I’m old enough now that my rock heroes are dying at an advancing rate. I have spent time recently on Prince, Scott Weiland and what feels like countless others. It didn’t get any easier this week with the loss of Chris Cornell as I woke up to the awful news on Thursday morning.
Chris Cornell and Soundgarden were formative bands for me starting with Outshined. What I found was a “Seattle band” that didn’t quite fit in completely with the rest. While Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the rest projected some sense of their personality in everything they did, Soundgarden and their front man Chris Cornell always had a slightly more mysterious vibe. As a fan it felt like a throwback to an earlier time before you ever got to know much about any of your favorite rock bands. For the rest of the Seattle scene it was a concoction of exposure and over-exposure, but it never felt that way for Soundgarden. Sure, they got loads of attention, but until later when Spoonman and Black Hole Sun took over the summer of 1994 Soundgarden felt like this black box of musical explosion. Now it’s all gone.
My instant reaction was to get Andrew Schnitkey on the podcast and talk about it, but as I drove around listening to Cornell’s voice, I knew a podcast wouldn’t work. I can’t possibly talk about it yet. I came home from a work trip and just hoped beyond hope that my wife wouldn’t bring it up because I don’t know that I can talk about it without welling up. So, maybe that podcast can happen someday, but not right now. I do want to try and find a way to talk about Chris Cornell without crying so let’s try and lighten the mood a bit.
My wife married me having basically no idea who Chris Cornell was. She (almost certainly) had heard of Soundgarden, but her depth of knowledge wasn’t very deep at all. Whenever a Cornell vocal would come on the radio – be it Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog or solo work – I’d tell her, “This is the greatest rock and roll singer of my lifetime.” After a while, she got used to this intro and came to know Chris Cornell a little bit. She would eventually attend a Chris Cornell solo show at the Lakewood Civic Auditorium with me, and while I don’t know that the whole thing resonated with her personally, she got it from watching me. She got to see me lose it a bit as I was part of a crowd that got to sing Hunger Strike with Chris Cornell. She got to see me take in Fell on Black Days live and in person for the first time. Now, I know for sure it’s also the last time.
Wait, I still want to try and keep it light…
How good was Chris Cornell?
Have you ever thought about the band name “Soundgarden?” It’s really really dumb. It’s exactly the kind of band name I would have thought was great when I was in the seventh grade and would have cringed about putting in a notebook by the time I was a sophomore in high school. It’s so bad. “Soundgarden. Like a garden that grows sound organically. Get it?” It’s so very on the nose. And yet, despite that cringe-worthy name, nobody ever really thought about it. Why? I never considered how awful that name was until much later because the first time I heard the name the reference point was the incredible vocals of Chris Cornell smacking me in the face. Who had even a second to question the very 1980’s nature of their band name when it sounded like that?
Chris Cornell was so good that I never thought to make fun of his moustache back when it definitely was a choice that usually meant you were a cheesy porn star or some kind of state trooper or pirate. Chris Cornell looked like the old Tampa Bay Buccaneers logo. You know the one where the dude had a knife in his mouth with a winky face?
Look, if I don’t try and laugh a little bit I’ll just end up weeping through it all. The point is that Chris Cornell was more than just another rock star. He was that good. How good? That good.
More seriously, the timing of Chris Cornell’s career arc almost guarantees that any aspiring rock musician in my age group was going to be influenced by him. He turned his lack of conformity to song norms into a style that defied any rock genre. Nobody wrote rhythmically the way Chris Cornell did while also achieving mainstream success with accessible songs. One of his most beautiful songs, Fell on Black Days, sounds totally normal at first, but is written in 6/4 time signature. The song feels so standard and yet when you dig in, it’s just not.
While I could do a deep dive into any number of Cornell songs, I’ll stick right there because as Cornell was seemingly on top of the world and back touring with Soundgarden in the same 12-month period that he’d also reunited Temple of the Dog, things that seemed normal on the surface, were decidedly not. That’s the only conclusion we can reach a day after finding out a legend and musical hero like Chris Cornell was so far gone that he decided to kill himself. Apparently, the songs that he wrote about depression, anxiety and loss weren’t enough to keep him going this time and it’s impossibly sad to me.
Chris Cornell did an interview in 1994 and discussed Fell on Black Days that feels so prescient like many of Cornell’s lyrics. ” ‘Fell On Black Days’ was like this ongoing fear I’ve had for years. It took me a long time to write that song. We’ve tried to do three different versions with that title, and none of them have ever worked,” he said. “It’s a feeling that everyone gets. You’re happy with your life, everything’s going well, things are exciting – when all of a sudden you realize you’re unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared. There’s no particular event you can pin the feeling down to, it’s just that you realize one day that everything in your life is f**ked!”
That’s pretty much how it felt yesterday, except I knew exactly the source of my depression. It’s brutal to think that he couldn’t come out of that funk one more time like I know I will. But I’m thankful for ever having had Chris Cornell on this earth. The world is a much better place for it.