It took a while for Soundgarden to Jell with me.
My initial exposure to them was Badmotorfinger, the first recording of theirs I bought. I was an immediate fan of Cornell’s voice. He owned that tenor like Hendrix, and Stevie Ray owned their guitars, it just did whatever he wanted it to do.
But initially I was more enthralled by Kim Thayil’s playing, which to me was this insane mashup of Tony Iommi, Jimmy Page, and Martin Barre (the self-taught Jethro-Tull picker responsible for Aqualung).
But the more I listened, it became clear that Cornell’s voice, rising above the sometimes horrifyingly dark dirge of Thayil’s stringwork was the contrast that made them a duo of musical genius.
If you don’t know them, let “Outshined” be the song to start off with. That dropped D opening riff is deadly. But listen to Cornell take it from there with a song about the misery of being human:
“I got up feeling so down
I got off being sold out
I’ve kept the movie rolling
But the story’s getting old now, oh yeah
I just looked in the mirror
And things aren’t looking so good
I’m looking California and feeling Minnesota, oh yeah”
That whole looking California and feeling Minnesota lyric? Yeah that just about sums it up.
But then just stop and listen to what happens at 2:57 into the song. Suddenly the guitar is soaring into major chords (alongside the most awesome OHHHHHHYEAH! ever), uplifting the song into something entirely different. What the Hell just happened? It’s almost perfect, this song.
I could go on all day, and take apart song after song, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that these guys rocked! They knew what they were doing! They controlled their instruments and they put proof to the lie that Grunge rock could be dismissed as nothing more than a sloppy homage to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. This stuff was life changing for me. More so than Nirvana, and on a par with my boys in Pearl Jam.
In my estimation the two albums Badmotorfinger, and Superunknown are simple and unalloyed greatness. Four guys at the top of their game.
But Cornell, I think he became a hero when I heard “Seasons” from the Singles soundtrack:
“and i’m lost, behind
the words ill never find”
It kills me every time. I never pass up a chance to listen to that song, and the sliding open tuning on his acoustic makes this as bleak as the last raw fall day before a winter storm. It’s what I imagined living in Seattle must have been like.
It was pure Cornell.
And then there was the Cornell that was a good friend to Andrew Wood, the late lamented lead singer of Mother Love Bone who died of a heroin overdose. Here was a a Cornell who wore his heart on his sleeve to the point that he wrote an entire album about his friend and some of those songs resonate still. “All Night Thing” which I always though was a nice coda to a one night stand is, in fact a harrowing account of Wood’s last night and the woman who talked him into that one last hit.
I think of him as a hero because his music was deeply personal, and his personal philosophy as portrayed in his lyrics spoke to me.
Does the blatant hypocrisy of people who co-opt Christianity for their personal gain bug you? It bugged Cornell too (Jesus Christ Pose). Does just the strain of living get to you? It got to Cornell too (Black Days). Do you sometimes feel like an outsider? Like everyone else is just doing things and you’re standing there thinking, “I don’t really want to do that!” Cornell felt that way too, but he reveled in it (Superunknown).
And as Soungarden closed and Audioslave opened his lyrics just got better and better. A WTH were you thinking plea to God (Show me how to live). Check!
“Nail in my hand
From my creator
You gave me life
Now show me how to live.”
Some days it’s like that.
His audioslave work is outstanding, his theme song for the Bond film is awesome (You Know My Name)
He struggled with alcoholism, and I’m terrified that his death will be related to that struggle. Let it not be so.
At the end of it all, Cornell struck me as a survivor, an Irish kid from Seattle who like all good Irish folk were deeply in touch with the depth of sadness that accompanies living. Maybe that’s what did him in. He leaves behind a wife, and three children.
He leaves behind his philanthropic work with the Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation.
But what he left me was insight into the human condition. I’ve always struggled with the truth that life is a whole thing. Joy and struggle, and pain, and pleasure, but I’d never use the word, easy. And I carry with me always, the notion that it won’t end well. He assured me it wasn’t just me.
I’ll close with this from “Like A Stone”
“On my deathbed I will pray
To the gods and the angels
Like a pagan to anyone
Who will take me to heaven.”
Don’t we all.