Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell said “Spoonman” was “an ode to an imaginary person in my head”

By on August 22, 2019

We’re paying another visit to this vintage grunge-heavy “Take Off to Alternative Rock” — it originally aired during our syndication era in 1994, but you can now watch it on Night Flight Plus — where we found the video for Soundgarden’s “Spoonman,” initially inspired by Seattle street musician Artis the Spoonman.

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It was bassist Jeff Ament — on the set of Cameron Crowe’s 1992 rom-com grunge-rock film Singles — who first brought up the name Spoonman, originally as the fictional song title for actor Matt Dillon’s character’s grunge/rock band Citizen Dick, which actually featured members of Ament’s real band, Pearl Jam.

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Left to right: Chris Cornell, Jeff Ament, actor Matt Dillon, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains and writer-director Cameron Crowe on set of Singles (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Ament — who’d been hired by Crowe to do graphic design, creating the hand-written font used on the title cards and the movie’s poster — had designed the self-made cassette tape that Dillon’s character sells of his music.

Crowe’s now-ex wife Nancy Wilson had actually done just that, buying a tape from a guy a rock club in Seattle, then giving it to her husband, which is how it ended up in his Singles screenplay.

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It was Chris Cornell of Soundgarden who took it as a personal challenge to turn it into a real song (his acoustic version can be heard in the background during one scene in Singles).

Cornell’s band later “Soundgarden-ized” it, and that more-produced version became the first single — released on January 29, 1994 — off of their next album, Superunknown, which was released on March 8th.

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Cornell claims that hadn’t met Artis the Spoonman when he wrote the song, but certainly he must have known who he was.

By that time, Artis was a well-known street performer in Seattle, playing metal spoons of various sizes and shapes at the Pike Place Market and elsewhere around Seattle.

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Artis the Spoonman and Jim Page in 1993

In an “Interview with Chris Cornell” in Request (October 1994), Cornell said “Spoonman” was “more about the paradox of who he is and what people perceive him as.”

“He’s a street musician, but when he’s playing on the street, he is given a value and judged completely wrong by someone else. They think he’s a street person, or he’s doing this because he can’t hold down a regular job. They put him a few pegs down on the social ladder because of how they perceive someone who dresses differently. The lyrics express the sentiment that I much more easily identify with someone like Artis than I would watch him play.”

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In a 2014 Entertainment Weekly article published on the 20th Anniversary of the release of Superunknown, Cornell said this:

“It was an ode to an imaginary person in my head, because I didn’t know him yet. And the song was based entirely on the title, so what’s happening musically is the attitude of supporting this guy who stands on a street corner and plays the shit out of some spoons. Then the song became a reality, and we got Artis to actually play spoons on the song.”

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“Spoonman” charted at #3 on Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, and #9 on the U.S. Modern Rock Tracks chart, and Superunknown went on to sell over five million copies.

The video — directed by Jeffrey Plansker (under the alias John Smithey) — won Soundgarden a Grammy for “Best Metal Performance.”

Read more about the real “Spoonman” below.

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Artis was born in Kodiak, in the Alaska Territory, on October 3, 1948. He moved to Seattle with his mom a few months later.

In the 1960s, he’d been in the U.S. Navy, and then worked for the U.S. Postal Service, and became a street musician following his divorce in 1972 (he’d been struggling with alcoholism problems, eventually developing cerebral atrophy, which has seriously affected his short-term memory).

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By 1988, at age 40, Artis had become officially and simply “Artis” (we couldn’t find his original surname).

In this interview we found on Busk, a “busking” blog, Artis claimed to have been living “on the dole” for years.

He said his “economic situation” was “queer as a sea star,” and he also said he’d been living in a school bus when he performed on “Late Night with David Letterman” in 1990.

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In 1992, Artis made a “guest appearance” (as local talent) at Bumbershoot, the music and arts festival — one of the largest in North America, held during Labor Day Weekend each year at Seattle Center — on the same bill as Soundgarden.

Afterwards, the band helped bring Artis the Spoonman into the spotlight by having him open some of their shows — in New York City, and at Shepherd’s Bush in London — on their 1994 tour.

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Artis the Spoonman released an album of his own in late ’95, called Entertain the Entertainers.

He continued touring with high-profile arena rock bands like Aerosmith and Phish, and continued to be a featured performer at Seattle’s Bumbershoot for several years, along with making appearances at other fairs and music & arts festivals in the Pacific Northwest.

Since 2009, Artis the Spoonman has been living in Port Townsend, Washington, fifty-plus miles northeast of Seattle.

Have another look at Night Flight’s 1994 “Take Off to Alternative Rock” — which also features music videos by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, the Breeders, Temple of the Dog, Cracker, Machines of Loving Grace, the Afghan Whigs, and Rage Against the Machine — which you’ll find streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.