Today, June 3, Soundgarden is set to reissue Superunknown, probably their most commercially popular album, which is more than 20 years old this year. “Black Hole Sun,” “Fell on Black Days,” “My Wave,” “Spoonman,” and “The Day I Tried to Live” all emerge as tracks that, for many, defined the Soundgarden sound for a lot of folks who didn’t really know much about them beforehand.
What I knew about them beforehand was that they channeled huge chunks of my life through Ben Shepherd’s sludgy bass lines, Kim Thayil’s dead weight riffs and hooks, Matt Cameron’s aggressively unexpected yet illuminating rhythms, Chris Cornell’s thickened guitar backing, and, of course, Cornell’s voice wailing and oozing out lyrics that only he could have written (the dude is a freak of nature!). Superunknown didn’t damage my relationship to Soundgarden a bit; in fact, it just seemed like turning the bend and following them into yet another heavy wilderness of their creating. I loved the darkness of the album; I loved how it sounded like Ozzy-meets-Zeppelin-meets-JImi-meets-The Ramones; I loved how I wasn’t always able to define the lyrics’ meaning, but I totally understood the songs. Like Badmotorfinger, Superunknown shoved me against the wall.
In the summer of 1994, I was newly married to woman who still thinks that “Soundgarden” is a music festival; I was waiting to move to Anchorage; I thought I had a job that was a step on the way to other jobs; I thought that I was in a place on the way to other places. I didn’t understand that I was somewhere, not merely on my way to somewhere else. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but what I mean is that it’s all too easy to see ourselves on a path to our “future” and get so caught up anticipating an imaginary destination that we miss the journey itself.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays that summer I drove a van loaded with 6 to 10 high school students to a homeless shelter where we served meals, sorted clothes, and overcame the bleach and stale cigarette smells that dominated the place in order to share meals that we were pretty sure couldn’t be good for us (mostly because we generally had difficulty discerning what food we were serving—just doing our jobs). Because we met at 7:30 am, we seldom muttered a word unless totally necessary. We’d pile into the van and fire the engine (I’m trying to emphasize how dramatic it was to start that van), I’d push the cassette tape hard into the tape deck, make sure that the volume was plenty loud for “Let Me Drown” to shake us all awake, then off we'd go. “My Wave” was almost always playing when we’d hit the McDonalds drive thru for coffee; “Black Hole Sun” was almost always playing when we bounced the van into a volunteer parking space behind the shelter. By the middle of June, every one of us in that van knew when it was time (usually about half way back) to sing out, “One more time around (might do it). One more time around (might make it). One more time around (might do it).” It was transcendent. That was so freakin’ cool! How the hell did I miss how completely—I don’t know—HOLY that was? I missed the moment at the time, but every time I hear Cornell make that octave jump to sing, “Bit down on a bullet now / I had a taste so sour / I had to think of something sweet,” I’m standing again in a scalding hot parking lot watching those kids (now in their mid-30s) go back to their lives that were full of the beautiful and the grotesque. I missed it at the time, but those heavy riffs brought both the thunder we hated to admit as well as the sunshine that made us grateful to be alive. The moment was the thing and we shared it, though I didn’t realize how important that was at the time. Moments like that elude definition
Superunknown was the soundtrack for a summer where I was floating in that surreal space between an abstract future and a past I didn’t know how to remember. Little did I know that Soundgarden put a treasure under my pillow that summer—a magical reminder of how music maps the world for some of us. Of course I always wonder why I still struggle so to comprehend what all I’m going through, struggle to locate myself. So, today, I’m going to crank up the volume for a day marked with its own kinds of “heavy” and maybe I’ll pay attention this time—one more time around might do it.