That’s not actually the line. But it’s what a cheap C45 cassette sounded like, back by the time I caught a hold of it. It’s apt, because it’s a line that summed up that spirit for me: Searching, confused, angry, vulnerable.
Perhaps you could call it the grunge zeitgeist – but to be honest, I think that it’s every zeitgeist. It’s a memory of a time in your life, looked-back-upon. A quality of desperate optimism tinged with the cynical awareness that the future looks like endless Starbucks and MacDonald’s and ad-campaigns.
A struggling. That’s what characterizes grunge and the 90s entire for me. A struggling for something more meaningful than the 80s cocainized glare, and more enduring than the 70s promise that all you had to do was to freak-on, brother.
The future happened. It sucked. And it hit you like a limowreck –
It’s late at night and I’m watching youtube ups of old performances of one of grunge’s biggest talents, Chris Cornell; trying to chart that line from there to here. What is the trajectory of one man’s life? Why did so many of those frustrated young men of the 90s (and nearly-90s); Kurt, Layne, Elliott, Shannon, Hillel, Andy, Jeff, Chris – all go before their time? Are, as Pearl Jam sung, the seeds buried deep?
One of the great musical tragedies – and we’ve had many in this second decade of the twenty-first century – but one of the most understated has to be the loss of those 90s artists. Too soon to recognize or fully develop the gifts they had, and too hidden by the relentless march of pop-branding to understand their significance, and their particular contributions to the history of popular music.
Remembering Chris Cornell a few days after the anniversary of his death, and I am still stunned by the vocal gifts he left behind. And also the vulnerability that he exhibited, to ever greater depths towards his final years. After Audioslave disbanded (and at the same time that Soundgarden was reforming) Chris Cornell had thrown himself back into his solo career, and his performances during that decade became famous for their pared down, singer-songwriter approach. One man and a guitar, eerily similar to how I imagine the young Cornell might have started.
But there was a much greater vocal sensitivity that Cornell brought to both newer material and older standards, as he shared that intimate, struggling, and sometimes angry vulnerability.
The 90s saw an explosion not just of a diverse and rich variety of music, but also of a full-spectrum-dominant, over-exposed, consumer culture. One of the things that perhaps characterizes all of those icons was that painful openness – even if hidden by vibratos and belting contralto tones – and it was laid bare before us all.
Elliott Smith famously once remarked in an interview that ‘I’m not the sort of person who should ever have become a rock star’. I think that this tragic riddle shows us that no one ever was, or ever is, really. In fact, I would go further and say that no one ever was or is prepared for our modern consumer culture.
The 90s kicked off an age where the commodities-of-choice were shifting from the previous trophies of houses, cars, holidays; hairstyles or outfits – and instead became the commodities-of-emotion; of lifestyles, emotions, or what we might now call our ‘aesthetic’. The world became a vampire, to paraphrase another successful 90s band.
Perhaps one of the most pertinent lessons to be learned when remembering the lost icons of the 90s, is that they stood at the cusp of our current times. Their lives are both inspirations and warnings that speak to all of us caught in the consumer glare, with our hearts on our sleeves – and in our screens.
Just how much this man loved his audiences…