Posts Tagged ‘grunge’


6 January 2010

As The P and I were turning the page on the New Year, word came trickling in from several friends that Soundgarden had reunited. This news ought to make me giddy as a schoolgirl – I’m grungy enough that I still wear a thrashed, ancient pair of Doc Martens to work every day, and as I’ve previously documented in this space, Soundgarden was one of my favorite bands of the 90’s. Their unexpected breakup in 1997 was a shocker that still kind of bugs me.

But a funny thing happened when I heard this particular bit of news – far from getting me excited, it left me feeling bitter and unsatisfied. I don’t begrudge them the opportunity to reunite and make a few bucks, but 13 years of this band’s lifecycle has washed away, and my bitterness has to do with all the music they didn’t make during that time. For those who haven’t seen them, I wish you a supremely enjoyable show, and hope Soundgarden delivers the Greatest Hits Revue of your dreams. But I saw them in concert three times, back in the days when they were on fire, and I have no intention of pushing my luck and possibly tarnishing good memories.

In its original 1997 article on the band’s breakup, Rolling Stone quoted an unnamed source (probably band manager Susan Silver) as saying that “the only thing keeping [lead singer] Chris [Cornell] from superstardom was that he was in a heavy-metal band. If he could somehow step out of it, he’s groomed for the mainstream.” It seems clear from that statement, as well as other clues, that Cornell wanted to move into the musical mainstream and become a superstar. Sadly, he and his handlers didn’t realize that the mainstream was moving towards Soundgarden, and 13 years later, Cornell is much less well known (and probably less well-regarded artistically) than he was during his grunge days. The surprising multi-platinum success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam led not only to the death of Kurt Cobain, but provided outsized commercial expectations that brought on the premature demise of Soundgarden and left the late-90’s field open to nu-metal suckdogs like Papa Roach and Nickelback.

In August of 2008, The Onion ran a hilarious article headlined “SOUNDGARDEN INADVERTENTLY REUNITES AT AREA CINNABON” that fooled a few of my friends into thinking the group was actually getting back together. But at that point, the members of the group had been sending off signals for more than a decade that they had no intention of doing any such thing.

Explaining why he was opposed to the idea of a reunion, Cornell told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2005 that “It’s almost like we sealed the lid and said, this is Soundgarden and this is its lifespan, and put it out there. And it looks really great to me. I think getting back together would take the lid off that and then could possibly change what… to me seems like the perfect lifespan of the band. I can’t think of any reason to mess with that.”

Me neither…

Listen: Jesus Christ Pose

Sonic Cool

26 August 2009

Sonic Cool by Joe S. Harrington

A few years back, someone created a cool diagram of the history of rock that was designed to look like the map for the London Underground subway. Sonic Cool, a 2002 book by Joe S. Harrington, functions much the same way – it’s a satisfying, thorough, point-to-point history of rock music. This dense, 500+ page tome connects the many dots between Elvis Presley and modern music, and while there are literally tons of books on the market that attempt to tell the story of Rock & Roll, Sonic Cool lays it all out as well as anything else written on the topic. In spite of my criticisms, this is a strong book that deserves serious recommendation.

First the good – Harrington writes in a breezy style, and he’s done a fine job of seamlessly connecting the many offshoots of rock history. He’s to be commended for not being afraid to back up and repeat certain points that are essential to multiple strains of Rock (The Stooges, MC5, and New York Dolls justifiably feature in many chapters). He also deserves a medal for his two sentence description of Rock & Roll, which alone trumps many volumes on the subject:

“The common denominator between both Blues and Country was the funky down-home quality that enabled one to let go of his/her emotions and not feel self-conscious about it. Elvis realized this, and it was through his realization that the synthesis of these two musical forms could finally take place (hence “Rock ‘n’ Roll”).”

Harrington’s no-holds-barred writing style is best exemplified by his entertaining description of Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson:

“A raving bearded satyr who looked like he hadn’t taken a bath in two months, his stage antics included leaping around the stage wearing a codpiece and honking on his massive flute. The most well known flautist in Rock, Anderson was also an outspoken detractor of other bands and a tireless promoter of himself. His air could be summed up in one word: pompous.”

But this book starts to run into trouble with the second half of its subtitle, The Life & Death Of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Because the history of rock has been written so many times, one can assume that Harrington was encouraged to put a unique twist on it: hence, in his opinion, rock “died” sometime around 2002. His reasons for this conclusion aren’t abundantly clear, but they seem to revolve around the rise of music videos, the triumph of style over substance in music, and the ascendence of Hip-Hop.

At any rate, he runs into the same problem as kooks who predict the end of the world – namely, what happens the day after the prediction, when the world is still turning, or rock is still going?? Much can be said about the troubles of the music industry, but nobody in their right mind thinks that rock is now dead. By wrapping his book around that conclusion, Harrington comes off as a doomsday crank, and dates his book in the worst possible way.

The same could be said about his tendency to project the worst bits of a musical genre on its audience. In particular, his ranting about Grunge and Generation X are the literary equivalent of foaming at the mouth. I’m squarely within the demographic of Gen X, and a lot of my fellow X’ers will probably be surprised to learn that we’re part of “a generation of self-loathing, doubt, and anxiety… a generation with low self esteem that aspired to nothingness.”

Even more reprehensible is Harrington’s conclusion, based on a woman’s comment that her grandmother owned a copy of Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’, that “Granny was a former coke whore who chain-smoked and spat venom.” If that’s the lone borderline racist comment in this book, it’s certainly not the only time that Harrington draws a reckless, sweeping generalization that’s based on questionable musical profiling.

Harrington is an astute music critic, but he stumbles when he tries to connect the history of music to larger events. For instance, his assertion that “The defeat of [George] McGovern in ’72 left a big scar on the collective psyche of the baby boomers” is a laughably unnecessary reach (Vietnam, yes – Kennedy assassinations, yes – McGovern? Please…). Thankfully, Sonic Cool overcomes its obvious flaws because it’s mostly dedicated to unraveling the absurd, complex, entertaining history of Rock.

Doubleshot Tuesday: Apple/Temple Of The Dog

16 June 2009

[Today: The Archduke of grunge…]

Mother Love Bone | Apple
Temple Of The Dog | Temple Of The Dog

The 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Karl Ludwig Joseph, heir to the Austrian throne, was a seemingly minor event that ended up leading to World War I. Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood was rock-n-roll’s version of Archduke Ferdinand. His heroin overdose on March 19th, 1990 didn’t cause even a slight ripple in the national music press, but it was the singular event that led to the popular explosion of grunge.

Wood’s roommate was Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell, who began writing songs dedicated to his deceased friend as part of his grieving process. When he began recording those songs, he recruited ex-Mother Love Bone guitarists Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard to play with him, along with a singer and guitarist – Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready – that Ament and Gossard had started playing with in the wake of Wood’s death. Cornell also included Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, who currently sits behind the kit for Pearl Jam, the group that Ament, Gossard, McCready and Vedder formed shortly after they played on Temple Of The Dog.

Vedder’s husky voice and daring stage antics helped bring grunge to an international audience, and it’s impossible to see the Seattle scene going nuclear without his presence. But if Andrew Wood hadn’t died in the spring of 1990, Ament and Gossard wouldn’t have been looking for a new lead singer, and Eddie Vedder might still be catching waves on his surf board in San Diego and working at the local Kinko’s. By all accounts Wood was a magnetic lead singer and engaging live performer, but Mother Love Bone’s version of hard rock leaned towards the hair metal of the 80’s, with a heaping helping of Glam Rock thrown in for good measure. In other words, it sounded little like the punchy, intense music that came to be known as grunge, and an awful lot like the 80’s hair metal that grunge was constantly contrasted with.

Temple Of The Dog however, was a harbinger of what was coming from Seattle. It preceded Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, and its best moments – including ‘Reach Down’ and ‘Pushin’ Forward Back’ – are as good as anything from those more celebrated albums. Cornell’s grief is painted all over lines like “I never wanted to write these words down for you/With the pages of phrases of the things we’ll never do” and it’s impossible to miss the sadness and sense of loss that comes from this album’s foundation in death. But if you listen close, you can hear the birth of something big as well.

Listen: Crown Of Thorns [Mother Love Bone]

Listen: Pushin’ Forward Back [Temple Of The Dog]

Listen: Stardog Champion [Mother Love Bone]

Listen: Reach Down [Temple Of The Dog]