“I want to reach down
and pick the crowd up
Carry them in my hand
to the promised land…
To the promised land”
The death of legendary singer and grunge pioneer Chris Cornell stunned the music world last week.
Chris was a rare talent. He was the greatest voice in rock music; a versatile singer who could wail on high notes and slide effortlessly into a bluesy moan charged with soul and emotion.
It’s been a few days since his untimely death, and many fans remain in a state of disbelief. The best we can do is honor the man by celebrating his music and appreciating what a profound gift he gave us during his life.
It’s impossible to discuss Chris Cornell and Soundgarden without acknowledging the tremendous influence grunge had for me during my youth. Grunge music was my entry into rock. Before I was a fan of classic rock, I was a hardcore fan of grunge. The big four – Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden – formed the nucleus of my obsession.
Grunge was a visceral introduction to the rock universe. It was unbelievable. Together, all the albums released by each band created a unified alternate world. This world mirrored the dark emotions we lived inside, but the music made it beautiful. It was empowered alienation. As Rolling Stone once said, it was the music of “violence and retreat”.
Grunge delivered raw emotion behind soaring voices, screams, otherworldly guitar phrases and lyrics that touched our souls. A handful of bands defined our experience, and those bands were larger than life. Chris Cornell was larger than life.
The first song I heard by Soundgarden was the iconic “Black Hole Sun”. The dark psychedelia was strange, but I loved it. From that moment, I was hooked.
I listened to early-era Soundgarden every morning on the drive to school. The sound was perfect for Alaska mornings. I remember gliding down the icy road listening to “Nothing to Say”, “Flower”, and “Hands All Over”.
The red sun peeked over the horizon, blazing a thin line over mountains beneath a dark sky. The guitars echoed to the mountains; mean, cold, and brittle. The drums vacillated between a steady battle march and unhinged madness. The whole thing sounded like a glacier splitting in slow motion.
Soundgarden’s early music is hypnotic and full of stark imagery; dark pines, eerie lakes, power lines, and grey skies marbled in clouds. I listened and flew across the sky. I gazed down on a vast portrait of nature in still life. Cornell’s soaring voice pulled you into a vision. You didn’t jump or head bang along with this music – you brooded to Soundgarden. It was menacing and the intensity pulled you in. Your soul moved into the songs.
“Room A Thousand Years Wide” is a great example, it churns through desert surrealism, blinding sun, and strobe lights. Soundgarden’s music was a vehicle into imagery or a feeling you couldn’t place. You broke through the mirror and emerged into a realm halfway between artist and audience. Waves of saturated guitar washed over and you were reborn in an instant.
Locked into a serious grunge obsession, you went hours without eating because you were too busy experiencing a surge of emotion. It was like a drug.
I never left this music completely behind, but I remember when it was all new.
I had a sad moment today during one of my favorite songs, “Loud Love”. The song is so high octane and immediate that I forgot Chris passed away. I was rocking out, then suddenly I remembered that the source behind this powerful vocal delivery is gone.
I have another special memory connected to Soundgarden. The band accompanied me into the stupidest decision of my life.
Many years ago, I decided to visit my favorite park in Anchorage armed with two sugar cubes of LSD. This seemed like a great idea until the bathroom walls started breathing. An orange hue creeped over everything and at that point I decided it was probably foolish to hang out in the woods at a public park on acid.
So, I decided to drive home.
During the drive home, I played “Searching with My Good Eye Closed”. I turned the volume up to full blast. When that first wall of guitar hit, it vibrated through my body with an intensity I’d never experienced. I felt like I was entering heaven. Chris sang about the sky and I was ready. I was ready to go up into that sky. I had this total spiritual experience, like a monk on top of a mountain. It was amazing.
I could talk about Soundgarden songs and my memories connected to them all day. Nothing I say can touch the experience of listening to the music.
I was never impressed by Audioslave’s radio singles. However, I picked up the album Songbook a couple of years ago and was blown away by the acoustic version of “Like a Stone”. I decided I should explore Audioslave’s albums. I never ended up doing that, but I will soon.
The one Chris Cornell project that I’ve always loved is Temple of The Dog.
Temple has been a tear-inducing experience over the last couple of days. Every other song makes me cry. Beyond just mourning Chris Cornell, I might also be mourning the grunge era and human experience in general.
Temple of The Dog inspires that level of grief. Since the album’s songwriter is now gone, the music has adopted an additional level of meaning. Many of the songs are about grieving. “Say Hello to Heaven” is especially poignant. This is the album where Chris began to show the world his genius beyond the limits of Soundgarden.
“If somebody left you
out on a ledge
If somebody pushed you
over the edge
If somebody loved you
And left you for dead
You’ve got to hold on to your time
till you break
Through these times of trouble”
Chris Cornell’s passing has taken me back into memories of the first days when I fell in love with music – days at home staring into the fireplace, occasionally glancing out the window at the autumn moon while listening to Kurt, Layne, Eddie, and Chris.
The music has been there all along, but somehow the shock of Chris Cornell’s passing has taken me deeper into old songs. I realize I’ve been sleeping through life lately.
Wake up! Everyone! Stay connected to the holy experience. Singers like Chris Cornell and Jeff Buckley have existed in our lifetime. They’ve given us a gift. It’s the gift of a voice, an articulation, an experience. They’ve given us beauty and transcendence. They’ve given us community.
Chris is gone, but we have his legacy and a huge amount of recorded music to remember him by. All the moments of sweltering power and glory are still there, and nothing can take that away.
Please, mother mercy
Take me from this place
And the long-winded curses
I keep hearing in my head
Words never listen
And teachers never learn
Now I’m warm from the candle
Though I feel too cold to burn
He came from an island
And then he died from the street
And he hurt so bad like a soul breaking
But he never said nothing to me
Say Hello to Heaven
New like a baby
And lost like a prayer
The sky was your playground
And the cold earth was your bed
She’s got no tears in her eyes
Smooth like a whisper
She knows love heals all wounds with time
Now it seems like too much love
is never enough
You better seek out another road
Cause this one has ended abrupt
I never wanted
To write these words down for you
With the pages of phrases
of things we’ll never do
So I blow out the candle
And I put you to bed
Since you can’t say to me now
How the dogs broke your bone
There’s just one thing left to be said:
Say Hello to Heaven