Rest in Peace, Love and Understanding
Remembering Chris Cornell and the best concert I ever attended.
It was over fourteen years ago when I saw Audioslave play at the Warfield in San Francisco. That two-hour show was intense. Rage Against the Machine was full-on raging against everything. Tom Morello rode his guitar around the stage like it was on crack and he was on fire. And somehow, Tim Commerford kept up with him on the bass. Brad Wilk banged his drums into submission without mercy. And fronting them all was Chris Cornell. His legendary voice was at its peak that night, fueled with passion and anger and discontent, reaching the ears of an audience who knew exactly where he was coming from. We sang and yelled and wailed along with him. March 20, 2003 was an exhausting night.
March 20, 2003 was also the day after the beginning of the Iraq War — the day the Iraqi soldiers fought back.
Let me rewind.
You don’t have to guess on which side of the ledger San Francisco stood on.
Throughout the day, 2200 out of the 5000 protestors were arrested for shutting down the Financial District. Military recruitment centers were attacked and looted. Federal employees were blocked from entering their offices. Protestors vomited on the sidewalk.
As the the sun went down, the mood got darker.
Three hours before the show, my buddy Will and I were eating slices of pizza at Golden Boy in North Beach. Everything felt like it was unraveling at a rapid pace. The city was intense and ready to act. We were on the precipice and the future was uncertain.
We hailed a cab to get from North Beach to the Warfield. It should have been a ten minute cab ride. It took around forty-five minutes. The city was being shut down, block by block, by people whose peaceful gathering had turned into visceral marching. Bullhorns blared. Small fires were seen in alleyways. Each road we looked down had new people with different intentions, fueled by the same anger.
By the time we made it to Market Street, it had turned into a dragnet of protestors and police armored up in riot gear and billy clubs. Large groups of people marched in different directions, setting a scene of disorganization no matter where you looked. I saw a brawl between buildings. Litter flew all around us. I also remember how hazy everything was, from firecrackers to the natural fog to weed to tear gas, definitely tear gas, and who knows what.
Two blocks away from the theater, our cabbie had enough and dropped us off. Driving had become impossible.
Will and I walked to the show. The truth is that we never felt endangered. The overwhelming majority of people in the streets were there to protest and not to cause trouble. But you could feel something brewing that wasn’t right. There were some who had a long emotional day and were on the prowl for something. You could see it in how they walked, with a malicious purpose that needed to be found.
Entering the Warfield felt like a safe haven. The crowd was electric with anticipation. Undoubtedly, everyone had roughly the same experience getting there that we did. And it wouldn’t have shocked me if the majority of people there were outside all day long. So when Audioslave hit the stage, there was an eruption of not just the happiness of seeing them, but also, the release of every emotion we had.
I just tried to describe it, but honestly, that moment was indescribable. Forgive me.
That night, Chris Cornell pushed his voice to new guttural levels we didn’t expect. The turmoil he sang with was real, as if all the pain in the world was on his shoulders. The music was raw. The f-bombs were prolific. The rhetoric was anti-war, and the crowd cheered (and booed) along. I’d say that roughly a third of the crowd was for the war (yes, it’s true), but in that theater, for that time, it was okay. Cornell even called it out. We might not agree, but that’s our right and we need to respect that.
It was a great, emotional show that came loaded and ready to rock. If the night ended there, it was top five for me.
It didn’t end there. What happened next will always stay with me, and it’s the reason I’m writing this, just moments after learning that Chris Cornell has died.
He took the stage for the encore, by himself, only with his guitar. He said, and I’m paraphrasing so forgive me, that on a night like this, in a city he loved, it only made sense to end this show with this song.
This YouTube clip is from June 2003, so it’s not from the show I went to, but it’s close enough. Still, it’s got that power.
That voice. That song. That night.
We left the theater to a virtually empty Market Street. It was quiet and calm. The city had to rest up for another day of unrest. It had done its job for the day. It was now a time for retrospection.
And that performance, that encore, framed everything.
Rest in peace, love and understanding, Chris.