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Soundgarden: Rock’s Heavy Alternative

Is there life after Nirvana for the Seattle scene? These veterans of the Puget Sound may have an answer

chris cornell soundgarden

Chris Cornell of Soundgarden performs in the Netherlands.

Paul Bergen/Redferns

“I can remember hiding from my friends in here one time,” says Chris Cornell, stepping into a long, dark tunnel beneath an overpass that seems out of place in the wooded area he’s been walking through. “I crawled up in that crevice and waited until they went by.”

It’s pitch black as Soundgarden‘s charismatic frontman walks deeper into the woods, the treetops blocking out the moonlight. But Cornell’s customary stride – huge, clomping steps, the toes of his combat boots pointed slightly outward – makes him seem like he ought to be hacking down plants with a machete. It’s clear that he’s been on this path often. Soon he reaches a clearing and the bank of Lake Washington, a quiet stretch of water that filters into Lake Union and eventually – via a lock and the Puget Sound – into the Pacific. “You could get to Hawaii from right here if you wanted,” says Cornell proudly, sitting down on a boulder and pointing to a spot in the water. “You’d have to have a big boat, but you could do it if you had a big boat.”

It’s early March, and the members of Soundgarden are home in Seattle for a week. Cornell’s band mates are scattered around town tonight, but the singer, not up for anything energetic, has chosen to sneak away to this bird and plant sanctuary, known as Foster Island, and be interviewed in relative peace. At week’s end, Soundgarden will leave for London to headline a month-long theater tour. With a U.S. jaunt looming after that, followed by a European trek with Guns n’ Roses and Faith No More that will return the group to the States just in time to begin the Lollapalooza festival in July, this is probably the only time off the band will see until fall. But a show in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a pair of gigs at Seattle’s Paramount Theater will eat up the end of the week, and most of the group’s time until then will be spent with reporters – many of whom will prove obsessed with a topic the members of Soundgarden are weary of discussing.

In recent months, mainstream America has “discovered” Seattle, and Soundgarden’s quaint, folksy hometown has been war-torn by a cavalcade of A&R men with dollar signs in their eyes, out-of-town musicians hoping to be anointed on the city’s fertile soil and journalists hot on the trail of the Next Big Thing – most of whose hasty dispatches have compressed Seattle’s rich musical history into a superficial amalgam of coffee, beer, damp basements and flannel shirts.

“It’s just the way that people are perceiving the whole scene right now that gets kind of annoying,” says the band’s outgoing drummer, Matt Cameron. “They don’t understand the history of it or the importance of it. There’s this blind acceptance for any band from Seattle.”

Worse, a good many of the writers documenting the scene have suffered from historical amnesia. “The only time I get real miffed,” says Cameron, “is when people think of all the Seattle bands out of chronological order. We were one of the first ones to sign a major-label deal to come out of that amazingly fertile scene that peaked around ’86, ’87. And we were kind of the guinea pigs for what was going to happen with a lot of the other bands. And here we are – we’re still doing it. But they think that Nirvana‘s the first band from Seattle.”

Not that Cameron and his band mates begrudge Nirvana its rocket ride to the top of the charts. They are friendly with the band, expressing only pride and good wishes over Nirvana’s success.

Besides, having just begun to get a taste of mainstream acceptance and its privacy-gobbling side effects, the members of Soundgarden aren’t so sure they want it. All of them – and especially Cornell, who says he is prone to depression and admits to being something of a hermit – seem put off by the heightened-recognition factor. They also wonder if the intensity of their music might be diluted by mass exposure.

“Sometimes I feel like it’s cheapened by the process of spreading it so thin over such a wide area,” says the band’s bassist, Ben Shepherd. “People want to take so much, analyzing the lyrics and trying to figure out ‘Did you really mean that?’ or ‘You said that to me, didn’t you?’ That cheapens it. That makes it old. Sometimes it makes you feel like you’re living in a land of cows that just don’t think.”

Whether they would be comfortable standing in Nirvana’s shoes or not, it’s understandable that the members of Soundgarden – a band whose EPs on Sub Pop have been cited by Kurt Cobain as the reason Nirvana signed with the label to record Bleach – might find all this Seattle hysteria, with its bungled chronology, a little hard to take. Contrary to popular belief, Soundgarden didn’t just spring into existence after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” turned Seattle into a wanna-be stomping ground. They’ve been around a little longer than that. Eight years, three albums and two EPs longer, to be exact.

“There was a certain Trippy specialness, you know?” says Kim Thayil. It’s the day after Cornell’s trip to Foster Island, and Soundgarden’s amiable guitarist is piloting his beat-up van around Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood, outlining the band’s history and occasionally pointing out his old haunts. “You’d go check out all your friends, the guys in Green River and Skin Yard and the Melvins. . . . Now it’s like you’re on one end of the country, and they’re on the other. I really miss them. I used to be able to drive anywhere and see some friend of mine, hang out. Now every time I come home, I look around and go, ‘Fuck, who the hell are all these people, where’d they come from?'”

As best as anyone can tell, the seeds that would eventually become Soundgarden were sown in 1981, when Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto (who would serve as the band’s bassist until 1988), living in Park Forest, Illinois, and having kicked around in local bands for a few years, graduated from Rich East, an alternative high school. Wanting to continue their educations in a similar manner, the two set out for Olympia, Washington, planning to enroll at the progressive Evergreen State College. Unable to find jobs once they got to Olympia, and admiring the crop of bands that had sprung up in Seattle, where Thayil had lived until the age of five, they moved there instead. Thayil enrolled at the University of Washington, where he eventually earned a degree in philosophy.

Probably the earliest incarnation of Soundgarden was a short-lived cover band called the Shemps, which was founded by Thayil’s roommate, a guitarist named Matt Dentino. Cornell, then nineteen, had started out as a drummer, but he wanted more musical input than drummers were typically allowed. “I always figured I would just end up being such a good drummer that the best band in the world would ask me to be in it,” says Cornell. “I guess I lost that attitude pretty quick.” Deciding to try singing, Cornell answered Dentino’s vocalist-wanted ad. When Cornell joined the Shemps, Yamamoto was playing bass; he subsequently quit and was replaced by Thayil.

“When I met Chris,” says Thayil, “my first impression was that he was some guy who just got out of the navy or something. He had real short hair and was dressed real slick. He had a great voice – even though we were doing shitty material.” As Thayil tells it, Dentino was “obsessed with people who died,” and the Shemps’ repertoire consisted almost entirely of Doors, Hendrix, Otis Redding and Buddy Holly tunes. Their only original was a snappy Dentino composition called “Marilyn Monroe” (“We’re all looking for Marilyn Monroe/She’s just a girl that I could go for . . . “).

Cornell and Thayil often crossed paths with Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd around this time. Cameron was drumming in a band called Feedback, which would eventually evolve into Skin Yard, and Shepherd was the guitarist for a local hardcore outfit called March of Crimes. That band’s biggest claim to fame, says Shepherd, was a tape that sold a few copies in Finland. “And,” he adds, “we got to meet Jello Biafra [of the Dead Kennedys] because he liked our name.”

By 1984, the Shemps were history, and Cornell, looking to get away from a flaky roommate, had moved in with Yamamoto. “I was a drummer, and he was a bass player,” says Cornell, “so it was sort of like the law that we had to start a band.” After jamming around with a number of guitarists, the two invited Thayil into the fold. Christening themselves Soundgarden after a pipe sculpture in Seattle’s Sand Point that makes unearthly howling noises in the wind, the trio began gigging, Cornell doubling on drums and vocals. The band’s first show was with a New York band called Three Teens Kill Four; its second was with the Melvins and Hüsker Dü.

After enlisting drummer Scott Sundquist to free Cornell up for frontman duties, the band gigged around for a year, and in 1986, they began recording, contributing two songs – “Heretic” and “All Your Lies” – to a CZ Records compilation album called Deep Six, which also featured the Melvins, the U-Men, Skin Yard (with Matt Cameron), Malfunkshun and Green River. (Green River would eventually splinter into Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone, the latter fronted by Malfunkshun singer Andy Wood.) By most accounts, it was Deep Six that sent the first brigade of major-label A&R reps to Seattle in the Eighties.

Sundquist, who had a wife and kids, bowed out of Soundgarden the same year. After some prodding, Cornell, Thayil and Yamamoto lured Cameron away from Skin Yard, and the four began recording their first Sub Pop EP, 1987’s Screaming Life. They followed up in 1988 with a second EP, Fopp. Built around droning funk-metal and dub versions of the Ohio Players song, the EP foreshadowed Soundgarden’s bent for offbeat covers, the most shining recent example being a bone-crunching treatment of Devo‘s “Girl U Want.”

By this time, A&M had come a-courting, but the band members chose to stay on the indie circuit and sign with SST – home of the postpunk bands they idolized – to record their first full-length LP, 1988’s Grammy-nominated Ultramega OK. A&M’s persistence eventually won out, though, and the label signed them later that year.

Soundgarden began work on its A&M debut, Louder Than Love, in December of 1988. Just after the album’s release, in the fall of 1989, Yamamoto, who wanted to return to school, left the band. Left in a lurch, with a tour already booked, Soundgarden began auditioning bass players. Ben Shepherd was among those, who showed up, but though the band liked his style, he didn’t know the songs. Jason Everman, who did know them, got the gig. But after the tour, Everman (who had previously worn out his welcome with Nirvana in record time) was history. “Jason just didn’t work out,” says Thayil.

It was right around this time that Mother Love Bone singer Andy Wood – who had been friends with the members of Soundgarden and a onetime roommate of Cornell’s – died of an overdose.

“When Andy died,” remembers Thayil, “I started thinking how there was nobody like him. And Chris was thinking this. I remember we were drinking, and Chris goes, ‘I’ve been thinking about Ben a lot, because there’s something in his spirit that Andy had.’ We said, ‘You know, Ben is that kind of person – he’s just one, there’s just sort of one Ben.’ And we thought: ‘Jesus, it just makes sense to honor that kind of talent. Okay, let’s get Ben.'”

Shepherd joined Soundgarden in 1990, and his band mates say that his vast knowledge of music and skill as a writer have redefined the band. It’s also a safe bet that he keeps them fairly entertained. The bassist, who is tall and reed thin and carries himself with shoulders hunched and both hands jammed in his pockets, has the punk instinct written all over him, but his manner of speaking – softly, with a hint of a drawl and a tendency toward out-of-the-blue profundities – gives him the air of some seen-it-all storyteller type you might meet at the racetrack or running a pawnshop. “He has the soul of a true artist,” says Cameron. “He just has a unique approach to everything.”

The last two months of 1990 were spent recording Temple of the Dog, a stunning Andy Wood tribute album that was a collaboration between Cameron, Cornell (who wrote seven of the ten tracks), Mother Love Bone’s Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, and Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder of Gossard and Ament’s future band, Pearl Jam. By the spring of 1991, the members of Soundgarden were back in the studio, recording the Grammy-nominated Badmotorfinger, their most recent album. It was also their first to go gold – which is surprising if you consider the band’s history of critical acclaim, but not if you consider the music itself.

A&M Records’ Greatest Hits: Soundgarden, ‘Badmotorfinger’ and ‘Temple of the Dog’

“We don’t make pop records,” says Cameron, and he’s putting it lightly. While Nirvana’s songs are ridden with catchy Beatlesque hooks that make them more palatable for mainstream record buyers, Soundgarden’s material is far more esoteric. The songs are less structured – sometimes wending all over the place – and when Cornell strays from his sleepy baritone, his upper-register vocals can be bloodcurdling. With only a few exceptions (“Get on the Snake,” from Louder Than Love; “Outshined,” from Badmotorfinger), the band’s songs all occupy the span of the accessibility scale that stretches from “airplay, are you kidding?” to “maybe on a college station.” The songs range from plodding dirges (“Beyond the Wheel,” from Ultramega) to wrecking-ball blues (“Incessant Mace,” from Ultramega; “Holy Water,” from Badmotorfinger) to teeth-rattling hardcore (“Tears to Forget,” from Screaming Life, “Circle of Power,” from Ultramega). Then there are the songs best just described as “Soundgarden,” eccentric loners at the musical party. Most of the band’s releases contain a few, but Badmotorfinger has the lion’s share, among them the dreamy, mystical travelogues “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” and “Mind Riot”; “Jesus Christ Pose,” a track so assaultive and strobelike that listening to it makes you feel edgy; “Face Pollution,” a hardcore car chase with a mind-blowing pentatonic guitar break that ping-pongs all over the fretboard; and the majestic, grittily ceremonial “Somewhere,” which sounds like “Pomp and Circumstance” colliding with “Wild Thing.”

Soundgarden’s hooks aren’t the kind that play Sousa marches in your head all day if you hear them in the morning. Rather, they sneak up on you cat-burglar style, ethereal snippets of lullaby and mood-altering chord progressions that appear from nowhere and often disappear just as quickly.

Cornell’s lyrics, too, are probably an intellectual stretch for the typical MTV viewer. Although the pervading gloom and cynicism of Cornell’s writing provides a certain in-your-face aspect, what really sets Soundgarden apart is the singer’s flair for metaphor. Even on autobiographical material, Cornell keeps most of his cards up his sleeve: His songs are surreal word paintings, with a distinct visual quality that probably goes underappreciated by the let’s-party-dude set. “The hand of God’s got a ring about the size of Texas,” he sings on Screaming Life’s “Hand of God.” Badmotorfinger’s “Mind Riot” finds Cornell “tightrope walking in two-ton shoes.”

“That’s the way I like to read poetry or hear lyrics,” says Cornell. “Things that are really personal song after song are irritating. A lot of lyricists are that way: ‘Me, me, me. Me again. More me.’ I don’t think that a listener can necessarily relate to that.”

After eight years of recording, the members of Soundgarden are well aware that their music isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Their status as late bloomers in the mainstream-acceptance sweepstakes seems more a merit badge to them than anything else.

“There’s sort of an underdog mentality that helps you pull up your bootstraps when it feels like everyone’s against you and you’re saying, ‘Fuck you,'” says Cornell. “You know, ‘I’m different, I’m special, everyone hates me.’ That worked for us for years. We loved to play at shows where everyone would sit there with their arms folded; we really fed off that.

“I can’t say that we’re motivated by anything but achievement,” he continues. “And the achievement isn’t based on things like Grammy nominations or chart positions. It’s based on what we do musically and how we personally feel about it. Nothing could be worse for us, I think, than if we made what we thought was the worst record we’d made, and it ended up selling a lot. I think we’re all so self-conscious and prone to disillusionment that that would really make our lives hard as far as wanting to make another record after that.”

Cornell says the scenic, one-fan-at-a-time route is preferable for another reason: He and his band mates are more grounded for having adjusted to the limelight – and the mounting pressures – gradually.

“There’s never been a moment when we just woke up and were successful,” he says. “Even the fact that we just went gold – it wasn’t like we were popping bottles of champagne. I mean, it’s good to reach that point, and it seems like a really big accomplishment for the kind of band that we are. We’ve never changed the way we recorded, and I feel really fortunate. But this isn’t one of those situations where one day nobody knows who you are, and the next day you’ve sold a million records.”

“We’ve worked very hard to get where we are,” says Cameron. “And it’s been a very gradual thing. Once we get past that to where it might be a mass popular thing, we might hate it. And I’m not really in any hurry to get into that situation.”

“I was thinking, ‘Okay, is this gonna be some stupid domino thing, where people think that I’m hostile toward reporters in general, female journalists in specific?'”

Kim Thayil, relaxing in the living room of the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, a law student, is discussing Soundgarden’s disappointing showing recently in the Media Darlings Derby. It is fitting that Thayil address the issue, since he is the band member that has been most sorely plagued by it. In a recent Spin article, Thayil was described as “hostile,” “edgy,” “suspicious” and “petulant.” Worse, he unwittingly gave the impression of being a card-carrying sexist when, asked by the writer of the piece about hard rock’s being a “male-dominated subculture,” he replied with characteristic facetiousness, “As it should be – fuck, there’s plenty of waitress positions open.” Unfortunately, the writer thought he was serious.

There was also a nightmarish Sassy article, most of which was devoted to the band members’ girl-toy qualities and the rest given over to lurid detail about what “weenies” they were to interview. (The most face-saving aspects: Cornell, who was heard at one point muttering, “This reminds me of Spinal Tap,” and a piqued Thayil, who responded to yet another sexism-in-rock baiting with a philosophical lecture on the role that societal reward plays in dictating stereotypical male and female activities – and capped it with “My favorite color is red.”)

“We’ve done interviews for years, and we’ve had no problems,” says, Thayil. “Now all of a sudden, this weird sort of other world wants to know about us. When you’re used to communicating with certain kinds of writers and you’re used to being yourself, and then you get this whole different kind of animal that doesn’t understand you when you’re being yourself . . . It’s like, they’re trying to figure out about us, but they don’t even know what Sub Pop is.”

If the members of Soundgarden have occasionally come across as “weenies” in interview situations, it is probably because a few of them have wiseass tendencies that bubble to the surface when they are presented with less-than-challenging questions. (Asked by one reporter, “What was your reaction to getting the Guns n’ Roses tour?” a deadpan Thayil responded, “It wasn’t really any different from any other reaction. It was just kind of like ‘Oh.'”) And, although they are courteous when it’s warranted, they don’t bother to hide their contempt for reporters who insult them. “We’re not cartoon characters,” says Cameron. “I guess the audience that likes to read about rock bands tends to go for the ones that are more cartoony. I guess that makes better press than seeing some philosophical dissertation on art from a rock musician.”

The band members also harbor a distaste for the mainstream media’s influence on society in general – “The media is president,” says a disgusted Shepherd; “I’d rather watch people” – and for the effect that it has begun to have on their audience. On many nights during their tours supporting Guns n’ Roses and Skid Row, the fans of those bands sat woodenly through Soundgarden’s set, only to erupt into a frenzy when the band played its MTV hit “Outshined.”

“It made me hate the song,” says Shepherd, “’cause it means they’ve been watching too much TV.”

“That’s what happens in a society when music is exposed and hyped one song at a time,” says Cornell. “Whatever song they grab the ball and run with is the song they’re gonna remember you for. There are a few songs that sound like Soundgarden in a nutshell. I don’t think ‘Outshined’ is one of them, but that’s the one all the kids cheer for. You might play a song that you feel is the best thing you’ve done in a while, and it kind of falls on deaf ears; then you play that song half-heartedly, and they love it. It can be depressing if you let it.”

Though it’s disheartening for the band members to see fans responding to the song in their set that is least representative of their body of work, Cornell chooses to see Soundgarden’s growing audience within the mainstream as a challenge. “I don’t have that elitist attitude that I want to handpick the people that listen to my music,” he says. “And if something that I do artistically moves somebody that I wouldn’t necessarily like or get along with, I think that that’s great. Almost more so than somebody who’s gonna agree with me.”

What does he hope the band’s newer fans are getting from Soundgarden? “Well, what I hope they’re getting is that we’re an alternative to what people would like them to listen to, that they can believe in,” says Cornell. “And when I say believe in, I mean there’s not gonna be a time when we’re gonna be doing a Nike commercial or selling Coke to their parents because they bought the record.

“But what I know some fans get out of us,” he continues, “is like ‘Guys with long hair on television.’ And I think in terms of little girls showing up wearing body stockings and hanging out to meet the band – it’s not just girls, there are young guys who feel that way too – it doesn’t matter what you’re playing. Just the fact that you’re on MTV, that’s like this surreal transporter room into a world they can’t be a part of and they’re trying to get to. And in that case, we’re a completely interchangeable band. We could be anybody. And that’s too bad.”

The members of Soundgarden have little patience for glad-handing and picture taking – something they’ve been called upon to take part in more often of late – and it’s a safe bet that more than a few fans who’ve attempted to waylay them have come away with the impression that they’re grouches. “That’s how we come off sometimes with overzealous fans,” says Cameron. “We’re not the kind of band that will try to cater to everyone in our audience.”

Shepherd says that he tries to give fans the benefit of the doubt, but that there are times when he assumes a mantle of unapproachability to ward them off.

“It’s something to be denying people,” says the bassist. “When I was a kid, I’d stick up for the underdog; if I saw some kid sitting alone, I’d go talk to him. From that, I know people all over the place, from all different walks of life. Nowadays I’m meeting strangers all the time, and that’s a totally different ballgame.” With a tense laugh, he adds: “I know all the people I want to know, now. I don’t know if I want to meet any more people.”

Cornell thinks the band’s music should speak for itself. “If someone makes a great album or writes a great book or makes great paintings,” he says, “and you meet that person in a hotel lobby and that person is the biggest asshole you ever met in your life, that shouldn’t make you hate the book or the record or the painting.

“I don’t mind if someone who I don’t like likes my band,” he adds. “I think that’s good. But by the same token, I sure hope that they wouldn’t expect to have to like me to like my music. I can assure you that a lot of those people would not like me. And the larger the audience gets, the less chance there is of them liking me.”

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.


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