Last month, I was in Seattle for the Pop Conference, held every year at the Museum of Pop Culture. My conference admission included museum access, so when I wasn’t ducking into panels, I could look at, say, Ursula K. Le Guin’s hand-drawn maps, or Jimi Hendrix’s carry-on bag. Navigating the museum meant passing through the Sky Church, a towering performance/lecture space, dominated by a screen playing music videos from local acts. (Tacocat’s “Crimson Wave” is life-changing at this scale.) At one point, Soundgarden’s “Halfway There” was playing, and I took a seat. I don’t know if I’d heard it before. It’s essentially power pop–Chris Cornell capably steers his rasp through a melodic slalom–but what struck me was the video. The band was mostly absent, popping up only as headshots in an astronaut’s Kubrickian hallucination. It seemed like a waste for a band who was so present–to say nothing of a singer whose lean, leonine profile was grunge’s primary animation after Kurt Cobain died and Pearl Jam stopped making videos.
His friend, the director Cameron Crowe, wanted to capture some of that presence in his Seattle-set 1992 rom-com Singles: his original plan was to cast Cornell as Cliff Poncier, an excruciatingly idealistic musician who spends the bulk of the movie blowing off Bridget Fonda so he can better ponder who’s going to make the next “Smoke on the Water”. Cornell couldn’t spare the time, so Crowe gave him a wordless cameo as a guy watching Poncier (played by Matt Dillon) installing car speakers. In turn, Cornell gave Crowe a gift, crafted in secret. Jeff Ament–who, with Pearl Jam bandmates Eddie Vedder and Stone Gossard, backed Poncier as the fake band Citizen Dick–concocted a joke tracklist a Poncier’s solo cassette. And Cornell turned that tracklist into a tape. Crowe was delighted: he added one song to the soundtrack album, and included another in the film. The complete Poncier EP was issued as a promotional CD on Real Clever Records (a fake label revived for 2015’s Record Store Day), and resurfaces as part of a deluxe reissue of the Singles soundtrack, alongside two more Cornell compositions.
Given their origin as an in-joke, the craft and care in these songs are remarkable. Whether driven by a sense of friendship or pride, Cornell gave Poncier a ripping debut tape. (It’s a mercy that Cornell didn’t take the part, by the way: the character is essentially a well-meaning clown until a last-minute transformation.) The singer drew on a couple of these tracks later in his career, and he didn’t need to change much. “Spoon Man” was Ament’s tribute to Artie the Spoonman, a local street musician. Soundgarden’s 1994 recording preserves the rutting riff’s septuple time signature, and invited Artie to convert Cornell’s polyrhythmic pot-tapping into a solo that’s all skittering whirr. “Flutter Girl” got a more extensive overhaul: the original is a back-porch ballad; Cornell’s untreated chorus shows real strain. He finally revisited it on his 1999 solo debut Euphoria Morning, upping the tempo, folking up the recurring guitar arpeggio, and tossing in loads of wah. It sounds like a Jon Brion production, and it completely bypasses the.ecstatic ostinato climax of the original.
“Nowhere But Me” joined the Poncier version of “Flutter Girl” on the CD for “Can’t Change Me,” Euphoria Morning’s lead single. As is, it’s great: a cavernous, doomy excursion that suggests “Blow Up the Outside World” minus the psychedelia, or maybe Earth going pop. The EP’s closer, “Missing,” finally introduces drums, of a sort. A tapping, bleeping drum machine, laid over taut rhythm guitar, turns a statement of alienation (“Here comes the part/Where you ask me for my sympathy/I just might lose my head”) into a New Wave-y rocker. “I’ve been hard to hold,” he bellows, “and I’m missing”–he repeats that last word until he sounds like a supercomputer’s alert. The two previously unreleased cuts (“Score Piece #4” and “Ferry Boat #3) are sonically brighter, but as the titles imply, they’re just sketches: mood music that could’ve been slotted into Paul Westerberg’s original film score. “Score Piece” is a wordless processional from the school of Zeppelin, while “Ferry Boat” makes slight use of Cornell’s falsetto. In no way are these songs valedictory.
By the time Warner Bros. finally released the film in September 1992, the Seattle scene was well on its way to renown: Nirvana and Pearl Jam had released massive records the year before, and while Soundgarden was still waiting for a breakthrough in America, they had–(with shades of Cliff Poncier bragging that Citizen Dick had a hit in Belgium)–landed a few singles on the lower rungs of the UK pop chart. (Their breakthrough hit, in fact, was “Spoonman”.) What Singles’ soundtrack did more than anything was crystallize “Seattle” as a synecdoche for “alternative rock”. While the CD is studded with local acts, the Minneapolitan Westerberg appears twice, and “Drown,” from Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins, closes the album. The film itself features songs from the Pixies, R.E.M. the Cult, and Jane’s Addiction: outsiders all, though all but the Pixies were Warners acts. In its own way, though, Cornell’s small gift also pointed to the sonic possibilities inherent in his hometown scene. As he and his bandmates escaped the strictures of the “grunge” tag, they drew on the suggestions made by the Poncier EP on their way to becoming an essential American band.