Irish Proverb: It's often a man's mouth broke his nose.

Feeling Outshined

One of my favorite Soundgarden lyrics came from one of their most popular songs. I never heard Chris Cornell explain what he meant by “I’m looking California, but feeling Minnesota,” but nobody my age needed him to. I was eighteen when Soundgarden’s “Outshined” hit MTV and radio airwaves, and all of my friends and I had just made the transition from high school students to adults in the real world. No matter how California we looked on the outside, inside, we all felt a little Minnesota.

The irony of the lyric is that nobody involved in grunge — not performers, not fans — looked particularly “California.” For most of the 1980s rock had been represented by guys with lipstick, eyeliner, and giant hair. In the fall of 1991, there was a hostile takeover. Overnight, the uniform changed from denim jackets and leather pants to flannel shirts, cargo shorts, and combat boots. Teased hair was out; dirty hair was in. Grunge had arrived.

Pearl Jam’s Ten, Nirvana’s Nevermind, and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger were all released one month apart in the fall of 1991. Along with Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots, these bands became the national face of grunge. Of course there were bands before them like Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone that started the movement, and several others that carried the torch, but this wasn’t meant to be a history lesson.

It’s a memory of a moment in time.

A movement.

My senior year the cool place to cruise was 12th street in Moore, a two-mile section or road that by the time I discovered it was attracting thousands of teenagers each weekend. So many people cruised 12th street on Friday and Saturday nights that the city literally had to pass an ordinance to shut it down. It was where teens went to see, and be seen. Nobody wanted to see guys like us, of course, but that didn’t stop us from going. Compared to all the expensive hot rods and tricked out cars, my friends and I looked like the guys from Wayne’s World.

I distinctly remember the night we pulled up to a stop light on 12th street in my friend’s Chevy Citation. As was fairly common at the time, the Citation had a stereo that well exceeded the value of the car itself. Next to us at the light was a jeep full of dudes and dudettes. They had perfect hair and bodies and teeth. We had Soundgarden.

Our stereo was louder than theirs. With no doors to keep us out, the jeep’s passengers were helpless to defend themselves against our aural assault. The four or five of us, sweaty from sitting inside that Chevy Citation for hours, banged our heads along the music. In that moment, it felt like we were the ones on stage. Every note played on our pretend air instruments until the light turned green mattered.

Nobody, not even a jeep full of beautiful people, were going to outshine us that night.

The entertainment business is overrun with lemmings, artists and production companies quick to jump on the backs of trends and squeeze every last drop out of them. There was a period in time when grunge “meant” something. A few years later, when the local mall was filled with pre-ripped jeans and faded flannel shirts, that moment had passed.

The pain embedded in grunge music was not artificial. While the hair metal bands of the 80s were busy snorting cocaine off of the backsides of strippers, half of Seattle’s grunge scene could be found scoring heroin under bridges.

Of the original big five, the front men for four of them — Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, and as of yesterday, Soundgarden — have now passed.

The prevailing theme that ran throughout grunge music was that the people on stage weren’t any different than the people watching them perform. From their clothes to their feelings, they were like us. They were us. When Kurt Cobain mumbled “I’m worst at what I do best,” or Layne Stayley wondered if it was going going to rain when he died, we all felt it. Man, did I feel it.

Chris Cornell seemed to have escaped that dark cloud that hung over his contemporaries, at least for a while. When Soundgarden broke up, Cornell formed Audioslave with three members of Rage Against the Machine. When Audioslave broke up, he began performing solo. This acoustic performance of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” showed that Cornell was more than just a guy with a loud guitar.

Ironically, the pain those guys shared made the rest of us feel a little better. By listening to their music, a whole bunch of Gen X’ers realized that even when we were depressed, we weren’t alone. I wish those guys had felt the same way.

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4 comments to Feeling Outshined

  • I agree completely. Grunge certainly helped me, in strange but effective ways, to get through a difficult part of life. Like you, I wish it had helped the likes of Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Scott Weiland, and Mike Starr the way it helped us.

    The pain was indeed real. I remember someone saying, after one of the aforementioned deaths, that grunge is what happens when children of divorce get guitars. Seems about right.

  • Sarah

    Grunge music was the genre that my mom and I bonded over when I was in college. Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were her favorites back in the day (I remember getting her posters that she hung in her home office), while I was more into STP and the Smashing Pumpkins. The movie Singles’ was the first one that we each bought a copy of on DVD as well as the soundtrack CD (wish they’d release a remastered version on Blu-ray, with all the music intact, of course!).

    I was saddened when Scott Weiland passed away, but not surprised, considering how he never really could overcome his addictions. Cornell was different — his voice didn’t falter from his drug problems and he seemed more likely to survive it all and make it to old age. Except that 52 isn’t old at all.

  • Emory Lehman

    Thank you Rob, you said it the best way anyone could. I, like you, grew up “cruising the loop” in my home town around the late 80’s doing the exact same thing. The only thing we had was we were right there in the Pacific Northwest before the “grunge” started. I remember seeing Chris in some hole-in-the-wall bar in downtown Seattle. Where it was, I can’t remember, but it was right after I turned 21. It was crazy. I have followed his career from then one. When I saw the news of Chris’s death, I was saddened by the news. And now of the news of it being suicide, it makes sense, but bad sense. You can take the man out of Seattle, but you can’t take the Seattle out of the man. From the stories, and interviews you can see how much Chris suffered from all the excesses. And for the last few years how he has leaned to deal and cope with his daemons. But they caught up with him after his show in Detroit. Another loss of a great music icon.

  • Matt Dee

    A great commentary, with which I can strongly relate. The flash in the pan that was the so-called Seattle scene — at the risk of sounding cliched, I’m going to say it anyway — it changed my life. Prior to September 1991 when I first heard Smells Like Teen Spirit blasting over a PA system in our high school cafeteria, my mixed tapes featured the likes of C+C Music Factory and cheesy corporate hip hop. Over night, Nirvana and the big Seattle bands became my obsession and I never looked back. I would play air guitar on tennis rackets to tunes like Territorial Pissings, Alive, and Outshined. Eventually, I grew tired of the tennis rackets and asked my parents for a real guitar. To this day playing music continues to be a very enjoyable, fulfilling hobby for me and I owe it all to the inspiration from that brief moment in time in the early 90s.

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