Wednesday, June 21, 2017

RIP Chris Cornell

I’m not going to try to convince you of Chris Cornell’s greatness. By now you either like Soundgarden or you don’t. You appreciate his unique vocal talent or it’s not your thing. I’m only writing this because if I don’t get it out of my head, I’m going to continue miserably ruminating about his death for a long damn time. Instead I should be blasting his music at full volume. Maybe after posting this I can finish brooding.

In high school someone lent me their Badmotorfinger CD not long after its release. That evening, before I got the chance to listen to it myself, my younger brother put it on the stereo without me present. I was tightly wound in those days, and my natural tendency was probably to pick a fight with him over what I would have surely considered an act of insolence. As I neared the room, he was already well into Track #3, “Slaves and Bulldozers.” I was stunned, dropping all concern about who was supposed to play whose music when. I had never heard anything like it. Over the powerful scuffing of Kim Thayil’s distorted guitar came a wholly unique squall: “NOW I KNOW WHY YOU BEEN TAKIN’!” My brother and I didn’t speak, merely exchanging brief glances. My glance asked, “This is real?” To which his replied, “I’m three songs in and believe me, it is.”

You may already know what happened next. “Jesus Christ Pose” blew my damn mind. The most blistering grunge song ever made tears at itself with all four band members going over the top in intensity. The music sets an unfathomable tone of speed, depth, and power in which each note carries aggression to the listener. One minute and 27 seconds in, Cornell’s voice takes the whole affair up two more levels. The band carries on, but feels as though it has receded thanks to his wail punching through at a higher weight class. Of course Thayil’s guitar is merely lying in wait before its own escalations, hitting both high and low. The song has no equal. I don’t even think there’s another band that could try it.

It was obvious that Soundgarden represented unparalleled power. But all that heavy fuzz would not have stood apart without Cornell's ability to range from peaceful comfort to guttural menace to banshee wail, often melding all within the same track. On pure vocal talent, he transformed a solid outfit into a band operating on a unique plane, transcending genre and era.

Cornell’s persona never seemed to be an accessible one. On albums, videos, interviews, and in concert, he seemed to put himself at a distance from the audience. Whereas other rock heroes strove to project a shared life experience, I never felt like I remotely “knew” Cornell. You were never gonna sing like him. You were never gonna look like him. You could be in awe of him, but since he never came across as the arrogant rock star he easily could have chosen to be, the awe was a hospitable one. Despite that emotional distance, there are many reasons I find myself taking his death personally.

Badmotorfinger is one of those formative-years albums that I know better than I know myself. I sometimes surprise myself in realizing that every note, beat, and word live in an unconscious part of my brain. I played the album on the way home from my first date. That date did not lead to a second one. But it must have been even more important to me than I realized because for years I couldn’t hear the album without reliving the high you can only feel on the way home from your first date. The depth of my personal stake in many of the band’s songs only grew in the years that followed.

In college, I discovered that if I played “Entering” before an exam, it heightened my focus and usually increased my grade. This became an every-exam routine for which I received much ridicule, but also a GPA that led to a good job upon graduation. / With my friend Will who I only ever saw at parties, we often belted out “Mood for Trouble” at the top of our lungs regardless of what was going on around us. People hated it. We didn’t care. / Down on the Upside will forever be the not-quite-dirge that accompanied the crack-up of my most important early friendship. Its songs remain crystalized there in that long, tenuous summer that wasn’t all bad, but still carries laments. / I damn near got a Soundgarden tattoo. Maybe I will yet. / I had, for too many years, planned to name a son or daughter Cornell. / My favorite concert t-shirt, now riddled with holes, is this absurdity. I will never part with it. / At a point where I needed to convince myself to get out of a difficult situation, “New Damage” was my best support to confidently make the change happen.

2016 was, among various other unfortunate things, the year of the personally-touching celebrity death. David Bowie’s sudden demise was a shock, followed later by Prince, Phife Dawg, Muhammad Ali, Sharon Jones, Gene Wilder, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and many of our other favorite people we never met. But my father passed three days after Bowie. It’s something I’m still coming to terms with, and surely will be struggling with for a long time to come. For the rest of the year, none of the names on that extensive obituary list mattered all that much to me. But Cornell’s definitely does. I have vacillated between feeling angry and wistful since the moment I heard the news.

I now realize he was my favorite rock singer. In fact, I don’t even know who would be second, but I know that there is a wide gap between him and the rest. He could do a piercing Rob Halford, but also had that foreboding growl. Over time he cultivated a soothing croon. All of these very different voices were extremely alive. I’ve recently gone back and listened to everything he ever made. There’s not one song on which he sounds distant or in any way like a ghost from the beyond grave.

What his death has done for me is made me realize that I am not connected to music like I was. This snuck up on me. Until I moved away from the US, there was no more important hobby in my life. I probably averaged at least one show per week while living in Chicago. Not only have I lived in concert-deprived areas for the last nine years, I now have two small children and extremely limited babysitter availability. The lack of time, community, and maybe just the usual “getting old” are all factoring in. Music has become something to accompany work when possible, and not much else. I never expected that to happen. Losing a favorite voice reminded me how much that voice used to matter to me. So I’ve been listening with more attention lately.

I have rediscovered his non-Soundgarden material, and it’s better than I had recalled. One song is now standing out in particular. From his last album, “Only These Words” is obviously an ode to his children. It is perhaps a bit trite, but catchy as hell. Most importantly, it shares a sentiment any parent can immediately relate to; it reminds me of not just my daughter but how she makes me feel as her dad. Listening to it defeats any anger I feel about Cornell’s suicide and replaces it with overwhelming sadness. I’m still broken up about my dad, and I can’t seem to detach that from this story. But he lived to 91 and was at a true point of contentment in his life. Cornell left three kids behind. What a tragedy.
(And if that song alone doesn’t make you well up, try out this duet with his daughter. Damn it all.)

My friend Dan recently published an interview he did with Cornell back when King Animal was released. He comes across as a man at peace with where his career has gone. “Our music is going to go on,” he says. Indeed his legacy feels complete across two major bands plus various side projects and solo work. The music lives, and so in a sense his voice does too. And before too long I suppose I will listen to his records and feel the highs I used to. I hope so. Because right now, while I appreciate how good those records are, they all make me feel sad.