It’s the middle of a mid-March afternoon, and Soundgarden singer/guitarist Chris Cornell and I have fallen on gray days. There’s a heaviness to the air outside as we zip north at 65 mph on Interstate 5 — Seattle having receded in our rearview mirror some time ago — and the sky is the color of dingy sweat socks. Above us the sun is not quite worthy of black-hole status, bright enough to merit shaded but hardly blazing. To the west the Olympic Mountain range rims the sky, with the Pacific coast hiding somewhere beyond that, over the hills and far away; on the eastern horizon sit the Cascade Mountains, with the 10,000-plus-foot hump of Mt. Baker visible through the haze.
At the wheel, Cornell apologizes for the less-than-pristine view. “If you see it the way it can be, it’s just insane,” he says, waving his hand at the somewhat subdued natural wonders around us. “Seattle’s going to start sprawling, and all this pretty land is going to be mini-mall land, just like L.A. Here you can drive 30 minutes in any direction and be at the mountains or on the water or in the country. If you did that in L.A. you’d still be in L.A.”
When he was 17, Cornell and his buddies would pile into a vehicle on the weekend and make a similar journey on I-5 north 145 miles to Vancouver, British Columbia, to take advantage of the Canadian province’s lower drinking age. They’d stay awake partying for three days straight, wired on acid, then drive back. A few years later, Cornell and his comrades in Soundgarden would relentlessly traverse the interstate for their bottom-heavy blend of Blacks Flag and Sabbath, back before “grunge” became part of Andy Rooney’s vocabulary. But right now Cornell isn’t headin’ out to the highway in a crowded station wagon or a gear-loaded van; we’re speeding along in his gleaming silver 1987 Porsche Targa, one of the trophies of Soundgarden’s long, steady march to success.
Only days ago, Cornell finished mixing the band’s fifth full-length album, Down on the Upside, which the group will support this summer by touring as part of Lollapalooza, becoming the first group in the event’s six-year history to serve a second stint on the main stage. After indie releases on Sub Pop and SST cemented Soundgarden’s hard-rock reputation, 1989’s Louder Than Love nearly went gold, 1991’s Badmotorfinger went double platinum, and 1994’s Superunknown debuted at No. 1 in the Billboard Top 200, going on to sell over five million copies domestically. Flush with fresh funds, all four members of Soundgarden – Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd, and drummer Matt Cameron — have now become homeowners, and Cornell and his wife, Soundgarden manager Susan Silver, even own a cabin retreat in the Olympics, a peaceful refuge from the “g” thing.
Yes, every dog will have its day, and this afternoon belongs to the canines — literally. As we head into Skagit Country, past the Swinomish Indian Reservation and its roadside casino, our destination is the Stover and Opdycke Dog Training Center, where Cornell occasionally boards the larger two dogs of the five he owns with Silver. More than an hour rise from the city, the training center is sort of the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm crossed with Fantasy Island: a 100-acre private habitat devoted to luxury accommodations, doggy style. Only eight dogs are kenneled at a time, and the animals are fed a raw-meat diet and allowed to roam free on the island for part of the day. Since he’s brought his dogs Jesse and Star here, Cornell has noticed such a marked improvement in their discipline that he forwarded info on the center to ex-Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and his wife, Shelli. Sure enough, in the pen right next to Jesse and Star sits the Novoselics’ German shepherd. “Nice guy, nice dog,” says keeper Mark Stover.
Upon our arrival, trainer Nancy Opdycke sets Cornell’s German shepherds free, and they each hurl their roughly 90-pound frames at their owner. Cornell takes the beasts for a walk on the shore of Puget Sound, where they frolic at the water’s edge. He throws driftwood sticks that they quickly fetch back to him, long streams of joyful drool streaming from their jaws. Free of the daily anxieties of the canine grind, the dogs scamper among the shells and barnacles, chasing the tiny fountains of water that squirt from clams along the beach. “It’s pretty awesome, huh? People should have it so good,” marvels Cornell, surveying the landscape in the late afternoon sun. “It’s amazing, it’s unfair, it should be illegal.”
Not that Cornell or his bandmates have it so rough. Just as Jesse and Star are fortunate enough to roam at will, Soundgarden’s chart ascendency has allowed them the freedom to indulge their interests — family, pooch prep school, maybe a sports car or two — yet they’ve kept their pleasure seeking relatively simple. Though the band may have attained their rock’n’roll fantasy, Cornell is well aware of the privilege they enjoy. “Sometimes people don’t really understand how they fit into their new world and what it means,” observes Cornell of sudden fame and fortune. “We had a slow, gradual process, so we haven’t reacted too strangely to the whole deal.” Of course, several of Cornell’s peers have found out the hard way: Start behaving like the star the public imagines you to be, and you just might lose your soul. In a music scene doomed to be forever associated with tragedy and loss, Soundgarden have chosen the path of least decadence, distinguishing themselves as survivors.
“Oh no, they’re coming in,” grouses Kim Thayil, pointing out the front window of the Two Bells Tavern. “It’s a group of alternatypes that have walked back and forth past the window twice, and now it looks like they’re coming in.” Thayil and I are seated at a table in one of his favorite haunts, enjoying a moderate dose of the local drug of choice — beer, silly — but his attention has become preoccupied by some young flannelists who have been peering in the window, perhaps having recognized the bearded, Rapunzel-haired guitarist who’s looked virtually the same since Soundgarden first surfaced nationally. The group walk by a third time, then a fourth, but finally disappear into the night, never actually coming into the bar, whether to pester us or simply throw a few back.
Given the current cultural climate here, it’s no wonder Thayil is slightly suspicious. In the ten years since Soundgarden were part of the local scene originally known as the “Deep Six” bands — along with Green River, the Melvins, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, and the U-Men — Seattle has changed dramatically. The mass outbreak of the grunge virus has brought H.O.R.D.E.s of alternative-lifestylists flocking to the Emerald City, and they’re not Microsoft programmers, either. Tammy Watson of Seattle indie label Up Records describes Seattle as “Mayberry with big buildings,” and some small-town provinciality is plainly evident in Soundgarden’s outlook.
“As a cultural phenomenon, it’s what I imagine happened in San Francisco in the late ’60s,” says Thayil of the hipster invasion. Back in the years B.C. (Before Cobain), recalls Thayil, “you would know all the guys and girls at the punk-rock shows, and it you didn’t know them they were usually someone’s roommate. Now wherever you go, there’s some grunge-type human being walking around aimlessly. They’re just surveying the land for what it can offer them.”
Seattle may no longer be “Sub Pop Rock City,” as Soundgarden sang on the landmark box set Sub Pop 200, but for outsiders it’s still seemingly a countercultural mecca. “It’s a really strange counterculture, though,” says Thayil, “because it’s the counterculture as referenced by MTV. There are no wars, no race riots, no women’s liberation or gay liberation — it’s a counter culture based on successfully marketed radio songs and snowboarding.”
Thayil is the last link to Soundgarden’s longhaired roots, although he’s quick to point out that his hair is beginning to thin. Born in Seattle, where his Bombay-bred parents attended college, he grew up outside Chicago in suburban Park Forest, Illinois. At a progressive high-school program called, the Active Learning Process School, his classmates included Tom Zutaut (later the A&R scout who signed Guns N’ Roses), Hiro Yamamoto (who would become Soundgarden’s original bass player), and future Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt, who did not yet share Thayil’s love of loud guitars. “I traded Bruce Be-Bop Deluxe’s Modern Music for the Stooges’ Raw Power,” laughs Thayil. “He was probably high at the time.”
Soundgarden’s legacy is inextricably tied to Seattle’s musical gold rush. While pursuing a degree in philosophy at the University of Washington in Seattle, and DJing at UW’s college radio station KCMU, Thayil suggested to fellow air jock Pavitt that he might find an investor for his new Sub Pop record label by seeking the financial advice of another DJ, Jonathan Poneman. Soundgarden would go on to record the first Sub Pop single (1987’s “Hunted Down” / “Nothing to Say”), be the first band to leave the Sub Pop fold (for SST, where they cut 1988’s Ultramega OK), and become the first grunge band to sign to a major label.
Soundgarden’s commercial evolution has been a virtual case study in the power of persistence, and thus their full-fledged arrival as stadium rockers was chosen by filmmaker Doug Pray to provide the emotional climax of Hype!, a documentary about the Seattle music phenomenon that will open in theaters later this year. “One of the themes of the movie is the price of fame,” says Pray, “and there’s something almost eerie about the Soundgarden arena-rock footage. On the one hand, they’re completely sure of themselves onstage, totally unafraid, but the footage almost seems to convey fear. It’s like they’re incredibly lonely up there, like something is happening to them that is out of their control.”
The fermentation of what has come to be known, somewhat dubiously, as “the Seattle sound” is perhaps the most meticulously documented historical moment since Dallas, 1963, yet the members of Soundgarden have managed to shield their personal lives from the spotlight. “I think all of us are fairly well-grounded and down-to-earth,” says Thayil. “We’re not turning up ODed in some ER, we’re not crashing cars, so it doesn’t make for an interesting story: ‘Well, he read this book, he went to see this movie, he watched TV, he got drunk with his friends, he went snowboarding.’ Our personal lives don’t have much drama to them.”
Compared to his reserved, almost aloof, bandmates, the gregarious Thayil is Soundgarden’s people person. At dinner in the evening, a steady stream of restaurant employees and patrons pause to greet him, and here at the Two Bells, he runs into Rod Moody (who used to be in the early Sub Pop band Swallo) and a couple of R.E.M. guitar techs in town for the recording of that band’s new album. The next day, Thayil tells me that after he left the bar he bumped into Down on the Upside engineer Adam Kasper and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe on the street and went out for a nightcap. Because of his fondness for fraternizing, the infamously opinionated Thayil has grown reluctant to engage in what was once one of his interview staples, dissing other bands by name. “I have no problem attacking a particular idea, whether it’s political or philosophical or religious or whatever,” explains Thayil. “But I don’t feel good calling someone’s song a piece of crap. They spent a lot of time working on it, so I don’t enjoy that.”
Still, despite his newfound reticence, it doesn’t take long before he’s railing against the state of contemporary music. Bruce Pavitt once likened grunge to “the sound and look of fresh money,” and truer words were never spoken; the Alternative Nation is full of Foreigners, playing secondhand, sugarcoated grunge-by-numbers. Such Bush-league copycats even inspired Soundgarden to write a song called “Karaoke,” although the tune failed to make it onto Down on the Upside.
“It seemed like there was a real cool, aggressive shake-up in rock, and really quickly they homogenized it and repackaged it,” declares Thayil. “Nirvana came along and they were a really cool thing, and Pearl Jam were really cool, but it just seems like everything now has the edges rounded off. When Pearl Jam ceased making videos, they got all these second-rate, B-grade Pearl Jams to make videos.” In Thayil’s view, “It’s all Top 40 shit and probably won’t exist a year from now. There are only so many teenagers and their limited funds and resources to sustain the careers of all these bands.”
Despite their contempt for much of what passes for “alternative,” Thayil and Soundgarden have agreed to share this summer’s Lollapalooza bill with Metallica, the Ramones, and Rancid, which Shepherd has dubbed “Larsapalooza” in honor of Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. “I had my criticisms about Lollapalooza the first time we did it,” confesses Thayil of the band’s 1992 participation, “all the pretenses, the notion of alternaculture. But this is more like Metallica and Soundgarden on the road and you throw in the Ramones and Rancid. I don’t see it as being part of some collectivist neo-hippie experience: “It’s our Woodstock,’” he sneers facetiously. “If I was 17 back in 1969, I wouldn’t have gone to Woodstock. I would have gone to Detroit.”
As Matt Cameron and I drive through downtown Seattle, we run into Seattle SuperSonics basketball star Shawn Kemp. Well, not really Kemp, but rather ads hyping the city’s Western Conference — leading NBA franchise, which are just about everywhere: news boxes, billboards, buses, huge paintings on sides of buildings. “The Sonics are what’s keeping the town going now,” says Cameron. “That and grunge.” State politicians seem oblivious to the 160 million units in sales that the local music scene has generated over the last two and a half years, however, and have repeatedly drafted legislation that would create, among other things, a “harmful to minors” section in record stores to which “offensive material” would be banished. In response, Cameron, Cornell, and Silver went down to the state capitol in Olympia with Krist Novoselic and the Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee (JAMPAC) to lobby against such censorship. “The state government just doesn’t understand how much money music provides to the economy,” complains Cameron. “There’s still kind of hick mentality here.”
Cameron, who first became versed in the local mind-set when he moved from San Diego to Seattle in 1983, may be the most normal-seeming guy in a band of normal-seeming guys. “We’re still wearing the same clothes we’ve worn since the 11th grade” he snickers, casually attired in a gray Henley-collared shirt and jeans. His conversation is as likely to be about pixel resolution ad cymbal endorsements; he prefers to sit at home these days with his girlfriend and their two cats diddling with his computer or indulging his other passion: jazz drumming, jamming occasionally with out-there improvisers like Wayne Horvitz’s Pigpen.
But it’s Cameron’s ten-year reign as Soundgarden’s beatkeeper that has allowed him to sample the good life. Cameron started riding motorcycles when he was 11, but purchases his own bike just two years ago. “I’ve never been a rich guy before,” he admits. “I don’t know the rules, so it’s been really fun. Making money, playing music, it’s the best possible thing in the world.” A few days earlier. I accompanied Cameron and Cornell to a BMW motorcycle store where they shopped for a bike as a gift to Upside engineer and chopper virgin Kasper (Upside marks the first time Soundgarden have produced an album themselves, saving themselves at least a hundred grand in “point,” or the producer’s percentage of royalties). “It’s kind of a bonus,” says Cameron. “Give him some points he can use.” After some comparison shopping and a couple of Cameron test rides, they settle on the 1995 R100 PD Classic, with a price tag of $10,400. “It’s a gift?” marvels the saleswoman. “That’s so cool.” “The spirit of giving,” replies Cornell, shrugging his shoulders.
After a dozen years of steady gigging, Cameron jokes that Soundgarden are “the grandpas of grunge,” and on close inspection, flecks of gray are indeed visible in Cornell’s goatee and Thayil’s beard. (Thayil will be 36 this year, Cameron, 34; and Cornell, 32; Shepherd, who joined the band in 1990, will be 28.) “Yeah, we’ve got one foot in the grave,” cracks Cornell later about the band’s “advancing” ages. So, I ask Cameron, is there an age limit for selling teen spirit? Can you play brawny hard rock when the muscles start to sag? “I suppose there would be a time where it might be physically impossible for a 68-year-old dude to play at 140 dBs and beat the shit out of the drums,” he admits, “but as that point, man, I just might be playing jazz gigs.”
After returning from out dog day afternoon, Cornell and I have settled in for dinner at a seafood restaurant on the Seattle waterfront. With his eyelids putting the “heavy” back in heavy-lidded and his hair sticking up three inches in the air, Cornell is looking North Dakota, feeling Manitoba. Underneath his windbreaker, he sports a T-shirt with “Betty Ford Clinic” emblazoned on the chest pocket — a joke, even if he downs his share of cranberry and vodkas during dinner and laughingly admits his predilection for alcohol when I ask him about his vices. “I’m a drunk, but I’m not a bad drunk,” he replies. “Well, maybe I’m the worst kind of drunk because I don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I did that.’ Which allows me to continue to be a drunk. I think being a drunk is not a vice in a country where the government sells alcohol. A bigger vice would be not needing to be around people. That is the biggest vice, really, needing to be alone all the time.”
Cornell speaks slowly, sometimes haltingly, as if reluctant to betray his inner voices, be they children or demons. For a man who never managed to be photographed wearing a shirt for the first several years of his performing career, he’s surprisingly shy, rarely making eye contact. His work habits are notoriously obsessive, at times even reclusive; he’s been known to lock himself away writing songs for weeks at a time. “The only thing that ever really seems to make me content is songwriting,” says Cornell. “It’s virtually the only thing that’s moving to me, that really makes me feel good.”
Cornell grew up as the youngest of six children in a lower-middle-class Catholic family in Seattle. He did his share of hell-raising as a teen, and was kicked out of both seventh and eighth grade (twice); after his parents divorced, he left school for good at 14 and helped support his mom by working as a cook as a seafood restaurant. “I still regret dropping out, especially being a guy that writes words for a living. I pretty much have a seventh-grade Catholic school education; it would have been helpful if I had continued.” Despite his worries, Cornell’s lack of a formal education doesn’t seem to have hampered his ability to progress as a songwriter. While the title of Soundgarden’s 1987 Sub Pop EP Screaming Life showcased a band that has learned to relax, stretch out, and maybe even leaven its heavy load with a pop hook here and there. “Black Hole Sun” was a breakthrough — at times mellow, quiet, and pretty, without dipping into dreaded power balladry. “You just have to allow yourself to go in different directions,” elaborates Cornell. “There are songs similar to ‘Black Hole Sun’ that I wrote years ago, but it seemed like they didn’t quite fit our perception of the band. Once you sort of define what the band is, then you have to move on from there or you’re finished, you’re done.”
Accordingly, as Soundgarden’s palette has broadened, so their songs have begun to seep into other artists’ repertoires. Guns N’ Roses misguidedly reprised Louder Than Loves’s “Big Dumb Sex” on their The Spaghetti Incident, a version of Badmotorfinger’s “Rusty Cage” was recorded by Johnny Cash for his new album, while “Black Hole Sun” has been performed in concert by both the Seattle Symphony (how’s that for “classic” rock?) and techno wailer Moby. “It was the most complicated I’ve ever played,” marvels Moby. “there are all these really weird chords, like a Cole Porter song. It’s really unique.” The most bizarre cover version, however might be by the two Japanese women in the New York-based hip-hop duo Cibo Matto, who recast “Black Hole Sun” as a quiet, romantic dirge, even translating it into French. “We thought it would be funny to cover a band like Soungarden,” says Cibette Yuka Honda, “in the way that they’re a big guitar band they would scream “Black Hole Sun!” We did it in a way that would reflect French movies, but it’s such a great song I can also hear doing it in a Bob Marley way, or a New Orleans way.”
Only time will determine whether Down on the Upside contains future hit-parade standards on the level of “Black Hole Sun,” but “Pretty Noose” and “Blow Up the Outside World” continue Cornell’s exploration of poppier turf; the industrial crackle of “Never the Machine Forever” reflects Thayil’s appreciation for Nine Inch Nails; and high-velocity stomps like Shepherd’s “Ty Cobb” and “Never Named” (a song he penned when he was 16) mark a return to a rawer vibe after Michael Beinhorn’s pristine production on Superunknown. “What we’ve lost in sonic precision we’ve gained so much in terms of feeling,” says Cornell of the new album. “We aren’t worried about it being the perfect guitar sound or the perfect vocal sound; we’re worrying more about giving the performance we feel, the one that’s really close to us.”
With Soundgarden, the question doesn’t usually involve the quality of the performance, just the vintage of the decade it belongs to. Seattle’s great innovation was the marriage of ‘70s AOR rock riffing with ‘80s hardcore punk energy, but Soundgarden has always flirted with succumbing to the excessed of the former. Basically, the song remains the same, except that Soundgarden’s grooves contain no backward-masked black massed or folky glory-glories to sweet Satan, and the lyrics make no references to big-legged women or Druids; instead of Golem the Evil One, the only mystical figure invoked is Cornell the Sullen one. Soungarden’s take on Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath “is always colored and twisted,” says Thayil, as they graft odd meters to the time-tested methodology of “rocking out” — raw power chords, Moby Dick-size beats, Augustus Gloop-size bass — while bagging the timeworn tropes of Jurassic rock. “Seventies rock typified that sort of racist, sexist vibe,” says Thayil, “and that’s one reason why I stopped listening to it.”
While the smooth sheen of Cornell’s crooning may sound like a throwback (“I totally have a classic-rock voice,” he confesses), his subject matter places him firmly in the pathos-driven pantheon of his contemporaries. Though all outward appearances seem to convey a good-natured and well-adjusted soul, his publishing company is named You Make Me Sick I Make Music, and he’s the author of lines like “The lives we make / Never seem to get us anywhere / But dead” (“The Day I Tried to Live”), “Why doesn’t anyone believe / In loneliness” (“Zero Chance”), and “I’ve given everything I could / To blow it to and hell and gone / Burrow down in and / Blow up the outside world” (“Blow Up the Outside World”). Is this the same guy I spy holding hands with his wife while out for drinks, bouncing a tiny dog on his knee?
“I don’t think I could say I’m a happy person,” responds Cornell. “Other people I’ve met seem to be pretty content all the time, and I know I’m not that. I think somebody who’s flitting through life with a really positive attitude has got to have blinders on.” He paused pensively. “At least for me, I’m pretty happy.”
Once source of Cornell’s relative cheer is his long-term relationship with Silver. The two met when she was booking local shows and managing the U-Men, and their relationship has spanned almost the entire length of the band. They were married in 1990; thus far, instead of children, Cornell and Silver have their dogs: the two shepherds and three Pomeranians — Pancake, Howdy, and Bunky — small, fluffy dogs that look like a cross between a guinea pig and a miniature Wookiee.
“The only close relationship I’ve ever had with a woman is with Susan,” says Cornell. “A lot of it has to do with support and space. Her life has pretty much always allowed me to be who I am, which is somebody who almost unconditionally has to be able to do whatever he wants, however he wants. Because we have a good relationship, I don’t have a lot of shitty-relationship songs to write.” Cornell draws deep on his Camel Filter. “I’m thinking about other things.”
I rendezvous with Ben Shepherd at the OK Hotel, a genial tavern on the waterfront near the ferry to Bainbridge Island, where Shepherd lives. I find him in a back room playing pool, a lanky figure in leather pants, motorcycle boots, a white undershirt, and a red-and-black-checked flannel coast that could have been lifted right off the back of former presidential candidate Lamar Alexander. Shepherd used to hang out here frequently — on the wall in the back room by the pool table is the hole where he put his fist after a missed shot, covered up by a concept poster for the Dancing French Liberals of ’48 — and as we sit near a front table, everyone who enters the bar stops to chat with him. The bartender even summons Shepherd to help him with his car, and he dutifully heads out to poke under the hood with a flashlight.
Shepherd was born in Japan, where his serviceman father was stationed, and his family lived briefly in Texas before settling in Kingston, 30 miles north of Seattle. In high school he played in the hardcore band March of Crimes, where his bandmates would briefly include a teenage Stone Gossard and Pete Droge. “I didn’t talk very much at all back then,” he confesses. “Just played.” Despite his silence, he would become a familiar face in the crowd at shows over the next several years, so much so that in 1989 he was asked to audition for Nirvana (on second guitar) and Soundgarden (on bass) on the same day. He didn’t get either job at first, but “then they came back and realized their mistakes.” He took a break from his job doing construction work to go on a West Coast tour with Nirvana, then permanently swapped his shovel for a bass the next year when Soundgarden came calling again.
It was here at the OK Hotel, sometimes after Shepherd’s stint in Nirvana, that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was performed in public for the first time. Shepherd describes the OK as” the Knitting Factory of Seattle” — a reference to the New York City cutting-edge music club — and indeed tonight marks the debut of a noisy free-jazz band featuring Lori Goldston, who played cello with Nirvana on In Uteri and Unplugged in New York. Other several pints of Guinness and a pack of Winstons (which Shepherd proudly proclaims have “the highest amount of tar”), Shepherd and a friend pass the evening by still complaining about Sonics’ surprising loss to the underdog Phoenix Suns in game seven of the 1993 Western Conference finals. Both swear there was a fix in that came straight from league higher-ups, “a buyout” in Shepherd’s terms. “All it takes to change history is one ref,” insists Shepherd. “We’d be saying that even if it wasn’t our team.”
“Seattle shouldn’t claim a lot of things,” suggests Shepherd, switching gears to a favorite local topic: “Seattle’s inferiority complex.” Both the Sonics — the ‘60s garage band, not the playoff chokers — and Jimi Hendrix and actually from Tacoma, he contends. All Seattle can truly claim for itself is “it rains every day and it has the highest suicide rate in the U.S., third highest in the world,” complains Shepherd, launching into a litany of local plagues: Seattle is or has been home to serial murderers like Ted Bundy and the Green River killer, the worst traffic in the West Coast, the highest parking-ticket fines, and an influx of gangs moving up from L.A. and down from Vancouver. “Write a lot of bad stuff about Seattle,” the bar’s pub patrons who sidle over and impress upon me my duty to inform SPIN readers about the gloominess, the inhospitality, the utter despair that is Seattle. But, I argue, the people I’ve met seem genuinely friendly. The scenery is nice, even this bar feels pretty welcoming — am I totally mistaken? After a couple minutes, I catch on Could the “Say Mean Things About Seattle” campaign be a clever ploy to ward off new immigrants to town? “Just portray it as a bleak, shitty, way-uptight Christian area,” smirks Shepherd under his breath.
Unfortunately for the grungeoisie elite, that’s not exactly what I encountered. A few nights later I join Cornell and Silver at the modest shamrock-covered West Seattle home of Silver’s mother. A few manifestations of Proud Parent Syndrome are visible — a stack of magazines with Soundgarden cover stories sits on a coffee table next to a Xerox of an article about Silver from a metal magazine, and a framed platinum album for Superunknown hangs prominently on the living room wall — but otherwise there’s no noticeable trace of the celebrity son-in-law. Cornell flops down on a couch and plays with the Pomeranians while the elder Silver makes us all a midnight snack of spaghetti, with Susan’s Uncle Vern spinning yarns to keep us entertained. All assembled convey such a gracious, neighborly feeling that I stop taking notes entirely.
This, I realize, is the positive side of the small-town experience: Despite all the bluster from the band about the invasion of outsiders, despite their insistence on maintaining a public veil around their private lives, here around the dining room table, the Cornells show me nothing but warmth and hospitality. It’s like we’re characters in a rock Rockwell painting. Not once do I have the feeling of being in the company of strangers.
The cozy atmosphere reminds me of a comment Cameron had made a few days earlier. “We keep it at that kind of family level,” he said, appraising Silver’s relationship with the band, but the remark seems an appropriate description for the bond among the entire group. “We’ve been together this long, so you’ve got to get along,” concurred Thayil. “You have to tour with these people, you have to work together. I can’t imagine it being any other way.”