Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 18, which explores the history of early ’90s Seattle grunge, Mother Love Bone, and the Soundgarden–Pearl Jam supergroup Temple of the Dog with help from writer and professor Eric Harvey.
Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” hits me harder now than any one song by either Pearl Jam or Soundgarden, though I still love both those bands dearly, and blast their music in my house, often, to the consternation of my loved ones. “Hunger Strike” is a pure thunderbolt of nostalgia. Not the cheap kind. The exquisite kind. Why this song, as opposed to “Alive” or “Spoonman” or “Corduroy” or “Outshined” or “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” or whatever? Probably it comes down to death. And getting old. But mostly death. Temple of the Dog was a tribute album, mourning a Seattle rock star who didn’t quite live long enough to see Seattle rock stars take over the world. “Hunger Strike” is one of the great rock-star duets of the 20th century. It’s a monolith of rock-star grief, and rock-star deification. And maybe part of the reason this song has grown, in my estimation, lately, is that it sure hits a lot harder, nowadays, that the first voice you hear is Chris Cornell’s, and one day we’d be mourning him too.
Chris Cornell was the primary songwriter and engine for Temple of the Dog, a band that formed in tribute to his roommate and fellow aspiring Seattle rock star Andrew Wood, who died of a heroin overdose, at 24 years old, on March 19, 1990. Andrew Wood was the charismatic lead singer for the hard-rock band Mother Love Bone, whose only album, Apple, came out four months after Wood’s death in July 1990, and featured a couple future members of both Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog, namely Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament. Mother Love Bone are exactly halfway between hair metal and grunge. This band is the exact moment that torch was passed, with both hands still on the torch. Andrew Wood, quite proudly, was not a guy willing to defend himself against the ’70s. This dude’s plan was to record Led Zeppelins V through XII. He was flamboyant. He was lascivious. He sang like he had, like 30 armadillos stuffed in his trousers. You just hear his voice and like a really intense oversized hat magically appears on your head.
Seriously, Mother Love Bone press photos are a real good time: the long and lustrous hair, the wacky hats, the occasional bandana, the super ostentatious sunglasses. They all look like they’re auditioning for the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie 15 years too early. This is your periodic reminder that grunge didn’t kill hair metal so much as hair metal just became grunge. It’s as much about style as about sound. What differentiated “alternative rock” from plain old “rock” was that “alternative” rock stars weren’t supposed to act, or for that matter look, like rock stars. They had to be indifferent to fame, embarrassed by fame, tortured by fame. But Andrew Wood evoked Axl Rose far more than, say, Eddie Vedder did. Andrew Wood was a hip-swaying snake-charmer guy, an unabashed power-ballad guy, an unabashed guy in general. Talking to Rolling Stone in 2016, Chris Cornell put it like this: “In his mind, he was already a rock star and he was waiting for the rest of the world to figure it out.” Also, Mike McCready said, “Andy carried himself around Seattle like a rock star. I would see him walking around with his scarves and glasses. Seattle people thought they were cooler than that, but he just didn’t care. He carried himself in this glorious 1970s way.” But Andrew Wood’s death further cemented the ’90s antipathy toward the ’70s. Self-loathing was the new flamboyance. And by the time Mother Love Bone’s best song, “Chloe Dancer / Crown of Thorns,” showed up on the soundtrack to the movie Singles in 1992, Andrew Wood had already been gone for two years. It took a long time for me to realize that “Hunger Strike” is just the guitar version of this.
Singles of course was the delightful Cameron Crowe rom-com about the vibrant and dominant Seattle rock scene, which—thanks to Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Alice in Chains—was by then dominating the charts, and alt-rock radio, and MTV. Part of the tragedy of Andrew Wood is that he helped build all of that, but he also missed all of that. To your average MTV watcher Andrew Wood was an angel, an abstraction, a romantic cautionary tale; he was the guy Chris Cornell wrote all those Temple of the Dog songs about, starting with the power ballad called “Say Hello 2 Heaven.”
Also a tough one to hear Chris Cornell sing now. “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” which is bluesy and sultry and like a black-diamond-difficulty song to actually sing, also gives you, let’s say, 85 percent of the Jeff Buckley experience, a couple years in advance (speaking of extravagantly mourned alt-rock stars). By 1990, Soundgarden’s already got a couple albums out, and Chris Cornell is clearly the best pure singer, and maybe the best pure rock star, in the Seattle farm system. I already did it in another episode, so I’ll resist the urge here to play the clip from the song “Big Dumb Sex” again, but if you know, you know. There were 35 to 40 armadillos in Chris Cornell’s trousers, though he was also a big baggy shorts over tights guy. Mystifying. Soundgarden’s catalog is rad, man—it’s heavy and it’s thorny and it’s the closest you’re getting to actual Led Zeppelin V through XII energy; I’m a Superunknown man, which I suppose isn’t too incendiary. “Mailman” is the best song on Superunknown, maybe that’s incendiary. But the Temple of the Dog record is arguably your first glimpse of Chris Cornell at full power, he somehow still sounds soulful and sensual and deep even when he’s basically just barking at the moon.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.