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There are many stories you might hear about Seattle music. This one, the story of Temple of the Dog, just so happens to be true.
Temple of the Dog begins with a cassette containing two songs spawned by the loss of Chris Cornell’s friend and roommate Andrew Wood (singer of Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone). Wood had huge talent, but human beings are complicated, and he struggled with cocaine and heroin, sending him to rehab in 1989. In March 1990, Wood relapsed and died at 24. It was, Cornell would say, “the death of the innocence of the scene.” Cornell was devastated. “Chris and Andy had a very deep relationship,” Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron observed. Soundgarden was on tour when the news broke.
Out of that deep tragedy sprang life, and new musical connections. What Cornell initially thought might be a tribute song with the surviving Love Bone players blossomed into a larger song cycle. Songs including “Say Hello 2 Heaven” and “Reach Down” were mournful elegies, but like Andy Wood himself they had a fearlessness. “I didn’t have any destination for those songs,” Cornell reflected. “I was compelled to write them and there they were – written in a vacuum as a tribute to Andy. My thought was that maybe I could record these songs with the remaining members of Mother Love Bone and that maybe we could release them as a tribute.”
Mother Love Bone’s Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament began playing with Mike McCready, who had previously been in a band named Shadow while Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron was brought in to play drums on several demos. Three of those songs in collaboration with Cornell would find their way to the Temple of the Dog album. That was the way Seattle operated in that day, with creative sparks flying cross-town with little regard to who was committed to what band. Cornell continued on to write several more songs that would round out the material for the rest of the album.
The project became a true collaboration. The group would go into London Bridge Studio with no commercial expectations, and in fifteen days they cut ten tracks. It would be, Gossard would later observe, “the easiest and most beautiful record that we’ve ever been involved with.” Cornell added, “Temple was about making an album simply for the joy of doing it. We weren’t concerned what anyone outside of our group of friends would think of it. It was the first and maybe only stress free album that we all made.”
Gossard, Ament, and McCready were also simultaneously forming a new band, which more than six months later would be known as Pearl Jam. A singer from San Diego named Eddie Vedder, who was vying to lead the Gossard/Ament/McCready project, came into the studio to sing background vocals on three of the Temple songs. When Cornell thought another song, “Hunger Strike,” needed a duet, Vedder was enlisted, and the result is magic.
Cornell is often credited for welcoming Vedder with open arms to Seattle. “He really embraced Eddie,” Cameron noted in the documentary Pearl Jam Twenty. “I know Eddie felt a real mentorship and I think that gave him a lot of confidence.”
“It was the first time I ever heard myself on a real record,” Vedder would later say. The duet worked musically in a way that no one at the time could have foreseen. Cornell and Vedder’s voice on this particularly mournful lament, made the song infectious. It later would become a hit single. “It could be one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever been on,” Vedder says. “Or the most meaningful.”
The Temple line-up performed a couple of times in Seattle, in late 1990 and early 1991. Those shows have become some of the most legendary Seattle concerts of all-time. A&M Records released the album on April 16, 1991. That date is significant because it also illustrates exactly how no one knew at the time what was to happen commercially with Seattle music in the next year. “We were guys in bands on the precipice of what could be a very life changing moment,” said Cornell. Everyone involved with Temple of the Dog would become superstars in the next year. Soundgarden would release their platinum-selling Badmotorfinger in 1991, the first in a series of hit albums. Pearl Jam would release their debut in 1991, and by 1992 it became a monster smash. A year later, after the Seattle scene broke nationally, A&M reissued the Temple album, and put out a music video for “Hunger Strike.”
It is important to remember Temple of the Dog for the mark they left on music history. Rolling Stone said that the album “deserves immortality”.
It was an album, Cornell would later observe, “that nobody had any expectations for, and that made it feel very fresh from beginning to end. We learned to just live in the moment and become open to the idea of collaboration. At the end of the day that was the enormous gift that Andy left us and I’ve thought about it in every situation I’ve been in since then when it comes to writing and performing.”
Temple of the Dog succeeds in the end because it doesn’t have the slick trappings that would soon follow when the rest of the nation tried to recreate, for commercial gain, what had happened organically in Seattle. “We all learned this really important lesson that we could record as a group that had never made a record together before and do something special,” said Cornell. “I knew that Soundgarden was special but I didn’t necessarily know I could do something special outside of it until then. It made me open to the notion that art for art’s sake can result in something special.”
The bonds that came out of Temple of the Dog have proved enduring. Andy Wood was never a member of Soundgarden or Pearl Jam, but in a way he’s always been part of their histories.
After 25 years, the Temple doors will open once again this November when the band reunites for its first ever tour to mark the historic anniversary. “We wanted to do the one thing we never got to do… play shows and see what it feels like to be the band that we walked away from 25 years ago,” said Cornell. “This is something no one has ever seen. We wanted to stop and recognize that we did this and pay homage.”
The songs on the 1991 Temple of the Dog album are both of Andrew Wood, and of Chris Cornell, and of the rest of the band. The album’s lasting impact and the robust individual musical journeys that followed are the result of fully embracing the spirit of collaboration both in music and in life – that is the Temple of the Dog lesson. And as with everything in Seattle, these words, this music, and the loss, belonged to everyone. They still do. And always will.