“You know that thing about punk rock being freedom?”, I asked rhetorically.
“Yeah”, said the guy who fronted a band that many would call punk.
“Well, it’s a load of shit. Punk rock isn’t freedom. Punk rock is privileged white kids rebelling against daddy’s money.”
He stared into the distance for what seemed like an eternity, finally said, simply, “yeah”, then flicked his cigarette into the distance.
Growing up in Dischord-era D.C. meant adhering to a lot of rules. Rules about dancing, drugs, politics, and especially … especially … about what music you could and could not listen to. At least if you wanted to be cool. If you wanted to be punk rock.
Problem was, the vast majority of “punks” came from well-heeled households. Households that would, say, bail them out of jail if they were caught vandalizing a BMW with diplomatic plates. Households which provided a safety net when the glamour of punk rock ran its course, and it was time to go to college, or start that sweet internship at their uncle’s law firm.
It wasn’t that poor kids weren’t allowed to be punks, they were, but only at the pleasure of the rich punks. The poor kids were second-class punks, relegated to the periphery of the scene, to be tolerated, but only to the extent that they handed over to the rich punks their most precious commodity. The only thing that to young, white America, was worth more than any amount of money in the world. Street cred.
Yes, for all of its pronouncements, at the end of the day, punk rock was just another clique. Another means by which the haves differentiated themselves from the have-nots, all while claiming to have equality and the interests of the common man at heart. Kind of like the Democraticpartybutletsnotgothererightnow.
Being punk dictated that the punk listen to punk bands. Whether they were good, bad, or otherwise was of no consequence … all that mattered was that they had to be punk. God help you if you weren’t punk.
See, if you weren’t punk, you were either a jock or you were poor white trash … and both jocks and poor white trash listened to metal.
What if you didn’t listen to either?
What if you didn’t listen to either metal or punk?
Well, if that was case, then congratulations, because you were a 12 year-old prepubescent girl. Girrrrl, you’ll be a wommmmaaaan sooooon. Top 40 and all that other stuff was yours for the taking.
For years, I was confused. A mish-mashed frankensteinian cultural monster which could not lay legitimate claim to any particular subculture. I was poor white trash, a second-class punk, but I also played the guitar, and music which sounded an awful lot like first-class punk, but oh no, I also played basketball, and sometimes, I tuned it down and played this slow heavy stuff that sounded a lot like metal, and … oh shit … I was a witch. Fuck my life, I’d made it through 18 years just to learn that I was a fucking witch and now the villagers were going to find out and burn me at the stake and I still hadn’t fucked the black chick across the street who I’d heard was down with the swirl and goddammit why does this shit always happen to me …
Growing up is hard, and as someone who was always deeply into music, the social mores that went along with music were hard, nay impossible to navigate.
I was a teenager when I first heard Soundgarden’s Screaming Life, and I thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever heard. I became enamored with the eerie drone on “Nothing to Say”, but when I played it for my peers at the time, they refused to share my enthusiasm. “You like Black Sabbath now?”, I remember one of them saying, “You like metal?” said another.
“Metal”. The word hung in the air like a bug zapper, and I was a fly, eyeballing the family picnic, yet somehow fascinated by the big, bright, glowing thing beside it.
“Well, I don’t know what it is, but it’s slow and kind of creepy, and come on, man, who gives a fuck what it is, just listen to this part right here … it’s so … heavy”.
It was not to be. My pleas fell on deaf ears. I was in a room full of punks. I may as well have been playing the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof for David Duke. It didn’t help that Chris Cornell had already earned a reputation for taking off his shirt and humping the mic stand, for a while, Soundgarden just wasn’t very cool on my piece of the rock.
I was an instant fan, however, and through Soundgarden (as well as the Melvins), I was soon to discover the wonderful world known as “Drop D Tuning”. That weird, ominous, eerie buzz that sounds like what your Sunday School teacher says hell looks like. To this day, the opening bars of “Nothing to Say” is the riff I still play when I’m at home, tuning down from E to D. When it sounds like Kim, I know I’m there.
A few years later, the grunge thing narrowed the divide being punk and metal, and everyone would love Soundgarden. The band went on to write some of the greatest riffs in music, and no debate about the greatest rock vocalist of all time takes place which doesn’t have Chris Cornell’s name liberally thrown about.
On Thursday, some 25 years after hearing them for the first time, I saw Soundgarden play the Paramount Theater.
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The group came out with “Flower”, then proceeded to rip through a 25-or-so song repertoire that spanned the entirety of their career. I didn’t keep track of the set list, but off the top of my head, I do remember the following:
Nothing to Say
Hands All Over
Jesus Christ Pose
Fell on Black Days
Bt Crooked Steps
Been Away Too Long
Eyelid’s Mouth (with Matt Cameron’s son)
Tighter and Tighter (with Mike McCready)
That’s only about half of the songs played, but it’s enough to show the set’s diversity.
It almost didn’t happen, though. I was almost kicked out of The Paramount, or worse, arrested. I’ll expound on this later, but suffice to say, The Paramount didn’t meet the minimal-expected standards of the evening.
I watched Soundgarden go from local Seattle band, to international band. Dare I say that they are at least part of the reason that I came to Seattle in the first place.
As far back as I can remember, their relationship with the audience has been good, albeit slightly awkward at times. Especially in the later years. Nothing major, just quick signs that Chris doesn’t suffer some things lightly.
At a Cornell solo show I attended at the Vegas HOB in 2007, a woman in the crowd was holding up a sign that read “Seattle”. Song after song, she waved the sign, until Chris finally said “Ok, I see your sign, it says Seattle, you can put it down now … before your arm falls off.”
Thursday night, Chris remarked that it was ironic how pot was legal in Washington, but the shows on the East Coast had way more pot smoke. Immediately after, someone in the audience made a comment, which I couldn’t clearly hear, but I think was something to the effect of “but it’s still not legal here to smoke indoors”.
Somewhat defensively, Chris replied, “I’m not saying that you should light up indoors, I’m just making an observation, that’s all”, and then he launched into the next song.
Toward the end of the set, Chris announced ‘By Crooked Steps’, and in response to a scream from the crowd, deadpanned “Yes, your t-shirt has the name of the song on it” … followed a couple of seconds later by “Wooo!”
It can be hard to tell when Chris is or isn’t being sarcastic, but his tendency to throw tiny darts at the bubbles of his more enthusiastic fans can be funny at times, a little awkward at others, though never mean spirited.
As for the show itself, I thought it was sublime. Then again, if Matt banged on an overturned trashcan, while Ben plucked a rubber band, while Kim raked a piece of dental floss over his teeth, as Chris farted into a microphone … I’d probably say the same thing.
All things considered, it was one hell of a show, and one hell of a homecoming for Seattle’s favorite sons.
The only negative thing I can say, is that it’s a shame that so many local fans were edged out of seeing the show by the usual groups of scenesters, bandwagon-jumpers, and shitty opportunists who stepped on fan club members and flooded Craigslist with tickets to the “sold out” show mere hours after they went on sale.
That observation aside, I think that Soundgarden has proven that you can, indeed, go back.
I just wish they’d stay a little longer.