Do you ever get tired of growing up? I do. Mostly because I’m tired of waking up to find out that someone I admire has died. Or that our government isn’t a bad dream … but I digress.
There are levels to how we appreciate music — at least, in my mind there are. There’s the music that we like because it’s what our parents listened to when we were young and it reminds us of that time. There’s music that we liked in high school, music that we liked in college and music we like as adults. But there’s a special place for the music that we discovered in the years when we were first cultivating our own tastes apart from the stuff our parents listened to.
For the first 8 or 9 years of my life, I loved The Bangles, The New Kids on the Block, Taylor Dayne and Paula Abdul. It’s what I heard on the radio riding around in the car with my mom and it’s what I saw on Saturday mornings when I’d spend hours watching MTV with my dad. Late 80s/Early 90s pop was my jam. I had a little mint green boombox like just about every other 80s kid and I’d listen to my cassettes over and over. I also went through a brief country music phase in 3rd grade, but we don’t speak of that.
In the second half of 3rd grade (circa 1992) my interests didn’t change, but they started to grow. I started listening to the radio and expanding my horizons beyond synthesizers and poppy ballads. I wrote about hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in my diary; my 9 year old brain somehow figured it was important to document how many times I was hearing it because I loved it so much (my 9 year old brain could not comprehend yet what it was saying). It certainly didn’t sound like Susanna Hoffs (I still love you, Susanna).
Christmas 1992 was big because my parents got my sister and me a stereo. Like… legit, with speakers that we could put around the room. It had AM/FM radio, a turntable, dual cassette players, a remote! and (cue angels singing) a CD player! This was perfectly timed: about a month later, I got the first bout of what would become a lifelong party with insomnia. While my sister would fall immediately to sleep, I would lie awake listening to that stereo, noticing that the music overnight was completely different from what I heard during the day. In addition to developing an appreciation for Def Leppard (yep, I said it), I became familiar with “Jeremy” and “Evenflow” by Pearl Jam, “Seven” by Prince, and “Drive” by R.E.M. To this day, hearing any of those songs reminds me of having insomnia in early 1993. Kinda weird? Maybe.
By the time Soundgarden’s landmark album Superunknown was released in 1994, my musical tastes — the ones I was cultivating for myself based on the music that I was discovering on my own (with help from the WPRR DJs, natch) — were all kinds of varied (not only did I love that grungy, guitar-y music I heard at night, but some of the best hip-hop music ever recorded came out at the same time, which made it really easy to tune out Michael Bolton when he was talking about how he said he loved you but he lied). I still liked a lot of the soft pop music that dominated the airwaves in places like… department stores or my mom’s minivan, but I also loved rock music and guitars and amps and the feeling that someone was actually creating rather than manufacturing that music (there’s a difference). I never felt as badass as when I proudly went to my flute lesson with the sheet music for “Soul to Squeeze” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, asking my teacher to please help me learn it.
I’d heard the song “Black Hole Sun” on the radio, but Soundgarden didn’t really “hit” me until one day after school when my cousin and I were watching videos on MTV (thems were the days). He asked me if I’d seen the “Black Hole Sun” video and I said I hadn’t. As luck (and the VJs’ heavy rotation list) would have it, it came on that afternoon. This was back before creepy things scared me more than they fascinated me and I was hooked. The melting Barbie! The too-wide smiles and too-big eyes! The fish! When clouds roll in, I still kind of imagine that somewhere Kim Thayil is standing on top of a hill while the wind blows his hair back, just playing his guitar and waiting to welcome the apocalypse.
Chris Cornell’s voice… I don’t know what I can say about it that hasn’t already been said, but it was one of the best of our times and there will never be another one like it. He had a four-octave range, which is impressive. He could hit the low notes and then travel up and wail, which made his voice and music so distinguishable. And the music was so interesting from a technical perspective. Listen to Soundgarden sometime and try to count the meter. You’re going to find it going all over the place, straying far from your standard 4/4 or even 3/4. They’ve said that they don’t really pay attention to that stuff when they’re writing the music, but who knows. It’s super interesting to listen to. Of course, the first time I listened to the whole album, I didn’t know about that stuff just yet to appreciate that aspect of it, but I could appreciate that it didn’t sound like anything else, and I knew that you couldn’t just tap your foot along mindlessly to the beat. No one sang like Cornell. No one played like that. Even among other 90s alternative and grunge bands — Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, and all of the ones they inspired — Soundgarden was out in a league of its own with that sound. It sounded like the times, but in a totally different way (if that makes sense).
After I heard the album, I had to have it. Even though I earned $80/month with my paper route in 1995, I never remember actually having any money, so I can’t really remember how I came to possess it and whether it was the real tape or if it was a blank Maxell that I recorded onto from someone else’s tape, but somehow I got it. And I listened to it over and over and over again. Anytime we were in the car, I put my headphones on and listened to it on my Walkman. If I had chores to do, I listened to it on my Walkman. On my paper route, I listened to it on my Walkman. I just couldn’t get enough of that album. It was right when I was becoming a moody teenager and it resonated with everything to me (good news! It’s now 20+ years later and I’m still in that mood! The mid-90s never left me, but I’ll be damned if that wasn’t the best era of music FOR moody teenagers and other angsty people… which is I guess what I am now that I’m in my mid-30s). I eventually wore the tape out completely.
And ever since then, it’s just always felt like Chris Cornell has been here. He was a seriously talented artist whose presence I took for granted. I liked Audioslave ok, but it wasn’t Soundgarden. I would hear his voice in something, unmistakably, and think, “Oh. Chris Cornell is involved in this too?” It seems like he was one of those people who, even if you weren’t a fan per se, you could still appreciate for his talent, voice, artistry, guitar-playing skills, etc. He even actually sometimes played “Freebird” when people requested it.
We’ve been losing a lot of people lately. Bowie hit me because he was an icon and paved the way for so many. George Michael hit me because I have always loved George Michael. But Chris Cornell hit me not because I was a super-fan of sorts, but because I was a fan and he was a piece of me (in the sense that any music that is important to you and which has a great impact on you at some point in your life becomes a part of you).
And I think a little of it is because, of those bands that I loved in those first few years when I was falling in love with rock music as a kid, and of those bands which were so influential to the ones I loved who came after them, I look at what’s left. Kurt Cobain’s long gone. Layne Staley’s gone. Scott Weiland’s gone. Chris Cornell’s gone. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I didn’t have the same thought as apparently the rest of the internet, which was, “please keep Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl safe.” (Also Billy Corgan.) Layne Staley and Scott Weiland were overdoses and unfortunately not completely surprising. I was 11 when Kurt Cobain died and the internet wasn’t a thing, so, while I remember where I was when I saw Kurt Loder announce it on MTV News, I didn’t totally experience the ripples it created at the time.
Chris Cornell’s death came as a shock because he seemed to be doing okay. He’d been pretty open about his struggles with addiction in the past, but he took himself to rehab years ago and came out talking about how it was the best thing he’d ever done for himself. His music had always reflected a dark side and his struggles, so we always knew that was a part of him. But he played a show that night. No one close to him seemed to feel that there was anything wrong. A friend of mine posted on Facebook that she had just seen him in concert a few nights prior and he looked well. So it was shocking and upsetting to hear that his death was ruled a suicide, and now we know that it might be due to too much Ativan in his system. What happened?
Mid-90s Me came back with a vengeance that day. I listened to Superunknown again for the first time in years… on repeat. Digital copies last longer anyway. Then I listened to more Soundgarden, and I listened to Temple of the Dog, and I listened to some Audioslave.
It’s been 2 weeks since Chris Cornell died and it hasn’t left me yet — that mid-90s feeling that I had when Superunknown was the antidote to everything for me. I have listened to “The Day I Tried To Live” (one of my favorite songs from the album; it’s about getting up and trying to live like a normal person and thinking, ‘well, it didn’t work out so well today but I’ll go one more time around tomorrow and try again and maybe it’ll take then’) so many times in recent days that I will wake up in the middle of the night with random lyrics from the song immediately forcing their way to the front of my mind like Donald Trump at a NATO gathering.
Now I’m to a point where I’m almost exclusively listening to 90s alternative rock on Pandora for most of my day.
One of the things I appreciated so much about Chris Cornell was his versatility and range. He did amazing covers. So I want to leave you with some of my favorites. (Sorry, I really couldn’t narrow it down much more.)
1. “The Times, They Are A-Changin'” (Bob Dylan Cover)
This one is probably my favorite. It’s a cover but he re-wrote the lyrics to modernize it in 2015. He even plays the harmonica (it looks like the video is broken but it should work).
2. “One” (U2/Metallica Cover)
This is probably the most interesting one. He plays the music to U2’s “One” and sings the lyrics to Metallica’s “One.” It’s goddamn brilliant is what it is. So good. (He explains at the beginning how it came to be.) It will give you chills. Especially the end.
3. “Redemption Song” (Bob Marley Cover – ft. Toni Cornell)
This gives me all the feels. He brought his daughter Toni (who was 11 at the time this was recorded in 2015 — and what a voice!) out on stage to sing “Redemption Song” with him. Between the harmonies and the sheer look of pride on his face…. this is everything. If you want to see something SUPER sweet, watch this video of him singing “Hunger Strike” with his kids, both very tiny at the time, on stage dancing and waving. It’s adorable.
4. “Wild World” (Yusuf/Cat Stevens Duet)
Technically not a cover since he performs it with Yusuf/Cat Stevens. Side note: I was pretty sure that Yusuf/Cat Stevens wasn’t allowed back in the country?
5. “Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen Cover)
6. “I Will Always Love You” (Dolly Parton/Whitney Houston Cover)
This is maybe the most unexpected. The version I’m embedding has much of the first verse cut off but it has better sound quality. There is a different video you can watch if you want the whole song — the audio quality isn’t as clear.
7. “To Love Somebody” (BeeGees Cover)
Also a surprising choice.
8. “Crazy Love” (Van Morrison Cover)
9. “Ave Maria”
Actually, this is probably the most unexpected — but only if you take away that he recorded it for a Christmas album. Merry Chris-mas.
10. “Imagine” (John Lennon Cover)
11. “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Prince Cover)
12. “Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson Cover)
13. “Lady Stardust” (David Bowie Cover)
14. “Ticket to Ride” (Beatles Cover)
15. (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding (Elvis Costello Cover)
16. “Better Man” (Pearl Jam Cover)
Seattle covers Seattle — a good way to pay tribute to your old friend.
Bonus: Chris Cornell & Eddie Vedder perform “Hunger Strike” at Lollapalooza in 1992.
Maybe you know that before Pearl Jam and Soundgarden got famous, Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell were both in the band Temple of the Dog, which was basically a tribute band to friend Andrew Wood (of the band Mother Love Bone) who died of a drug overdose. I think Temple of the Dog was more famous after they were a thing and people realized that the guy from Soundgarden and the guy from Pearl Jam were both involved, but you may have heard their songs “Hunger Strike” and “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” which got radio play.
At any rate, God bless the person who recorded this, probably on a GIANT-ASS CAMCORDER, in 1992. Ah, Lollapalooza in the grunge era. And they both look like babies. Here’s a video of Chris singing “Hunger Strike” at the Tower Theater in Philly in November 2016 (he sings his own harmonies and lets the crowd sing for Eddie). Here’s a more recent video of Eddie and Chris performing it together a few years ago.
Another one gone too soon. We’ll miss you, Chris Cornell. No one sings like you anymore.