Temple of the Dog is regarded as one of rock’s greatest supergroups, but they were hardly considered that in 1991 when they released their self-titled — and only — album, on April 16, 1991. If anything, TOTD was regarded as a Soundgarden side project. Singer Chris Cornell and drummer Matt Cameron worked on the album between Soundgarden’s 1989 major label breakthrough, Louder Than Love and Badmotorfinger, which would be released a few months after Temple of the Dog.
Guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament were recovering from the dissolution of their band, Mother Love Bone, who had released just one album, 1990’s Apple. The Queen-inspired band sounded like nothing else of the era, and Apple was a classic to anyone who heard it. The problem was, not that many people had heard it: it was released a few months after the death by overdose of enigmatic singer, Andrew Wood. Mother Love Bone’s career was over before it even really began.
Wood had been roommates and friends with Cornell. As Jeff Ament wrote in the liner notes that accompanied Temple of the Dog, “We all lost our beautiful friend, Andrew.” He, Gossard and Cornell spent time together. “Told stories. Helped each other. Laughed. Cried. Life was confusing.” They were all in their 20s, dealing with a crushing loss. And in Ament and Gossard’s case, a possible end of their dream career. What were the odds of them starting a new band with a singer with that power and songwriting ability?
“Chris wrote two amazing songs about Andy, ‘Say Hello 2 Heaven’ and ‘Reach Down,'” Ament continued. “And asked Stone + Jeff + Matt 2 record them. Yes.” Those two songs, of course, led to a ten-song album, mostly written by Cornell (Gossard and Ament composed some of the music as well). For Soundgarden fans, this was a revelation. Cornell was an amazing vocalist and performer, but most of Soundgarden’s catalog at this point was incredibly aggressive and abrasive. Of course, those emotions were very attractive to their fanbase at the time: when you’re in your teens and twenties, it’s easy to be pissed off.
On Temple of the Dog, his vocals were bluesier and more soulful. His lyrics were more empathetic. The eleven-minute-plus “Reach Down” was the type of psychedelic Hendrixian guitar jam that most of the indie/punk bands of the era supposedly frowned upon; it was more “Freebird” or “Stairway to Heaven” than “I Wanna Be Your Dog” or “Expressway To Yr. Skull.” Three decades on, “Reach Down” holds up as well — or better — as those classic rock chestnuts. The song showcased the band’s other guitarist, Mike McCready. McCready was also part of Gossard and Ament’s new band, Pearl Jam, and he would blow minds nightly at their shows for decades.
Temple of the Dog also marked the debut of Pearl Jam’s singer, Eddie Vedder, who sang backing vocals on “Pushin’ Forward Back,” “Your Savior” and “Four Walled World.” In a stunning show of generosity, Chris Cornell split lead vocals with Vedder on “Hunger Strike,” which became a monster hit. Singers have a reputation as being divas, and surely Cornell may have been one at times. But he gave Vedder — whose biggest credit at the time was being a member of the band Bad Radio — equal mic time on the song that was the album’s most obvious radio-friendly moment. “Hunger Strike” was constantly on the radio and MTV, but this was an album in the classic sense. Ten amazing songs, without any filler.
In the next few months, Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger — Cornell seemed comfortable singing more and wailing just a bit less, post-Temple. And Pearl Jam debuted with Ten, an album that made them (and in particular, Vedder) massive stars. Temple of the Dog would mark a moment in time and it took on a legendary status. Matt Cameron joined Pearl Jam, and occasionally Cornell would join them on stage for a few Temple of the Dog numbers. But the band had never really played a full concert. So it was a shock in 2016 when they announced that they were going on their first tour to mark their 25th anniversary.
I went to the first three nights of the eight-date tour. The first show, I covered and got complimentary tickets for. The next two nights, I paid my way, wanting to experience the show without the stress of it being “work.” I never thought I’d have the chance to see them, and I wasn’t going to waste it.
I wasn’t let down: whether I was sitting in the 8th row on the floor (my comp tickets for opening night were great), or in the last row of the Tower Theater, or in the back of Madison Square Garden, the show was electrifying. They played all ten songs from their album, and a lot of covers. Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” Led Zeppelin’s ten and a half minute epic “Achilles Last Stand,” David Bowie’s “Quicksand,” Syd Barrett’s “Baby Lemonade” and Free’s “I’m A Mover” all made sense, but there were also some surprises: Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire” and the Cure’s “Fascination Street.” You could picture these artists and these records on the band’s collective turntables, their t-shirts, the posters on their wall, the ticket stubs in their pockets, when they were growing up and finding their own artistic visions. The covers were also a bit haunting: Barrett, John Bonham, Harry Nilsson and Free’s Paul Kossoff were all stars that burned brightly, but not for long enough. Bringing that point closer to home, TOTD also covered a number of Mother Love Bone’s songs, which must have been surreal for Gossard and Ament. They even covered Mad Season’s “River Of Deceit.” Mad Season, of course, was a band that featured both McCready and the late Alice In Chains singer Layne Staley.
Two performances from this tour — “Reach Down” and Mother Love Bone’s “Stargazer” — are available on Chris Cornell’s self-titled 2018 box set. Hopefully one day, an authorized live album will be released. It’s easy to understand why it might be too raw for everyone to approach the idea of such a collection today. Cornell died just a few months after the tour.
It’s his absence that obviously makes the album feel so much different today. I have been a fan since 1989; Louder Than Love hooked me. I saw Soundgarden open for Canadian thrash metal band Voivod at a New York City club called The Ritz (Faith No More was also on the bill), and many times after that; it’s worth mentioning that their post-reunion concerts in the 2010s were often better than their ’90s shows. I saw Audioslave once, and I went to a bunch of his solo shows. I even found merit in his much-maligned solo album, Scream.
I have never been so shaken by a death of someone who I didn’t know (although I did meet him: I was privileged to interview him for an hour once.) I was hesitant to listen to any of his music for a while after his 2017 death. I’ve since gotten over that; I now opt to celebrate his extraordinary talents, which provided the soundtrack for more than half of my life. But yeah, some of those songs hit differently today. The first time I revisited Temple of the Dog after he was gone, the first few words to “Say Hello 2 Heaven” — “Please, Mother Mercy, take me from this place” — froze me in my tracks. There are a lot of lines like that: “You were going to the dog shows, but you kinda lost your way” is one. The one that really gets me is on “Times Of Trouble”: “Don’t try to kill your time/You might do it/Then you can’t change your mind/You’ve gotta hold on to your time/’Til you break through your times of trouble.”
Nirvana’s Nevermind would be released a few months after Temple of the Dog, and it helped a generation to focus their angst and rage. I loved (and still love) Nevermind, but Temple of the Dog made a bigger impact on me. It has fewer hangups: it doesn’t get twisted up worrying if it sounds too much like “classic rock”; it doesn’t care about indie-cred. It’s a lot deeper and more complex than that; it can help you get through grief. Today, it’s a stark reminder that grief never “ends,” but managing it is a lifelong exercise.
Temple Of The Dog At The Tower Theatre: November 6, 2016