Back into the superunknown
Rock bands, if they do it right, can become part of a greater societal movement, hitting the zeitgeist and hoovering up fans like power-mad demons, subversive priests at the altar of the counterculture. Or something like that. The thing is, the members of the band themselves, unless they are conniving biz types, are often unwilling participants in the zeitgeist part. Whether they're the Beatles running for their lives from crazed teenyboppers or members of any band who were ever labeled "grunge" denying that they were, in fact, "grunge," the musicians just want to play music and sell records, regardless of what anyone — fans, press, the record label — tells them it all means. And to Chris Cornell, Soundgarden frontman extraordinaire, experiencing the pop-culture insanity of the early-'90s alternative explosion was . . . well, it was a phenomenon that, being on the inside, he wasn't privy to.
OUTSHONE Prior to 1991, “the year punk broke,” Cornell and Soundgarden were considered just a metal band, and not necessarily a marketable one at that.
"Soundgarden was actually pretty insular," says Cornell, on the eve of the "Songbook" solo tour that comes to Berklee this Saturday and will see him reworking songs from his entire discography (solo, Soundgarden, Audioslave, Temple of the Dog, and other odds and ends, just Cornell alone on stage with an acoustic guitar). "We had friends, and we were part of the 'scene,' but we weren't fixtures, as individuals, and you wouldn't find us at the clubs all the time. To us, we were a post-punk indie band, that was our influence, and that's where we were coming from. We thought, musically, that we were just different from anything else."
And he's right — Soundgarden didn't sound like anything else, perhaps because they rejected the Stooges-derived party-rock sound so prevalent in underground circles in favor of finding a way to bridge metal and post-punk sensibilities. In doing so, Soundgarden helped to popularize what came to be known at the time as an "alternative" to prevailing metal trends — "grunge."
Twenty years removed from its heyday, the G-word is far less incendiary and argument inducing. These days, it's generally understood as a misnomer for a then-burgeoning trend of underground bands who were (a) not averse to distortion pedals and (b) generating enough major-label sales that someone had to come up with a name for it. The process, though, was far from inevitable. "There was no concept or idea of major labels or radio airplay," Cornell explains, "because it didn't exist in the world that we knew as indie post-punk, which became alternative. 'Alternative' was a word that was used correctly at the beginning, which meant 'alternative to anything commercially viable,' and that's kind of what it was."