Tuesday, 23 May 2017
Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose in March of 1990, rending his tight-knit Seattle music community. As often happens in creatively fueled local scenes, community members rallied and turned their grief into art. Wood’s roommate Chris Cornell recruited Wood’s erstwhile Mother Love Bone bandmates Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard to record some songs he’d been working on. With guitarist Mike McCready, Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, and recently relocated San Diego native Eddie Vedder, they called themselves Temple of the Dog, after one of Wood’s lyrics. Their eponymous album, released in April 1991, sold modestly thanks to Soundgarden’s profile, but Soundgarden were signed to A&M, in rotation on 120 Minutes, and toured with Guns N’ Roses.
On the night of Wood’s funeral, many of his friends and collaborators gathered at Mother Love Bone manager Kelly Curtis’ house, including director Cameron Crowe and his wife, Heart guitarist and Seattle native Nancy Wilson. Crowe had moved to Seattle several years earlier and fell in with the area’s incestuous network of rock bands, labels, college radio stations, and venues. Then 32 years old, he was already an ex-Rolling Stone features writer and accomplished screenwriter working on a new script for a romantic comedy that used Seattle’s burgeoning rock scene as its backdrop. On the night of Wood’s memorial, something clicked. “It was the first real feeling of what it was like to have a hometown—everybody pulling together for some people they really loved,” he told an interviewer in 2001. “It made me want to do Singles as a love letter to the community that I was really moved by.”
If Temple of the Dog were a spiritual origin of “grunge”—the name associated with the mainstreaming of Seattle-area indie rock and the culture it briefly spawned—then Singles (the film and soundtrack), was its commercial coming-out party. More than a year after duetting on “Hunger Strike,” Vedder and Cornell were merged into Matt Dillon’s Cliff Poncier character. Cornell appeared in the film as himself, fronting Soundgarden playing “Birth Ritual” in a club scene and, in the film’s most Wayne’s World moment, standing in stoned silence while Poncier blew out the windows of his girlfriend’s car with too much speaker wattage. While they were recording what would become Pearl Jam’s debut album Ten, Vedder, Ament, and Gossard actually had lines in the film, playing Poncier’s backing band in Citizen Dick. In one of the few Singles scenes about band life, Vedder and Ament mumble through an alt-weekly pan of the band’s LP to protect Poncier’s feelings. Crowe cuts to a close-up of the review, which paints Poncier’s music as “pompous, dick-swinging swill” that comes from being a big fish in a small pond. If he moved to a bigger, more established city like Minneapolis, the review snarked, he’d be a nobody.
The Seattle that Singles was shot in during 1991 was a very different city than the one it was a year later when the film was released. Like Temple of the Dog, Singles was the product of a bonafide music scene that was starting to make mainstream impact (bands signing to majors, journalists sniffing around to write trend pieces on Sub Pop), but it was released into an absolute hype storm. Effectively, by late 1992, both could enjoy the rare distinction of pre-emptively canonizing a musical movement. They were “grunge” before grunge was even Grunge. At the very moment it achieved mass popularity, grunge not only had breakout stars and a fashion style guide (flannel, long underwear beneath shorts, stocking caps) but its own scene supergroup and a feature film in theaters.
Grunge “broke” thanks to Nirvana, an absent presence in the film and its soundtrack. In a Rolling Stone diary entry dated January 24, 1992, a couple weeks after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” peaked at No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot 100—the same day Nevermind became the No. 1 album in the country—Crowe noted that Warner Brothers, the studio that had been sitting on Singles for months, was now suggesting a new title for the film: “Come As You Are.” By April 1992, Singles the film still didn’t have a release date, but Epic was pushing to release its soundtrack to ride the ascendant grunge wave. By mid-year, A&M was aggressively re-promoting Temple of the Dog to radio and MTV, and Epic released the Singles soundtrack two weeks before Soundgarden and Pearl Jam played the main stage at Lollapalooza. It is impossible to underestimate how much that summer and fall were suffused with grunge. Soundgarden was big (Badmotorfinger peaked at No. 39), but Pearl Jam became massive—Ten was a slow-building success, that peaked at No. 2 on Billboard in late August, a couple weeks before Temple of the Dog entered the top ten as well. In September and October, when Singles was in theaters at the same time that “Hunger Strike,” “Outshined,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and “Alive” were omnipresent on MTV and modern rock radio, grunge felt like a small version of disco in the Saturday Night Fever moment: a mass-media cultural phenomenon and style sensibility that had as many haters as acolytes. By December 1992, SPIN was calling Seattle “to the rock’n’roll world what Bethlehem was to Christianity.”
Where Singles the movie was a romantic comedy with Seattle rock as its backdrop, its soundtrack, for anyone outside of the Pacific Northwest or the college radio universe, was a revelation. The 25th-anniversary reissue of the compilation revisits and further contextualizes this moment, with a bonus disc of demos, live versions, and other film ephemera never before issued on CD or vinyl. At the time, SPIN called the Singles soundtrack, “as close as possible to the ultimate Seattle music anthology…without sounding like a masturbatory Sub Pop collection.” Amid the hippest bands of the insurgent grunge moment and Mother Love Bone’s epic “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” (which also appeared briefly in Crowe’s 1989 film Say Anything), Crowe was careful to include Seattle rock royalty (via a Hendrix deep-cut and a deeply faithful cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore” by Heart (as the Lovemongers), and hire Minneapolitan Paul Westerberg for the score and two prominent songs (his first two solo recordings, to boot). Through the Singles soundtrack, Crowe expertly situated grunge within the ’60s and ’70s classic rock pantheon while, through Westerberg, not testing the rom-com demographic by putting TAD or Screaming Trees on the trailer. It’s not a perfect fit: though Westerberg’s DNA as the leader of the Replacements winds through grunge, the chipper, raspy power-pop of “Dyslexic Heart” sits oddly aside Soundgarden and Alice in Chains on the soundtrack.
About that contrast: Crowe was deeply connected to Seattle’s scene, but despite casting several of its key participants in the film, he had no pretensions about its death-fixated, deeply ironic, drop-D metal-punk indie rock scene serving as anything more than a backdrop for his du jour romp: Linda, a “U-dub” grad student in environmental policy; Steve, a civil engineer whose dream is to revolutionize the city’s urban transport with a latte-serving high-speed train; Janet, a naïve, love-seeking (and Fountainhead-reading?!) barista played by Bridget Fonda. Apart from catching bands in clubs and the Citizen Dick narrative, grunge is as much a lifestyle backdrop for Singles as the city’s booming coffee market. Consider “State of Love and Trust,” which along with “Breath,” represent the earliest (and best) Pearl Jam music (and provide evidence of how immediately the band congealed). The song appears early in the film as the background soundtrack to the moment when lovestruck Linda realizes she’d been duped by the Spanish man to whom she’d given her garage door opener. She drags her friend outside and has a good cry, in front of a graffitied wall reading “LOVE BONE.”
The broader context of Singles shows how Crowe, like the bands on his soundtrack, was coming into his own. The movie hit theaters a few months after the debut MTV’s Real World (which debuted in May 1992), and predicted Friends, which debuted on NBC in September 1994. Consider Friends through Singles: a cast of attractive late 20-somethings, all of whom (except Linda) live in the same apartment complex, date each other and…hang out at a coffee shop (Java Stop) when they should be working, with a popular soundtrack featuring…Paul Westerberg. An underrated aspect of Singles, even apart from freezing pre-grunge Seattle in celluloid, was Crowe zeroing in on an emergent audience demographic—late-20s/early-30s single white people—that television would capitalize on in the next several years, broadening the gambit of sitcoms past the workplace and family to the extended networks of young urban professionals.
Singles the film was successful, but the soundtrack was a minor phenomenon, cracking the Billboard Top 10 and eventually going double-platinum. Its success was enough to launch the career of one Screaming Trees. “They kept postponing the release of our album,” Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin remembered of the band’s commercial breakthrough Sweet Oblivion, “because the Singles soundtrack was getting all the attention.” Scene veterans from sleepy Ellensburg who’d signed to Epic in 1990, the Trees were filed under “heavy metal” and marketed as a hair band until grunge. Their anthemic single “Nearly Lost You,” powered by Mark Lanegan’s raspy baritone and a radio-friendly iteration of the band’s psychedelic power-sludge, made the soundtrack’s penultimate slot as a last-minute addition. Oblivion was finally released that September 8, and thanks to Singles it sold upwards of 300,000 copies, easily the band’s biggest seller.
As a commercial genre, grunge paved a lane through which bands like Screaming Trees could chase the rock mainstream. As a word, grunge was a perfect phonetic suggestion of how the music sounded and the musicians looked. The Trees were big, gruff guys—the kind of dudes who, per Mark Yarm’s essential grunge oral history Everybody Loves Our Town, got in a brawl with 10 club security guys in New Jersey the night before their national television debut on Letterman. They played “Nearly Lost You” with Lanegan sporting a shiner, after which Letterman admitted, “I’ll be honest with ya—I was kinda scared.”
The origin of “grunge”—which, though derided, is still as on-the-money as “punk” as a single-word encapsulation of music and attitude—is the stuff of legend. Sub Pop co-founders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt had great ears for music and an even better knack for self-effacing promotion, and were obsessed with gaining credibility in the UK, which, in the label’s view, meant playing up the music’s blue-collar roots, occasionally to the cartoonish level of guitar-wielding loggers and lumberjacks (which Kurt Cobain hated). The word “grunge,” legend has it, was most prominently deployed by Melody Maker’s Everett True in a Sub Pop band review, though in Yarm’s book, Poneman claims True cribbed it from Pavitt’s description of Green River’s Dry as a Bone in Sub Pop’s mail-order catalog: “ultra-loose GRUNGE that destroyed the morals of a generation.”
The mass media didn’t care about its provenance because grunge just worked. It allowed industry types to market music (and release films like Singles), and made the perfect peg for journalistic trend pieces, which often failed to sniff out the subcultural irony that defined so much of the Seattle scene. Most legendary in this respect is the sidebar to the New York Times’ “Grunge—A Success Story,” published two months after Singles’ theatrical debut, in which Sub Pop receptionist Megan Jasper created a one-woman hoax when prompted for a grunge “lexicon,” offering made-up slang like “swingin’ on the flippity-flop,” “lamestain” and “bloated, big bag of bloatation” which were reprinted verbatim in the paper of record (Jasper later fessed up in Doug Pray’s essential 1996 documentary Hype!).
Singles the movie doesn’t even remotely trade in this level of irony—that’s the opposite of Crowe’s thing—though the soundtrack’s incorporation of Mudhoney’s “Overblown” at least offers a sincere critique from the guy who many consider the linchpin of the entire scene (the soundtrack’s deluxe version includes a demo version). Opening with ur-grunge singer Mark Arm’s studio chatter, “Okay, grunge masters, he we go,” “Overblown” sounds like a mangled version of the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat,” as Arm deadpans, “Everybody loves us/Everybody loves our town/That’s why I’m thinking lately/The time for leaving is now.”
In a particularly great anecdote from Our Town, Truly guitarist Robert Roth recalls watching Nirvana debut “Teen Spirit” live at Seattle’s OK Hotel while “across the street, there was a private thing where they were filming Alice in Chains for Singles.” Notwithstanding the synchronicity of an actual historical moment in rock lore coinciding with Crowe’s simulacrum of another moment, these shows help to understand just how different the bands lumped in under “grunge” were. Alice in Chains played unrelentingly dark, metal-influenced sludge-rock, though the harmonized vocals of guitarist/songwriter/hesher Jerry Cantrell and the vampiric Layne Staley set them apart from their contemporaries. Their 1990 single “Man in the Box” was the early breakthrough of Seattle rock, bridging the Headbanger’s Ball and Buzz Bin crowds.
Alice in Chains appear twice in Singles, playing Facelift track “It Ain’t Like That” and “Would?” which kicked off the soundtrack. Though the compilation’s two non-Ten Pearl Jam songs made it commercially valuable, “Would?” is unquestionably its best song. Penned by Cantrell as an ode to Andrew Wood, “Would?” is more generally about making bold choices, ignoring doubters, and accepting whatever consequences might come. If any song of 1991-2 could be called pure, uncut “grunge,” this is it: starting with a menacingly low bass rumble that blooms into a slithering goth-metal groove, featuring the tense interplay between Staley’s acidic snarl and Cantrell’s placid vocal, the lyrics drenched with the kind of looming dread pioneered by Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. The song’s odd structure lends it a further disorienting effect, like a slasher movie cutting to black at the exact second the protagonist opens the door to the dark basement. The key change signals a reprieve, but there’s no resolution; just when the song veers to a new path in the final bridge, it drops off suddenly, leaving Staley screaming a question that’s equally alluring and terrifying: “If I would, could you?!” while everything just collapses under its own weight. “Would?” concluding with a musical bridge-to-nowhere is as good an encapsulation of grunge’s performative nihilism as anything Arm, Vedder, or Cobain could summon.
“Would?” remains the best song on Singles, but the 25th-anniversary reissue of the soundtrack is dominated by Soundgarden, especially Chris Cornell, revealing just how much he contributed to the film’s blend of Seattle reality and cinematic fiction. It was Cornell who suggested Crowe include “Drown” on the soundtrack, an eight-minute epic from Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins, who were still a year away from Siamese Dream. While Citizen Dick re-recorded Mudhoney’s epochal Sub Pop single as “Touch Me I’m Dick,” it was Cornell who actually wrote the songs for Poncier’s “solo album,” prompted by song titles jokingly devised by Ament.
Crowe loved the songs, especially the acoustic track “Seasons,” which recalled Zeppelin III and Pink Floyd circa Meddle and perfectly bridged the soundtrack’s past and present iterations of Seattle rock. Another song from what became the Poncier EP was “Spoon Man,” an ode to a quirky local street musician that appeared briefly in Singles and would be fleshed out into the lead single from Soundgarden’s magisterial 1994 LP Superunknown. The Singles reissue bonus disc contains Cornell’s original Poncier tape (along with some incidental music he composed for the film that went unused), including the stark “Nowhere But You” and the lilting, psychedelic “Flutter Girl,” both of which would reappear in more exquisitely produced form on the 1999 CD single for Cornell’s solo single debut “Can’t Change Me.” While Euphoria Morning marked a dramatic public shift for Cornell-the-solo-artist after more than a decade as Soundgarden’s howling frontman, these tracks reveal that he’d long had a quieter, more pensive side.
Cornell’s May 17th suicide after a Detroit Soundgarden concert came as a shock to rock fans and the Seattle community to which he meant so much, and, less importantly, provided a morbid coincidence for the 25th-anniversary reissue of the Singles soundtrack to which he contributed so much. As happens with rock star deaths, Cornell’s triggered countless appreciations of his significant contributions to 1990s hard rock, for which he was perhaps the single most prominent link to its 1970s and ’80s predecessors. It was also a reminder that of the five rock frontmen to emerge from that moment in rock history—Cornell, Cobain, Staley, Vedder, and Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland—only Vedder and Pearl Jam remain (they were feted in 2011 with a career-spanning documentary directed by Crowe himself). This is the thing about grunge: apart from its commercial success and validation of mass media hype, grunge-as-music was most often a very dark thing, populated by iconoclastic young men negotiating personal authenticity with unavoidable fixations on death, sickness, and pain. That many of those men sang passionately about the same things that led to their premature deaths is in the end, the legacy of that moment.
By definition, by stressing authenticity within the bounds of mainstream commerce, rock music has to die and be periodically resurrected. What made grunge—rock’s final mainstream “rebirth”—so potent and problematic was how it intertwined artistic tensions (selling out vs. staying true, community vs. commerce) with the musicians’ own deep-seated personal anxieties, fears, and sicknesses. That’s what made it feel real, what allowed for individuals to identify with it, and ultimately, what made it so commercially valuable. The music was often great, but more importantly, it was cast as the organic cultural product of a single city in the corner of a country, that, for many, marked an organic “victory” after years of post-punk indie rock bands slogging it out on college radio and vanning it between small clubs. For locals, on the other hand, grunge was an absolute hype nightmare that had little to do with music or community and everything to do with vulture-like industry encroachment and outsider social positioning.
Singles is often seen as a sui generis rock-historical document because of its ostensible realism. Crowe’s love letter to his adopted hometown--shot on site and cast with actual locals--was composed in the moments before Seattle became a synecdoche for rock’s latest rebirth, and was rush-released to coincide with a moment that it, in turn, further fueled. Twenty-five years later, when local scenes are inextricable from their immediate online hype and a churn of thinkpieces mourn rock’s latest “death,” Singles feels less like Hollywood realism and more like the conjured ghost of a dead moment. As in the early 1990s, so it is today: rock lies in wait, ready for its resurrection through some authentic commercial séance. Maybe Cornell knew best, growling on the Singles soundtrack: “The snake retreats/Admits defeat/And waits for the birth ritual.”