Forgive my instant reactions but I cannot help myself today.
I guess I was 11 or 12 when I first encountered the album Superunknown. I remember that my best friend’s older brother had this record kicking around in his room, and I just caught a glimpse of the album cover. The shapeless howl caked in saturated reds and blacks. It was like seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, or the first Terminator: I didn’t know what I was looking at or listening to. It was surreal and frightening and completely captivating.
And then I heard the music.
The walls of guitar flattened me. “Let Me Drown”–the opening notes of the song, a colossal drop-D riff, absolutely throttled me, the speed, the intensity and power of every fucking note–it simply refused to let go. “Spoonman”–the pounding, African-Middle Eastern groove pulled me in even deeper. I remember hearing the wall of rhythm section that is “My Wave.” I remember the bizarre detuned licks of “Head Down,” and the crushing grind of “4th of July” and “Mailman.” I remember the quiet stalk and eventual explosion of “Like Suicide.”
I remember being completely lost in the dynamics of each song, the ocean of tone, feeling like I was drowning in sound and it was the best thing I had even heard of physically felt in and between my ears; like all I wanted to do was play like that.
The voice. The voice that could lull you with pretty melodies and then turn on you in an instant, could sing gentle melodies and then unleash a norse-god howl from-the-mountaintops. Once you hear it, you can’t un-hear it; there’s no going back. Chris Cornell’s singing was both classic rock & roll, classic Robert Plant, and yet so much more intestinal.
The music hit me, and then did the lyrics; and the lyrics were lyrical. It wasn’t sex-and-girls-and-dumbstuff. It was lyrics about sadness and loneliness and anger and depression and the gamut of the human experience, the hard and dark stuff nobody enjoys talking about. The lyrics were fucking literate. I understood that right away, this wasn’t some dumbstuff rock & roll to be cool; this was rock & roll made by people who either could do, or wanted to do, nothing else, and were expressing it in a way–in this poetic, anti-macho, anti-posturing aesthetic–that, particularly when paired with the apocalyptic riffs, hit me like a jackhammer. There was no intellectual explanation for it, no need for lengthy critical unpackings–there was just this stuff that seemed to have shown up like the monolith out of Space Odyssey, and blasted its way into my consciousness.
I recall seeing the Black Hole Sun music video and to this day I rate it as one of my favorite films. The free-associative, dreamlike imagery, paired with this song that was at once pretty and bright and gloomy and sludgy–it was unlike anything I’d ever seen and I just found it mesmerizing. I kept listening. I kept waiting for MTV to play the video again, even though MTV wasn’t something I was supposed to watch–the entire act of engaging with Soundgarden as a band, as a style of music, felt dangerous and underground and contrabandy and also personal and intimate.
Eventually, I did try to “unpack” Soundgarden. I felt this deep, desperate need to know: who are these guys? How did they end up doing this? Technically, how did they do it? What gear did they use? What were they listening to?
These were the very early days of the mass-Internet and there wasn’t much information out there. The album art itself give nearly no details away. The entire band was an enigma to me. In the years since, I’ve unwound where Soundgarden came from–Motorhead, Sabbath, Zeppelin, Cream, the blues, even Moroccan music, “stoner” and “sludge” metal–but at the time, I was a pre-teen, an only child, basically a latchkey kid, with an acoustic guitar and homework and the mystery of this inordinately powerful, apparently inexplicable stuff.
Lead singer, guitar player, songwriter, poet, artist, professional who had a long, fascinating career full of hits and even some misses and a voice that sounded like a columns of rock being driven out from beneath the sea.
Gonna miss him.