By Tommy Hough
It's almost too much to bear upon hearing of the death of Chris Cornell.
If there was any musical reason for why I first visited Seattle and then came to make the city and the Pacific Northwest my home for several very intense, wonderful years, Soundgarden may have been it. Whatever it was that they had in the water there, I thought, I wanted some of it.
It may be hard to appreciate now, but before there was Nirvana, there was Soundgarden. Young as they were at the time, they became something of the elder statesmen of what came to be the Seattle scene. They were the first Seattle band I became aware of and sank my teeth into. From there it was a short move of the needle to Tad, Green River, and the entire Sub Pop catalogue.
While I initially missed their first couple of EPs, I first heard them via the cruddy-sounding (and just-remastered) Ultramega OK album, which didn’t even come out on Sub Pop, but on the Lawndale-based SST label. Like all Seattle bands of the era, they were rock, but there was punk urgency and metal appreciation in what were grooves – not poses. These guys liked rock for the bass-heavy, Sabbath-like guts, not the preening B.S. of Sunset Strip hair metal that was so insufferably in vogue at the time. They were different. They were weird. They thudded and sounded great loud.
Then came Louder Than Love. Being newly-signed to A&M Records, Soundgarden were now on a "major label," the first Seattle band of the era to do so. "Hands All Over" was about the Exxon Valdez oil spill instead of heavy petting. "Full On Kevin's Mom" was actually about getting it on with Kevin's mom. "Gun" was creepy, not swaggering. "Loud Love" was a sonic knockout.
Shortly after Louder Than Love came out, they were named the "ugliest band" by a teen magazine called Sassy. That might've been the coolest damn thing ever.
With that, I'd found my band.
I realize we're all getting older, and sometimes we lose friends along the way. Layne was something of an anticipated shock. But then we lost Prince last year at a young age. We lost Scott. Now we've lost Chris. At age 52, there’s nothing other than it being tremendously sad.
While Nirvana was the shooting star that I never saw live, Soundgarden was the band I didn't miss. Of all the Seattle bands, they were the one I saw the most. I first saw them at Bogart's in Cincinnati in the spring of 1990. I saw them again at Lollapalloza in 1991, and again in 1992, 1994 and 1996. The best Soundgarden show I saw was in 1994 for Superunknown, when they opened with "Jesus Christ Pose" and scared the "Spoonman" teenyboppers in the front row to death.
It's going to be a long time before I can hear "Say Hello to Heaven" again by Temple of the Dog, which Chris wrote for his late friend Andrew Wood, the mercurial singer of Motherlove Bone – and who died at such an ealy age it's criminal. Wood had an impact on the rest of Cornell's career, and "Say Hello to Heaven" was his touching tribute to him. Today, the song takes on new meaning.
And while I love "Birth Ritual" from the Singles soundtrack and "Room a Thousand Years Wide" from Badmotorfinger, the song I credit with turning me into an environmentalist was Soundgarden's cover of Black Sabbath's "Into the Void," with lyrics appropriated from Chief Sealth (Seattle)'s cautionary warning to white men of the mid-1800s about their callous attitude toward the environment. It came off a quickie EP they released on the heels of Badmotorfinger called SOMMS – which stands for Satan Oscillate My Metallic Sonatas.
Yeah, I'd found my band.
RIP Chris Cornell, 1964 – 2017.
A San Diego broadcast and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He ran as the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.