mid-day 38th anniversary: Why the gift of Grunge was a socially conscious pop culture

Jun 23, 2017, 11:02 IST | Rahul daCunha

He thought he knew everything about the best music there ever was, and then came an alt rock movement

mid-day 38th anniversary

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

'Im unabashedly a product of the 1970s-early '80s. This means that some things are ingrained in my DNA - the 'faded' blue jeans, black T-shirts with a smart ass message, and an unchanging musical taste.

We were perched atop a steeple of musical abundance, the '70s having produced so many sub genres, little bylanes of blues rock, the rasp of punk, the vast menagerie of heavy metal bands. The awesome talent that existed in that period saw the seismic shocks of the Doors, the guitar virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix, Crosby Still Nash and Young in such perfect harmony. The rock guys had blossomed in the form of the cerebral Led Zeppelin, the quirky Steely Dan, the satanic neurosis of Black Sabbath, the heaviness of Deep Purple with their Smoke on the Water and Highway Star. In a more intellectual vein, Bob Dylan was producing albums of great worth as was Leonard Cohen while David Bowie was androgenously creating waves. And yes, there was the progressive rock of Pink Floyd. All functioning and flowering simultaneously.

I shut shop musically. I had all the influences I needed and then some.

Then the '90s rumbled along. Initially, I felt that sense of superiority towards my younger friends, the sort that made me want to say: You poor sods, you'll just never have music like us. Little did I know what was waiting in the wings. The first invaders destroying my complacency were Guns N' Roses, their front man Axl Rose screaming into my consciousness like a welcome headache.

Sweet Child of Mine clashed with Stairway to Heaven as the guitar solo of the century. But the best was yet to come.

Out of an American city called Seattle came an alterative rock movement called Grunge, sometimes referred to as Seattle sound. For me, music has always been most fulfilling when multiple bands emerge from a single cause, concern city and time. And Grunge was exactly that in the first half of the '90s. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden and their pathbreaking albums, Nevermind, Ten, Dirt and Superunknown respectively hit the scene like meteorites. Like all great bands, it was the vocalists that wove the way into the listener's mindspace.

Kurt Cobain was the Jim Morrison of this decade. A tortured soul, ironically, both he and the Doors singer died aged 27.

Cobain's other three contemporaries, Eddie Vedder, Layne Staley and Chris Cornell soon became cult figures, their music as hard hitting and definitive as their messages.

If the '70s and '80s rock had celebrated love, togetherness and joy, Grunge was just the opposite. If '70s rock was light, grunge was dark. The lyrics were about social alienation, apathy, confinement and a hunger for freedom — but most crucially, these four singers wrote and sang quite freely about loneliness and suicide, feelings and emotions that young audiences were experiencing.

Commercial success seemed to emanate out of a collective sadness.

The success of these bands boosted the popularity of alternative rock as their lyrics brought socially conscious issues into pop culture. Introspection was a recurring theme.

And then Kurt Cobain died. Followed by Layne Staley. Both tortured by success, overdosing on heroin, their legacy almost autobiographical.

Then on May 18, 2017, Chris Cornell died, like many great musicians, alone in a hotel room. He had just finished a concert, spoke to his wife and then hung himself.

It's like these three men had a message to deliver, and having delivered it, they moved on.

As Cornell once wrote:
Whatsoever I've feared has come to life
Whatsoever I've fought off became my life
Just when every day seemed to greet me with a smile
Sunspots have faded and now I'm doing time
'Cause I fell on black days

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