Saturday, 18 September 2010

I still worship at the Temple

The music of our youth is that which remains with us. Some time soon after the invention of radio, popular tunes found their way into our homes, and could be easily listened to repeatedly, allowing us to liken them to some kind of living entity with the ability to provide comfort or sorrow, or indeed, comfort us during our sorrow.

Since I was very young I have been a packrat when it comes to the popular arts, and as a teenager I had hundreds of CDs and cassettes lying around my bedroom. I went through different phases when it came to genre, and for lack of a better word, I have ended up with 'eclectic' tastes in music. But some of those albums which were in heavy rotation during those desolate teenage years are the ones whose impact, for better or worse, I can't shake away. Unlike many of my high school contemporaries, I shied away from danceable music, and generally anything with lyrics whose shallowness felt foreign to me. Instead I veered toward the more angst-ridden sounds (which some would say were merely boring and depressing) of electrified rock.

I became interested in the surge of music emanating from a rainy city in America during the early '90s. Despite the forerunners among the bands from Seattle being quite different to one another stylistically speaking - Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth - they were all unfortunately lumped together as either 'grunge' or 'alternative' music. Seattle Invasion might have been more appropriate, although genres and sub-genres are restricting, especially if one is looking for discrete qualities in a band. 

One thing that the above kind of recognized movement does help to do is sell records, because it led abstract materialists such as myself to try and find all the associated albums. This was a bit more difficult during the pre-iTunes era, but given the difficulties involved, there was a greater deal of satisfaction to be found with each purchase, and it's also possibly true that greater attention was given to each CD bought; they were listened to many times over before a final verdict on their worth was pronounced.

Among the bands listed above, my favourites were Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Mainly I was enamoured by their singers and their songwriting, not yet being in the habit of dissecting all the individual elements of a recording - it's a little sad that as we grow up we learn to stop taking our entertainment at face value, and have to puzzle over the deeper meaning. When I learned that members from both bands had collaborated on a project album, I knew I had to have it, especially after seeing a music video of one of the album's songs on MTV. The eponymous album was Temple of the Dog and the song was Hunger Strike:

I don't mind stealing bread
From the mouths of decadence
But I can't feed on the powerless
When my cups already overfilled
But it's on the table 
The fire's cooking
And they're farming babies
While slaves are working
Blood is on the table
Mouths are choking
I'm growing hungry

I can't pretend to claim that I know what the above lyric by Chris Cornell means, but when he and Eddie Vedder sang these words together it had a hypnotizing effect on me - then and now. Especially when Cornell wails in the kind of high pitched voice only found among male rock singers, I'm going hungry! I didn't know what it meant, but I knew it meant something. It was around this time that I had a wise English teacher who posited to us his theory that the reason conventional poetry wasn't popular among young people anymore was because we had poetry in our music. I think it's safe to assume that such a theory wouldn't sit well with serious students of poetry, but it is one that I find myself comfortable with, especially given my own frustrations when trying to immerse myself in the kind of verse that doesn't come with an unhappy man to belt it out in song form.

I acquired the Temple of the Dog CD (three times over the years as it happens, to replace lost copies), and discovered that I could listen to it start to finish, again and again, without my interest ever waning. I learned that it was a project for which Cornell was largely responsible, and it was meant to honor a fallen light of the Seattle music scene - Andrew Wood, of Mother Love Bone - who had died from a heroin overdose. This knowledge served to make the songs ever more poignant to my impressionable teenage self. The line-up of the album was:

Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave) - vocals, guitar
Jeff Ament (Pearl Jam) - bass
Stone Gossard (Pearl Jam) - guitar
Mike McCready (Pearl Jam) - guitar
Matt Cameron (Soundgarden, Pearl Jam) - drums
Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) - vocals

The opening track, Say Hello 2 Heaven, states the theme of the album in painfully explicit terms:

Please, mother mercy
Take me from this place
And the long winded curses
I hear in my head
Words never listen
And teachers, oh, they never learn
Now I'm warm from the candle
Though I feel too cold to burn

He came from an island
But he died on the streets
And he hurt so bad like a soul breaking
But he never said nothing to me

So say hello to heaven

Words that now made more sense knowing the background story, and again Cornell's soaring voice seemed to touch the heavens themselves, especially on nights when company was in scant supply. McCready's guitar solo, with its Hendrix inspired progressions were a perfect complement. Our house was quite large and I had my own bedroom so I usually joined in with my own belting. I felt like a tortured rock star.

It wasn't all misery guts though. Song number two, Reach Down, involved an extended jam session of a kind not common in the mainstream music of the '90s, and more reminiscent of a live set by Cream. Also atypical of the popular music of the day was the allowed showcasing of the virtuoso drumming and bass playing of Cameron and Ament. Cameron's jazz infused beats and fills, and Ament's monster bass sound, using an arsenal of instruments perhaps only bested by the likes of Les Claypool, were not content with being relegated to the traditional role of a rock rhythm section. 

Another stand-out track, in an album without a moment of filler, is Times of Trouble:

When the spoon is hot and the needle's shot

Again telling us explicitly what was going through the mind of the lyricist, yet its chorus happily gets more ethereal:

I started singing, swinging you mother's sword
I know you're playing, sometimes the rules get hard  

I think it was this song which really drove home the ideal for me that my kind of 'poetry' was not easily deciphered, if at all. Perhaps all that matters are phonetics. I don't really know, and hate to dwell. 

In my twenties I went through a phase where I barely listened to music at all. For some reason most of the time it seemed like a chore to sit down and appreciate a whole album. While I was able to join in the timeless debate of good taste, and determine what I thought was good or bad, there was something preventing me from enjoying music as I did when I was a teenager. I think part of me just didn't want to be that adversely affected by song anymore, and become overly in touch with the tragedy that can be life. There were some exceptions, notably the complex jazz tapestries of Pat Metheny and the deeply grief-stricken voice of the never to be duplicated Billie Holiday. The latter's uniqueness is perhaps best exemplified by Diana Ross's portrayal of her in the very weak biopic, Lady Sings the Blues, and her misguided choice to sing Lady Day's songs herself.

I have since begun listening to music again on a daily basis, and have found that there is far too much out there which is good to listen to. Indeed, my tastes are still 'eclectic'. Long bus rides to work and back are best taken in the company of an MP3 player, although the roar of a bus's engine can sometimes mean that the more intricate riffing of Charlie Parker can become slightly muffled. However, I've never been able to recapture those wild emotions that welled up inside me when listening those sometimes angry, sometimes sad, musicians who put out albums when I was younger. Perhaps it is just as well, as there was definitely a form of sensory masochism being practiced, despite there also being the potential to concurrently heighten one's sensitivity to the world at large. So, it is with mixed feelings of relief and regret that I now listen to a touching song and linger on its beauty, rather than wallow in its pain.

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