Remembering Chris Cornell
Like every single fan in the history of rock and roll, I have that teenage story of a watershed moment with a set of music that forever changed my life.
And like every single teenager of the early ‘90s....yes, I have a Nirvana story…except that it’s not a Nirvana story. It's actually a Soundgarden story.
Oh, sure - Kurt, Krist, and Dave certainly did a big number on me in that fall of 1991 (as well as having an unmatched cultural impact that sent shockwaves through the music industry), but it was actually Chris Cornell and Soundgarden who were the ones responsible for the seismic shift during my formative music-listening years.
In fact, they did that twice.
Soundgarden first came roaring into my life in the early days of 1990. I was 15 years old, 110 lbs. soaking wet, barely past my junior high school/early high school obligatory Zeppelin/Floyd phase, and eager for new music that Didn’t Suck.
That last verb was a big-time qualifier; in that era, there were basically two divergent camps of music fans. Mostly College Rock kids worshipped at the altar of The Smiths, The Cure, and the Church of Strange Clothes and Affected Vocals, while Mostly Classic Rock kids were firmly ensconced in the belief that Basically Everything Ever Released After 1977 Was Questionable. Although there were certainly kids that somehow straddled this huge black line, then 15-year-old, sophomoric Matt was quite firmly entrenched in the latter category. Although I came to love many of the bands in the former category later, I didn't think very much of them then.
In fact, I thought they all kind of… Sucked.
However, one of my very best friends (and longest-standing musical collaborators) Geoff, was one of those unlikely, aforementioned Straddlers. He certainly loved his fair share of the classics, and as a champion of early Floyd and Aerosmith, Jimi Hendrix, and Rush, he probably introduced me to more albums than I can count on three hands, usually while we played nickel-ante poker with moonshine we made from frozen concentrated orange juice. Yes, we were, in fact, hooligans in those days. Luckily, most of us were also good enough at science to not be blinded by it…
Anyway, Geoff's older brother Paul had a seemingly endless supply of odd curios from this newer era of music… and by that time, some of it was clearly starting to rub off onto our dear Geoff. CDs by bands such as Pixies, Sonic Youth, and fIREHOSE (not to mention Whatever-Other-Weird-Stuff-Ryko-Was-Releasing) started weaving their way into our 5-disc carousels sometime in late ‘89. On one particularly blustery day in February ‘90, Geoff loudly informed me that he and several mutual friends were headed to a triple bill of three such bands at the Old Vic Theatre in Chicago the following Wednesday. I wasn't really interested in the show (honestly, I was probably more hung up at that time on who I could possibly con into asking me to the next Sadie Hawkins-style dance last minute), but I do recall that they were at least partially there to see headliner Voivod (whose then-cover of Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine” was reaching buzzworthy status in the high school hallways).
Thinking back on that show, I now imagine in addition to seeing Voivod do one of my favorite Floyd tracks, it must have been absolutely incredible to see opener Faith No More debut their new vocalist Mike Patton in support of “The Real Thing,” his debut album with the band. While I must confess that I’m very jealous of that particular experience as well, it was actually the middle band from then-little-known-of Seattle that completely blew Geoff and my other friends away.
It was that set that later became The One I Regretted Missing.
That band, Soundgarden, had just released their first major label effort, the alt-hard-rock powerhouse Louder than Love. The week after the show, when I stopped over to my next door neighbor Rob’s house to catch up on some NES Metroid, said album was blasting…on repeat, on 11.
Louder Than Love is an album you only play loud, like Live at Leeds and Kiss Alive!, and I had never heard anything quite like it in my life. It wasn't really heavy metal, and it certainly wasn't the generic hair glam that was all over the radio. It also wasn't the college rock that I'd shunned and not (yet) been able to connect to. It featured heavy guitars, thunderous bass, odd time signatures, unusual chord figures, and topical lyrics about world politics, introspection, general bacchanalia, and bizarre sexual fantasies. It was earnest and undeniable, and yet primordial and visceral. It was quite an impressive package for a band that young and that hungry. It was, of course, also chock full of adrenaline and speed. Perhaps most importantly, it also contained the right blend of maturity and odd humor that I would later come to deeply respect.
For this kid, who had cut his young teeth on Zeppelin, Rush, and Kiss, there might not have been a more perfect gateway drug to an ‘80s band that I could champion.
Louder than Love was in many ways my very first tab.
From then on, "now things have changed..." as the lyrics say.
After obsessing at Rob’s for a couple of days, I tracked the album down myself (a feat that usually required trips to no less than three record stores in the pre-internet Dark Ages Of Music Buying). As winter made way to spring and to summer, we all kept listening…. not only to Louder than Love, which became a staple in each of our 30-disc portable cases, but to the band’s amazing SST debut Ultramega OK, as well as the 2-Eps-On-One-CD Screaming Life / Fopp (which we finally tracked down at the local Flipside Records after weeks of searching….complete with “The Nice Price” sticker).
The biggest memories I have of the summer of 1990 involve driving around with as many kids as we could jam into Rob’s 1980 Buick Diesel station wagon, ending up at whoever’s house was empty (or contained parents that just weren’t paying attention), drinking whatever beer our older siblings and friends would agree to procure for us. This was typically Milwaukee’s Best and Black Label….because after all, they were still somewhat sadistic older siblings…
…and we listened to Soundgarden, literally all the time.
I felt young. I felt free. I felt fantastic.
I was fascinated by the entire band at that time, as all four members were excellent musicians with their own personality. Drummer Matt Cameron was a decidedly heavy player, albeit tasteful and distinctive. Lead guitarist Kim Thayil was dynamic, tuneful, interesting, and wickedly talented. He also oozed mystery. Original bassist Hiro Yamamoto was relentless as a player, an interesting songwriter, and seemed to be the oddball weirdo in the band (I probably identified with him the most in my early days of wonderment). However, it was frontman, lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist, and chief songwriter Chris Cornell that was an undeniable force to be reckoned with.
He was a god. He was THE God.
Cornell’s voice wasn’t just excellent, it was unyielding, seemingly limitless, and featured an extraordinary range that wasn’t obnoxious when it reached its upper register (aided by an then-uncharacteristically dry production approach). His power could be felt on both the high and low end of his voice, and his vibrato felt natural and never forced. He looked simultaneously menacing and approachable, chiseled but somehow accessible. Additionally, his presence on the songwriting credits of the band was larger-than-life, as the writer of seven of Louder than Love’s twelve tracks songs musically, and (at the time) as the core band’s virtually-sole lyricist.
…and it was Cornell’s lyrics that set him apart. The first two tracks on that album, “Ugly Truth” and “Hands All Over,” betrayed an against-the-grain attitude towards the conformity and non-politics of the milquetoast late-80s, when most major bands were still content to paint pictures of groupies and fast living. That said, his lyrics could also make you laugh, as evidenced by the sarcastic would-be Spinal Tap send-up “Big Dumb Sex,” and they could also leave you guessing, as was the case with the edgy, bewildering “Full On Kev’s Mom,” one of the most bizarrely unsettling songs I’ve ever heard to this day.
Oh, and Chris was also a pretty damned good guitar player, as it turns out. I tried to learn how to play most of those songs, but since I wasn’t really good enough, I settled on faux-air-guitaring with a real, cheap, white Yamaha in my hands, while the album was blasting out of my bedroom speakers. I still have that Yamaha - my very first guitar, which my dad helped me hold the wiring together by teaching me how to solder, and I still treasure that dumb, broken thing as much as these memories.
As 1990 edged on, I kept listening to Soundgarden, and more bands started creeping in, and pushing the edges of my newly defined musical landscape as this Sophomore Jinx turned to Junior Fool. I did buy that aforementioned Faith No More album. One fall day, my friend Seth slapped a pair of headphones on me and queued Daydream Nation, and in a single intro, Teenage Riot christened me a Sonic Youth fan for life. Nearly every time I was around either Rob or Geoff for the next year, it was a rapid-fire succession of new bands and albums: Mother’s Milk by the Chili Peppers, the latest from Fishbone, Living Colour’s first two albums, older hardcore stuff by Bad Brains and Minor Threat.
It was a deluge of new music, and I fell in love with the sport of swimming.
My friend Jon and I started staying up far too late on school nights, talking about the Pixies, William S. Burroughs, new “experiences”… usually while making Grands biscuits. My friend Tim turned us on to Word Jazz and strange coffeehouses downtown. My friend Dave taught me a thing or two about women, and I still hold onto his confident laugh, his relentlessly pushy style, and his letter-perfect recitation of the Spanish language intro to Ritual De Lo Habitual to set the scene for an unnamed, secret party. Dave was always The Life. Things were changing quickly, and things were getting weird.
I loved it.
I felt quite comfortable, and I felt at home. All of this happened against the backdrop of Soundgarden and Chris Cornell…the permanent fixtures… the band and the man that still seemed otherworldly, and still seemed so far ahead of it all.
In all these scenes, Soundgarden was also There.
My junior year evaporated, and I went off to Serious Music Camp. I found my first taste of true love, poetry, art, and an appreciation for new forms of music I never knew existed. I returned in August, and as our fateful Senior year started, there was a feeling in the air we all couldn’t describe.
Something felt like it was about to change; little did we know how much it would.
Late that September, as the trees began to turn from green to yellow and red, and as I settled into my final Cross Country season, three landmark albums were released within twenty four hours of each other that Changed Everything: the swan song (and personal favorite) Trompe Le Monde by Pixies, Nevermind by Nirvana, and the Rick Rubin-helmed Chili Peppers smash BloodSugarSexMagik. All three of these remade the respective bands as cultural icons, no longer relegated to the cut-out “curio” bin at the local record store: Pixies soon opened for U2 on their biggest-ever American tour, “Under the Bridge” sent the Chili Peppers to 5x platinum, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wholly redefined popular music.
Most of us bought all three albums nearly the day they were released, and that entire fall is still a blur of sensation, wonder, awe, and inspiration in my mind.
Two weeks later, an old friend returned to cap it all off with the biggest Fall Surprise. Badmotorfinger wasn’t just Soundgarden’s next album, it was a Cornerstone. It was The Benchmark. It was alternative rock and heavy metal colliding with inspired lyrics, intricate songwriting, and dynamic arrangement. It was my first encounter with Next Level. It was anything but its predecessor.
It was absolutely fucking legendary.
Once again, Chris was all over the writing and spirit of the album, although he relinquished enough control to let each member of the band assume more of the co-writing responsibilities themselves – including new bassist Ben Shepherd, who fit in perfectly (in spite of my erstwhile reservations about anyone replacing Hiro). I absolutely treasured that contrast. I spent hours holed up in my room, listening to the “White Album” of Soundgarden, discovering every single detail, reading every single lyric, awing at every single facet of the iconography, and possibly trying (in vain) to grow a goatee.
I wanted to be him. I idolized him.
During that same era, I also discovered the recently released and then-little-heralded Temple of the Dog album, in which the remnants of Mother Love Bone convened with Chris and a then-unknown vocalist named Eddie Vedder, in order to properly bid goodbye to their deceased friend and bandmate Andrew Wood. A couple years later, the track “Hunger Strike” would become a huge radio hit, after Pearl Jam Broke It Big. At this time, though, that album was still tucked away in the Temple. As amazing as Pearl Jam became, it was always more fascinating to me that Chris sounded like he was at home helming both projects nearly simultaneously. It was a testament to his talent, and a great omen for things to come. It wouldn’t be the last time this chameleon would comfortably wear different colors.
I now also believe that it just went to show everyone that if he set his mind do it, he could literally do anything.
Badmotorfinger was the sound of my senior year of high school. It was edgy, mature, forceful, honest, cerebral, and challenging. It was cohesive despite its sprawling writing. It demanded everything from you, and turned hairpin corners with each new chapter. Each time I go back to it, it just feels deeper than I ever remember it being. It’s always fresh, and there’s always more to it.
26 years later, it’s still a more of a 10 for me than Ten ever was.
On May 2nd, 1992, I finally got to see my heroes play live at the Riviera in Chicago, two and a half years after I first encountered Soundgarden, an eon and an eternity for a then-17-year-old boy. I was nervous that night, wondering what they would do, wondering what they could do to live up to my awesome expectations. I remember every detail about the opening of that show, every moment of anticipation. I remember the lights going down. I remember something happening with sound effects, and almost instantly, I recognized the prerecorded opening announcement. When the final line of the intro spoke “The devil says….” and the accompanying woosh hit, I nearly fainted as the band launched into the opening chord of “Searching With My Good Eye Closed.”
And then he was there, surrounded by smoke, firmly in front, and yet a part of the band.
He had that presence.
It was an unusual choice for an opener, but he and the band never did anything all that conventional, although you always thought they might. The rest of the set, is of course, a blur, and there’s no words I could choose to properly frame the rest of that incredible experience.
It remains one of the favorite concerts of my life.
I saw them a second time on the 2nd tour of Lollapolooza, in the summer of 1992, freshly graduated from high school, and (I suppose) Ready for the Road Ahead. That day, they were miles away from me and my lawn seat, underneath a crappy outdoor shed, and the entire festival experience was a sea of bands, carnival performers, strange experiences, and $7 slices of pizza. It was nice to be there, and there are many experiences I recall from that day, but Soundgarden wasn’t one of them. It really wasn’t the best place to digest one of your favorite bands (and the aforementioned pizza wasn’t worth digesting, but alas… I bought it anyway).
I whisked off to Northwestern, and the week I arrived, the Singles soundtrack was released. For me personally, it was a great, fitting culmination of Chris and Soundgarden, and of the Seattle music scene (despite the strange absence of Nirvana on the soundtrack). He had his own track, and the band did too…both were wonderful. He seemed the center of that world – and let’s face it, Matt Dillon wasn’t exactly styled to look like Kurt…
Within a few weeks, I joined the staff of the student-run radio station at Northwestern I’d longed tuned into from across town. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I started to get even weirder. I happened upon some new discoveries: The Jesus Lizard, the Archers of Loaf, Spiritualized, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282…Naked City…the list goes on of the bands that became my new obsessions. I dug deep into the past and into the present, and I unearthed even odder curios than the ones Paul unveiled to us those many years ago. I’d like to think I might have even turned he – and “Brüder Einz” Geoff – on to more than a few of them over the years.
By the time Superunknown hit, a couple of years later, Soundgarden was exploding more and more into the mainstream, while I was left-turning sharply, Going Underground, as our mate Paul Weller is fond of saying. I now favored the basement tapes of Pavement, the early recordings of the Mountain Goats, and the high energy power-punk of Superchunk. On release, the new Soundgarden album sounded to me….well, kind of like slabs of something from another time, another planet, another era…especially when juxtaposed with the stuff I was listening to now. I was just in a different place. Things had changed so, so fast. When you’re young, they really do.
I still respected the band and Chris for what they did, but I suppose we were going through a little bit of a divorce.
Thinking about it now, it bums me out.
I never really followed the band much after that, but always wished them well, despite being admittedly somewhat resentful of their now-ubiquity. When the band did finally end, and Audioslave was next….well, that really wasn’t my bag, musically. I never pursued it. I still respected the hell out of Chris taking a totally new direction and running with it – and wasn’t surprised by his success.
In fact, I absolutely loved that he continued to have that success.
He was great; he deserved it.
I did hear a little of his solo work a few years later, mostly in passing, mostly in bars or by way of old friends. I was older now, probably 23 or 24, into the authenticity of Guided by Voices and simultaneously the grandiose absurdity of Mr. Bobby Conn. Chris’s solo work never stuck with me much, but I was always impressed by what I heard, especially in that it was again so different that what he’d done before. It was well done. It was mature. It was lasting. It seemed permanent.
I always meant to get back to it.
As I said before, I knew he could do anything.
When Soundgarden inevitably reformed, I applauded loudly, but never got around to going. I suppose I could say that I really didn’t feel like I could go home again – and often we can’t. It was something that belonged back there for me, and I was totally happy to leave it where it was.
I was, however, also happy to hear they were doing new music.
I was also a bit curious.
I didn’t listen.
I wish I had.
I suppose this may be the point where you wonder why a fan of only a small part of this incredible man’s career is writing this piece.
Chris Cornell and Soundgarden had a tremendous impact on me at a crucial time in my life, and I’ve no doubt he’s had that impact on several others and several times in their lives.
He had that kind of impact.
He always did.
Of course, his death was a complete shock.
I never expected to be so taken aback by the sudden passing of a man I hadn’t sought to know in 20 years, but I was completely, totally devastated by the news. Despite not listening to his music in years, I found myself poring over his catalog last week, even stuff I’d not heard, and I found myself in tears for a man I never once met or knew.
This was a punch in the gut. I never got the chance to say goodbye. I suddenly regretted missing the opportunity to ever hear him again in any context, and I was left wondering what I missed.
I wished I could have seen him one more time.
My oldest friend Alison did see him, and his band (my band?), just a few days before he passed. She told me something felt off, and I do believe her. She remains one of the most compassionate souls I know, and I think she would know that something was.
As I’ve said, he had that kind of impact.
He had that type of consciousness that reaches many.
Although we may never know what happened with his death, I’m happy to let those sleeping dogs lie. They say he took his own, and I believe he has that right, certainly. He gave me (and us) enough of himself to take what he needed for himself, for any reason.
I still wonder why, but it’s not for me to know. Whether it was ideation…the Ativan… or something else, he was here… and then he was gone. Such is life. We are here. We are gone.
I did find myself strangely compelled to write this, to share my experience with you, because his passing did make me realize the impact his incredible art had on me, all these years later.
I implore you to never take for granted the special artists that touch our lives daily.
I will seek out the rest of his canon. I will seek to know it, and will seek to know the man as well as I can.
He had that kind of impact. He really did.
Rest in peace, Chris…
… and thank you.
Matt Walters is a retired professional poker player, theatre industry Union thug, lead guitarist and keyboard player for Roxy Swain, and the songwriter, vocalist and frontman of Sixcups. When not negotiating, recording, or performing, he is typically found at Galloping Ghost in Brookfield, Illinois, setting high scores on obscure Japanese arcade games. He still resides in Oak Park, IL, after all these years, and is occasionally persuaded to write about music.
The author today.