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Chris Cornell: Seattle Sound and untimely deaths

Chris Cornell, who has died at the age of 52, was hailed as one of the founding fathers of grunge.

But as far has he was concerned, the dissident music scene ended years ago – a victim of its own success.

The year was 1994.

Kurt Cobain was dead, Pearl Jam had a new drummer and Chris Cornell had given an interview to Rolling Stone magazine announcing the so-called Seattle Sound was over.

“It’s hard not to be a little bitter about it,” Cornell said.

“We lost good friends in the process. And all of a sudden you realise that it’s turned into something that’s considered a fashion statement.”

This is the epitaph of what became known as grunge rock, a music scene which started as a sub culture and turned into a mass movement.

Flannel shirts, wool sweaters, Doc Martens and long hair were all that remained of a music genre proudly apolitical, angry and intimate.

Image:Kurt Cobain’s death in April 1994 was grunge’s biggest loss

It all started when a Seattle record label called Sub Pop released an album set titled “Sub Pop 200”, featuring tracks from unknown local bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden and Green River.

The latter would later spawn Andrew Wood’s Mother Love Bone, which would later transform into Pearl Jam.

In the compilation, the label used the word “grunge” to describe the bands’ high-pitched, punk-infused guitars and strong lyrics.

But, rather than a musical style, grunge was a label.

Nirvana thought Pearl Jam were, in the words of J D Salinger, “a bunch of phonies” who had nothing to do with them.

Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains always refused to accept the word “grunge”, rather referring to it as the Seattle music scene.

But like it or not, the four horsemen of grunge rock were more identical than they would like to admit – not just because of the way they dressed or banged their long hairs on stage, but because of their negativity, their inner pain and their poetic fall from grace.

Drugs, particularly heroine, were as defining in the history of grunge as bad parenting.

The first big casualty was Andrew Wood, lead singer of Pearl Jam’s mother band Mother Love Bone.

After Wood, came Kristen Pfaff, Courtney Love’s guitarist and, two months later, Kurt Cobain.

But while drugs had an important part to play in the untimely death of Grunge, it was success that dealt the killing blow.

Pearl Jam
Image:Pearl Jam were the only survivors of grunge’s death, remaining together until this day

Cornell’s Soundgarden were the first to achieve real fame, playing their first London gig in 1989, one year before Nirvana released their first album and Pearl Jam were even formed.

Cornell captured the attention of the mainstream media, and the mainstream crowd, and was the first musician to make workers’ clothes look cool.

Soon, big boots and flannel shirts used to protect poor Seattle natives from the harsh climate would become the trademark of a generation looking for a sound looking inward, not outward.

Grunge rock became popular because it was about teenage depression, about lost children, detachment from reality, social alienation, complete dissatisfaction with world politics.

Unlike its punk predecessors, who wanted to make a statement, grunge did not.

And maybe because of it, it sold out.

The band went on to do MTV Unplugged’s, music videos – riding high on the wave of a televised success which had earlier been saved for pop music only.

“We’ve made any statement we wanted to make about music and about who we are. But it doesn’t really come across in terms of what Seattle was like,” Cornell told Rolling Stone.

“All of a sudden you see it on TV, and people that you know and love are getting the wrong idea because of what they saw on the news. You can’t help but think that somewhere, somebody’s been robbed. And I don’t even think it’s me. I think it’s everyone.”

The movement was even immortalised on the big screen when, in 1992, director Cameron Crowe made a romantic comedy called Singles, set in the Seattle music scene and with cameos from some of its grungier musicians.

That included Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, Cornell, Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament and Alice in Chains’ Sean Kinney.

Later, the movie became a parody of the unwanted commercial success of the “movement” but, now, looking back at it, in the words of Martin himself, “it bottles a moment in time”.

Image:Cameron Crowe’s 1992 movie Singles, starring Matt Dillon and Bridget Fonda

Cornell died aged 52 on Wednesday night, hours after his last show, joining Cobain, Wood and Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley in the grunge afterlife.

Pearl Jam, the only band to have survived the death of grunge, did so because, in a way, they stepped away from the spotlight.

After the success of 1994’s Vitalogy, the death of Kurt Cobain and Cornell’s Rolling Stone interview, after four great years in the spotlight, of music videos, Grammy awards and magazine covers, Pearl Jam decided to dedicate the rest of their career to their hardcore fans.

For the next eight years, they released niche albums which achieved moderate success, far from the record-breaking sales of the first three.

No more music videos for grunge hipsters, just rock shows for Pearl Jam fans.

Today, nearly 30 years after its birth, the Seattle sound lost one of its most reluctant architects, Chris Cornell, whose long hair got was cut short before anyone else’s.

Today, the streets of Seattle will seem a little emptier, airwaves a little poorer, and a whole generation will likely recall some of the emptiness of it felt in ’94.

But grunge, that unwanted epithet, will likely last forever.

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