Like a lot of songwriters from the grunge era, Chris Cornell was fascinated by figures on the fringes of society. Alternative lifestyles were nothing new, but Cornell specifically keyed into the dreary and scuzzy version of non-traditional living that came from the oppressive atmosphere of Seattle. One of those figures was a street performer who made his living playing an unusual household item as percussion: spoons.
Artis the Spoonman was well known throughout Seattle, so much so that Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament referenced him while coming up with fake band names on the set of the film Singles. Soundgarden were participating in the filming as well, and when Cornell saw the title ‘Spoonman’, it inspired him to write an acoustic guitar riff that can be heard in the film. That’s all that ‘Spoonman’ was until Cornell decided to flesh out the rest of the song with Soundgarden during the recording of Down on the Upside.
“It’s more about the paradox of who [Artis] is and what people perceive him as,” he once commented. “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.”
With its mind-bending central riff and ear-catching call and response vocals, ‘Spoonman’ was already a standout track during the album’s recording, but the band decided to up the ante and add a percussion breakdown before the song’s final chorus. This is where the band brought in Artis himself to record some of his signature clanging spoon playing. To enhance the effect, drummer Matt Cameron put down some metallic percussion himself, banging on pots and bands as the breakdown gets increasingly chaotic.
The playing of spoons as a percussion instrument has its roots in folk music, where traditional instrumentation was often improvised using whatever was available. The clacking of spoons often produced sufficient rhythm to play behind. Former UB40 singer Duncan Campbell was even a registered spoon player with the UK’s musicians union at one point. But the makeshift instrument never had a bigger moment in popular culture than it did when Soundgarden brought Artis’ art form to the mainstream.
Check out the spoons of ‘Spoonman’ down below.