The Band Got Back Together: A Soundgarden fangirl speaks

Here’s a new (hopefully) regular series, “Fangirl Confessional” where our writers wax poetic about their favorite band/tv show/sport/etc. We start with Laura Fletcher, who shares a fandom near and dear to my own heart, grunge legends Soundgarden, and her journey back down Fangirl Blvd. – KDC

In 1994 I was in middle school and just getting into alternative music—back when that was a new genre, and before everything between genres was dubbed indie1. I dabbled in lots of sounds in my pre-teen years, as most of us did, and I watched a lot of MTV. (Here I go sounding like an old curmudgeon on her porch shouting at clouds again, but that was when MTV lived up to its moniker, with ’round-the-clock music videos and related shows including my favorites Unplugged and 120 Minutes.)

Without snark, this was in many ways the golden age of MTV for those of us who like to rock.

In many ways I reminisce for that time, when irony wasn’t quite so thick and you could be really, really into stuff that you didn’t fully understand without recognizing your naiveté (or at least without taking too much credit away from yourself.)

Me? I got really, deeply, sincerely into Soundgarden—right before they split in 1996.

As I write this, I try to figure out why that band, why that connection. No doubt that I liked “Black Hole Sun,” and the symbol-laden lyrics and pop sensibility of their last two albums also contributed, and then they had a dramatic, headline-grabbing break-up…

Look at me, still saying “last” about albums even though the old boys have reunited. In November 2012 they released an album of new material, King Animal, and before that they wrote a new song for Marvel’s Avengers. So: not last. But still.

And that’s where my heart is stuck, like a broken record, or half-melted mix-tape: “But still!”


***

I was a late adopter to the Soundgarden fandom, but once I got going, I dug deep; even if my first CD was 1996′s Down on the Upside, by no accounts their best artistically or commercially, I listened the hell out of it and worked my way through the discography.

I’ll admit today that Upside is probably my favorite album, by Soundgarden or anybody. While I found much more cohesive and stirring albums since my teen years, this is the one about which I wrote a pseudo book reports (thanks to my strange Van Halen-obsessed high school English teacher, for that assignment—seriously). This is the Soundgarden I know best.

That much, I know, is normal nostalgia for music we liked when we were young. Liked, as in past tense. For me and Soundgarden, though, there’s more.

It’s not like I had any friends who shared my enthusiasm or even really respected me for it. We were a weird group of teens, often precocious and conscientiously “freaks,” so at least no one talked me out of it. Still, a true fangirl requires some kind of contact to let out all her feels and theories—and share awkward fan art.

For that I turned to the pre-millennial version of social networking: the listserv. Soundgarden adherents could be found on the SOMMS2 mailing list, dedicated to a surprisingly diverse fan base around the world and run by a particularly rabid, generous fan, Seth.

And now, somehow in retrospect, at a distance, what have you, it’s cool to like Soundgarden again. Yet, they haven’t really flattened out or toned themselves down for the mass media to get there. That’s why my fangirl heart fluttered at their reunion tour in 2011, their new album, and the tour that’s supporting it.

***

Let me make the necessary aside of pointing out how horrible some of Chris Cornell’s side projects have been. A moment of silence for the 2009, Timbaland-produced album Scream.

I’ve enjoyed several of Cornell’s non-Soundgarden songs, but he’s always been better when alchemically combined with the band: the nuclear-powered riff of Kim Thayil, the sludge-encrusted bass slung low in Ben Shepherd’s arms, and the similarly hyphenated smash-bang of Matt Cameron.

So that’s how I talk about music, by the way. I’m not schooled or even literate, really; I can’t read sheet music or tell you what chord something is. As I do with most other endeavors, I become intrigued, react emotionally, and then research why or how a thing has made me feel that way. I now have some idea about drop D tuning and 7/4 time signatures, thanks to this band.

I mean, come on, how fucking cheeky is it to hear a fabled rock musician—and a man of color in a pretty damn white industry—explain the outrageous tempos as a gambit to avoid commercial success, since if they had more songs in 4/4 “you could dance to them”? (That was Kim Thayil in Billboard magazine in 1996, y’all.)

My nerding out helped me discover the musical respect afforded to Soundgarden by the rock and critical elite. Take for example this rather glowing New York Times review of the band’s 2011 reunion tour, which followed on the heels of their 2010 reunion at Lollapalooza:

Soundgarden was an architect of grunge in the late 1980s and early ’90s, arriving at it by way of heavy metal’s blunt riffs, progressive rock’s irregular meters and a desolate, death-haunted outlook, often sounding like Led Zeppelin with a deep angst hangover. While Nirvana looked toward punk and Pearl Jam toward psychedelia, Soundgarden stayed sinewy and implacable. Even at its most tuneful—with its majestic 1994 hit “Black Hole Sun”—Soundgarden placed gaping spaces in its music, isolating the singer in torment and rage.

I can’t quite tell if what he says rings true for me because it’s glowing yet restrained, or just because he himself writes…like a fan. (A headbang of teenage respect to the singer’s “torment and rage” line, for example.)

Pareles does this more than once. In his review of King Animal, he gets all Yale-music-major on us for a bit, but most of his thoughts are raw and emotional, yet smart and giddy at the same time: Soundgarden’s sound is “moody, heaving, asymmetrical” and “stubbornly gnarled”; the lyrics project “morbid pessimism” even as they practice rare full-band collaboration that allows a listener rocking alone in her kitchen to hear “four musicians live in a room.” The final line of his review? “Soundgarden doesn’t advance beyond reclaiming its proven strengths on ‘King Animal,’ but those strengths are substantial.” HELL YES.

Simultaneously, that cheeky “we don’t wanna be rockstars” attitude endures. Kim Thayil noted in a Loudwire interview this month that one reason the band reunited was they were already talking about how to handle their catalog, especially since Soundgarden hadn’t had a web presence for 10 years. (Thayil also neatly sets aside “cash grab” reunion rumors, which I frankly believe, if you care.)

Soundgarden’s lack of reverence for themselves or their image is evident in their newest music video for “Crooked Steps.” I mean, just watch, since I hate to spoil it—it’s dryly hilarious since the guys maintain straight faces. Also, Ben Shepherd wears sunglasses, Matt Cameron a helmet. Yup.

Dare I say that this band can tease the fan out more than most, if you dip more than a toe in?

***

That transitions me well into my next step: conversion. Snuck up on you, didn’t I?

A major responsibility of the superfan is to spread the gospel to new potential acolytes (a fitting metaphor, given Cornell’s frequent use of Catholic imagery), and though my own recommendations of songs or albums may depend on the proto-fan’s tastes and willingness to listen to me yammer, allow me to present a few of my favorites from across the years.

“Non-State Actor” from King Animal delivers that true Soundgarden sound with brainy and quasi-lefty lyrics (by Cornell as well as Thayil, who worked with Shepherd on music—a collaboration never before tried, notably), Chris Cornell screaming them, and an unexplainable drum-driven tempo between verses.


“Burden in My Hand”
from Down on the Upside may exemplify the mid-’90s experimentalism that was beginning to break down not just Soundgarden itself, but all of alternative and grunge as the economy turned around and the fan base got 9-to-5 jobs and stopped going to shows. This song is also creepy as hell and the video sure as hell ages better than “Black Hole Sun.”

“Searching With My Good Eye Closed” from Badmotorfinger is a favorite at concerts, with its slow opening and sing-able chorus. The Fisher-Price-like background voice is not to be missed, since it exemplifies the band’s sense of humor and their willingness to point and laugh at metal bands’ references to Satan—even as they do it themselves. (That endearing self-awareness hasn’t gone away, evidenced by the opening song’s title on their new album: “Been Away Too Long.”)

“4th of July” from Superunknown shows off the deliciously gory guitar Soundgarden can combine with soaring vocals that are more atmospheric than literal. Plus, who doesn’t like a good apocalyptic tune, even if it did reportedly come out of a bad acid trip?

“Flower” from Ultramega OK, the band’s 1988 debut, may sound raw and prehistoric compared to their well produced later efforts, but like the Green Day song “She” from Dookie, this song is about a woman—without being about the singer’s relationship with her. I wouldn’t call it feminist, but it’s not objectifying either. The Sylvia Plath fangirl in me was stirred by this when I first heard it, and it still works for me.

***

This week I get to see Soundgarden live, for the second time, even though it requires a plane trip. As I listen back through their catalog and ponder what I should pack to wear to the concert, I think back to the countless hours of listening to them alone in my teenage bedroom…as well as attending my first Soundgarden concert in summer 2011 as a grown-ass woman.

At that concert, the band hadn’t definitively said they were recording or releasing new material, so they played bits of their back catalog. It was freaking great. At the time, my friend and I openly worried what would happen if they went back to the studio.

Obviously, this time around I expect new material with a fair sprinkling of classics, and I’m okay with that. Soundgarden isn’t about one album, or even one sound, not to me anyway. I should’ve realized that a band that puts “Big Dumb Sex” on a greatest hits album in 2010 isn’t going to roll over and die a couple years later.

They’re going to break their rusty cage and run. I’m cool with that.


1 I was quite surprised to see the term applied to Soundgarden in a recent Chicago Tribune interview of Chris Cornell before the upcoming Chicago shows. I don’t want to be pedantic, but “uber-indie post-punkers,” really?

2 The SOMMS list was named after a rare album of Badmotorfinger b-sides with an absurdly long palindrome for a title: Satan Oscillate My Metallic Sonatas. You’re welcome.

Comments

  1. We were a weird group of teens, often precocious and conscientiously “freaks,” so at least no one talked me out of it.

    Ugh, word. Exactly my experience in middle school and high school with my friend group.

    This is a fantastic feature! I look forward to future installments.

%d bloggers like this: