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“Look F**king Psychotic”: The Enduring Mystery of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”

Twenty-five years after its release and two years since Chris Cornell’s death, we look back at the making of Soundgarden’s unlikely psychedelic smash

Sam Taylor

The song nearly overwhelmed Michael Beinhorn. One week before he’d first heard the demo, the record producer attended the open-casket funeral of a close relative, and from the opening verse, the lyrics transported him back to a place of mourning. Each time he heard it, the feeling became more visceral than the last.

Boiling heat, summer stench
’Neath the black the sky looks dead
Call my name through the cream
And I’ll hear you scream again

Naturally, Beinhorn began to wonder what the hell the anthem’s author was thinking about when he wrote it. So he asked him. Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell’s response was simple: “Well, they’re just some words.”

That’s the contradictory beauty of “Black Hole Sun.” Soundgarden’s biggest, most enduring hit is deeply affecting. It’s also an inscrutable mishmash of clever phrases. The band’s late frontman never claimed it was anything but the latter. “Chris didn’t really like to have to do exposition on his lyrics,” lead guitarist Kim Thayil said in a recent interview.

The song is iridescent. Depending on your perspective, the colors change. It can be unsettling, uplifting, soothing, even scary. Or all of those at once. It’s a five-minute-and-18-second psychedelic journey—bifurcated and then ripped in half by a Thayil solo—that hardly resembles anything else in the Seattle band’s catalog.

“The best music has periods of tension and release,” Beinhorn said. “And ‘Black Hole Sun’ is … almost all tension. But it keeps dragging you along with it.”

That incongruity helped make it a mid-concert fan favorite. “There was just something about the sound of that song,” said former MTV VJ and programmer Matt Pinfield, who over the last three decades has grown close to the members of Soundgarden. “Even if it went on for six minutes you never felt like it was that long. It just had this incredible build.” Thayil saw it as the group’s “Dream On” or “Stairway to Heaven.” In other words, he said, “one where they hold up their lighters.”

A quarter-century since its release, and two years after Cornell’s death, it remains as bizarrely evocative as ever. “‘Black Hole Sun,’” Beinhorn said. “You hear the words and you see it in your mind. It doesn’t matter who you are. You know what it looks like.”

Beinhorn can still remember the tape arriving in the mail. It was 1993. By then he had convinced Soundgarden’s members to work with him on their follow-up to Badmotorfinger, which a few weeks ago Rolling Stone named the second-best grunge album ever, behind only Nirvana’s Nevermind. (Both hit stores on September 24, 1991.)

The producer, who had collaborated with Red Hot Chili Peppers, Violent Femmes, and Soul Asylum, said that he recorded two songs with the quartet as a tryout. “I wasn’t sure that we clicked,” Beinhorn recalled. “But somehow I guess we did.” The band then sent him a lengthy demo. “We had about a third of a record there,” he said. “And I was like, ‘We can’t go into a recording studio with this.’”

Over the next several months, Cornell sent Beinhorn more demos. “They were starting to not be so great,” Beinhorn said. “I realized that we had to have a conversation before we ended up with a record that no one would be particularly happy with.” When they talked, the producer sensed that Cornell was feeling some pressure to create the kind of ear-plug-required music that made Soundgarden famous. After all, this was a band that sold T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Uneasy Listening.”

Cornell “was very self-conscious about what he was doing,” Beinhorn said. “I asked him what music he liked, what was really influencing him. And he said the Beatles and Cream. And I was like, ‘Write a song that sounds like the Beatles and Cream.’ And he thought about that and he was like, ‘Whoa.’”

Soon a package came for Beinhorn. Enclosed was a fateful four-song recording Cornell put together himself. The first track was “Fell on Black Days.” The last was “Black Hole Sun.” In 2014, bassist Ben Shepherd told Uncut magazine that he “equated it with Stevie Wonder, that level of songwriting. Huge.”

Initially, Thayil was skeptical. “I didn’t orient myself toward radio and so I may have been a little bit more resistant because it was not necessarily friendly to my style of playing guitar until you get to the solo,” Thayil said. “When you get to the solo it’s like, ‘OK, OK. I’ll do that.’” He was encouraged when original Soundgarden bassist Hiro Yamamoto visited his old group in the studio at Seattle’s Bad Animals. Yamamoto listened to an early version of “Black Hole Sun” and immediately identified its potential. “When he was done,” Thayil said, “he just said, without hesitation, ‘That’s your hit right there. That’s the song.’”

But sonically, “Black Hole Sun” didn’t exactly seem like a radio-friendly unit shifter. It blared, like a church organ on acid. To achieve that strange effect during recording, the band used a Leslie speaker. The idea to try the device, which Thayil said Soundgarden had experimented with during the making of Badmotorfinger, was Cornell’s. The Beatles had employed it on multiple occasions, including the LSD-infused “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

“It makes it very dreamlike and surreal,” Beinhorn said. “It’s very strange. It raises the hairs up on your neck.” At the time, Jeff Gilbert described “Black Hole Sun” as being “reminiscent of the Beatles’ glue-sniffing period.”

When it came time for Cornell to record the vocals for “Black Hole Sun,” Beinhorn wanted him to tinker with the phrasing more than usual. For inspiration, he asked the singer to listen to Frank Sinatra’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” and “Only the Lonely.” On those songs, Beinhorn pointed out, the legendary crooner “soars so far over these incredible arrangements. Sinatra, he could surpass all that just because of how well he could perform. He didn’t just sing the melody. He performed.” Beinhorn said that bringing up Ol’ Blue Eyes amused Cornell. He chuckled a little at the suggestion.

“But then I noticed some of these performances were changing quite a bit,” the producer said. “You can actually hear it on ‘Black Hole Sun’ because he really is performing. You listen to it—it’s all there. You can really hear him starting to play around with the words and sculpt more.”

Still, the question remained: What exactly was “Black Hole Sun” about? Over the years, Cornell tried to explain. Sort of. In a 2014 interview with Uncut, he said that the vivid title was taken from a misheard news report. “I heard ‘Blah blah blah black hole sun blah blah blah,’” he said. In 1996, Cornell admitted to Request that “lyrically it’s probably the closest to me just playing with words for words’ sake, of anything I’ve written.” In 1994, Cornell told Melody Maker that the song was not a happy one. “Because the melody is really pretty, everyone thinks it’s almost chipper,” he said, “which is ridiculous.” When Rolling Stone asked whether he believed, as he sang, that “Times are gone for honest men,” he said yes, and predicted that his cutthroat profession was “going to create more and more disillusioned people who become dishonest and angry and are willing to fuck the next guy to get what they want.” After RIP wondered who the line “No one sings like you anymore” was aimed at, he quipped, “I ate some cottage cheese that turned, and I wrote those lyrics.” In reality, Pinfield said, a stranger had said that to Cornell.

Beinhorn, for one, doesn’t buy that the song is about nothing. “I thought about it after a while and I was like, ‘Chris always played his cards close to his chest,’” he said. “But I also don’t think that he was particularly self-aware in that sense. I don’t think that he really dug deep to kind of look at what he’d done and go, ‘This is because of this, and that’s because of that.’” For Cornell, the words “just sort of came out.”

Released on March 8, 1994, Soundgarden’s Superunknown debuted at no. 1. The album’s hit lead single, “Spoonman,” was accompanied by a memorable video starring the song’s real-life silverware-playing title character. Also receiving the MTV treatment was “The Day I Tried to Live,” in which Cornell entered his more-clothes-and-less-hair phase.

That year, A&M Records executive Rich Frankel approached director Howard Greenhalgh with an enticing proposition. “He shows up one day and he says, ‘Hey, how about Soundgarden?’” said the English director, who had made videos for Pet Shop Boys, INXS, and Sting. “I said, ‘You’re kidding me, man.’ I loved Soundgarden.” Frankel then had Greenhalgh listen to “Black Hole Sun.”

“Any kind of music video that you do, you just hope to God it’s got a good title,” Greenhalgh said. “And of course this one did. It just takes you right there.” Still, he didn’t believe that he would land the gig. So to grab the band’s attention, he came up with an outlandish but simple concept. “A sci-fi sarcastic thing where it’s the end of the world,” he said. “And everybody’s smiling.”

To Greenhalgh’s surprise, Soundgarden liked the idea. “We were always disappointed with the videos,” Thayil said. “I didn’t like making videos. I don’t think the rest of the band did. It was kind of a waste of time. But you had to make a commercial for the record at that time.” Greenhalgh’s treatment, Thayil thought, was just weird enough to work.

The only stipulation the band’s members made was that unlike the rest of the cast, they didn’t want to be wearing stupid grins. Instead, they played it straight-faced in front of a blue screen. The suggestion saved Greenhalgh some money—all the other actors’ exaggerated smiles needed to be digitally enhanced, and back then even primitive computer-generated effects were expensive. “Thank God Chris said he didn’t want to smile in it,” the director said. “Because that would’ve made the postproduction budget massive.”

Greenhalgh described his mini movie as a “horror cartoon” and an homage to the opening scene in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, when the audience is introduced to a sinister idyllic North Carolina town. Greenhalgh said that one shot from Lynch’s film—a smiling, waving fireman and his dalmatian rolling by on a red truck—was a key influence. While shooting “Black Hole Sun,” he instructed his actors to do one thing: “Look basically fucking psychotic.”

And that they did. There’s a deranged bearded preacher, a lipstick-applying lady strapped into a vibrating massager checking out an oiled-up beefcake doing push-ups, a swimsuit-clad woman who shows off a serpentine tongue, and kids frying bugs with a magnifying glass. “I remember Barbie being roasted on a spit,” Thayil said. The girl drooling melted ice cream has also always stuck with him. “When I told her to spit the ice cream out, her mother was just behind her,” Greenhalgh said. “She was horrified that there was her pretty little daughter and she was just vomiting ice cream.” Thayil’s solo kicks in when a glowing CGI black hole, which looks like a mutated version of the one in the photograph that astronomers revealed last week, begins to suck up everyone in its path.

The band approved of the video. For Soundgarden, that was rare. “‘Black Hole Sun’ was the first time that we didn’t have to make any adjustments and we didn’t have to send it back and say, ‘You’re missing this lyrical idea here …’” Thayil said. “We were like, ‘OK! Good job! No complaints.’ And we like complaining.”

In June 1994, MTV added “Black Hole Sun” to its rotation. “It was just so freaky for young people seeing that,” Pinfield said. “It was very much a horror show type experience … It was disturbing in a beautiful way.”

Mere months after the death of Kurt Cobain, who always toed the line between bleak and droll, it seemed appropriate that a heavy Seattle band’s winkingly apocalyptic song had become ubiquitous. In fact, that year “Black Hole Sun” spent seven weeks atop the mainstream rock chart.

At first, Cornell would play the song at shows solo on an acoustic guitar, before it eventually became a full-band live staple. Thayil says he only truly started to enjoy performing it during this decade, after the group reunited following a 12-year break. In Detroit on May 17, 2017, just hours before Cornell took his own life, the band tore through “Black Hole Sun” for the final time.

By then, Superunknown had long since become Soundgarden’s best-selling album. And by now, the Grammy-winning “Black Hole Sun” has been streamed more than 205 million times on Spotify. The official video has almost 134 million YouTube views. “It’s one of the most memorable videos of that year and that era,” Pinfield said.

A perfectly strange mix of artists have covered the song, including Norah Jones and Guns N’ Roses. Cornell was fond of versions by lounge singers Steve and Eydie and crooner Paul Anka. An eerie player piano take on “Black Hole Sun” even pops up in the pilot of Westworld.

“The song is kind of like a piano song,” Thayil said. “The arpeggiated part at the intro sounds more piano-like than guitar-like although it’s performed on guitar.”

More than anything, though, “Black Hole Sun” showcases Cornell’s quaking voice. It makes a trippy song even more intoxicating. “I think if you kind of laid it out, you’d say, ‘Well, this is just difficult to listen to,’” Beinhorn said. “But he somehow created something that was not only easy to listen to, but it actually pulls you in and drags you along. And it didn’t let you take your attention away from what’s happening.”

While shooting the “Black Hole Sun” video, Greenhalgh said that the members of Soundgarden were miming playing their instruments. But Cornell wasn’t lip-syncing. From a few feet away, Greenhalgh remembered, the frontman’s voice “really pierces through.” The director had no clue what the song was actually about, but it didn’t matter. If Cornell was singing them, they were more than just some words.

Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. Email him at asiegel05@gmail.com.

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