Chris Cornell in January.
Chris Cornell in January. KEVIN WINTER/GETTY

On September 5 and 6, 1991, Soundgarden played two Seattle shows about a month before the official release of their third LP, Badmotorfinger. The venues were the Offramp (now El Corazon/Funhouse), and the RKCNDY, which was then a fancy new club around the corner (now the location of a Marriott Springhill Suites).

Soundgarden was arguably Seattle’s biggest band at that point (Alice N’ Chains always felt like they were from the Eastside, anyway), and these two shows were deliberate underplays. Some keep-it-real club dates for their local fans to counter the argument that they’d sold out to the Hollywood metal machine.

I’d been fired from the Offramp a couple of months before—the new owners failed to see how my sarcastic humor made up for being a shitty busboy—but I retained my free-entry privilege for a couple of years, and it extended to the RKCNDY because club staff were an insular and reciprocal tribe then. We all knew each other, and I still know some of those people today.

Anyway, I was at both shows. Up to that point, I’d thought Soundgarden was a little bit on the “slightly out-of-tune metal” side of the Seattle music scene, but I went because that’s what we did then: go to shows. There was absolutely nothing else to do in Seattle but get high and make art. No one I knew owned a car, so we couldn’t even get high in Wallingford without taking the bus.

Bands were so varied then: Posies, Young Fresh Fellows, Girl Trouble, Hammerbox, Sir Mix-a-Lot, Fastbacks, Treepeople, Tad, the Walkabouts, the Gits, Screaming Trees, Skin Yard, Love Battery, Gas Huffer, The Accused. There was no “Seattle sound.” The only common denominator was that everyone was slightly out of tune, except Mix.

I showed up and the Offramp was completely, ridiculously packed, flouting the firecode and human decency. Shit, they could sell 200 more tickets on a night like that if no one got uptight about potentially dying of suffocation. Humid, filled with the stench of cigarettes, bleach water, leather and punk/hippies. It was a shitty town then, did I mention? No safe spaces of any kind.

Then, Soundgarden.

Immediately it was obvious they were at escape velocity, bigger than us now. I’d been seeing 15 bands a week for a straight year and no one put their foot down like this. Chris had been doing the shirtless metal frontman thing for a long time but now he was playing guitar, and it felt serious. They opened with "Birth Ritual" and the room went bananas. I mean, the room went bananas. You’ve seen pictures from the era, I’m sure. People flying through the air.

At the center was Chris Cornell, serious, relaxed and funny, like the generous older brother I desperately wished I’d had. The band was not being ironic, which seemed RADICAL. I fell completely in love. Obviously he was beautiful, and I’d dismissed him as a pretty boy, but I was wrong. He wasn’t a hair-metal poodle, he was something else entirely. No one could ever say exactly what after that.

At one point a girl ran up on stage and kissed him. She cried joyfully as security gently escorted her offstage. I remember her being pretty, dressed in the uniform of that defined our time—floral babydoll dress and combat boots. I was impressed by the weird, dark Beatlemania of it, but then Chris commented gently, “Hey, If I was a female singer and that had been a dude, it wouldn’t have been cool, would it?” In essence, he was saying, “Maybe I'm a sex symbol to you, but I’m a person and I’m at work.” Meanwhile over on MTV, Warrant was singing about "Cherry Pie" and spraying a bikini model with a fire hose. It was a sea change of attitude here that felt like an insurrection.

I went to the RKCNDY the following night because I was converted, and in that markedly different venue, they succeeded in blowing up the room again. People went bananas and flew through the air. I knew I’d witnessed something. They weren't out of tune any more, and being out of tune didn’t feel as necessary all of a sudden.

Those two September '91 shows happened at the apex of the corner, a two month period when Seattle went boom, falling right in the middle of a few-month span that saw the release of some seminal grunge releases: Mudhoney's Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (July 23), Pearl Jam's Ten (August 27) and Nirvana's Nevermind (September 24). You could argue about the high point forever, but for me that was the peak.

John Roderick is a Seattle writer, musician (lead singer and guitarist of The Long Winters as well as occasional guest player in various other groups, including Death Cab for Cutie and Nada Surf), podcaster (Roderick on the Line with Merlin Mann), and one-time Seattle City Council candidate.