25 years later, Temple of the Dog looks back on tragedy and triumph
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Let’s wade into the more inescapable rock and roll waters of the 1990s one more time. There are six long-haired dudes from two bands who grew to be inescapably huge in what became a mass execution of every horrible rock trope born in the 1980s. Big hair, dumb lyrics, plastic girls and the even dumber odes to conquering every one of those women were shown the door as the masses, for one of the few times in popular history, decided that that was enough.
In its place were these guys, standing on a beach around a campfire with their guitars, standing in the tall grass, and they’re going hungry. As momentum swings, the whole movement — which was always about a group of people trying to make music that felt somewhat honest — gets tagged and branded and soon enough, it’s all a joke, filed away for nostalgia and the occasional “remember when” conversation.
“Hunger Strike,” from Temple of the Dog’s only album, was rediscovered and spun into a hit when Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron later found mainstream success with Soundgarden, and Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder hit their ticket with Pearl Jam. It was a perfect crossover and it was irresistable to the large swath of fans who adored both bands.
But it wasn’t a marketing trick that gave the world that song and that video. As those who have dug into the story well know, or even just took the time to read Ament’s handwritten notes on the original self-titled album, the record came about as a healing practice in the wake of Andy Wood’s sudden death.
Wood fronted Mother Love Bone, which included Ament and Gossard, he was roommates with Cornell, and apparently, he was an instant friend to anyone who crossed his path. When he spun off the planet as a result of an overdose in March 1990, he left an unspeakable void to those who had been touched by him. Everyone deals with grief in different ways. These guys happened to make one of the better records of their time as their therapy.
Temple of the Dog, about a year after its 1991 release, became a smash. And on its 25th anniversary, it’s been re-released as a deluxe box set, an ornate snapshot of a band that was never meant to last but whose ripple has carried on as a result of its members’ sustained success and the memories carried with it.
The original album is here in remixed and remastered form and sounding more crisp and clear than ever. There are alternate mixes that offer a view through the side door of the sessions, stripping away layers of the songs and often leaving Cornell’s soaring, screaming voices at the center for listeners to sit happily slack-jawed. The demos and outtakes on disc two paint a very brief but succinct picture of the sessions — this was a time that went by very quickly, where the musicians found the groove nearly immediately. It only takes a couple of takes to nail down “Times of Trouble” or “Pushing Forward Back” before the master was in hand. There’s also a blu-ray disc collecting all of this audio in the highest fidelity they can sell these days, pulling the audience from their homes and into London Bridge Studios circa November 1990.
And then there are the videos, collected from the earliest days and a few of the one-off reunions that have taken place whenever Cornell and Pearl Jam have happened to be in the same city. The meat of the DVD is found in the “Live at the Off Ramp Cafe” portion at the one full Temple of the Dog show. It’s raw and the band is collected on a tiny stage that doesn’t look too different from your favorite bar stage down the street. At one point, the power strips sitting on top of the amps are visible as Gossard changes a string between songs. Patrons openly chat and eventually start crowd-surfing while the band, still all in their early twenties, play these new songs for unsuspecting ears.
A few weeks later, and the band is on stage at the Moore Theater, after Mookie Blaylock’s second show and before a headlining set by Alice in Chains. Here, a young Vedder sits, arms crossed, beside Cameron’s drumkit and sings backup as Cornell fronts the band once again during “Say Hello 2 Heaven.” Before long, Mookie Blaylock is Pearl Jam, and they’re on the road with Soundgarden on the Lollapalooza tour and reprising “Hunger Strike” for unsuspecting crowds night after night.
Flash forward a quarter of a decade and the same core five are there, on stage at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall and tearing through “Call Me a Dog” and “Reach Down.” It’s not hard to see them as five survivors, all pushing 50, who keep finding themselves called back together to celebrate this music they made. It’s hard not to smile watching them tear through the tunes, and they seem to have that moment themselves.
It’s all made easier because, after 25 years and repeated listens, the record still sounds incredible.
How exciting can it be to hear a song again that’s been heard hundreds and hundreds of times? What’s new except for the textured, magnetic-clasp box, some cool posters and liner notes?
It’s the sound. As with the redux of Pearl Jam’s Ten circa 2009, a lack of the original master mix led the band to recruit Brendan O’Brien to give the album a more faithful but still dramatic remix that, simply, heightens the clarity and removes much of the echo and reverb added in after the fact, as was the style of the time.
What’s left is just the band in all their raw, emotive might. Following Cornell’s one-man choir towards the end of “Reach Down,” which in itself can be awe-inspiring on even the tamest of devices, it’s the all-out wallop of the band as the song kicks back in that left me physically gasping. It’s the closest we’ve yet gotten to being in the studio while the primary members of the band worked through their grief over Wood’s death via music, and the cathartic drive of that song’s dramatic finish is the sound of 10 fists punching a hole in the sky. It’s huge and resounding and not-at-all subtle. It wasn’t intended to be.
The second disc of the set provides as much for proof. Within the demos and outtakes, the listener can trace the origins of “Reach Down,” from a raw, nine-minute demo by Cornell that shows the earliest versions of his layered vocals and the support of his own edgy guitar and drum machine click-tracks to an early outtake, where an audibly nervous McCready refrains from going all-out on the solo. What became a blazing six or seven minutes of non-stop guitar began as a shy McCready playing fills in an attempt not to step on anyone’s toes. This was the first major recording of his career, and the stories of him being too anxious to truly flourish are backed up here.
After some prodding by Cornell, though, the final torrent of Hendrix-inspired riffs became not just the high mark of the album but still one of the greater moments on disc of McCready’s career. And, as noted earlier, it sounds better and even more uncompromising than ever before.
Let the album play on repeat and let it wrap back around to the front. Hear “Hunger Strike” out in the wild and remember to pop it back on. Pick up this deluxe edition and let it come around to it four times. However it works out, the record consistently comes back to “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” which serves as the genesis and the key to the entire production. It was the first song Cornell wrote after Wood’s death, and it was the song that spurred on this entire project.
The lyrics, so specific to Wood yet open enough that many have interpreted it for those they’ve lost in their own lives, speak for themselves in the best way. The line that stands out the most comes early on, and it’s the first time Cornell sounds truly frantic and at a loss:
“And he hurt so bad, like a soul breaking
But he never said nothing to me.”
With the worldwide success and the radio hit and the continued production of all members of the one-time group, it’s easy to forget that this was a project borne of tragedy. The five principal members had lost someone close to them, and the sixth only entered their world on his exit. They were traumatized and working through their grief together. There wasn’t a business plan or projection or sales goal. All they had was their company and project to focus on in the absence of anything else.
Amid all the riffs and hooks and memorable lyric snatches, it’s easy to forget that this was an album made by a group of young guys in the throes of loss. The thought of losing someone that young is never an easy one to reconcile, but to lose a peer and a friend and someone so full of life that early is incomprehensible. In that moment and spurred by Cornell, they jumped headfirst into this project. There was no tour and for more than a year, the album sat on record store shelves gathering dust, if it was stocked at all.
That never mattered, of course. What mattered was the music made in honor and memory of their fallen friend. Andy Wood died before he had the opportunity to see the mark he made on the world. In his absence, his friends did all they could to carry on his spirit. It’s still there today, and this seemingly magical moment in time only came about because of the feeling he spread to his friends. The record as a product in our hands is nice, but the music carries on beyond the packaging and posters and bonus discs. The music is his memory and a gift to and from a fallen friend.
We can only hope to make such an impact. We should be all grateful that we’re still here and have the opportunity, though.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org