The Day I Tried to Live: On Seeing Soundgarden 20 Years After the Release of 'Superunknown'
My bat mitzvah was in the summer of 1993. Aside from the “grand spiritual implications” of “becoming a grown woman,” the significance of such was that I received some life-changing gifts. Namely, my first CD player and a modest wad of disposable income. Said income was put to use with memberships in both BMG and Columbia House mail-order CD clubs. You know the ones (actually, you might not, depending on when you were born). You pick a dozen CDs for one penny each, and then all you have to do is buy a couple at a standard list price and... remember to cancel your membership shortly thereafter. Now, I can’t tell you what I had for lunch last Tuesday, but I can tell you what my first CDs were. Soundgarden’s Superunknown was one of them.
1994—the year Superunknown was released—was a pretty nutty year. There were Tonya and Nancy. Lorena Bobbitt went slicing. Jennifer Capriati went to rehab for weed. OJ Simpson’s joyride preempted the NBA Finals on TV. The Rangers won the Stanley Cup.
Here we are, 20 years later. The gruesome twosome in the news is Kim and Kanye. Solange attacked Jay-Z in an elevator. Morrissey stars in videos with Pamela Anderson. One Direction took a joyride with weed. Maybe they’ll end up in rehab.
One thing’s for sure, though, Superunknown still sounds fucking awesome. I don’t think I’ve seen Webster Hall so rammed since Nine Inch Nails played it in 2009. Actually, Guns ‘n’ Roses was just as much a clusterfuck when they had a “secret” show there a few years back. What these bands have in common is their ability to invigorate people in a recently heralded demographic. We, the people, who came of age in the 90s. We, who’d argue that Chris Cornell is a god among grungemen—his vocal range surpassing pretty much all of his contemporaries (barring Mike Patton, if we’re to believe that recent online survey) and his lyrics capturing the ethos of alienation and uncertainty better than most. The music is sexy and scary and sometimes sad. You know, like life.
The world has been gripped with a 90s resurgence of late, and this year in particular serves as a fab reminder of the musical wealth of 94, with dozens of seminal albums like Superunknown turning 20.
I brought my niece with me last night. She was born in 1990 and until this show couldn’t name a single Soundgarden song. I asked her what she thought afterwards, and her major observation was of the nostalgic look in everyone’s eyes. She commented on how epic the songs sounded, how they seemed a band suited for arenas. She took note of all the of air-drumming.
It’s a funny thing seeing a 90s band through the eyes of a 20-something. Her coming-of-age was soundtracked by bands like Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, and Taking Back Sunday. Her breed of alienation outfitted by Hot Topic. And yet, even she could feel the power of Superunknown. “I kept looking at people’s faces and wishing I could feel what they were feeling. Wishing I could be there with them,” she told me. “They looked so happy.” It was definitely a happy room. It was a sweaty room. It was a room full of people significantly older than my niece feeling significantly younger.
For the length of the set—which was the album in full, followed by an encore of classics like ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Outshined’—the nuttiness of 2014 melted away. Beers were hoisted in the air. Chairs were climbed and necks were craned in a balcony that was about six people deep in any given spot. The songs were just as stirring as they were 20 years ago; Chris Cornell’s presence a hot-ass mix of laid-back confidence and intensity. The people lucky enough to witness this performance didn’t seem to care what year it was, they just wanted to thrust fists in the air, play those air-drums, and maybe see the Rangers win the Stanley Cup.
Karen Ruttner is thankful she stepped back into the year 1994. She's on Twitter — @karenplusone