“Dolby’s 12 Days of Soundgarden: Day 9 (Tracing Grunge’s Lineage as a Style and Parsing and Evaluating Soundgarden’s Self-Ingratiation Therein)”

Well, here we are rounding a big turn in “Dolby’s 12 Days of Soundgarden,” with Indy 500 weekend approaching. It’s been a great experience and a sad experience simultaneously for me, the writer of this blog. The weather here in the Midwest has ceased its summer-like swampiness and assumed a cloudy coolness. The sadness, I think, hit me hardest around day six or seven, right in the middle. By now, I’m starting to look ahead. Compiling material for this site won’t be a problem. That never has been. I’m just starting to consider the whole condition of us Americans in 2017, as even this year begins to zoom by and disintegrate like dry leaves. The movie theaters fill up with cheap, manufactured drama. The news floods itself with tales of rapes and killings, and all the time, our lives are more and more immersed in technology.
In my life, which began in 1983, I’ve seen the rise and fall of entities for listening to music. Now, the vinyl record is on a significant comeback surge, having boosted its own sales by 53% by the end of 2016, compared with that time in 2015. In a way, vinyl was key to an authentic grunge experience: Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, to name just two, made a regular habit of doing vinyl-only pre-releases for albums like Vitalogy and Down on the Upside. I think with just being such a kid of the TV age, I don’t have an overwhelming preternatural hatred for digital sound. Growing up, I was wowed by much music itself from Blues Traveler to Hootie & the Blowfish to Sarah McLachlan, completely oblivious to sonic format. It seems to be a somewhat sophisticated issue, but as far as I can tell, seeing as a CD always implies digital sound, it follows that the DVD would as well, and since a significant anatomical overhaul wasn’t necessary in the television for the institution of DVD’s, but rather just an external “player,” I’m going to treat the situation as if sound has been digital, or at least compressed and pliable to the point of compromising spatial integrity, for some time now, in television.
You want to get the full Soundgarden experience? Try walking down a dormitory hallway in IU Bloomington past a room full of 10 cramped-in Freshmen smoking hookah at 11:30 pm to “Blow up the Outside World.” Try turning on South Bend’s 103.9 The Bear and rocking out to “Spoonman” or “My Wave,” probably the two most popular ‘garden tracks on there (although why “Burden in My Hand” isn’t one of these is beyond my cognition). To be honest, it’s got nothing to do with sound quality. It’s got everything to do with taking music seriously. Digital grunge is still better than analog country. It always had been and always will be. And not that Soundgarden couldn’t be funny too (see the voice-over with animal sounds introducing “Searching with My Good Eye Closed”), but just the same, you can tell people who take music seriously because they’re always pi**ed off. Hey, don’t look at me.
This post is about grunge. I come from a place where the weather is really crappy, so grunge naturally ingratiates itself to the general culture pretty easily. A typical song I will hear on the radio going to work in the morning is “No Excuses” by Alice in Chains. One time, substitute teaching at my old school, I fell in love with a senior girl. I went home for lunch and the first album I put on was Superunknown. I just had to feel that power, I guess. Then I listened to Wu-Tang every day for six months straight.
Oh yeah, grunge. It’s an oft-extolled, oft-derided mainstay of America which, nobody would argue, has infiltrated the rest of the world as well, maybe even more so than Delta Blues. Think of the SNL skit “Grunge Singer” which makes a cameo appearance in Hype!; think the late-‘90s pop singers’ dismissals of “heroin rock”; think David Fricke’s “Grunge, at its most belabored and clichéd, is a music aptly named” quip (whatever the he** that means). It’s cosmic wisdom, but it’s back-pocket cosmic wisdom to the point of granting people the idea that they own it, that they’re the size of it and not that it’s a force larger than life. Somehow, it seems, the buzzing of judgment and capitalism ended up prevailing, seeing as we’ve lost all these singers. Or, maybe they just weren’t made for longevity, what with their nasty heroin habits and noxious tendencies to live fully within given moments. It ended up spawning an entire wardrobe (flannel shirts and ripped jeans), but at its core, it still bespeaks a very specific musical style, which, you’ve gotta admit, is nothing short of amazing.
Surprisingly, this is a tenet we haven’t heard barked out too much in the past: grunge is in every way the functional opposite of New Wave. It’s not cute, it’s ugly. It’s not fast, it’s slow. It’s not synth-heavy, it’s guitar-heavy. It’s (ironically) not aesthetically oriented (horn-rimmed glasses, mustaches or starched khakis), it’s sonically oriented. Big, physical and brutal guitar sound is an absolute necessity. By the time of Dave Grohl, big, physical drum sound was a necessity as well (see Pearl Jam going through four different drummers following Grohl’s institution in Nirvana).
Part of the beauty of grunge is that it even defied prevailing convention, prevailing wisdom. Jack Endino’s got a great line in Hype!: “Yeah, we know loud rock music is dumb, but it’s fun.”
Somehow, New Wave wasn’t capturing the zeitgeist and had pretty much fizzled out by the late ’80s. Pop music wasn’t reflecting the anger of the general populace — this much is obviated by the explosive popularity of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the loudest song on Nevermind other than probably “Territorial Pi**ings.” To me, part of grunge’s beauty lies in its very popularity — the fact that I might turn on mainstream radio and hear the unplugged version of Alice in Chains’ “Got Me Wrong” or Nirvana’s “On a Plain.” It’s not hindered by its pervasion — in fact, this type of thing might even help it, because it funnels it through more geography-specific channels of culture.
I get that I’m writing a lot about Chris Cornell. I probably know of two bigger Soundgarden fans than myself in the world, with whom I’m directly acquainted. Interestingly, they both reside in Indianapolis (a city pertained to on Day 2 of D12DOS) and I am not friends with either anymore. So I’m hardly in a position, I guess, to play some Dr. Phil and say, well, kiddies, if this or that would have been different, than these lives of these artists might not have had to end prematurely. It’s entirely possible that what’s so alluring in these muses, that which brought us this timeless, invincible music such as grunge is when it’s truly great, is also what was so potently deadly within these minds, artistic or not (it’s probably the turn away of the mind from the artistic realm which did them in to be honest, especially seeing as Soundgarden really hasn’t been all that enjoyable since Down on the Upside).
Do we wanna rank the grunge bands? And if so, do we wanna do it in the obnoxious way of Nirvana is the best (Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994), Alice in Chains is second (Layne Staley flew the coop in 2002), Soundgarden is third (Chris Cornell expired in 2016) and Pearl Jam is fourth (that frat boy Eddie Vedder is still watching baseball and actually, like, talking to people, and crap). To me, Pearl Jam more than any of the others heavily channels classic rock. Eddie Vedder has gone publicly on record as an ardent fan of The Who, whereas we’ve all heard that famous line from Kurt Cobain: “Hope I die before I turn into Pete Townshend.” How any human being could hate The Who is entirely beyond me and now, truly, perhaps it’s possible that no one does.
Nirvana, for all their prestige and platitudes, you’ve gotta admit, has a pretty unique set of influences. Led Zeppelin and… The Raincoats? Aerosmith and… The Vaselines? The Beatles and… the Melvins? Yup, yup, yup, yup, yup and yup. Soundgarden? Those “rocker dudes” making that frat boy metal that Courtney Love would so object to, ascribing to it a sort of reverse-ad-hominem capacity for sociological wrongdoing? Certainly. Every single grunge band was influenced by Soundgarden, if only for the latter’s penchant for feeding the given band’s level of hate in their hearts (or more like jealousy). Soundgarden was included on Deep Six, as is documented in Hype!, undeniably the very first grunge record of all time, issued on Seattle’s ephemeral C/Z Records. They’re the only band on the compilation other than the Melvins (who got a lot of help from Nirvana) which would survive even into the ‘90s. The music is there: “Nothing to Say” takes the heavy metal of say Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times” and squalls it into an inferno of slowness — every bit a miraculous human attitude, as in the obstinate deliberation to enjoy music, to enjoy big, physical rock music to the fullest and so to stretch it out into six-minute epic songs (which you’d then go on to get with the likes of Queens of the Stone Age’s “The Sky is Falling”). It’s like Isaac Brock said: “Eyes need us to see.” Grunge needs us to play those guitars that slow, to sing that slow.
Green River, another band on the founding Deep Six, went on to disintegrate into Mother Love Bone, until singer of said band would OD hence spawning Pearl Jam and Mudhoney, respectively. These two bands then went in opposite directions: Pearl Jam, whether purposely or not (judging by that drum sound on Ten it was purposely) courted commercial success, and Mudhoney, for lack of a better explanation than simply propagating my own mad scientist thesis in this post, went on to perpetuate that quintessential sadistic grunge slowness. Remember, Superfuzz Bigmuff wasn’t an album proper. The band’s first true “album” was their self-titled from 1990 and “Come to Mind” is absolutely, positively supreme perfect grunge song in light of that exact style that gave birth to the whole geographical movement. It’s side B of grunge — the side that didn’t make radio, but even more closely encapsulates the culture than anything influenced by the Beatles possibly could have. “When Tomorrow Hits” is another such quintessential sleeper cell.
Soundgarden mastered this stylistic grunge centrality of obstinate slowness and desolation (see “The Day I Tried to Live”; “Mailman”) but they also had an ear for radio and melody (see “Fell on Black Days”; “Burden in My Hand”). Sometimes, it seems, the most invincible well-oiled machines in life are the exact ones which throw a rod, right on the final turn. Soundgarden will forever be my Titanic, in this regard. I will say, though, that perhaps the band focused excessively on studio technics and insufficiently on their live performance, which is shown in Hype! as lacking in tightness, variation, spontaneity and climax. Chris Cornell is one of those singers who wasn’t overly active as a player of an instrument, like Eddie Vedder, and you do sense a certain musical rift in that performance. The stylistic sitar forays of “Head Down” and “Half” come courtesy of Ben Shepherd, who would go on to form his own band Hater as well as Ten Commandos with Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan. Chris Cornell wasn’t quite the poet, and he wasn’t quite the musician. He**, he tried to live, one day, and couldn’t. He was, more than any other human being in history, the quintessential grunge singer (he** he even looks like Adam Sandler’s spoof subject), so for him to live so much longer than grunge did, in a way, is a miracle in its own right. But, as they say, the paint was irreversibly peeled from the walls. Ruby vroom in to music’s next destination.

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