In 1991, what began as a rock’n’roll tribute to a fallen friend ended up being the sleeper start of the Seattle sound explosion heard around the world. It was only in retrospect that Temple of the Dog was recognized as the grunge era’s greatest supergroup, whose members went on to change the course of music.
The original god of grunge
It all began with Mother Love Bone. At the start of the 90s, when the grunge scene’s future world-shakers like Nirvana and Soundgarden were just beginning to plot their assault on the mainstream, Mother Love Bone seemed the likeliest bet to bust out to stardom.
Like their peers, MLB had metabolized the 70s hard rock they grew up on. But instead of dressing it down by mating it with punk influences, they played it as big as possible. Where the likes of Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell did their best to deglamorize the rock frontman image, Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood was larger than life, from his flamboyant stage presence to his drama-drenched vocal delivery.
The band released its debut album, Apple, in July of 1990, but we’ll never know whether Wood could have gained the rock-star status he seemed destined for. He died of a heroin overdose on March 19 of that year at the age of 24, turning Apple into a posthumous statement.
Wood’s shocking death was a heavy blow to those close to him, especially his bandmates and Cornell, who was his roommate at the time. The Soundgarden singer dealt with his grief by writing songs for his late friend, like “Say Hello 2 Heaven” and “Reach Down.” They didn’t seem like the sort of tunes that would work with his band, so he played them for Mother Love Bone’s guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament, and a plan was hatched to record them together as a tribute single to Wood’s memory.
Seeds of a supergroup
By the time Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and Gossard’s guitarist pal Mike McCready came aboard, the idea had expanded to an entire album. Temple of the Dog was born, with the name taken from a line in a Mother Love Bone lyric.
Entering Seattle’s London Bridge Studio, where Mother Love Bone had just recorded Apple, Wood’s friends probably felt his presence within the place as they began cutting Cornell’s songs there. Especially when the band was working on the aforementioned pair of tunes directly inspired by his passing, which wound up opening the album.
“Say Hello 2 Heaven” feels more like a Jimi Hendrix ballad in the vein of “The Wind Cries Mary” or “Little Wing” than anything we’ve come to associate with the grunge era. Cornell’s elegiac tones glide above the bittersweet swirl of McCready and Gossard’s guitars. Just as he starts to ascend to an anguished wail, his voice reluctantly dips back down to earth, as if reminded that he and his late friend were now in two different realms, at least for the time being.
Technically, “Reach Down” runs on a slower tempo than “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” but it rocks furiously nonetheless, like a chain gang smashing stones at a measured but merciless pace. Amid the hammering beats and reaper’s-scythe guitars, Cornell recounts a dream that brought him visions of Wood living it up in the afterlife, and McCready and Gossard rip out a long, manic flurry of heavy psychedelic licks.
A star is born
The rest of the Temple Of The Dog album consists of earlier ideas that Cornell repurposed for the occasion, and some unfinished Mother Love Bone tunes from Gossard and Ament that were completed with the addition of Cornell’s lyrics.
The most famous of these is the song that introduced Temple of the Dog to the world at large, “Hunger Strike.” The slow-burning track’s elliptical lyrics were initially inspired by Cornell’s feelings about maintaining integrity amid the madness of the music business, but the intense, glowering vibe fits right into the album’s framework.
When the band worked on the tune, Cornell felt he couldn’t quite capture what he was going for. Fate lent a hand in the form of a new arrival in town. Simultaneous with the Temple Of The Dog project, Gossard, Ament, and McCready had been working on forming a new band. The guy in line for the vocal role had come in from the West Coast to see how he fit with them, and he happened to be hanging out during the Temple sessions. That “new guy” was Eddie Vedder.
Vedder wasn’t planning on participating, but somehow he wound up on the song’s “Goin’ hungry” refrain with Cornell, as the future Pearl Jam frontman’s world-weary baritone contrasted brilliantly with the Soundgarden singer’s lupine shout. Though Cornell had been lamenting the song’s lack of a second verse, when Vedder sang the first one over, with the drastic difference between the two vocalists’ tones it made all the sense in the world.
The unexpected guest star ended up singing backing vocals on three more tracks, but the biggest boost Vedder would give the album was yet to come.
The album unfolds
The three Temple songs with music by Ament and/or Gossard offer tantalizing hints of what could have happened if Mother Love Bone had gone on. “Pushin’ Forward Back” runs on a 7/4 meat grinder of a riff as unrelenting as it is infectious. With its heroin-centric theme, the moody “Times of Trouble” feels like the loving but unvarnished warning Cornell wished he could have given Wood. And the slashing slide guitar and wicked wah-wah punctuating the lonesome cry of “Four Walled World” are both a harbinger of the dynamic the guitarists would develop in Pearl Jam and another hint at what might have been.
Coming from a place of spiritual darkness, Cornell offers a pair of equally doubtful views on salvation, with very different settings from each other. On “Wooden Jesus” Matt Cameron works up some feisty polyrhythms, with Cornell’s pointy banjo licks bouncing off the groove before the guitars take over. While the fearsome “Your Savior” may be the closest cousin to a Soundgarden song, built on a stealth funk feel in a hard rock guise.
“Call Me a Dog” introduces itself as a piano-laced ballad but eventually erupts into a blitzkrieg of guitar frenzy and vocal firepower. “All Night Thing” keeps its lamp low throughout, closing the album on a last-call, empty-the-bar kind of vibe with Cameron’s light touch on the drums, producer Rick Parashar’s mood-enhancing organ and piano, and nary a six-string in sight.
A sleeper hit
Temple of the Dog was released by A&M on April 16, 1991, initially making only a modest showing on the charts. That August, however, Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten, came out and started gathering steam. The next month, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and Nirvana’s Nevermind were both unleashed. By the beginning of 1992, with the latter’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” leading the charge, grunge had definitively gone from buzz-bin status to ruling the roost.
With Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana installed as the era’s newly ordained rock stars, a band made up of members from the first two suddenly seemed like a vastly more appealing idea. With Vedder and Cornell front and center, the video for “Hunger Strike” went wall-to-wall on MTV, with the album eventually reaching No. 5 and attaining Platinum status.
Due to the commitments of the members’ main bands, touring was an impossibility. But Temple Of The Dog finally got to take a victory lap in 2016 with a 25th-anniversary tour, albeit sans Vedder. Tragically, any further reunion possibilities were mooted forever on May 18 of the following year, when Cornell’s death added his name to the distressingly long list of grunge frontmen that passed away, joining Wood, Kurt Cobain, Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley, and Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland.
Three decades on, Temple of the Dog stands as a monument to the memory of both Wood and Cornell. But more than that, it’s a piece of rock’n’roll history, documenting the moment the underground rose up to rock the mainstream into a new era.