Thank You, Chris Cornell

I got to know Chris Cornell at a time of shared, peak uncool. I was a chubby, metal-mouthed twelve-year-old who had recently been transplanted from a sleepy Florida town to an unknown land called Kentucky. Cornell was the former front man of a well-regarded grunge band who had, some all-knowing critics would say of his then-latest act, sold his artistic ingénue for a few easy-to-swallow ditties guaranteed to light up a Billboard chart.

It was a match made in heaven.

As with so many things that play a significant part in shaping how we experience who we are and thus help inform who we become, I don’t exactly recall how or under what circumstances I encountered my first (and only) Audioslave album. It could have been from a stealth afternoon trip to my grandparents’ bedroom, where I would quietly shut the door and turn on MTV — a forbidden fruit under my mother’s watch — and listen intently to whatever illicit sounds emanated from the screen. It could have been a chance sighting in the “Alt Rock” section of Target or Best Buy, the faceless megastores which at the time epitomized my tween understanding of what a record store was and ever could be. It could have simply been that I really just liked the fucking flame sculpture that appeared on the cover of their first album.

Whatever the inciting event, the album quickly became a staple in my Sony Walkman, and in my mom’s station wagon. Each morning, my mother would cede control of the car stereo to me and thus let me dictate the musical score of our 15-minute sojourn to school. Each morning, at least for a month, Chris Cornell’s voice from Audioslave’s 2002 self-titled album accompanied us as we winded down the spindly two-lane road that would take us from our wooded suburban home and to the school carpool lane.

Throughout the trip, I would sit in silence and stare blankly ahead at the road before us, apparently believing that a lack of speech and movement would allow me to absorb Cornell’s gravelly melancholy that much better. Each morning, after Cornell set his views on longing, loss, and loneliness to rhythm, melody, and verse, I would nod to my mother a goodbye and set off to sixth grade, failing to see any humor or cause for concern in my music choice. (To my mother’s credit, I don’t believe she saw any problem in my musical selections, either — which, looking back, she probably used as a proxy for assessing my mental or emotional state at the time. In fact, it was likely the mornings in which I played no music at all that may have alarmed her most; not those where Cornell would call on his listeners to “set this motherfucker off.”)

After ejecting the disc from the car and placing it in my own, headphone-equipped CD player, I would enter the environs of my middle school, the fluorescent-lit hell which exerts an unduly large influence on the life of just about anyone who happens to encounter it on the way to other, better things. With each step I took in my loud, pressed, and geometrically-obedient khaki pants, Cornell’s voice would somehow validate my fears, or at least acknowledge that their existence didn’t take root solely in my head, in middle school, in my new home. Indeed, and in so many ways, this middle-aged stranger was the first friend I had in Kentucky — if not one of the best and only friends I had in my first few months there.

Yes, Cornell’s voice often set the tone of my quiet, inexplicably mournful morning rides to school. But more than that, the band’s songs offered an aural laboratory where I could examine newly-held feelings that I could not yet articulate with words or disregard with experience. Transferred from the disc and into my ears before and after school, the album was essentially a confessional made unique and all the more vital in that I didn’t have to say a word to benefit from the ritual. All I needed to get through the day, to get through the shitty algebra class, to get through hating my changing body and my changing surroundings, was Chris Cornell to remind me that the world is a shitty, lonely place regardless of your age or zip code — but that somehow, if you look for it, there is just something about its ugliness that makes it worth investigating, at least for a time, and thus worth enduring, also and at least for a time.

Of course, neither Cornell nor any of the members of Audioslave wrote the music they did for a uniformed pre-teen in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky. And of course, I eventually took the album out of my CD player for good, and over the proceeding years the only thing it would collect would be dust.

But it is precisely that lack of intent, that fundamental gap of obvious relation between author and consumer, the spontaneous sites and circumstances in which that relation is forged and later abandoned, that to me makes music as close to magic as the human race can and will come. Again, I don’t recall how I first came across Audioslave — it could have been in a store, or on my grandparents’ TV, or even from the speakers of a stranger’s car in traffic. What I do recall is, decades later, exactly how I felt after I heard “Like a Stone” for the first time; the exact shade of yellow that would stare me down each morning as I entered my middle school cafeteria, Audioslave album in tow; the exact confused, forlorn little girl I was when I attempted to adjust the bass levels of “I Am the Highway” in silent, laughably melodramatic car rides to school.

And it is in these memories, brought back to immediate consciousness due to Cornell’s death, that to me only reaffirm the stakes, the value of music in its most general sense. In his death, I am reacquainted with my 12-year-old self. I am no longer in New York about to move to California, but in suburban Kentucky about to go to school. I am reminded of how far I am, and am not, from my childhood fears. I am, for that matter, reminded of how fucking awful school uniforms are, and of the fact that yes, pants can make sound and no, it is never a good one. All of this encapsulated through one artist’s work; all of this ugly, silly, rich life returned through one artist’s tragic passing. This is the promise of music; these are the worlds and contemplative spaces offered by the musician if we are lucky enough to encounter him or her.

Thank you, Chris Cornell.

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