Five Lonely Notes and Two Whole Worlds
30 years ago, Stone Gossard, Chris Cornell, and Eddie Vedder unknowingly captured the spirit of creativity itself.
F-G-G-G-F. You don’t have to understand music theory, or even read music, to recognize that sequence as a remarkably simple composition: a five-note line consisting of just two distinct tones. It’s the kind of phrase that a beginner guitarist, first feeling her way around the frets, could quickly construct without even realizing.
Thirty years ago, however, two young singers heard that same five-note guitar riff and built it up into two entirely different musical worlds. Their names were Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder. They were both 26 years old. They had never met. They were living in different states. And, simultaneously, each wrote his own song out of the same instrumental demo: One became known as “Times of Trouble” (Cornell), the other as “Footsteps” (Vedder). And, despite the decades of collaboration that would ensue between the two men, it’s easy enough to imagine a world in which neither ever heard the other’s work.
The man in the middle — the composer of those five, lonely notes — was guitarist Stone Gossard, who had most recently been in the fast-rising Seattle group Mother Love Bone. Bandless following the death of Andrew Wood, Mother Love Bone’s singer, Gossard was still buzzing with new songs throughout 1990, as he sought his next project. He got to work recording instrumental demos of his new material, hoping to recruit a singer-lyricist. Gossard’s new instrumentals ran the gamut: a roaring anthem given the placeholder name “Dollar Short”; a dramatic dirge in the key of E, simply called “E Ballad”; a bouncy funk-rocker dubbed “The King”; and more, mostly on the louder side. One of them, however, was conspicuously understated — sparse, ghostly, with an almost country-Western melancholy, anchored by five notes: F-G-G-G-F.
Just down the road, meanwhile, Chris Cornell was busy writing his own new songs. Not only as the lead singer of Soundgarden — who were beginning to reach audiences beyond Seattle — but also in homage to Andrew Wood, who had been Cornell’s roommate and close friend. Cornell conceived a one-off tribute album called Temple of the Dog, to be recorded with Wood’s Mother Love Bone bandmates: Gossard, and bassist Jeff Ament, who was also playing on Gossard’s new demos. Cornell received sole songwriting credit on seven of Temple’s 10 tracks, but he borrowed the others from Gossard’s new batch — two of the copious rockers, and the ghostly one. Setting it to a ghost story of his own, Cornell gave the track a harrowing lyric about Wood’s heroin addiction — praying, too late, that his friend might “break through these times of trouble.”
However meaningful (and freaking good) the Temple project was, Gossard knew it was a one-off, not the launch of his next proper band. He continued his search for a singer, someone to fit flesh onto the bones of his new songs: a full album’s worth of them. Via drummer Jack Irons, a friend who had recently left the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gossard’s demos traveled 1,200 miles south of gloomy, rainy Seattle — to sunny, surfing San Diego no less. Irons knew a guy named Eddie Vedder, who sang for the San Diego band Bad Radio. One wonders what inspired Irons to draw the connection; Bad Radio’s party-rock was a far cry from the heavier, Zeppelinesque Seattle sound. But hey — you never know, right?
Despite his laid-back beach bum persona, Vedder took to Gossard’s moody demos like an axe to oak. He quickly wrote three of them into a “mini-opera”: “Dollar Short” became “Alive,” in which a teenage boy learns that his stepfather is not his biological father, who died long ago; “Agyptian Crave” became “Once,” in which the disturbed boy grows up to become a murderer; and the finale became “Footsteps,” wherein he reflects on this all from his prison cell.
The song cycle was a gruesome fantasy that drew on autobiography — Vedder did, in fact, learn as a teenager that his stepfather was not his biological father, who died of multiple sclerosis. Stirred by the instrumentals, Vedder dreamed up the lyrics as he surfed; he went home and laid his vocals over the tape, purportedly, with the sand still stuck between his toes. The opera earned Vedder a flight to Seattle — and a new band — by the end of the month. Though ultimately fictional, it’s an alarmingly personal piece of writing, conjured so instantaneously that it’s strange to call it writing at all. As a whole, the trilogy was uniquely Vedder’s brainchild.
Which makes it all the more uncanny that “Footsteps,” on its own, had a twin.
There is a long history of soundalike songs. “I Won’t Back Down” (Tom Petty) and “Stay With Me” (Sam Smith). “Stairway to Heaven” (Led Zeppelin) and “Taurus” (Spirit). “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana) and “More Than a Feeling” (Boston). And that’s to say nothing of traditional structures (such as the twelve-bar blues) that are deliberately preserved and recycled, the art of sampling — or, of course, outright plagiarism.
The thing about “Times of Trouble” and “Footsteps” is that they share literally the same composition and still don’t sound all that similar. Start with the first three words of each song, two vocal melodies accompanied by that same five-note guitar riff. Cornell sings each word of “When the spoon” higher than the last; while Vedder’s “Don’t even think” holds the same note for three syllables before descending lower. That is enough to convince the ear, immediately, that these are two different songs. The distinctions in melody mean more than the distinctions in arrangement, never mind that “Times of Trouble” features a full band while “Footsteps” limits itself to a vocal and an acoustic guitar. (Harmonica was added when Pearl Jam rereleased the song on Lost Dogs, in 2003.)
The choruses sound even further apart than the verses. Cornell punctuates his halting warnings — “Don’t try to do it / Don’t try to kill your time” — with screaming oh’s and pained yeah’s, taking his famous range for a ride. Vedder, meanwhile, offers just one thought, stated without embellishment: “I did what I had to do / and if there was a reason, it was you.” Cornell conveys the struggle of finding just the right words to say to a fragile friend. Vedder delivers a resigned, frank confession — an “I” statement from a narrator who’s had plenty of time to think it through.
It sounds as if the singers had challenged one another directly, then written with knowledge of the competition. How else could they make so many different choices? The songs sound aware of one another, like they’re in dialogue. But each is, in fact, a monologue, written and performed in isolation. The strange and exciting fact is that they’re not actually saying anything to each other at all—or not knowingly, at the very least.
Whenever I pick up a guitar, Gossard’s five-note riff is one of my go-tos, almost a reflex. Because it’s easy, and it sounds good — a bluesy undulation that loosens my fingers and activates my ears. Playing it is a kind of ritual for me, unthinking and totally ingrained.
But that’s when I play it — when I stop to listen, my mind can’t help but race. They’re just five notes, but I hear so much in them: the door opening onto a new era of rock music, the cloudy skies of Seattle, a cautious meeting between pain and hope. These five notes grieve deeply for a friend lost too soon; in doing so, they also declare that life goes on.
But what I hear, above all, is a testament to what creativity is, in and of itself. Proof that the same sign can move two people in opposite directions; that, given the same tools, people will find different ways to work them. Moreover, I hear what the audience’s brain is capable of, not just the songwriter’s: of an incredible capacity to compartmentalize, to place differences over similarities in its quest to always find something new. Perhaps that’s just gullibility. Or maybe it’s its own kind of genius, one that every human possesses. Something that allows us to have new aesthetic experiences when, as is said, there’s nothing new under the hidden Seattle sun.
This year marks 30 since the releases of Temple of the Dog and Ten, Pearl Jam’s debut, which ultimately excluded “Footsteps” but, of course, featured “Alive,” “Once,” “Black” (formerly “E Ballad”), and “Even Flow” (née “The King”). These bands, their singers, and these albums are not remembered for these two songs, and I will readily agree that Cornell and Vedder each reached higher heights, as writers and performers, than they reached on either “Times of Trouble” or “Footsteps.”
But on this anniversary — a major one for Seattle, also marking 30 years of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger — I wonder if “Times of Trouble” and “Footsteps” don’t deserve special attention. Conspicuously quiet even as an instrumental demo, each version has been further muted over the ensuing decades: by the buildup of Cornell’s and Vedder’s catalogues, by the screech of feedback, by the simple passage of time. Time that, still shockingly, even took Cornell himself in 2017.
Amid all the music worth commemorating, it’s hard to make room for just five notes. For F-G-G-G-F. Even if, ultimately, they ended up having the most to say.