Many nicknames have been given to Temple of the Dog over the past twenty years, including “Pearl Jam‘s first album” and “the first great grunge album,” neither of which is inaccurate. Every member of Pearl Jam’s current lineup (Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Matt Cameron and Eddie Vedder) makes an appearance here, but more than anything, this is a project by Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell. The story behind Temple of the Dog is one of my favorites, since I’m a huge grunge fan and Pearl Jam is my favorite of Seattle’s Big Four. (Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains are the other three.) Before the “grunge explosion” in the early ’90s, the most promising band in Seattle was Mother Love Bone, whose members included bassist Jeff Ament, guitarist Stone Gossard and vocalist Andy Wood. A drug addict, Wood emerged from rehab looking for a roommate, and moved in with Chris Cornell.
But before Mother Love Bone’s first (and only) album Apple was released, he overdosed on heroin, dying three days later after being found in a comatose state. Wood’s death had a profound effect on Cornell, Ament and Gossard, and they decided to record a tribute album in response. Gossard enlisted the help of Mike McCready, his childhood friend, to play lead guitar, and Cornell recruited Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron to fill out the lineup. The resulting album is a damn good one, thanks to Cornell‘s emergence as a great songwriter. (Louder Than Love, Soundgarden’s 1989 major label debut, is considered pretty ho-hum.) Temple of the Dog was a huge creative step, as it led to two more great albums released later in 1991, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and Pearl Jam’s Ten. (It’s worth noting that Temple of the Dog producer Rick Parashar would also produce Ten, which helps explain why Temple of the Dog sounds more like a Pearl Jam album than a Soundgarden album.)
The album’s first two tracks, “Say Hello 2 Heaven” and “Reach Down,” are elegies to Wood. “Reach Down” clocks in at over 11 minutes, and is mostly guitar solo, but it’s particularly notable in that it is the first time McCready, arguably the greatest guitarist of the past twenty years, is put front and center. Track 3, “Hunger Strike,” is an alternative rock radio classic, and features the debut of vocalist Eddie Vedder. And get a load of those John Steinbeck-esque lyrics: “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 / But it’s on the table, the fire is cooking / And they’re farming babies, while the slaves are working / The blood is on the table and their mouths are choking / But I’m growing hungry…”
Of the ten tracks on the album, Cornell receives sole songwriting credit for seven of them, and is given sole credit for the lyrics on all ten. The music for Track 4, “Pushin’ Forward Back,” a more straightforward rocker, is credited to Ament and Gossard. It’s one of my favorites, and it’s easy to see how Gossard was able to crank out similar riffs for “Once,” “Even Flow” and “Alive” later that year. As a Pearl Jam fan, I love that even though this is essentially Cornell’s project, he had the grace to give each of the future Pearl Jam members nice introductions on the early tracks as a sign of respect and thanks. Ten would turn out to be one of the greatest debuts in the history of rock, and it’s due in no small part to the core members of Pearl Jam collaborating with a skilled songwriter like Cornell on Temple of the Dog.
It’s just damn near impossible for your first album to be really great, and in the case of Pearl Jam, Ten wasn’t really their first album. In addition to making Temple of the Dog, Ament and Gossard had made a fine album with Mother Love Bone — incidentally, Apple was the last album left off my list and is my second honorable mention — and were in a band called Green River for a few years before that in the mid-’80s. What I’m trying to say is, these were all really experienced musicians who spent a long time working on their craft before releasing Ten, their “debut.” For these guys, Ten wasn’t their first album, just the first album they made together. As for drummer Matt Cameron, he would remain in Soundgarden with Cornell until their demise in 1996.
Pearl Jam practically had a revolving door of drummers early in their career, and were happy to snatch him up since they had already worked with him on the Temple of the Dog album. He’s been with Pearl Jam ever since. I was watching Cameron Crowe’s documentary Pearl Jam Twenty recently, and I thought it was interesting that in it Cornell dismisses Kurt Cobain‘s death as the moment grunge lost its innocence. According to Cornell, it was Wood’s death that took the innocence from the Seattle music scene. In fact, the grunge period was cradled between those two deaths (March 19, 1990 – April 5, 1994), in a way. Although MLB’s Apple came close to nailing the grunge sound, Temple of the Dog was the first album to really have that evolved sense of dynamics, melody and mood, leaving behind the overly sludgy production that defined that genre’s early works.