The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: People have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.
I don’t know Chris Cornell, but I know what he does when he’s hungry. He rings a little platinum bell—grasped between thumb and forefinger, pinky arched aristocratically—which peals and echoes down the corridors of his Tudor-style chateau. The loudness of the sound alerts his manservants as to the extent of their master’s appetite. Soon, one of those servants enters Cornell’s lavishly appointed parlor bearing a tray carved of ivory. The cloche is lifted; the pâté is sniffed. As the lace-and-velvet-draped nobleman begins his repast, the servant stands at stiff attention, a tiny brush made of unicorn whiskers held at the ready in case Lord Cornell should catch a morsel or two in his mustaches.
Chris Cornell’s little platinum bell doesn’t just ring, though. Within its shell—polished to such a luster that Cornell may admire his own beauty while gazing into it—is housed a delicate assemblage of exquisitely wrought clappers, each tuned to its own melodious pitch. When the bell is jingled, those clappers chime in an intricately calibrated sequence. They produce, in short, a song.
That song is “Hunger Strike.”
When Cornell wrote “Hunger Strike”—and its vein-popping refrain, “But I’m going hungraaayyyeeeeeyyyaaaaaayyyyyy!!!”—he wasn't so well fed. Cameron Crowe's recent documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty, tells the story: Following the overdose and death of Mother Love Bone’s Andy Wood in 1990, Wood’s roommate Cornell—still many months from achieving mainstream success with Soundgarden’s breakthrough, Badmotorfinger—wrote a handful of songs in tribute to his late friend. Cornell enlisted two Mother Love Bone alums to record those songs with him. The project was titled Temple Of The Dog, after a lyric of Wood’s. There was a catch: Those former Mother Love Boners, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, had already started Pearl Jam, an unknown outfit that had yet to record its own breakthrough, Ten. Furthermore, Pearl Jam hadn’t even fully test-driven its new lead singer—a shaggy, enigmatic, mail-order beach bum from California named Eddie Vedder. But Pearl Jam, Cornell discovered, was a package deal. If he wanted Gossard and Ament, he'd have to take the lot. And so Lord Cornell And His Temple Full Of Dogs was born.
Despite Pearl Jam’s involvement, Temple Of The Dog—TOTD’s sole full-length—is essentially Cornell's unofficial solo debut. As the frontman of Soundgarden, he’d already been clandestinely revolutionizing hard rock for years, long before Nirvana’s Nevermind landed like a UFO in the musical cornfield that was 1991. For all his lusting after detuned sludge, though, Cornell was more of a rock classicist than a punk rebel. A love of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple dwells at the core of Soundgarden’s early work. At his best (and not to overlook Soundgarden guitar-genius Kim Thayil), Cornell sounded like Jimmy Page sharing a body with Robert Plant; at his worst, he sounded like Jimmy Page sharing a body with David Coverdale. But even while rocking out like a Bowflexed demigod, Cornell had a head for pop architecture. He did, and does, write crazy-good hooks. That became more apparent throughout the ’90s as Soundgarden morphed into a jangly, neo-psychedelic band (an evolution that peaked when Cornell released his official solo debut, the underrated Euphoria Morning, in 1999). The first strong hint of that ambitious direction, however, was Temple Of The Dog—and specifically the album's surprise blockbuster, “Hunger Strike.”
When I first heard “Hunger Strike” on the radio in 1991, I hated it. I’d already been abducted and assimilated aboard Kurt Cobain’s spaceship, and anything Pearl Jam-related was the grunge-lite archenemy. I guess Temple Of The Dog didn’t need my endorsement to go platinum. In a funny twist, it’s the near-accidental participation of Pearl Jam that wound up making “Hunger Strike” a hit; Cornell was the star of the show, relatively speaking, when the song was released in early ’91. But by the end of the year, the tables had turned. Following Ten’s mega-success in the wake of Nirvana-mania, Eddie Vedder wasn’t just a sensation—he was a moaning, mumbling messiah. Soundgarden wasn’t exactly chopped liver, but the sinister, cryptic Badmotorfinger didn’t connect on the intimate level that Ten did. (That is, with seemingly everyone except me and my snobby, Nirvana-or-the-highway buddies. After all, Cobain was a much more well-rounded artist: He could write hooks and mumble.)
Ironically—an adverb that unfortunately prefaced everything I did circa 1991—I changed my mind about “Hunger Strike” because of Vedder. The lyrics are typical Cornellian mumbo-jumbo, a stew of allusive, highly mythic-sounding nonsense that nonetheless coalesces into a thing of pure, pulsing sorrow: “I don’t mind stealing bread from the mouths of decadence / But I can’t feed on the powerless when my cup’s already overfilled.” (Translation: Starving sucks and eat the rich or something.) To Cornell’s credit, that’s some subtle stuff, especially coming from a guy whose most overt political act is jamming with three dudes from Rage Against The Machine. He even has the good sense to keep his gloriously histrionic pipes to a low gurgle.
The song doesn’t take wing, though, until Vedder shyly steps in. Gruff, earnest, and earthy where Cornell sounds simultaneously demonic and angelic, Vedder delivers his opening verse with so much aching, weary conviction, it still makes my heart tighten. It doesn’t hurt that Vedder is working with one of Cornell’s simple, sturdy melodies. Although my opinion of Vedder has softened over the years—to the point where I can honestly say I respect the guy and even enjoy some of his music—the main gripe I still have with him is his inability to locate a tune, let alone pick it up and carry it anywhere. In “Hunger Strike,” Vedder isn't given space to straggle. It’s Cornell’s show. The lack of anything resembling ego or arrogance in Vedder's voice—Cornell, as much as I love him, has both on tap—makes me feel that Vedder actually knows the gnawing, simmering anger at the pit of “Hunger Strike.” Where for Cornell, it’s more of an intellectual exercise in installing emotion into song. Albeit an exquisitely wrought one.
One of my favorite moments in Pearl Jam Twenty is when Stone Gossard remembers the making of Temple Of The Dog. Driving around, Mike Watt-style, while giving his interview to Crowe, the genuinely sweet and humble guitarist reminisces about Temple's studio sessions—and how hearing the playback of “Hunger Strike” was the first time Gossard realized how ridiculously powerful Vedder's voice is, even when stacked up against Cornell's. “And then you hear it,” Gossard recalls with a giddy grin, “and you go, ‘Wow! Our guy can sing really fucking good too.’” His brotherly pride in Vedder—undiminished 20 years later—is enough to choke you up a little. (Or at least choke me up a little. And I’m not even a Pearl Jam fan.)
Toward the end of 1991, just as my opinion on “Hunger Strike” was shifting toward the positive, I saw Soundgarden in concert. It was at a midsized Denver venue called the Gothic—then a grand, flowery old theater full of rotting ornament and torn-up seats. It felt perversely appropriate. Grunge was, to quote the bard, in bloom. Nirvana was still my favorite—I’d seen Cobain and crew at the Gothic, opening for Dinosaur Jr., a couple months before Nevermind came out, and Nirvana's brief, blistering, fuck-it-all set only consummated my commitment. Still, I couldn't dispute Soundgarden’s legitimacy, even as I watched the band rocket out of the underground that it had glaringly never belonged in. Throughout the show, I kept hoping Cornell would bust into “Hunger Strike.” No such luck. In hindsight, I’m glad he didn’t. He may have written the song, but it’s his serendipitous synergy with Vedder that makes it so much tastier than the ingredients in its recipe.
Like organic granola served in a silver spoon, “Hunger Strike” is a mouthful of contrasts (so to speak—we are talking about grunge). There’s no better proof of this than the song’s coda, in which Cornell’s classically trained, highly refined wail tangles with the jaw-clenched angst of his duet partner. The two singers were strangers when they recorded “Hunger Strike,” but I like to imagine they rubbed off on each other during the process. Maybe Vedder got a taste of the resolve he’d need to weather his imminent deification; maybe Cornell finally realized that balancing godhood and populism might be the way to go. Cornell, after all, was clearly destined from day one to be rock royalty, whereas Vedder clawed his way up from next to nothing. Ribbing aside, I don’t begrudge Cornell any of his imperial grandeur. Especially since, as recently as last year, he’s not above climbing down from his castle, tightening his belt, and joining Vedder on stage to sing "Hunger Strike"—both of them hopefully remembering what it means to be hungry.