Seattle’s Soundgarden are back in town Thursday and Friday nights doing something they first did back in the early 90’s: Playing TWO sold-out shows at Seattle’s historic Paramount Theater. I couldn’t be happier for them, but I have to confess a bit of bias… I go back a way with this band, almost to the beginning.
In the mid 80’s, in addition to playing in decidedly crappier bands and doing a radio show at the University of Washington’s KCMU, I ran sound mid-week when “punk” bands were allowed to play, at The Fabulous Rainbow Tavern, formerly located at the corner of 45th Street and I-5, right behind the notorious Room Nine House where I lived in the basement sometimes. For the first half of their set, singer Chris Cornell was also the band’s drummer. Before the show they had schlepped in a decidedly low-tech and ancient Shure P.A. system, suitable for your garden-variety (heh-heh) high school debate, but totally deficient for a rock and roll band. Chris wanted me to set it up in front of the club’s sizable sound system and put microphones on it. “It’ll sound totally distorted and cool”, Chris said at the time. I thought “No it won’t, it’ll sound like s***.”, but I went along…until about halfway through the first or second song, because I was right, wasn’t I? They didn’t need any b.s. effects, Chris Cornell was and is one of the best singers ever to pick up a microphone. At the time my own band Chemistry Set were heavily influenced by Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, The Byrds, and Athens Georgia band R.E. M., and about the most un-cool thing you could do in a Seattle nightclub was sound like Led Zeppelin…which is pretty much what the ‘Garden did, with a heavy dose of Black Sabbath thrown in with a pinch of Black Flag and god knows what else for punk-rock cred.
Halfway through the set drummer Cornell leaped from behind the kit, ripped off his shirt (to the delight of the ladies…he’s still one of rock’s foremost sex gods) and took over as lead vocalist, while a guy with a mustache (another totally uncool mid 80’s thing in Seattle) named Scott Sundquist took over on drums. They were pretty great, and my KCMU friend Jon Poneman who’d booked the show thought so too, because he told guitarist Kim Thayil he wanted to put up the dough for them to put out a record. Kim suggested he hook up with a guy he and then-bass player Hiro Yamamoto had moved here with from Chicagoland, a guy I had met a few years earlier at the Evergreen State College, Bruce Pavitt. Those two started a record label based on Bruce’s cassette-fanzine he’d been putting out, Sub-Pop. They would go on to make s***piles of money and dominate the world, but with only a single and two EP’s from Soundgarden.
Sundquist would quit shortly after the Rainbow show to avoid touring and be with his wife and new baby, to be replaced by one of the best drummers in the world, the Cornish College of the Arts trained Matt Cameron, who’d been playing in Skin Yard among other Seattle bands. Hiro Yamamoto didn’t cotton to touring much either, and quit in ’90 to finish his Masters in Physical Chemistry at Western Washington University in Bellingham (he still lives there, and still plays occasionally with his post-Soundgarden band Truly), to be replaced briefly by Jason Everman (who’d been booted from Nirvana) and then permanently by Bainbridge Island’s Ben Shepherd.
They recorded their first full-length, Ultramega OK, for California’s influential SST record label, and then, largely on their inclusion on a promotional cassette put together by my roomate KCMU music director Faith Henschel called “Bands That Will Make Money” (she included Chemistry Set, Feast, Room Nine, and several others which did not) sent out to major labels, and their brilliant cover of The Ohio Players Fopp, signed with A&M.
A few milestones along the way:
By 1990 they’d been nominated for a Grammy award for Best Metal Performance. They didn’t win, but would be nominated 7 more times, winning in ’95 for Spoonman and Black Hole Sun in ’95.
By 1991 they were the Axl Rose-selected opening band for Guns and Roses Use Your Illusion tour.
In 1995, I was lucky enough to be in Reading, England where Soundgarden were billed right behind Neil Young at the prestigious Reading Festival. Mudhoney, Courtney Love’s Hole, and Dave Grohl’s then brand-new Foo Fighters were also there that year, but interestingly the British were already growing weary of the Seattle sound, moving toward drum-machine oriented “techno” music… while the Brits were first digging Seattle, Americans were still listening to Cinderella, Poison, and Winger.
By 1996 they were headlining the Lollapalooza tour, but by 1997 they were done, tired of relentless touring and as Matt Cameron put it, they’d been “eaten up by the business”.
Chris Cornell moved away, starting the band Audioslave with former Rage Against the Machine members. Matt Cameron was drafted into Pearl Jam, and being probably the next-best drummer in North America next to Neil Peart, played on a solo album (My Favorite Headache) from Rush’s Geddy Lee while Neil went on a 60,000 mile motorcycle ride after the tragic deaths of his daughter and wife. Ben Shepherd played in several bands that never hit it quite so big (including Hater and Wellwater Conspiracy with Matt), and kept Soundgarden’s old practice space, the former Connie Swanson Travel Agency building on Aurora just up the hill from KZOK (we’d hear the bands from time to time, all quite excellent). I’d run into Kim Thayil at parties from time to time and ask what he was doing these days. The reply inevitably was “what the f*** do you mean ‘what am I doing? I’m retired!”
Lucky for us, especially considering the dismal state of current rock music, Soundgarden reformed two years ago and are back with a great new album King Animal , performing on David Letterman and Chris at the Inauguration of the President of the United States of America for god’s sake, and…finally… playing here at home!
If you’ve got Johnny Cash covering your songs, you’ve done something right.
And finally: Here’s a shot of the actual Sound Garden, from which the band took its name. It’s near the shore of Lake Washington at the Headquarters of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just North of Magnuson Park at the former Sand Point Naval Air Station.