The Enduring Heartbreak of Temple Of The Dog

How an album put together by members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden as a tribute to Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood took on new meaning five years after the passing of Chris Cornell

Temple Of The Dog 4Ever (Art: Ron Hart)

The heartbreak of Temple of the Dog has only increased over the years.

In 2016, the band members commemorated the 25th anniversary of the self-titled album’s release with a reissue and a short tour. Barely six months later, the band’s lead singer Chris Cornell died, while on tour with Soundgarden. An album inspired by grief was now further steeped in it.

Temple Of The Dog reunion show on November 20, 2016 in Seattle (Photos: Gillian G. Gaar)

Temple of the Dog came from the emotional fallout of the death of Andrew “Landrew, the Love Child” Wood, lead singer of Seattle’s Mother Love Bone who mixed hard rock and metal with a touch of glam. The band was weeks away from releasing their debut album, Apple, for Polygram, when Wood overdosed on heroin; he died on March 19, 1990. Cornell had once been Wood’s roommate, the two struggling musicians having a friendly rivalry as they lived together and heard each other working on songs.

 

VIDEO: Temple Of The Dog “Say Hello 2 Heaven” (Live at the Moore Theater in Seattle, November 1990)

Soon after Wood’s death, Soundgarden went on an overseas tour. Isolated from his friends in Seattle, Cornell turned to the one thing that had always brought him solace — music. In short order, he wrote “Say Hello 2 Heaven” and “Reach Down” in tribute to his friend, surprised at how easily the songs had come together. “I thought, well, this is one thing that I can do to remind myself and maybe other people of who this guy is and was, and keep his story, and in a way his life, with us,” he later told the New York Times. 

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Not feeling they were right for Soundgarden, he sent demos of the songs to MLB’s guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament, with the idea that they record them together for a single. But Gossard and Ament loved the material so much (Ament telling Cornell, “This is the best stuff I’ve ever heard you do”) that the side project quickly expanded to album length. And by the time the musicians began recording in late 1990, they were joined by Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron on drums, and lead guitarist Mike McCready, who was working with Jeff and Stone in developing their next band, Pearl Jam.

One can see why Cornell didn’t feel the songs would be right for Soundgarden, especially if you listen to their most recent album at the time, 1989’s Louder Than Love. The Temple of the Dog songs are more melodic, and driven by a powerful emotional undertow, rooted in something more personal. “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” which opens the album, shows Cornell stretching himself as both a singer and songwriter, distilling the devastation of loss in a few short lines:

Listen also to how his vocal builds throughout the song, rising in strength toward a towering conclusion. “Reach Down” thunders in next, Cornell’s powerful vocal matched by the extended guitar solo from McCready, with a sudden break for a spine-tingling acapella vocal sequence. The mournful “Times of Trouble” (lyrics by Cornell, music by Gossard) cuts to the bone with its blunt opening lines: “When the spoon is hot/and the needle’s sharp.” “Pushin’ Forward Back” (lyrics Cornell, music Gossard and Ament) roils with righteous fury, while the closer, “All Night Thing,” offers Cornell another vocal workout against a more subdued musical backing, a song from a lonely soul seeking a connection.

Not all of the songs were written about Wood’s death; Cornell had also written the basics of “Hunger Strike” before that sad event. The song inadvertently led to another voice joining the musicians. Gossard, Ament, and McCready, looking for a vocalist and drummer to round out their new group, had brought in Eddie Vedder as lead singer. Vedder hung out watching Temple of the Dog rehearsals, and eventually took on the co-lead vocal of “Hunger Strike.” The end result was so pleasing, Vedder ended up providing backing vocals on three other tracks as well, imbuing the album with additional warmth (he’d also take the tune for “Times of Trouble” and use it as the basis for Pearl Jam’s “Footsteps”). Vedder’s participation was something he said made him feel truly welcomed into the Seattle music community, and also solidified the lasting connection between Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. 

Temple Of The Dog Temple Of The Dog, A&M 1991

“Temple of the Dog” a line from Mother Love Bone’s “Man of Golden Words,” became the name of the group and the album. On its initial release in the spring of 1991, the record sold 70,000 copies. Then came the Seattle juggernaut, when Nirvana’s Nevermind kicked open the door, and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains came tumbling in after. When A&M reissued Temple of the Dog in 1992, MTV realized they had a video for “Hunger Strike” in their archives, featuring members of two of the world’s hottest bands. The clip showing the group playing on the beach of Seattle’s Discovery Park on an overcast, chilly day was quickly put into high rotation, and the album surged into the Top 10, eventually going platinum. 

There were occasional impromptu reunions over the years, before what would be that final tour (which didn’t include Vedder, due to other commitments). By then Cornell had come to better appreciate what songs like “Say Hello 2 Heaven” meant to those beyond the Seattle music scene.

“I get a lot of requests from people, to play the song in tribute to someone else that passed away,” he said during the last year of his life. “It’s awkward, because it is so specifically about Andy. But that is the greatest thing about being a songwriter. Your song has its own life. It will go through metamorphoses that you cannot control, no matter what. I think that’s amazing.”

 

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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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