Chris Cornell’s sad and disturbing suicide last week prompted us to take a look at his musical career and the age of grunge. It seems like grunge music has taken on a historical image as a micro-genre of hard rock that came and went, never to be heard from again. The reality is, grunge was pop music in its time. Pearl Jam could sell out stadiums as easily as Taylor Swift does now. Grunge acts regularly had radio hits that charted in Billboards top 10, thus it was top 40 stations playing these songs, not just “alternative” rock radio. Perhaps this level of commercial success is what caused so much turmoil for the artists that made songs that were supposed to be anti-establishment. Drug addiction and suicide took the lead singers of a number of grunge bands including Mother Love Bone, Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and now Cornell, among others. We could spend a lot of time talking about why grunge became popular when it did and why it is no longer welcome in pop music history, but here we want to look back at the best of the era.
Many have said, both then and now, that the term “grunge music” was just a marketing tool, and lumping bands like Pearl Jam, more classic-rock influenced, and Nirvana, clearly punk-rock influenced, into one category was foolish. I think the connective thread was the thematic content of their songs – tapping into darker emotions of social isolation, depression, anger, despair, apathy, and anomie. The years of grunge music, roughly 1991-1995, were the most tumultuous of my life, so the themes of the music were a perfect companion to my own emotional state. Nearly every day I was cranking a grunge disc in my car, sometimes just enjoying the music and other times letting sadness boil away in an angry steam. As grunge acts faded, I turned to other hard rock bands like Godsmack, Tool and Disturbed to get my rage on, but it wasn’t the same. I’ll always be grateful to the Seattle bands for their emotional support during these years and the guidance they provided as I transitioned to adulthood.
Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
I still have a vivid memory of hearing this song for the first time. It was a Sunday night in the fall of 1991, watching MTV’s alternative music show 120 minutes, and the VJ announced the debut of this upcoming video, which he basically described as “and now for something completely different.” I was drawn in immediately by Cobain’s first guitar riff, and I loved it right away on first listen. This was a big musical awakening for me, as I was still living off the fumes of 80’s top 40, and the hardest rock in my collection was Def Leppard. It triggered something inside me, a feeling with roots of despair but leaves of rage. This song didn’t feel like rebellion, it felt like a rejection – a blatant middle finger to the whole thing. As a kid who every day felt the weight of the social caste structure of high school, only to find that it still existed in college and could be even worse in the adult workplace, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” told me to forget all that bullshit and start to feel comfortable in my own skin. Making it to number 6 on The Top 100, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” must have reached a lot of others in a similar way, although I’m sure there were an equal number of establishment assholes who just liked to crank it at frat house parties and head-bang. Regardless, it was the song heard round the world and the one that marked the crossover of grunge from the Seattle underground to the mainstream, for better or worse.
DJ: Great song, great video and it still holds up today. I had many of the same feelings myself. This song and movement opened me up to listening to harder music, which was a good thing.
Alice in Chains – Dirt (1992)
I have to be honest, I was a late Alice In Chains fan, and I did come to them, as many fans probably did, by way of their hit “Would” off the Singles movie soundtrack. Nevertheless, this album is amazing, and “Would” is far from my favorite track off of Dirt. The album starts with the one-two punch of “Them Bones” and “Dam That River”, both driven hard by the blistering sounds of guitarist and band founder Jerry Cantrell. While singer Layne Staley is usually credited with giving the band their unique sound, Cantrell deserves at least half the credit for the same. Listening to this album now, and how hard rock it is, it’s amazing that it reached number 6 on Billboard’s 200 in 1992. Obviously the more melodic and radio-friendly “Would” had a lot to do with that, in an age where you couldn’t just grab the single off of iTunes and had to buy the whole album, but four other songs also made it into the top 30: “Rooster”, “Them Bones”, “Angry Chair” and “Down in a Hole”. The song “Rooster” received a lot of attention for its lyrics, which were about Cantrell’s father and his experience in the Vietnam War. The 80’s tried their hardest to whitewash and bury the specter of Vietnam, but here we see a child of one of those vets coming of age, and revisiting the real legacy of the war (just like a few years later we’d see Platoon do on the big screen). “Got my pills ‘gainst mosquito death/ My buddy’s breathing his dying breath/ Oh God please, won’t you help me make it through?”. Staley’s vocals are a perfect match for the lyrics, and Cantrell shows that hex’s as much a musical storyteller on the guitar with the amp and distortion turned down. We’d see more of his quieter guitar work on the subsequent album Jar of Flies in 1994. Other songs on the album, like “Junkhead” with the chorus “What’s my drug of choice?/ Well, what have you got?” touched on drug addiction, specifically heroin, which, along with depression, Staley constantly struggled with and would go on to take his life in 2002.
DJ: Another great album, sorry I love “Would?”. This is another band that also doesn’t embrace the grunge label they connect themselves more with metal. A shame that Staley couldn’t keep it together.
Soundgarden – Superunknown (1994)
If you could wear out CD’s like cassettes, I would have had to buy at least 3 copies of this album. 1994 holds the dubious distinction as the worst of my life so far, which is not to say I’ve had an overly rough go of it, and this album was my constant companion and therapist during that time. You could call the commercial success of this album the high water mark of grunge, considering it debuted at number one on the Billboard 100 and sold 310,000 copies in its opening week. It’s impossible to imagine a hard rock album selling that well today. Soundgarden wasn’t even a mainstream band yet – nowhere near the popularity of Nirvana or Pearl Jam. Certainly, the single “Spoonman”, which had heavy MTV rotation weeks prior to the album release, helped stoke interest, and admittedly it was my gateway song to the band. I was drawn to the sonic layers of the song – a perfect rock cocktail of singing prowess, prominent guitars, a driving bass-line, and changing tempo drumming, along with that cool spoon-work. The musical compositions on Soundgarden’s tunes were as complex and detailed as Cornell’s poetry lyrics. “Spoonman”, along with the adopted surfer anthem “My Wave”, were the closest to upbeat “party tunes” on the disc, while the rest of the album had a much darker tone. That didn’t stop “Black Hole Sun”, with its doomsday yearnings for the sun to swallow up the Earth, to become their most enduring hit – perhaps due to its Beatles-influenced sound that made it the closest song to a ballad the band has ever done. While the lyrics did cover some grim areas like depression, alienation, drug use, and even suicide, I always felt it was done in a spirit of catharsis, not wallowing in self-pity or hopelessness. Somehow the music, led by Kim Thayil’s brilliant and underrated guitars, had a feeling of life affirmation if that makes any sense. Cornell also touched upon societal issues with the songs “Limo Wreck” and “The Day I Tried To Live”, which railed against the decadence of high society. When I finally got my first “real” job (non-retail) and was exposed to the vagaries of the corporate world, “Drown Me” and “Mailman” helped purge the work demons on my drive home. Finally, the final track “Like Suicide” always struck me as one of his poetic best, with lines like: “Bit down on the bullet now/Had a taste so sour, had to think of something sweet/Love’s like suicide/Safe outside my gilded cage/with an ounce of pain, I wield a ton of rage”.
I was disappointed when Soundgarden broke up after their subsequent album, but I enjoyed Cornell’s music with Audioslave and some of his solo work. Cornell and Soundgarden were known for their live performances, and the fact that they were in the middle of a reunion tour makes his sudden death even more heartbreaking. Unfortunately, he’s now added to my list of artists that I regret not making the time to see in concert.
DJ: I was not the big Soundgarden fan you were, I always loved “Outshined” and then after this album Down on the Upside brought me in. I do look back and realize how good they were and as we had mentioned previously deserve a spot alongside Pearl Jam and Nirvana in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I always hated the term “grunge” not sure what that even means. Do they have to be in Seattle, is it a type of sound, is a certain theme or the music, who knows? It’s guitar driven rock. I do know like yourself I too listened to a lot of this music during the early 90’s. This was our formative years, just a few years removed from high school and trying to navigate my way in the real world. There were some dark days, often more than good. The anger in some of this music surely helped. I still crank Soundgarden’s, “Blow Up the Outside World” when I am in a vile mood. Along with non-grunge act Rage Against the Machine and the pseudo-grunge band Smashing Pumpkins, these grunge bands were cranked in a grocery store nite crew on many a Saturday night and it fueled my feelings of the angst I had. This was hard to pick just three items, but want to give a shout out to Screaming Trees, who hit with “Nearly Lost You” and the brilliant “Dollar Bill”, the oft forgotten Candlebox who had two of my favorite grunge hits, the radio friendly “Far Behind” and the not so radio-friendly and bad ass “You” and supergroup Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike”.
Pearl Jam- Ten (1991)
After “Nevermind” this is the album that pushed grunge onto my playlists, I had still been listening to top 40, classic rock, and new wave. Back in the early 90’s I often bought CD’s after hearing one song (The Wonder Stuff, Baby Animals, The La’s), and often times resold them back to used record stores when I didn’t care for the whole disc. It wasn’t the best use of my money. Once in awhile I hit on one and Ten was one of those CDs. I heard “Alive” and I had to have that song. Almost every song is classic and recognizable. The singles “Alive”, “Even Flow” and “Jeremy” were great. “Jeremy” had the award-winning video, the song was about a boy who shot himself in front of his class, dark stuff. The lyrics on Ten are dark in general with themes of suicide, loneliness, homelessness, mental illness, depression, and murder. “Once”, “Why Go” and “Black” are also great tracks with “Black” showing a more mellow side of Pearl Jam. My all time favorite Pearl Jam song and a top 100 all time song for me is “Porch”, this song is so raw and explosive. Vedder said, “This song is about if you love someone, tell him/her.”. There is an interlude in the middle that when played live is longer. Eddie used to dive into crowds during it. Famously in the 1992 MTV Unplugged show, he used the time to write Pro-Choice on his arm and made up some lyrics about having the right to choose. It’s a great clip and so powerful(it’s included below). This is the only band that I went to a midnight release for when Vs. came out. I can’t say that I have liked much from them since but Ten is still great.
Bonus: See the live acoustic version of Porch below, it’s the hardest version of anything unplugged that I can remember. They also performed a blistering version on SNL in 1992.
MG: One of the all-time great albums and I played it to death during those years. I don’t know why, but I don’t listen to Pearl Jam like I still do Soundgarden. Maybe I just played their music too much and burned out. Good call on “Porch” – almost forgot about this tune.
Singles Original Motion Picture Soundtrack- (1992)
Here it is the “grunge” movie that cemented Seattle as the place where grunge was birthed. I loved this movie. Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgewick, Bridget Fonda (what happened to her?) and Matt Dillon, who looks like a rejected member of Pearl Jam. Just re-watched the trailer and it doesn’t look good. It looks embarrassing like they recently made the movie to recapture the 90’s and used every flannel-laced 90’s cliche they could find. Despite this, it was the soundtrack that was great then and holds up today. I have the cassette somewhere and I played it a ton, I really forgot how good this soundtrack is. Ironically one day after Chris Cornell’s passing, a 25th Anniversary Deluxe Version of this album was released. It captures a little bit of everything grunge. A couple things do stand out as not being grunge, two Paul Westerberg songs, which are great but are more pop than grunge, a Lovemongers(Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson) track and Seattle born Jimi Hendrix track. The rest is a who’s who. We got Alice in Chains with their hit and my favorite “Would?”. A great Mother Love Bone split track “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns”. The Smashing Pumpkins contributed “Drown” which is as strong as anything they have done. Pearl Jam has two tracks and both are solid, “Breath” and “State of Love and Trust”. I prefer “Breath” and honestly forgot this song existed. It’s gorgeous and ends with Vedder telling people there is much more than this, go see the world. The two standout songs from this album are this Chris Cornell/Soundgarden tunes. He goes solo on “Seasons” a more mellow Cornell and as always lyrically beautiful as he sings “Now I want to fly above the storm But you can’t grow feathers in the rain”. Soundgarden’s “Birth Ritual” starts slow but then the familiar guitars kick in along with Cornell’s voice and he just amps it up, such a powerful song.
Bonus: The newly released deluxe version adds another disc containing some live Alice in Chains, Citizen Dick, Mudhoney, more Paul Westerberg and a bunch more solo Chris Cornell.
MG: I never actually sat down and watched this whole film, and never had the soundtrack either, but know a lot of the songs. The whole flannel-wearing motif seemed silly, even at the time, like it was just another marketing tool – something that was stamped as “grunge” but was hardly the dress code of all these bands. There was a time when bands would have outfits or uniforms, but wearing flannel was just an incidental thing.
Can I pick a person? The grunge era gave us Dave Grohl and although Cobain’s death closed the chapter on Nirvana I am not sure that they would have stayed together for a long time. I suspect that Grohl would have branched out to other things, no matter what Nirvana did. But he did get his break in Nirvana and the Seattle music scene. His drumming on the Nirvana albums is just as important as the guitars. Grohl seems to be the most well-adjusted of the grunge stars. He is passionate about the music and knows what has come before him which allows him to perform in a boatload of super-groups and to sit in with artists like Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and Queens of the Stone Age. His band the Foo Fighters have had more success than any of the true grunge bands. Two of my favorites songs come from the Foo’s, “Learning to Fly” and “Everlong”. Both videos for these songs are creative and funny. It’s easy to like a guy that looks like he is having a good time and cares more about the music than the fame. He often does a lot of the work on the records, especially early on writing, singing, and playing a lot of the instruments. Seems lately there are not a lot of happy stories coming out of the grunge era bands but his success is one of them.
Bonus: Like Eddie Vedder who hails from Illinois (now I understand his Cubs obsession), Grohl is not from Seattle, he was born in Ohio and raised in Virginia.
MG: Good choice on Grohl. Some may call it sacrilege, but I actually prefer what he’s put out with The Foo Fighters to the Nirvana catalog, short as it is. I actually saw Grohl and Cornell as similar success stories, as they both seemed to be equally passionate about music and able to be successful in different ways after parting from their original bands. I saw some of the HBO music documentary Grohl directed called Sonic Highways. Pretty good stuff, especially if you love music – definitely worth checking out if it’s still available somewhere.