Wednesday, March 25, 2009
I fell in love for the first time in the seventh grade. It was my junior high youth group's annual spring break work trip. I rode to Holland, Michigan, in the back row of an old, red Dodge minivan, sitting with my friends Tim and SMark. We talked about basketball. Probably other stuff, too, but I remember basketball. I rode back from Holland in that same minivan, but I was sitting shotgun. Someone decided we needed to turn on the radio. And that was when it happened. Let me set the stage for just a moment. It was 1994 and I was a spectacularly sheltered thirteen year-old. I'm still not quite sure how I managed to do that, since I started reading Tom Clancy in the fifth grade and already had a trucker's grasp of the dirty end of the vocabulary spectrum. It's like I knew of the larger, adult world, but I'd never really been there. My time was taken up with school and church and I'd already developed the idea that I wanted to be a good kid. So even though I knew of things outside of that little world, I didn't really let them touch me. By that time I think I was already well on my way towards not having a clue what to do around girls. In the sixth grade I had my first crush. I told somebody and he told her in shop class one day. I got really nervous and, as I recall, I tried to kick him. He jumped out of the way and laughed at me. In seventh grade I developed a puppy-dog crush on an older woman, an eighth grader. It's funny how you remember those things. I still remember her name and that was longer ago than I was old that day in the red minivan. Someone decided we needed to listen to the radio. Since I was riding shotgun I turned it on and flipped the channels until I was told to stop. I didn't know what anybody listened to, since my entire musical knowledge was pretty much limited to the oldies my mom liked and Christian music. And for some reason I think I really liked Genesis. However, the entire alternative rock movement was passing me by. Then I heard Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" for the first time. It was practically a religious experience. I didn't know that music could do that. I didn't know it then, I don't think, but I'd instantly fallen in love with rock n roll. My parents had gotten me a stereo with a CD player the previous Christmas and I had a few CDs already. The first chance I got, though, I went to a record store and got my very own copy of Soundgarden's Superunknown. I was terrified, too. I just knew that god would strike me down or my parents would realize I was doing something wrong by buying that CD and I'd get in trouble. But there was no lightning, no grounding. My parents never really bothered to censor anything my sister or I read or listened to. It occurs to me now that I probably should have figured that out when I started reading Tom Clancy in grade school. But a lot of my friends' parents did check up on those things and make sure only appropriate things were being consumed, so I think I just assumed it was only a matter of time. Church had a habit of reinforcing that theory. One Tuesday night youth group night the youth group leader played Pearl Jam's "Jeremy," Green Day's "Longview," and, as I recall, the Offspring's...um, whatever their big song was back in '95. He explained to us that the Pearl Jam song was about an angry, violent kid who committed suicide, the Green Day song was about masturbation, and the Offspring song was probably about sex. Was it "Come out and Play?" I can hear the song in my head but I can't remember what it was called. I remember it started "I wrote her off for the tenth time today/practiced all the things I would say/she came around, I lost my nerve/I took her back and made her dessert." Yeah, that's right. I couldn't tell you the song or the album, but damnit, I know the first stanza. I remember thinking, "I like these songs." But if god didn't like them, I wasn't entirely sure of what to do. It was the first time I felt guilty for loving rock, but it wouldn't be the last. I didn't know then that a few years earlier Soundgarden has been crowned the heirs to the heavy metal movement. I did notice when I got a copy of Badmotorfinger that it sounded different than Superunknown. When Down on the Upside came out on my fifteenth birthday I was introduced to yet another sound from Soundgarden. Those three albums largely came to define how I thought about music in general and how I thought about the grunge movement. I was never one of those grunge kids who worshipped at the altar of Nirvana. Kurt Cobain was already dead by the time I had my epiphany on the Holland Road. Pearl Jam was probably the bigger band by then, too, and since I was in Chicago and went to high school in Billy Corgan's hometown the Smashing Pumpkins were the name of the game. I've never really liked Nirvana or the Pumpkins. I had a long bout of dislike for Pearl Jam for some stupid reason, but I liked them at the beginning and I like them now. Still, in high school preferring Soundgarden almost made me counter cultural. In 1997 Soundgarden announced they were breaking up. I didn't take it well. That may well have directly lead to the year of listening exclusively to country, the end of which I'm sure was exceedingly pleasant for all involved. It gradually began to dawn on me that I needed good equipment to play my favorite music. Right after high school I started driving a 1984 Chevy Caprice Classic. It was my mom's old car and I loved it. On some level I wish I still had that old car. I installed an aftermarket Pioneer head unit, a pair of Cerwin-Vega 4x6s in the front and C-V 6x9s in the back. I was dating a girl who had a cross-shaped stick shoved pretty far up her ass at the time. When I tried to show her how cool my new system was her response was to flip through the various rock station presets on my new Pioneer head unit and comment about how I had a lot of dicey stations. Q101 have always been the number one preset on my car radio, but it obviously wasn't even on hers. I crossed the threshold in to the 2000s listening mostly to crap. Or, at least, I assume, since I really don't remember much of what I liked back then. Then the rumors started that Chris Cornell was working on a new project with the former members of Rage Against the Machine. This news was seemingly eclipsed by the announcement of Velvet Revolver, the Scott Weiland/GNR combo. That always amused me, since Guns N Roses may well have once been the biggest band on the planet, but Scott Weiland was never fit to carry Chris Cornell's jock. When Audioslave released their eponymous CD I think I already knew we were on borrowed time. There were rumors of label disputes and internal strife, mostly coming from Cornell's end. It wasn't something I understood, since the only thing that could be cooler than Audioslave was a Soundgarden reunion. I was unemployed for a while from 2002 in to 2003. I stopped in at a used CD store at one point and walked out with Oasis's Be Here Now, Live's The Distance to Here, and Chris Cornell's Euphoria Morning. I think it was then that I began to understand. See, Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, and Down on the Upside were different albums that all obviously came from the same source. Euphoria Morning was totally different. It may well have come from a different person. I quickly began educating myself on the history of my favorite band and its front man. I picked up the Temple of the Dog CD, a project that was basically Cornell with what would become Pearl Jam. Its big hit, "Hunger Strike," even featured backing vocals by Eddie Vedder, a bit of serendipity for label execs when both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam exploded across the musical landscape and they just happened to have another album to sell to a hungry public. The thing is, Temple of the Dog sounded like Pearl Jam fronted by Chris Cornell, not Pearl Jam trying to do Soundgarden. I think in realizing that I realized that Cornell was probably the best pure artist to come out of the Seattle scene. But with artistry generally comes an artist's temper and entitlement. I still held out hope for Audioslave, though. Their first release sounded like a band trying to find its way. With Out of Exile it sounded like they were finally finding a groove. Cornell's voice was obviously starting to fall apart and it seemed that he needed someone as big as him backing him up. Tom Morello seemed the perfect choice. But after Revelations there was no more Audioslave. Truth be told, I was moving on, too. I started going to as many Local H shows as possible in 2004 and soon be picked up Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers and Saw Doctors shows at least once a year. I moved from my old holy trinity of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Local H to a holy quadrinity of Local H, The Peacemakers, The Saw Doctors, and Idlewild. When Chris Cornell released Carry On a couple of years ago I didn't think it was all that good. I also didn't really care. Sometimes you just grow up and move on to other things, I guess. As recently as the summer of '05 I considered getting rid of all of my rock. It was in many ways the high tide of my religious beliefs. Less than a year later my Christian faith was hopelessly crippled. I still have all those CDs. I even have that old copy of Superunknown I was so scared to buy back in 1994. I don't listen to it any more, but that's mostly because I ripped it as a 320 kbps VBR mp3 and listen to it on Winamp or by plugging my Creative Zen:Vision M in to my Clarion head unit. I'm on my third car since that beautiful old Caprice, but the Cerwin-Vega 6x9s in the back deck of my 2004 Cavalier are the exact same ones that were totally ignored by a certain member of the female gender in favor of berating me for my radio presets. I had to drive a reasonably long distance last night. Since I knew I'd be in the car for two hours I forced myself to listen to Chris Cornell's Scream. I wasn't looking forward to it. I was dumbfounded when I learned about Scream. Chris Cornell was collaborating with Timbaland to make a new album. When I heard the tracks he put up on his website they sounded like nothing so much as techno dance. I couldn't reconcile the idea of Chris Cornell and techno dance. It sounded absurd, stupid. I hated everything about the idea. But a funny thing happened somewhere out on the road last night. I began to understand it. I still don't think I like it, but I think I get it. When it gets right down to it, one of the main reasons that I've always liked Chris Cornell is that he's never seemed willing to do the same thing twice. He's always tried to test the limits of his abilities as an artist. Even if I can say nothing else about it, I can say that Scream is different. And it's a definite artistic statement. I've changed a bit since the first time I heard "Black Hole Sun." I guess I can forgive Chris Cornell if he has, too.