It’s been a couple weeks now since I woke up to the awful news. And while there have been more than a few notable deaths of musicians that I love, I can’t say any has affected me more than the passing of Chris Cornell. Even Bowie and Prince from a year ago or so, two of my favorites, didn’t ring in the same way. It’s probably because I didn’t really start to delve into their catalogs and appreciate them until my 20s. But Cornell and Soundgarden… they played a major role in who I became as a kid and who I am now from that.
Like most people my age, “The Olds,” I found Soundgarden staying up far too late when I was 11 or 12 and on 120 Minutes on MTV. My musical tastes, basically all derived from my brother, had begun to take shape. I had already begun purchasing my own albums with whatever allowance money I had (the first three being Use Your Illusion II, Metallica, and Living Colour’s “Biscuits”). But it was time to fashion my own way at this point, with my brother out of the house and city.
Most people will remember the first time they saw it to. The video for “Jesus Christ Pose.” It didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard before.
That riff… it wasn’t so much a riff as a screech. A wail. An absolute frenzy. This was the musical version of your cat getting into the entire bottle of nip. And many others and I had the same though upon first listen: What the fuck is this?!
Of course, that loosely organized chaos wasn’t lessened when Cornell’s voice came in over that…. thing. This noise, this vocal, it was something out of greek mythology. No one sounded like this. This had to be the voice of whatever being or creature guided you from this world to the next, whatever it might be. Obviously, I was hooked.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” would come out around the same time, as would Pearl Jam’s “Ten,” and basically my life became about music. But Soundgarden… they were just different. I eagerly awaited the next single or video. It was “Rusty Cage” after that, another song that sounded like it was created on a different planet. How could things be that fast? And how did Cornell’s lyrics fit right in with something that frantic?
The final nail was “Outshined” of course. It’s been 26 years, and I still defy you to find a guitar riff that rips as hard as that one does. When you’re 12 or 13 and diving right into your teenage years, the line, “I can’t get any lower, but I feel as though I’m sinking..” resonates more than it should.
And the thing about Soundgarden was they looked possible. I didn’t know anyone who looked like Axl or Slash or Hetfield, and I knew I probably wouldn’t ever (and would soon learn I probably wouldn’t want to). There weren’t people walking around in cod pieces like Slash. But Soundgarden? Cornell was walking around in Doc Martens and cargo shorts and no shirt, and he was not the body type to be going without a shirt. They dressed like the kids two grades above me. They didn’t sing about drugs or girls I would never meet (and if I did would have been quickly thrown out of the place). They just wore jeans and t-shirts. After “Outshined,” I knew that I wanted to be around people like this. I wanted to play music like this (like I could have ever gotten a Matt Cameron drum part down then, and if I’d practiced every day from then until right now I still wouldn’t be able to).
When my classmates finally got around to the scene, they all gravitated to Nirvana or Pearl Jam or even Mudhoney. But Soundgarden was mine. I counted down the days until Superunknown. It was only a couple years later (god, remember when your favorite bands released albums every two years?). “Spoonman” was the first single before release. I remember, for some odd reason, after hearing it for the first time, telling my brother that I was left a little cold by it. A week later he picked me up from school, didn’t say a word. He put that on at a volume that made the car vibrate and definitely scared everyone outside the school. After it was over, “Would you mind telling me what possibly could be your problem with that?” I smiled, of course realizing my mistake, and tried to come up with some joke-excuse. He just ejected the tape, put it in its case, handed it to me, and said, “Yeah shut the fuck up and here you go.”
I wore that tape out. That first track, “Let Me Drown,” it sounds like something is crawling out of your speakers. I felt like the coolest person in the world when I had it on my headphones in the school hallways (and I most certainly wasn’t, because I looked pretty much like my current Twitter picture).
It was soon after that we all saw Kim Thayil drinking an MGD on stage at the MTV awards, which only made us all want to be him and them more. Here’s a dude who’s writing some of the greatest riffs and songs of all time and all he wants is a beer. Even at 14, we could relate.
“Down On The Upside” would follow in high school, and it contains some of the more melodic and beautiful work they did. If you haven’t read Local H’s treatise on it, I urge you to. I can’t say it any better.
I was lucky enough to see them at the Vic a few years ago, when they were warming up for their Lolla reunion. It’s one of the best shows I’ve seen, and some songs I didn’t really appreciate before like “4th of July” and “Like Suicide” suddenly were given a whole new meaning. And Cornell could still hit every note and shatter glasses at the back of the room.
We’ve been doing this nine years now, and we make a big stink about not growing up. Some of it is for fun but some of it is real. Soundgarden and Cornell were such a huge part of my childhood, and two weeks ago it felt like I lost a huge part of it. It wasn’t just a band, but a detour sign that led me to zig in life when a lot of the people I knew were zagging. They helped shape what I became, so many years ago. And that hurts to lose.