“Bummer dude your obituary wall can’t be updated”
I woke up at 2am on Thursday and read the text from my friend. He calls my Facebook wall my “obituary wall” because I, like approximately everyone minus my friend, am known to share an RIP post when artists I respect die…and 2016 was a busy year so…I was in the middle of a self-imposed exile from social media and he knew I wouldn’t be posting about this newly-deceased person. I immediately opened my Apple News app and scrolled feverishly. I saw that Roger Ailes, former head of FOX News, had died. Realizing I had been pranked, I laughed a little because I am no fan of Ailes, FOX News or anyone who peddles xenophobia, bigotry and intolerance as entertainment.
I went back to sleep.
I had weird dreams. Something didn’t feel right.
I woke up again at 5am. I re-opened my news app. By then the story had circulated long enough to appear at the top of the headlines.
Chris Cornell dead. Apparent suicide. 52 years old.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I felt sick. I felt overwhelmed. I was in the midst of a great wrong and couldn’t switch to the second gear of acceptance.
I was in 6th grade when I got a copy of Badmotorfinger. I had already worn out my copies of Nevermind and Ten. My musical awareness was exploding. My dad took me to Pearl Jam’s now-legendary show at Magnuson Park, which sent my NEED TO KNOW in to overdrive. I had seen an interview with Chris and Kim Thayil on Headbangers Ball. They looked different than the other Seattle bands. They didn’t have the “I never asked for this” air about them that had already become a well-worn trope among emerging Seattle artists. They were crass, smart, articulate.
And then they played the video for Outshined.
Cornell, looking like a hyper-fit Jesus Christ in shorts and Doc Martins, screamed, crooned, and immediately changed my pre-teen perception of what a rock star should be. He was gorgeous, he was righteous, he was instantly who I wanted to be.
I was an MTV addict since the age of 6 or 7. Growing up in the 80’s I had been conditioned to accept the Bon Jovis, Poisons and Metallicas of the world as what a rock star was. I was 11 when Nirvana burst in to my life. I loved them but there was so much about them I didn’t understand yet. Soundgarden bridged that gap in a way that made transference easier.
In early ’94 I started to see teasers for Superunknown in my local paper and record store…I was so excited. Badmotorfinger had now become a staple of my daily listening routine alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, etc. I was ready for another round of speedy, dark, not-revolutionary-but-very-good metal to channel my growing angst in to.
When the day finally arrived and the album came out I had already worked it out with my Mom that we would go immediately when she got home (at 6:30) to the record store (it closed at 7) so I could get my copy. We got stuck in notorious South Hill traffic. My heart raced. The idea that I would get this album even ONE DAY after it came out was completely unacceptable. I felt panicked, my anxiety growing higher as the car clock read 6:55 with still a mile to go…we weren’t going to make it. I contemplated jumping out of the car in a military roll and running. But I wouldn’t have enough time. At 6:59 we pulled up to Budget Tapes and Records. I flew from the car to get through the door before they closed. The owner, Floyd, knew me well and laughed as I raced to the display and grabbed my copy. I did it! We did it! Whatever.
We didn’t have a cd player in the car and there was NO WAY I was going to share my first listen with my Mom. I love my Mom, she is a wonderful person and in many ways my best friend but she could NEVER appreciate how much this moment would mean to me. She liked Amy Grant, for fuck’s sake.
We got to the house, I moved toward the front door with the grace of a cheetah…she walked. I didn’t have a key. “GODDAMN IT, hurry up”, I thought. Finally, after what felt like one full turn of the Earth’s axis, my mom made it to the door and turned the key…and I was gone, a ghost to all in that house who loved me.
I had unwrapped the cd in the car so I wouldn’t have to wait a single goddamn second to hear it. These are the moments that I miss so much today. An album would be hyped for 6 weeks before it was released. The reviews would start piling in a few days before it came out. I had read everything I could get my greasy little fingers on. I re-read them. The praise was universal for this one. It would be different. I needed to hear Black Hole Sun because it was the track that everyone hailed as a total departure.
Finally, I popped the cd out of its case. I delicately inserted it in to my cd player. I took a breath and hit the play button. I lay on my bedroom floor and started reading through the liner notes. And what came through my speakers for the next 70+ minutes changed the way I perceived rock music for the rest of my life. It was metal. It was psychedelic. It was pop. It fucking glowed.
Chris Cornell’s voice soared in a way I could never have imagined possible. Every song could have been the best track. I waited for a stinker. It never came. In fact, my least favorite song was Spoonman, a song I loved which had been released a few weeks prior to the album coming out. I was in the presence of a genuine modern rock masterpiece. I listened to the album another time all the way through and then turned out my lights and listened to it all night as I slept. I did the same thing for months after.
By the time summer rolled around, Black Hole Sun and its video had taken over MTV and the public consciousness. Soundgarden were the biggest band in the world, if only for a moment. On a family trip to Seattle we passed the Seattle Center and I saw in the marquee, like a glowing godly proclamation “Soundgarden – August 13th”. HOLY FUCK. HOLY FUCK. HOLY FUUUUUUUUUUCCCCKKKKK.
When I got home, I knew what to do. I called my uncle. My uncle is about 15 years older than me. So, though we were a generation apart, we could connect about many things. He, like my dad, like me, was obsessed with music. The phone rang and rang and rang. The answering machine picked up. “Hey Paul, it’s Pat. I need to talk to you. It’s about Soundgarden. Please call me.”
I don’t know how long after it was but the phone rang and I clumsily raced to pick it up. It was Paul. “Hey Pal, I haven’t listened to your message but I wanted to tell you that Soundgarden is playing at Memorial Stadium on August 13th do you want to go?” At this point I think it’s worth mentioning that my uncle is, to this day, both a hero and a legend to me. For this and many other reasons.
Needless to say, I saw Soundgarden at the height of their powers and popularity. I also saw Screaming Trees that day as well as The Reverend Horton Heat. It was the last show of their tour in front of their hometown. It changed my life and accelerated the NEED TO KNOW...to be what they were…to learn the mixture of this powerful alchemy that they could so effortlessly command.
There was only one more Soundgarden record, Down on the Upside. I still feel it is excellent, though not all agree. I could hear the changes from their previous work. When they broke up in 1997, even though I loved and adored them, for some reason I wasn’t surprised or even sad.
I scooped up Cornell’s debut solo album Euphoria Mo(u)rning the day it came out. It, I felt, was a masterpiece. It was more nuanced and soulful, while demonstrating the influence of Radiohead’s OK Computer. It briefly generated some buzz but quickly got buried under the heap of Nu Metal and other such shit that had taken over the American consciousness. I saw him and his band at the Paramount on that tour and again was floored by his voice, his presence and his musicianship.
Chris did a lot after that. Audioslave. More solo albums. Scream…eh…let’s just leave it at that. I didn’t love everything he did. In fact I hated some of it. But I remained bonded to his command of craft and respected his commitment to experimentation, regardless of the result. I always listened eagerly to whatever he put out and looked for the good in it, even when I didn’t enjoy it.
When Soundgarden reunited, I was more curious than excited. I had seen enough reunions to know that some things are better left as a memory. Could Cornell even hit the high notes of Beyond the Wheel or Face Pollution anymore? By chance, I caught some live footage of them performing at Lollapalooza. It was good enough to make me excited. When they announced a show at The Gorge in July of 2011 my animal instincts kicked in and, before I was even consciously aware, I had bought 5 tickets.
It was the last show of the tour. Queens of the Stone Age, Mastadon and the Meat Puppets(!) played. I was drunk. When the band walked out, the place erupted. Cornell wore white. His long hair was back. He had a beard. He…kinda looked like Jesus again. They proceeded to fucking destroy their set and bring all those teenage feels back to life. I had chills. When they closed their set with 4th of July my mind literally exploded.
When they returned for an encore, as if to prove to stupid me that he could, in fact, hit the high notes, the band launched in to Beyond the Wheel and Cornell hit every note as if it were 1988 all over again. I mentally bowed to the master and stored the show away as a high point in my lifetime of concert going. “I would definitely see them again,” I remember saying to my Dad.
Well. No, as it turns out.
I wrote a tribute to David Bowie after his passing last year. It was heartfelt and cathartic. Since then another of my greatest musical heroes, Leonard Cohen, also passed on to quest for a new castle. Both of them made me a better, more thoughtful person.
But Chris Cornell has meant the most to me. I know that all the members of Soundgarden wrote and made massive contributions to the band. Cornell would be the first to point that out. He left Seattle and moved to France. He talked openly about how he had wanted to escape Seattle his whole life. He modeled. He made Scream.
He wasn’t perfect. He was just a man. But his words, his voice kept me company every day when I was mercilessly bullied in junior high. His fucked up chord progressions and effortless melodies were there to teach me as I learned to play guitar and write songs. His path was a guiding light of sorts as I quested to know more.
Perhaps more importantly, Chris talked openly about getting sober. When I got to the end of the line a few years ago and finally put the bottle and the pipe down, I was lost. I had never even contemplated the thought of being clean. I was in over my head and out of my depth. And, as in so many years past when I didn’t know what to do, Chris Cornell and his words were there again to provide a path.
He talked about the changes sobriety brings to one’s life. He talked about being a different person sober. He helped me see that it was ok to change and that my creativity wouldn’t be lost without substances. He was right. Once I accepted the change, things improved for me exponentially.
I feel tremendous empathy for his wife, children and family. Suicide is a curse on those that remain. The questions that will undoubtedly go through their minds for the rest of their lives are a painful, undeserved punishment for a crime they never committed. There is still much to learn about how this could have happened.
There is nothing romantic or sexy about suicide. Depression is a murdering savage with no face. I know Chris Cornell suffered from bouts of severe depression throughout his life. That the murdering savage appears have claimed him as its victim is truly tragic.
I feel terrible for his band. After a quarter century of work, their time together was abruptly halted with no warning. After touring the world together, navigating the extremes of both obscurity and overwhelming success, decades of distance and then a triumphant return, this end can’t be anything other than devastating.
Thank you, Chris. Thank you for your artistry, your passion, and the courage to share your story. Whether I was 14, 27, or 37, you provided me with so much inspiration. Losing you represents the loss of some innocence, an irretrievable time in my life that your mere existence embodied. It's safe to say you were the avatar for many millions more. As you quest for your new castle, you are loved and appreciated the world over.