The Meaning of Loss in Chris Cornell’s City

As Seattle is remade in the image of a technometropolis and flooded by newcomers we talk a lot about our losses. We phrase it as the loss of favorite places and the loss of being in an affordable city where we could spare the time to make art as well make a living.

But as I try to process the loss of Chris Cornell, I’m seeing the loss of Seattle in another way.

Earlier in my life I was, to greater or lesser extent, on the fringes of a northwest music scene that centered on Seattle, but cross-pollinated with the other cities in the region where I lived. Everything everywhere is homegrown, and here in the upper-left corner we never lost sight of that the way other places did. Our rock stars were people we knew. They were accessible and we admired them the way you admire a talented relative.

So when everything exploded and the streets were crawling with A&R lizards from big record companies in LA asking about unsigned “grunge” acts, the absurdity of it was palpable. Nirvana the biggest band in the country? Kathleen Hanna mentioned in Parade Magazine’s celebrity gossip column? Really? How could that be when you’d still see Stone Gossard walking down Broadway or Layne Staley on the Ave.?

On paper, I was positioned to be a part of the gold rush but my ambivalence about how rapidly it scaled from homegrown to industrial-scale, coupled with my own idiosyncratic interests, kept me away. I frankly started to ignore what was happening with music in the city around me and put my energy elsewhere, even as that music became the defining sound of a decade.

Sometimes I do regret not throwing myself into it. Perhaps I traded a walk-on part in a war for a lead role in a cage, as Roger Waters so memorably put it. But on the other hand, even though I was only in my mid-20s I’d been a hanger-on to three different music scenes for a decade by that point. I wanted to do other stuff.

In the 21st century, as a new type of boom began in Seattle, I started seeing newcomers introduce a different attitude about our rock stars. They bragged about encountering them. If they learned where Studio Litho is they thought they’d penetrated some mystical inner circle.

The newcomers seemed naive, laughable, and destructive. To me it felt like a second wave of colonization, a further transformation of our homegrown culture into a mutant monoculture, easily harvested but lacking the diversity and authenticity of what it had displaced.

The physical destruction of the city where that music flourished directly mirrors the cultural destruction.

It feels like now newcomers are drawn to this place by what they think it is. But they usually miss what it truly is. By their presence, they can’t help but turn it into a funhouse reflection of where they came from and only then do they feel at home.

Seattle’s music grew out of a completely different place. Artists were drawn to this place precisely because you didn’t need influence to survive here. All you needed then was some friends and couple hundred bucks a month for rent and food. Out of that grew creativity and, with it, influence and power. The homegrown kind. The kind that stayed accessible and didn’t humblebrag about how humble it was.

Chris Cornell is being eulogized around the world for his art, and rightfully so. But for so many of us, what we are feeling today is tied to the loss of our place of cheap rents, shows in neglected warehouses, camaraderie in our social circles, and a shared culture studiously documented every two weeks in the pages of The Rocket.

When Tech Seattle fetishizes the culture of Pre-Tech Seattle, it has no idea how far off the mark it really is in understanding what it thinks it admires. It does not admit how miserably it has failed in supporting environments where culture — any honest, true, culture — could sprout from the grassroots like it did here.

My feelings are complicated. I mourn for the man, but I can’t separate him from the city I long ago made my home. But maybe that’s for the best. The newcomers can have their rock star. We can have the place that shaped his talent.