I never cared much when artists died. Until Chris Cornell.


Credit: my good buddy Dr. Kier Huehnergarth
I live to live. And I die to die — Chris Cornell

I remember exactly where I was when I found out Michael Jackson had died. I was sitting at work and my cell phone started ringing. It was my wife.

Jess: “Did you hear? Michael Jackson is dead!”.

Me: “Um…ok. Is that why you called?”

As a kid, I loved Michael Jackson’s music. For a few years in the 80’s, he was literally the coolest guy on the planet. One of my favorite concerts ever was watching him in Berlin in 1997. He lip-synced the whole thing, but the show — the spectacle — was otherworldly. A true performer. But when he died almost 12 years later, I shrugged. Yeah he was great, but what was he doing now to impact people? Millions of people were devastated. I didn’t get it.

Same with Prince, George Michael, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, and the myriad of other performers who’ve left us too soon. I reminisced a bit, maybe dusted off their music for a couple days, but otherwise didn’t feel much. But Chris Cornell. Fuck. Chris Cornell’s death hit straight to my core.

I grew up in Seattle and came of age during the “grunge” boom. (NOTE: we didn’t call it grunge. And the artists hated that word. But that’s how the outside world saw it). My first experience with losing a Seattle music icon was, of course, Kurt Cobain. I remember exactly where I was for his death too. I was sitting in my freshman physics class at the University of Washington when word started spreading through the class. Shocked expressions and gasps. Some people broke down in tears. Planning of vigils began immediately.

Me? I wasn’t that into Nirvana. They were sellouts anyway. (Not only was I kind of a dick, I was so wrong. Kurt Cobain is a music God. I just didn’t realize it then. I’m so much sadder about his suicide now. By a lot. So much great music that was never made.)

Andrew Wood died in 1990, just before I started paying attention. He was the lead singer of a band called Mother Love Bone, and their debut album Apple came out shortly after. It’s still to this day one of my all time favorites. I’m sad thinking about what could have been, although a couple guys from Mother Love Bone hooked up with some guy named Eddie Vedder and formed Pearl Jam. So if there’s ever a silver lining when an immensely talented artist overdoses just as he’s about to take over the world and help invent a whole new genre of music, I guess this would be it.

Layne Staley was the lead singer for Alice in Chains. I remember exactly where I was for that one too. I was in my car at the intersection of 12th Avenue South and Boren Ave (in Seattle) when the news came in over the radio. I was in shock and pulled over and just listened. He was found dead in his apartment. Drug overdose. He’d become so reclusive that it’s estimated he’d been dead for 2 weeks before anyone found him. He rarely recorded or performed anymore. Musically, he was already gone. So while I was sad, I wouldn’t say I was devastated. The feeling of loss was almost entirely for him and those close to him, not so much for me.

The first and only time I saw Soundgarden live was Lollapalooza 1992 at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds in Bremerton, Washington. I don’t remember how the hell we got there, how we got home (school buses?), or even the layout of the stages and booths. I barely remember Pearl Jam or Red Hot Chili Peppers. But I remember Soundgarden.

I was 17 and even stupider then than now. Live music meant mosh pits, and my attention was focused on jumping, pushing, thrashing around, and trying to climb up top to ride the crowd. Sometimes you’d get passed all the way to front, dropped in the alley by the stage, and then quickly run around and rejoin the scrum. It was an active experience, but one that distracts from the music. At least for me.

When Soundgarden took the stage and Chris Cornell started belting out the lyrics for Gun, I became transfixed. I worked my way through the crowd, through the mosh pit, as close to the stage as I could get. I found myself dead center, smashed up against the person in front of me, who was himself smashed up against the front barrier. Separated from Chris by maybe 3 feet of alleyway, some security, and a mic stand. If he’d decided to spit on the crowd, he might’ve overshot me.

I spent the next 40 minutes gasping for air, getting doused with water (they were literally hosing down the crowd) and getting kicked in the head by crowdsurfers. And fighting off the people behind me who were trying to get just a few inches closer to Cornell. But it can only be described as magical. Hanging on every word. Absorbing the energy he was radiating. Never wanting it to end. Still my all-time favorite concert experience.

A (more eloquent) friend named Beau from high school describes his experience at another Soundgarden show:

Thank you Chris Cornell for taking my high school junior year brain and splitting it wide open at the Paramount Theater in Seattle during the Badmotorfinger tour. Probably because of the unbridled mayhem, fear, rage, power and joy that Soundgarden unleashed into the audience I remember the scene so clearly to this day. I thought the glorious Paramount was going to burn to the ground. I thought the chair I was standing on for 3 hours was going to collapse and I’d be subsumed into the gyrating pit of humanity swallowing up my section. I thought Ben Shepard was going to stop spitting and scowling into the crowd and just start beating people with his bass. Kim Thayil’s guitar leads shrieked and stabbed like the soundtrack of a blitzkrieg befalling us in real time. And yet for all the aggression and energy unleashed into the air, Chris’ voice unified us all. He awed with his acrobatic vocal talent and brass, he filled us with the righteousness of our cause, he brought us all home. Forever a hero of Seattle. RIP

I wasn’t there, but I know exactly what he’s talking about. This is how Soundgarden made you feel. Like they could simultaneous tear it all down and build it all back up, all at once.

You didn’t have to see Soundgarden live for them to permeate your soul. My college friend David sums up the impact Cornell had on him and so many others growing up in the Seattle area:

This one hurts. Badmotorfinger was the soundtrack to far too many Friday and Saturday nights in high school, hanging out in the parking lot at Dick’s on 45th. It was like listening to a choreographed demolition derby between guitar, bass, and drums, with Cornell’s voice shredding through it all. A unique blend of power, rage and sublime beauty that channeled so many different aspects of Seattle. No one can or will ever sing like Chris Cornell. Rest In Peace.

This is sort of how I felt about Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains (my personal “big three”). From junior year of high school through freshman year of college, these groups (mostly) owned my 5-disc cd changer (along with Mother Love Bone). They weren’t just my favorite music, they actually defined what music was. Everything else was just a poor imitation.

I could never rank those groups against each other. “Who’s your single favorite Seattle band?” You may as well ask “Who’s your favorite kid?” The answer is “All of them.” But like kids, they’re all different. They each have their own personality. Soundgarden’s personality, to me, was Chris Cornell. My high school friend Phil says it best:

Hard to believe we’ve lost yet another extraordinary artist way too soon. He had the most haunting yet beautiful voice in Rock. Period. Between Soundgarden, his solo career, and Temple Of The Dog, I feel so privileged to have witnessed his talent live in some amazing venues over the years. Thankful for the memories.

When Temple of The Dog did a short reunion tour last year, I looked into grabbing tickets for the Seattle show and flying up. $700 (plus airfare) was a steep price to pay, so it was easy to justify skipping it. I learned recently that they were planning another tour, and got really excited thinking about it. How had I gone almost 25 years without hearing Chris Cornell live? It’s way, way past time. No chance I’m missing it whenever they come to San Fran or Seattle.

Shit. Dammit. Fuck. Would it have been worth $1,000 to see him one last time? Absolutely. But now it’s too late.

Say hello to heaven — Chris Cornell