It all began with a tweet: “The 12 year break is over & school is back in session. Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again!” And with Chris Cornell’s statement – Soundgarden reunited. For one brief moment, I felt an adrenaline surge. I felt as if it was 1991-1994 again. Alice in Chains currently have a new record out. Pearl Jam does as well. It is as I have stepped off the time machine and I am in my late 20s and early 30s all over again.
To say that Grunge was a type of music is not quite true. In fact, it is utterly false. Grunge became a term for the Seattle Music Scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For each of the bands, there was no definitive sound. There was no definitive dress. There was nothing definitive between them except they were friends who played a lot of different types of music in one place – Seattle. The music itself was actually a mixture of punk music, metal, rock, and glam. It was a place where Black Flag met Black Sabbath. It is where punk met metal. Most people tend to focus on the flannel. Going back to John Fogerty and Neil Young, flannel had been an appropriate form of dress for rockers. But the Seattle scene was more about individual music than the flannel, the Doc Martens, or the long hair. What Seattle had that made it different from the music scene of the 1980s was it was not only loud, it was influential.
For most people, the Seattle scene started with Nirvana’s Nevermind and ended with Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994. But the Seattle music scene really began back in the mid 80s. Bands like the U-Men and the Melvins were the early forerunners of the scene. The music world began to take notice with the release of Deep Six on Sub Pop Records in 1986. This compilation CD featured The UMen, Green River, Malfunkshun, The Melvins and Skinyard. That same year saw the formation of Soundgarden and one year later, Alice in Chains and Nirvana both started up. Major labels began perusing the scene. Green River would break up. Soundgarden would release two EPs, Screaming Life and Fopp, sign to influential SST Records and release Ultramega OK. In 1989 Soundgarden would be the first to sign with a major label, A&M Records. Nirvana would record its debut, Bleach, for a little over $600. The resulting album propelled them to a contract with Geffen the next year. Green River’s split resulted in two bands in 1988 – Mudhoney with Green River frontman Mark Arm and former Green River guitarist Steve Turner. The other, Mother Love Bone, had Green River bassist Jeff Ament and guitarists Stone Gossard and Bruce Fairweather hooking up with Malfunkshun frontman Andrew Wood. In 1989 Mother Love Bone signed a major label deal with Polygram. Alice in Chains would sign with Columbia that same year.
While each band had its own style and influences, they all tended to play loud, distorted guitars, and lyrics filled with angst. In 1990. Mother Love Bone would record Apple, Soundgarden released Louder than Love, and Nirvana began its short courtship with Geffen while Alice in Chains released its first EP, We Die Young. However, all was shattered in the weeks before Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood died from a heroin overdose. The death shattered many including Wood’s room-mate, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Apple would be released a month after Wood’s death. Alice in Chains Facelift would come out that fall.
Cornell would record a tribute album with Gossard and Ament called Temple of the Dog. Goassard and Ament also would start up their third band together, Mookie Blaylock, with a singer recommended by former Chili Pepper drummer Jack Irons named Eddie Vedder out of San Diego. Along with Mike McCready and drummer Dave Krusen, Mookie Blaylock began performing around Seattle and would eventually change their name to Pearl Jam during the recording of the major label debut on Epic.
1991 saw the Seattle Scene explode. A little more than one year after the death of Andrew Wood saw Nirvana release its major label debut, Nevermind. With new drummer Dave Grohl on board, the sound of Nirvana, rooted in punk, exploded with energy and one single video blew everything up. The world turned its eyes on Seattle.
Over the next year, everything Seattle took over the record industry. Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger around the same time as Nevermind. It too sold well, not Nirvana well, but well none the less. Also released around the same time, Pearl Jam would release Ten and the Screaming Trees and Mudhoney would be taken along for the ride as well.
By the summer of 1992, the Seattle scene had totally reshaped the music world. The hair bands of the 1980s couldn’t sell a record and no longer could sell out an arena. For the Seattle bands, their own individuality made them unique. While Soundgarden was steeped in heavy metal lore, it was also experimental in its sounds and records in a way the other bands were not. Alice in Chains came from a dark place lyrically and the harmonies of Staley and Cantrell along with their sludgy sound would make them highly influential to bands like Godsmack. Nirvana revelled in its punk and alternative roots. Pearl Jam, out of all the bands, I do not think they knew what they were. Where as all the other bands had been together essentially for years, Pearl Jam was a baby and its growing pains over the next three years would be hashed out in the press.
By the time 1994 rolled around, the fame, the pressures of fame, and the inability to even breathe took its toll on all the bands. Mudhoney and other smaller bands had their crack at the national scene but faded back in to Seattle. Pearl Jam was imploding under the weight of fame, Ticketmaster and finding who they were as a band. They stopped making videos and doing interviews for most of 1993 and 1994. Soundgarden was getting ready for its biggest year yet and Alice in Chains were sinking into a pit of hell of which we must not speak. It all came to a crashing halt with the suicide of Nirvana singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain on April 8, 1994. Some felt the Seattle Music Scene died that day.
It was a devastating body blow. But the scene did not die. Nirvana would disband, Alice in Chains struggled through two more years of singer Layne Staley’s heroin and crack problems before going on “hiatus”. Soundgarden released Superunknown and shot to the stratosphere of Rock Gods. Pearl Jam continued making music. After a short rest in 1995 the band toured with idol Neil Young and emerged on the other side with No Code, an album of quiet songs along side punk influenced songs.
Soundgarden would break up in 1997 near the end of their tour for Down on the Upside. Alice in Chains was in retreat and Mudhoney and the Melvins were still going, but on a smaller scale – which is probably how they like it. But Pearl Jam kept going. Every couple of years they would release an album, tour, go away for a couple of years, come back, tour, suffer a tragedy, release 72 live albums at one time on one day, and keep touring. It has gotten to the point that Pearl Jam has become the Greatful Dead of the 21st century. Its loyal fans follow them not across the US but Europe and Australia as well.
Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell would go solo as would Chris Cornell for a while. Cornell would hook up with Rage Against the Machine trio of Wilk, Commerford, and Morello for a trio of albums as Audioslave before going solo again.
Starting in 2005, Jerry Cantrell began playing with former band mates Sean Kinney and Mike Inez at a few shows. Along with singer and guitarist William DuVall, Alice in Chians would later reform and release Black Gives Way to Blue in the fall of 2009. It has been a somewhat controversial release with many fans feeling that Layne Staley could not be replaced and it’s a besmirch upon the original work. Others feel the band was as much Cantrell’s vision. It is a very perplexing debate. My friend Dom stated this on Facebook,
[I have] “spent an inordinate amount of time listening to Black Gives Way to Blue since the day it came out. It has been far too many years since I have liked an album this much. Alice in Chains, your 4 1/2 albums have played such an amazing role in my life. I still have a picture with my Alice in Chains Rooster shirt when I was 13!”
I have mixed feelings about the record. While I like the songs and the sound, I think maybe it would have been best to call it something other than Alice in Chains. Unfortunately, many other bands have carried on after the deaths of members including The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Pretenders, and Metallica.
Also, Pearl Jam released a short action packed record in the fall of 2009. It finds the band playing with as much energy as ever and at the peak of their powers in the studio.
As for what the future holds for Soundgarden, I am not sure. Drummer Matt Cameron now has double duty since he has been the drummer for Pearl Jam for the last ten years. Will they record or just tour? Who knows. It will be interesting to find out.
As for me, I will be patient and not have any pretensions about the future. I just know this about the era. It has been the soundtrack to my adult life. Pearl Jam, along with Chris Whitley and Radiohead, have provided the music I have bought the last 15 years along with John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk. Music has just not been the same for me since nor for the public. If you look at the top of the album charts you will find them dominated by pop acts, American idols, and hip hop artists. It is unfortunate that rock music is not at the forefront of palette of America as it was during the heyday of the Seattle music scene. I thought the Rock Band or Guitar Hero games would help bring back rock but we will see.
VH1 Documentary on the Seattle Scene from the late 90s.