”

“I felt like these titles were brilliant,” Cornell told Rolling Stone of the tape in 2014. “They inspired me. I never would have written [‘Spoonman’] or the other four songs that were part of that if the titles weren’t compelling.”

Cornell’s solo version of “Spoonman,” listed on the tape as “Spoon Man,” appeared in the film and was released at the time on a promo CD. (The entire Poncier EP was reissued in 2017 on the deluxe edition of the Singles soundtrack, and also later came out as a stand-alone Record Store Day exclusive.) Soundgarden’s brawny version of the song would become the first single from the band’s fourth LP, Superunknown, which turns 25 today.

Ament’s original title was inspired by the Seattle street performer Artis the Spoonman, known for playing percussion with spoons. Cornell’s lyrics delved further into Artis’ persona, and the real-life Spoon Man would be featured on the song itself as well as in the video.

“It’s more about the paradox of who he is and what people perceive him as,” Cornell said of the song in a 1994 interview. “He’s a street musician, but when he’s playing on the street, he is given a value and judged completely wrong by someone else. They think he’s a street person, or he’s doing this because he can’t hold down a regular job. They put him a few pegs down on the social ladder because of how they perceive someone who dresses differently.”

Cornell also later credited Artis for inspiring his career as a solo singer-songwriter.

“He also changed my life in that the only thing I do outside of Soundgarden is this one-man acoustic show that I tour with,” he told Rolling Stone. “He was a big inspiration for me that anyone can do that. I remember sitting in a room, probably with eight or 10 people, and he walked in with his leather satchel he always carries with him and took out spoons. Everyone’s jaw dropped. I thought, ‘It’s amazing this guy performs at festivals, fairs and street corners.’ This guy can walk into a room and get a reaction. Suddenly, I felt embarrassed and smaller, ’cause I felt like I call myself a singer, a songwriter, a musician, and I’ve sold millions of records and toured the world, but I can’t do what he can. I can’t just walk into a room and pick up an instrument and perform and entertain everyone and their jaws drop. So that stuck in the back of my mind, and at some point I started to pursue that. He was the main inspiration for that.”

The song would make it to Number Three on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and win the 1995 Grammy for Best Metal Performance. The band performed it hundreds of times, including at Cornell’s final show in Detroit on May 17th, 2017.

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