Wow, I am in absolute, unadultured “punch in the gut” shock and have been since midnight last night when I first heard Chris Cornell had killed himself.
He was an amazing talent, both as a vocalist and lyricist. His songs were powerful, obscure, thought-provoking. He was a high-school dropout but a genius.
The reason I think his death hit me so hard is that I basically blew off music for many years. Other than Stevie Ray Vaughan and U2’s “The Joshua Tree,” the 80s to me were mostly a lost decade. I mostly listened to Led Zeppelin, the Who or old blues through that whole decade. It was a genuinely depressing Death Valley of Bad Journey, Bad Foreigner, Overrated Bruce Springsteen and Astonishingly Bad Flock of Seagulls. There hadn’t been anything worth listening to for me since Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”
Then, when I was living in Mammoth Lakes, through our cable service, there was a secret way to pick up radio stations. And one of those radio stations was a Fresno State college station. I started hearing this band called Nirvana on that stations MONTHS before anyone else outside of Seattle. and I loved them.
About the same time, a friend of mine gave me a tape of a band called Primus. I didn’t take to them as quickly as I did Nirvana, they were much more of an acquired test. But, I did find them strangely compelling despite Les Claypool’s weird vocals. The more I listened to them, the more I became a fan of their incredible musicanship.
About that same time, Pearl Jam started hitting it big. Pearl Jam’s “Ten” was one of the first CDs I ever bought. I liked it, a lot at first.
So, with Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Primus under my belt and this burgeoning music scene exploding out of the Seattle, I moved to the Pacific Northwest. At that time, all three bands literally erupted into megastardom. Finally, after 10 years of feeling like I was wandering through the musical wilderness, listening mostly to my older brothers’ music, I felt like I had music *I* could relate to. Angry, alienated, disconnected people railing against the wind.
Around this time, a band called Alice N Chains came forward. They were OK, too many of their songs were about heroin and everyone in the 90s just HAD to do songs about heroin because, wow, people in the 60s didn’t find out the hard way how much it sucked.
Kind of following in the tailwind of all this musical revolution was a loud, yet weirdly quiet Seattle band with a really stupid name — Soundgarden.
I thought Soundgarden was all right at first, but they weren’t Nirvana or Primus. I bought their CDs, listened to them, then went back to the ol’ reliables, Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Like Primus, it took a while for Soundgarden to grow on me.
Soundgarden was a bit minimalist, no long guitar solos, a heavy reliance on big riffs, a muddy sound at times. They sounded very Zeppelin. But, they had Chris Cornell, an absolutely unbelievable singer. Literally, some of his vocals on Badmotorfinger are superhuman. He did things on that album that couldn’t be done, no one had done, not even Robert Plant.
Back in the early 90s, I worked at a paper in Oregon and Soundgarden had a big hit with “Black Hole Sun,” (actually not one of my favourite Soundgarden songs). We used to laugh that there were a bunch of characters in the videos of Black Hole Sun that seemed to exist in our newspaper office, including a giant Great Dane.
Over the years, I get very quickly bored with Pearl Jam. I came to realize their music, while better than 1980s drek, was painfully derivative, unoriginal and depressing. Even Nirvana, especially after Cobain’s suicide, was too depressing for me. Alice N Chains doesn’t do anything for me other than “The Rooster,” one of the best anti-war songs ever written. Primus, still a huge, huge fan.
So, quietly, over the years, I started listening to Soundgarden more and more and became a bigger and bigger fan. Of all the music from that exciting, chaotic period of the early 90s, Soundgarden and Primus are mostly the bands I listen to from that era.
Later, Chris joined Rage Against the Machine and created Audioslave, another band with an unfortunately lame name. RATM was another early 90s band I loved with an incredible guitarist, incredible drummer. Chris fit right in. It was great, it wasn’t Soundgarden, it wasn’t RATM, it was something new. Chris had mellowed; he no longer tried to blow our minds with his supersonic “Slaves and Bulldozers” vocals, he relied on his soul more.
Audioslave actually put out some pretty pop-like songs. I still loved them. To this day, “The Last Remaining Light” still gives me chills 15 years after I heard it for the first time. They were apparently intended as a “one off” to begin with, but had so much success, they put out three or four albums.
Chris was a bit of an enigma. He didn’t seek the spotlight, his songs were oblique. His songs had a lot of religious imagery, but he didn’t seem to be a religious man. Like the enigma he was in life, he remains at the moment an enigma in death.
So, that was a really important era for me, the first time I really felt music was directed at ME, not my older brothers, and Chris Cornell was a big part of it. I was really hurt by his death, it was a major punch in my gut. It wasn’t like Cobain. Everyone saw that coming, and when it happened, I wasn’t even sad, I was just pissed off at Cobain. That was different. Everyone saw it coming, had seen it coming for a year or two. Cornell came out of nowhere.
Someone pointed out that Eddie Vedder is the last one left from the “big four” of Seattle — Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice N Chains. Two suicides and a drug overdose that might as well have been suicide.
Depression is a major bitch, as someone who has been on the periphery of it most of his life, it’s exasperating, drags everyone in its vicinity down, and it’s fucking impossible to understand it.