Burning Dinosaur Bones : Revisiting Soundgarden’s ‘Badmotorfinger’

It was October of 1991. It was a Tuesday which meant it was new release day. I’d gone on a field trip with my Art & English class to Indianapolis to visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art as well as a synagogue(we’d just finished reading Chaim Potok’s ‘The Chosen’.) The bus got back to the school around 6pm and I sprinted to my car for my escape. I had two goals: give my girlfriend the cool and colorful hair tie I bought her at the museum and get to Video World and pick up Soundgarden’s new album Badmotorfinger. Both were important, but one was essential.

I can remember the first time I’d heard Soundgarden was way back in 1989. I think my friend and I had seen the “Hands All Over” video on 120 Minutes and immediately thought “Who is this??” Back then we couldn’t just jump on Google and find out the band’s life story in 2 minutes. It took foot work and real research. Combing through magazines and inquiring at record stores. It was work, dammit! So on a trip to Fort Wayne for my birthday day with said friend and an older friend of ours that was out of school and could drive we hit up Wooden Nickel(a favorite record store back then) and I located a copy of Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love on cassette(the preferred method of music listening at the time) and we made our way back home. Louder Than Love was unlike anything I’d heard before. Up to this point I’d only recently been getting away from the teased hair and sexual innuendos of the Sunset Strip crowd but diving head first into the likes of Rush and instrumental guitar music like Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Steve Vai. Soundgarden stood in stark contrast to those albums. Louder Than Love, to my ears, wasn’t punk rock and it wasn’t heavy metal. It was its own beast. Songs like “Hands All Over”, “Loud Love”, “Get On The Snake”, and “Big Dumb Sex” had an almost pop feel, but pop done up in rusty age and a bloody smirk. But then you get to songs like “Gun”, “Full On Kevin’s Mom”, “Ugly Truth”, and “I Awake” and things feel dingy and dark. There’s an oppressiveness to those tracks that make you feel like flipping on the light switch and keeping a conversation going through the night so you don’t have to shut your eyes. The production wasn’t necessarily lo fi, but it was somewhat muted; muffled even. It was an eye opener to my 16-year old self. It was also the first time I ever got my older brother to get into a band, instead of vice versa. That was a proud moment for me.

So fast forward to October of 1991.

I’d been dipping my toes in the Seattle waters with bands like Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Alice In Chains, and the newly released Ten by Pearl Jam since late 1989. I was an early follower of the Seattle scene, having thought I’d found my own little secret musical world(that secret world would blow up in the fall of 1991.) I’d loved Temple Of The Dog the year before as I was a big fan of Mother Love Bone’s Apple album, so I was ready for Badmotorfinger. The first single, the wonderfully-titled “Jesus Christ Pose”, didn’t disappoint. The sound was more aggressive and metal than anything off Louder Than Love, and the production was spot-on. The video was a melee of psychedelic desert shots with Chris Cornell doing a fine job with the menacing faces while colors shone and the film skipped and blipped like a strobe light. It was the quintessential middle finger to religion and the hypocritical line towing that’s involved with organized religion. I knew I was in for a treat with this album, because once I finally got to really listen to Badmotorfinger it felt like a re-wiring of my brain. From the opening salvo of “Rusty Cage” to the the crashing blow of album closer “New Damage” I was enthralled and won over. I felt like a new convert to some new musical language. I wanted to know this world more. Everything that came before it sort of felt trite to my ears. Musically Soundgarden had created this forward-thinking metal that while may not have been “new” per say, but they seemed to have found a way to convey something new within the confines of the classic rock and roll tools.

“Rusty Cage” is one hell of an opener. That opening guitar felt new and alien in a world overrun by pop metal. Ben Shepherd’s bass playing was also a standout on this track, which was new to the Soundgarden sound as prior to this the bass seemed to linger in the background. Lyrically Chris Cornell really went to another level. “Too cold to start a fire/I’m burning diesel burning dinosaur bones/
I’ll take the river down to still water and ride a pack of dogs” felt like poetry as much as lyrics. Cornell could really paint some amazing visuals with his words, as on the next song “Outshined”. “I got up feeling so down/I got off being sold out/I kept the movie rolling/But the stories getting old now” and “I’m feeling California and feeling Minnesota” sort of defined that “what does any of this mean” vibe we were all feeling in 1991. Soundgarden were still writing songs as anthems of the disenfranchised on this album. With Superunknown the lyrics began to point inward. They began to deal with the “I” as opposed to the “we”.

Elsewhere, “Face Pollution” was a blistering track that barreled through the speakers like a freight train from Hell, while “Drawing Flies” was just this vitriolic anthem. “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” to this day knocks me on my ass. It’s this dirge-y, psychedelic monster of a song. Part Black Sabbath and part new age metal. It’s just incredible. “Holy Water” sounds like post-apocalyptic blues. “Holy water on the brain and I’m losing sleep/Holy bible on the night stand next to me” Cornell sings over massively d-tuned guitar playing a bluesy guitar riff that dangles into the doldrums.

I bought this on cassette, but in 1992 a special edition of the album was released on CD called SOMMS which stood for Satan oscillate my metallic sonatas. It had the original album plus an extra CD that contained some covers, one non-album track, and a live version of “Slaves and Bulldozers”. The covers included Black Sabbath’s “Into The Void(Sealth)”, which was Sabbath’s music with the lyrics replaced with words of protest from Chief Seattle. There was also a cover of Devo’s “Girl U Want” and the Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues”. There was an excellent non-album track called “She’s a Politician”. This was the premier version of the album. It’s still a prized possession of mine.

Besides maybe Thayil’s “Room A Thousand Years Wide” I don’t think there was a bad song on this record. I’ve been listening to it all week and I can say that with confidence. And even after 27 years my favorite song is still “Mind Riot”. It was a peek at what Chris Cornell had in store for us on future albums, both with soundtrack work(“Seasons” on Singles S/T), Soundgarden, and his solo albums. He had such a unique way of building chord structures in his songs and this was no exception. It was heavy but also very melancholy, and the lyrics are quite telling. “Candles burning yesterday/Somebody’s best friend died” he sings in the chorus, while one of my favorite lines is “I was crying from my eye teeth and bleeding from my soul/ And I sharpened my wits on a dead man’s skull“. This song, for me, is the shining example of what this band was about. They could give us a beautifully unique and catchy song in such a creative and one-of-a-kind way. That was the result of the Cornell/Thayil/Shepherd/Cameron magic.

In the wake of Chris Cornell’s death, I’ve found some solace in revisiting his work. He’s left a treasure trove of music for us to enjoy and to keep him singing in our lives for years to come. Superunknown put Soundgarden in households worldwide, but Badmotorfinger put them in my head and heart forever.

 

R.I.P. Chris Cornell : Long Live That Voice

Truth be told I haven’t followed Chris Cornell’s music career since that first Audioslave album. Call it moving forward with ones life or just not really being into what he’d been doing since “Show Me How To Live” burned into my brain. But that’s not to say he didn’t make a HUGE impression on the younger J Hub back in high school and my early 20s. The fact that he’s suddenly gone and never going to tear the roof off a theater or stadium with that massive, “Thunder-0f-the-Gods” vocal weapon of his really is quite depressing.

I bought Louder Than Love in December of 1990, on my 16th birthday, and I never looked back. That album was unlike anything I’d ever heard. It was heavy, dirty, dark, and hissy in a way that you’d a thought this cassette came out from under the front seat of some dude’s ’78 Olds Cutlass covered in dirt, dust, and THC resin. It stood in stark contrast to the Rush and various LA hair band albums I’d been slurping up heartily to that point. That album led me to Screaming Trees’ Uncle Anesthesia which led me to Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff which led me to Nirvana’s Bleach which led me to everything else. And as much as I dug Kim Thayil’s howling abuse of his Guild, it was Chris Cornell’s voice that kept me entranced and enthrallled.

Though the guy bemoaned the Robert Plant comparisons, you couldn’t help but go there. He was my generation’s Plant(no offense to the very much alive and well Robert Plant), except better in that he was an incredible songwriter and musician. He wrote complex songs with unique chord structures and lyrics that ranged from poetic to cryptic. Badmotorfinger contained some of my favorite Soundgarden tracks. “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”, “Holy Water”, “Mind Riot”, and “Rusty Cage” were some of the best songs to come out of the 90s for me. Every Soundgarden album, though maybe not all classics, had at least three or four shining moments easily. And when he stepped out on his own with Euphoria Morning it was apparent he was the main music muscle in Soundgarden. Not taking anything away from Matt Cameron, Ben Shepherd, or Kim Thayil, but the feel and off-kilter melodies were all Cornell. With the help of Eleven’s Alain Johannes and Natasha Shneider, Euphoria Morning turned out to be a rather unique and quite beautiful record even without much in the way of great reviews.

Audioslave was one of those projects that seemed like the greatest idea in the world and the worst idea in the world at the same time. Fortunately the good ideas outweighed the bad, at least on that first record. The grooves of RATM with the soulful, powerful belting of Cornell proved to be a lightning in the bottle moment. When they hit they hit strong, but the power quickly fizzled for me. “Show Me How To Live” was that band’s shining moment. Pure power and hooks. It was the best thing Cornell had done in years.

I was lucky enough to see Chris Cornell live twice. The first time was August of 1993 at the World Music Theater in Chicago. Soundgarden and Blind Melon opened for Neil Young who was doing both acoustic and electric sets. Seeing Soundgarden live was unreal. They were so powerful on the stage. Cornell hit every note while also expertly playing rhythm guitar. Neil Young was amazing, but Soundgarden were breathtaking, even in a mere 40 minute set. The next time I saw Cornell was in October of 1995 in Indianapolis with Audioslave. Again, amazing show. His voice started out a little rough, but by the time they closed the night out with Rage’s “Killing In The Name Of” he sounded absolutely incredible. One of the best concerts I’d ever seen.

Chris Cornell as a guy seemed like he was pretty down to earth. He had struggles with drugs and alcohol and made it through the other side. He was interviewed by Marc Maron a few years ago on Maron’s podcast and it was an enlightening conversation. He seemed very humble about the mark he’d made on the world, almost uncomfortable about it. In that respect he seemed very punk rock. He liked his privacy and he’d follow the musical muse wherever she led, whether fans dug it or not. He was a pretty funny guy, too. Soundgarden covered Cheech and Chong and Spinal Tap in the past. They also covered plenty of their influences over the years; from Devo to Black Sabbath to the Beatles to Sly and the Family Stone to the Doors. He was as much a fan as he was a music titan.

Don’t know the circumstances behind Chris Cornell’s passing, and frankly it doesn’t matter. We’ve lost one of the best rock and roll voices to emerge in the last 30 years. No one belts it like Chris Cornell. Nobody.

Go spin Badmotorfinger a few times today in honor of the man. I’m looking Indiana, and feeling kinda bummed.