Seattle’s furthest outpost: Why news of Chris Cornell’s suicide echoed louder than love in Bangalore

In the 1990s, grunge bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana found a welcoming home in the southern Indian city.

Some time before it became Bengaluru, and before it became the place where Thomas Friedman famously realised that the world was indeed flat, Bangalore was where several weird subcultures thrived.

For decades, Bangalore had been one of the most anglicised cities in the country. This was in part due to its cantonment culture and in part due to the availability of middle-class jobs and universities: no easy thing in pre-liberalisation India. Geography too played a role: Bangalore was far away from the post-Partition anxieties and politics of New Delhi.

But neither was it just a city of Kannadigas. Since it lay just a morning’s drive away from Telugu-, Tamil- and Malayalam-speaking areas, Bangalore had for decades attracted comers from all the southern Indian states. In the absence of Hindi as a common language, English had filled the vacuum.

So when the 1990s rolled along, Bangalore, and particularly some of its youth, was ready to be radicalised by American pop culture, via a new cable TV subscription that could be had for a mere Rs 100 a month .

I was an English-speaking Kannadiga schoolboy, taught by my teachers and parents to revere among other people, William Shakespeare and PG Wodehouse. But when MTV, and later Channel [V] came along, it was easy to start worshipping the rockers who had taken over the world. (It would be a few years till these channels started Indian programming. Hip hop, the other great American music export, would take a few more years to take root in India.)

Two songs stand out in my memory of the very first time I saw the Grammy awards on TV: Pearl Jam’s Jeremy and Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train. I was hooked. That was in 1993. A year later when I went to pre-university at Christ College, I was ready to be initiated into the the cult of grunge.

Finding Nirvana

My explorations would start with the punk-pop-metal rhythms of Nirvana and from there to Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and eventually to the propulsive pounding of Soundgarden. Perhaps with a little bit of prodding from the music magazine Rock Street Journal, we would all realise that every one of these bands except for STP, came from Seattle.

Comparisons came very quickly. Someone noted that like Seattle, Bangalore’s weather too was rainy, cloudy and subject to quick changes. Seattle’s biggest export was Microsoft, which was Bangalore’s biggest import. The other big company from Seattle, Starbucks brought coffee to the world; in Bangalore, filter coffee was everybody’s obsession. It seemed completely appropriate too that Seattle’s sound should find a home in the city.

Soundgarden was literally perfect. The odd time signatures of their songs and the heaviness of their music simultaneously appealed to the nerd and metalhead in me. All four members of the band could write music while each being a virtuoso in their specialisation. Matt Cameron’s jazz-influenced drumming could pound you into a corner. You couldn’t get Kim Thayil but you suspected intelligent design in his chaotic leads. Ben Shepherd could lock you down with his bass lines.

And Chris Cornell – who could ignore that voice? His four-octave range was guttural and primal. His baritone could soothe you and his screams could send shivers up your spine, which was perfect for his beautifully dark lyrics.

The songs could grind you down, but somehow, a few friends who struggled with mood disorders made it only because of Soundgarden’s dark music. I wasn’t much of a guy for posters but I had one of the band’s in my bedroom. It’s probably accurate to say that I haven’t worshipped any other band like I worshipped them.

Getting respectable

As Bangalore hurtled towards the new millennium, it seemed that grunge as a movement was spent. Rock music was itself in retreat. And one by one, the big stars of Seattle flamed out, either through suicide (Kurt Cobain) or drug abuse (Layne Stayle, Andrew Wood). Bangalore’s explosive growth too mirrored the explosive growth of the grunge scene, with seemingly similarly disastrous consequences. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden seemed to be the only bright spots.

Sometime in the last week of April, I chanced across Pearl Jam’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when surfing cable TV at my hotel roo in Washington DC. I couldn’t recognise them at first. Could these be-suited, grinning bunch of old guys with normal hair actually be the tearaways who’d captured our attention? Eddie Vedder even allowed himself a Bono-like moment when he spoke of climate change.

Somehow, I couldn’t picture Chris Cornell fitting into that scene when it was Soundgarden’s turn to be inducted. And now he will never get the chance to prove me right.

HR Venkatesh is an ICFJ Knight Fellow and founder of NetaData.

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