While there are several big bands associated with the grunge movement in Seattle, it was Soundgarden that was first to make a name for itself on the national stage in the late 1980s, ahead of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and others.
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The band’s most famous cut came a handful of years after debuted nationally and that song, “Black Hole Sun,” and its meaning are the subject of our inquiry here.
So, let’s dive into the historic track.
“Black Hole Sun” was originally written by Soundgarden’s lead singer and frontman, Chris Cornell, in his car as he was driving home one night in the Emerald City.
The song was released in 1994, the third single from the band’s fourth studio album, Superunknown. It topped the Billboard rock tracks chart, where it spent seven weeks at No. 1, and later that year finished as the top rock track of 1994, according to the Billboard charts. It was also top-10 in Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, and Iceland.
Said Cornell of the song’s writing and meaning in a 2014 interview with Uncut Magazine, “I wrote it in my head driving home from Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville, a 35–40 minute drive from Seattle. It sparked from something a news anchor said on TV and I heard wrong. I heard ‘blah blah blah black hole sun blah blah blah’. I thought that would make an amazing song title, but what would it sound like?
“It all came together, pretty much the whole arrangement including the guitar solo that’s played beneath the riff. I spent a lot of time spinning those melodies in my head so I wouldn’t forget them. I got home and whistled it into a Dictaphone. The next day I brought it into the real world, assigning a couple of key changes in the verse to make the melodies more interesting. Then I wrote the lyrics and that was similar, a stream of consciousness based on the feeling I got from the chorus and title.”
He later added, “I wrote the song thinking the band wouldn’t like it—then it became the biggest hit of the summer.”
Cornell also noted that he came up with the song while using a Leslie speaker and Soundgarden lead guitarist Kim Thayil said the speaker was an excellent choice as it is “very Beatlesque and has a distinctive sound. It ended up changing the song completely.”
Added Thayil, the song “wasn’t safe as milk, but it wasn’t glass in someone’s eye either. It was the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Now it’s the ‘Dream On’ of our set.”
Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron is noted as calling the track “a huge departure.”
Michael Beinhorn and Brendan O’Brien produced and recorded the track. Said Beinhorn of the single, “I think for the rest of my entire life until I draw my last breath, I’ll never ever forget how I felt when they started playing that song. From the very first few notes, I felt like I’d been hit by a thunderbolt. I was just absolutely stunned. What in the world is this? I get goosebumps thinking about it now.”
The Meaning of The “Surreal” Song Lyrics
Of the meaning behind the song’s lyrics, Cornell has said, “It’s just sort of a surreal dreamscape, a weird, play-with-the-title kind of song.
Cornell added, “lyrically it’s probably the closest to me just playing with words for words’ sake, of anything I’ve written. I guess it worked for a lot of people who heard it, but I have no idea how you’d begin to take that one literally.”
In another interview, he added, “It’s funny because hits are usually sort of congruent, sort of an identifiable lyric idea, and that song pretty much had none. The chorus lyric is kind of beautiful and easy to remember. Other than that, I sure didn’t have an understanding of it after I wrote it. I was just sucked in by the music and I was painting a picture with the lyrics. There was no real idea to get across.”
He continued, “No one seems to get this, but ‘Black Hole Sun’ is sad. But because the melody is really pretty, everyone thinks it’s almost chipper, which is ridiculous.”
“Times Are Gone For Honest Men”
Of that bit of lyric, Cornell has explained, “It’s really difficult for a person to create their own life and their own freedom. It’s going to become more and more difficult, and it’s going to create more and more disillusioned people who become dishonest and angry and are willing to fuck the next guy to get what they want. There’s so much stepping on the backs of other people in our profession. We’ve been so lucky that we’ve never had to do that. Part of it was because of our own tenacity, and part of it was because we were lucky.”
Kurt Cobain’s Suicide And The Beatles
Greg Prato of AllMusic noted that the song was “one of the few bright spots” of the summer of 1994 as the world—and Seattle, of course—was still jarred by the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in 1994.
And music writer Ann Powers, writing for Blender at the time, said of Cornell’s love of the former Mop Tops, “Cornell’s fixation with the Beatles pays off with the hit single ‘Black Hole Sun.'”
One Of The Strangest Music Videos, Blind Melon
Today, “Black Hole Sun” is remembered both for its epic sonic qualities and its odd music video. Directed by British artist Howard Greenhalgh, it’s both strange and apocalyptic.
The video depicts a suburban neighborhood and its vain citizens with comically exaggerated smiles, makeup, tongues, eyes, and more. Then they are swallowed up by the “black hole” sun, as the band performs the song in an open field. In the video, Cornell wears a fork necklace gifted to him by Shannon Moon of Blind Melon.
In an interview with the band, the group said that the video “was entirely the director’s idea” and “Our take on it was that at that point in making videos, we just wanted to pretend to play and not look that excited about it.”
The video was released in June of 1994 and was a mainstay on MTV.
A parody of the song was featured on Weird Al Yankovic’s 1996 album, Bad Hair Day. And it has since been covered by many artists, including Norah Jones, which you can see below. Before his death in 2017, Cornell performed the song acoustically, which you can also see below.
More recently, Seattle’s Brandi Carlile has performed the song with the remaining members of Soundgarden and has even stated she’d like to rekindle the band as its lead singer. Check out Carlile’s version of the track below.
Cornell, as stated above, said the song involves wordplay for the sake of it. To begin the song, he sings the below, followed by a recurring chorus, and essentially, only one other verse:
In my eyes
In disguises no one knows
Hides the face
Lies the snake
And the sun in my disgrace
Neath the black, the sky looks dead
Call my name
Through the cream
And I’ll hear you scream again
Black hole sun
Won’t you come
And wash away the rain?
Black hole sun
Won’t you come
Won’t you come
Won’t you come
Photo by Jen Cash