Oh My Virgin Ears!: Soundgarden's Superunknown

Oh My Virgin Ears!, Local Music
Gabe Pollak

Chris Cornell had been dead for two days when I heard his scream. A man in a Seahawks jersey was blasting “The Day I Tried to Live” within the walls of his beat-up Honda Accord, idling next to me at an intersection in Ballard. “Nice music,” I called over from my bike. The driver reached over and rolled down the window. “Too young,” he shouted, referring to Chris' loss. “Too many,” I replied, shaking my head like some grizzled verteran of the Seattle scene, as if I’d been around to witness the deaths of Andrew Wood, Scott Weiland, and Kurt Cobain.

He started to say something, but the light changed. I pedaled hard and caught him at the next stoplight. Apparently, a so-called friend had failed to tell him about a spontaneous Soundgarden and Screaming Trees show back in ’94, the year Superunknown, the former’s biggest commercial and critical success, came out. “Those were my favorite bands and he didn’t tell me until two days later,” he said. “I wanted to kick his ass!” The light turned green again. “You ever see them?” he shouted. I shook my head as the car sped away. Maybe I’d never catch up.

For the past two days, I’d been biking across the city, listening to Superunknown, and talking to people, trying to understand what the Soundgarden singer meant to them. I felt like a kid crashing a funeral. I didn’t know the singer personally as did some in the Seattle music community that birthed Soundgarden. I didn’t survive high school singing along to “Black Hole Sun,” like the lyrics were words from my own diary. When the band hit their peak, I was still in diapers. Even after moving to Seattle last year, Superunknown remained completely unknown to me. Yet, based on the hundreds gathered for KEXP’s impromptu memorial earlier that day, the explosion of social media eulogies from regional artists, and the flowers heaped at the base of Black Sun, a sculpture by Isamu Noguchi in Seattle's Volunteer Park rumored to have inspired Soundgarden’s biggest hit, I knew that Cornell’s suicide wounded a community that I felt a part of. I wanted to understand the pain of the people around me.

For many, I discovered, Cornell’s death meant the death of their childhood. It wasn’t just the music that mattered, but the memories. Most people my age didn’t have much to say. When I asked the usually well-versed barista at my favorite writing haunt if he’d played any of Chris Cornell’s music recently, he replied, “He was that singer, right?”

If I’m being honest, while Superunknown did sound exhilarating, it also seemed dated. I wanted to appreciate the soundtrack to the collective childhood of Generation X, but I didn’t feel it. The sound of Kim Thayil’s guitar did transport me to the early 1970s, but it kind of left me there. The classic rock influences seemed too obvious and dated. I could easily hear the psychedelic bridges of White Album-era Beatles, the electrified blues rock epics of Led Zeppelin, and the hellish head banging of Black Sabbath. With falling-down-a-well wailing vocals and panned cymbal experimentation, the production on the bridge of “Superunknown,” I felt, was straight out of Jimmy Page’s “Whole Lotta Love” playbook. But I knew the way I was experiencing the music wasn’t the only way. I needed to hear from others to better understand Superunknown.

A few minutes after I arrived at Black Sun in Volunteer Park, a woman sat down in the grass behind the giant, donut-shaped sculpture, corralling an antsy Shih-Poo into her lap. Her name was Niki, and her dog’s Wilson, I found out. Staring past the empty concrete reservoir below us, inhabited by a lone seagull, she seemed to scan the horizon for an answer to a question I had yet to ask. She had formed a unique bond to Superunknown, she told me, which came out shortly after the birth of her first child, when she was a young mother in Seattle. “It was the one album that would calm my baby when he was upset. We would keep it in the diaper bag, take it in the car, and send it with babysitters.” That child, she mentioned offhand, grew up to play guitar in a band I might have heard of. “His name is Ethan Ives and he plays in a band called Car Seat Headrest,” she said casually. “Do you know them?”

It was the most bizarre of coincidences. Like Soundgarden, Car Seat Headrest, who played the opening of KEXP’s Gathering Space last year, are now performing for global audiences. We talked about parallels between Soundgarden and Car Seat Headrest and more about her son’s guitar work. She paused: “It just makes me think of mothers who lose their kids,” she said. She had lost two family members to suicide in the last two years, an aunt and a 15-year-old cousin. Behind us, a bespectacled man sat on the back of the sculpture and talked to his friend about missing '90s video game aesthetics. As Wilson barked at other dogs passing by, Niki chuckled: “I need a Superunknown for my dog.”

Although I tried, I couldn’t imagine Superunknown lulling anyone to sleep. It definitely didn’t comfort me. The songs were nightmares, I thought, not nursery rhymes. The topics were as dark as the music was disfigured. Devils, snakes, and lonely people populate the world of Superunknown, and if I referred to “the one praying for the end of the world,” you’d have to ask which single I was talking about. Musically, whether startlingly spare -- “Fell on Black Days” or “Like Suicide” -- or roaring to life -- “Let Me Drown” or “Superunknown” -- most songs climax with Cornell's howling and Kim Thayil’s guitar screeching.

“Head Down”, though, begins with a tiny dose of twang. Drummer Matthew Cameron slaps a lazy rhythm on whatever was lying around in the studio at the time. For a few idle moments, the music sounds leisurely. This mood lasts exactly eight seconds and then collapses completely when Cornell begins to sing “I see that smile on your face” in an eerie falsetto. The way Cornell sneers the line, it seems no simple observation. There’s also an implied threat: I see that smile on your face... It’d be a shame if something were to happen to it. By the second verse, there's a sense of joy in getting everyone’s attention -- “We see that smile on your face” -- and by the third verse, it has become a punishable offense: “We see you laugh. We see you dance. We take that away every day.” The chorus gives resigned advice for those wishing to survive the dark landscape: “Head down. Hide that smile.” Picture a kid walking down a high school hallway, begging not to get slammed into a locker. Yet, the words of the chorus change the second time around. As one of Cornell’s two vocal tracks rises to another register, like a plane breaking through the clouds, the message of the song becomes clear: “Head high. You’ve got to smile.” Despite first appearances, the song is less a threat and more a warning. The singer won’t steal your soul, but if you don’t watch your back, someone else will.

Back at the bar, a hand landed on my shoulder. I turned around to see the face. “Are you the guy writing the article?” it asked. Inside it was dark and I couldn’t read the man’s expression. I glanced at the doorman, who I assume had tipped him off to the intrusive journalist in their midst. He was, of course, looking the other way. I gulped, anticipating anger and hurt, someone demanding to know what right I had asking people questions at such a sensitive time for everyone. I began frantically composing an apology in my head, about how I was sorry, how I just wanted to try to understand, to pay tribute to the music --- but he just wanted to talk. I sighed. His name was Joey and he was a big time Soundgarden fan, but an even bigger fan of Chris Cornell, whom he first saw at the Roseland Ballroom in New York during Audioslave’s first tour. “I did not think Audioslave was a good idea at the time, but when I saw him, I was floored,” he said. “He sounds the same way he does on CD,” which is to say: “fucking amazing.”

“It was this old ballroom, and you could feel the walls shake when he sang,” he told me. As he talked more, his head shook slightly, mimicking the tremble in his voice. Towards the end of our conversation, he trailed off. “There were so many late nights where...” His eyes darted to the ceiling, trying to decide if he could trust a stranger with his story, and then back to mine, scanning for an answer. While I’d been trying not to think about it since my first listen to Superunknown, I knew exactly what he meant. This was the real reason I rejected the music. Because the truth was, the second Cornell sang the last word on the album -- “suicide” -- images and sounds of the depression that runs in my family rushed in, replacing the thrill of listening to the album for the first time.

I saw a friend sitting on a stone bench in the middle of the Quad, playing his guitar and screaming Richard Hell covers as onlookers stumbled to and from class. I remembered how the listens on his SoundCloud doubled after he died from addiction and mental illness during the winter of freshman year. I heard the soft trill of my aunt’s flute, the one she didn’t touch for months after dropping out of music school, cutting her hair short, and getting admitted to a hospital. Her college roommate never understood why she couldn’t just get out of bed. I remembered every phone call: the one to the suicide hotline as I stood on a balcony when I was 15, the one to that same aunt, standing alone in an empty field when I was 21, and the one to the pharmacy I needed to convince to refill my Seralex, a family favorite.

I thought about something else Joey told me: “That guy inspired me. Actually with his music he inspired me want to be a better person. I've never had a musician that I like that made me want to be better.” I wanted to give the album another chance, to hear what Joey heard.

I returned to Black Sun to meet Claudio. His earbuds were in and he was listening to Superunknown. As his kid rolled down the hill, he told me about growing up in Chilé. “It was ‘94 and I was 14,” he said. “I remember being in my brother’s room and [he had this] fucking huge stereo. I didn’t have the tapes, so I would have to wait for [Soundgarden] to come on the radio. But it was pretty often.” He continued, “I couldn’t afford headphones, so I put my head like this,” he said, looking down and putting his arms out on each side of his ears to simulate a pair of speakers, “and I’d listen to ‘Black Hole Sun.’ It was the first time I made the connection to listening to music in a different way.” He looked at me. “You know what I mean?”

This is how I ended up kneeling in my apartment, my forehead down, my ears perfectly perpendicular to my speakers, almost as if I were bowing to them. I needed to give Superunknown one more chance. I pressed play. The sound of the album’s last song, “Like Suicide,” increased. Cameron roamed his set, beating different toms, subdued for a moment, while bassist Ben Shepard plotted a low and steady bass line. Thayil bulked up the distortion and Cameron indulged a few monster fills. The song got heavy. I felt my forehead touch the table. If I’d opened my eyes, I would have seen the white of the table’s surface staring back at me, nearly scraping the lenses of my glasses.

The music sounded the same. I didn’t feel anything new. I was as frustrated as I was before that I couldn’t understand, couldn’t connect. I wanted to give up. But then - and this may sound contrived, but it really happened this way - I heard Cornell, centered in the mix, like I had never heard him before, directly in between my ears. “I feel for you,” he sang, and the scream entered my mind. The passion of his voice, and the empathy of the message it conveyed, scattered the harmful thoughts that usually dwell there, like ants fleeing a footfall. It was such a simple line, yet so powerful. How often do you hear someone say that they feel for you and really believe it?

I stayed bent over like that, in a kind of bow to the speakers, for two and a half minutes, wanting to receive the full message of “Like Suicide,” the last on Superunknown. The beat straightened out and Cornell sang the line again and again, until the triumphant chaos of another guitar solo overtook him completely. He was singing about a bird he’d euthanized with a brick, but I felt then like he was singing to me, my friends, my family, and all the people I’d met that weekend. For the first time, I heard Superunknown.

If you, or someone you know, are in need of someone to talk to, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You are not alone.

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