I don’t know if anyone who will read this follows me on twitter, but if you do, you may be thinking ‘He’s never had a single nice thing to say about Chris Cornell in his life. Who the hell does he think he is writing a tribute?’ I’ll admit that at this moment I feel bad for talking shit about Cornell. Today is a sobering reminder that every single person you’ve ever made fun of on social media will die. But also, social media is not real life. I’ve said lots of nice things about Chris in real life. It’s true that both the critic and the fan in me lamented the slow degradation one of the strongest voices of my formative years. Maybe it’s a dumb impulse; think what you want. If you want to be a legend, die young; if you want to be a human being, live as long as possible. But this death, this timing, this everything…this is the worst.
I saw Soundgarden perform only once, and it was unforgettable: Summerfest, 1994. Kurt was dead but grunge was still running on fumes. Superunknown was the soundtrack of our summer. One of my best friends at the time and I had similar shaggy haircuts, and walking around the Marcus together earned us the shortlived nickname of "the Vedder twins". I can't believe I'm admitting that. We weren't really even embarrassed; we were true believers in the corporate juggernaut known as Alternative, cornfed teenage guppies reveling in the latest doomed generational fad, and hell yeah, our parents let us grow our hair long!
Late afternoon, onstage comes Jeff Buckley, whom we'd never heard of. I wish I could say his performance changed my life. He might as well have been singing opera; we didn't know what to make of him. Then we felt like suuuuuuch Seattle insiders because we had listened to Tad before. Eleven played next; I have no recollection of that set whatsoever.
Soundgarden opened with "Jesus Christ Pose", still my favorite of all their songs. Yeah I'm getting choked up thinking about this set. Thanks to Kurt I was way into any kind of feedback/noise jam situation, which was how this show began and ended, and the epic ear-shattering finale is probably what has stuck with me the most all these years. But when Cornell came in with that "WELL YOU STAAAAAAARE AT MEEEEEEEE" it was like the second coming of a young Robert Plant. I don't need to elaborate on the guy's voice, right? Have you heard the song "Birth Ritual" for chrissakes? Even Plant at his peak couldn't have touched those high notes.
That's what Cornell will be remembered as: a singer. Of all the grunge superstars he was easily the most vocally gifted, but also the least outspoken. He never quested after notoriety. Aside from his hair, he didn't seem to give a shit about how he presented himself to the public. Soundgarden got huge just due to hard work and good songs. They were around way before Nirvana or Pearl Jam or Alice In Chains and somehow wound up riding the coattails of their own disciples, but they never seemed to mind. We kids were constantly being fed axioms about integrity and authenticity, about rejection of conformity. Meanwhile, Soundgarden got more and more radio-friendly and nobody minded. They never played the credibility game. They were unabashed rock stars when the time came and nobody could blame them.
Cornell did absolutely everything wrong in terms of maintaining respect from the underground. Nominated for a Grammy in 1988 before anyone has ever heard of you? Gee, how'd you manage that, Chris? He put together a grunge supergroup before grunge had even taken off, and invited Eddie Vedder, the ultimate pretender/usurper of the Seattle scene, to sing on Temple Of The Dog's "Hunger Strike", which in turn became the most critically reviled smash hit of the era. A fucking grunge power ballad if there ever was one! (Personally, my favorite of his supergroups was Alice Mudgarden...) Hanging out with Aerosmith and collaborating with Alice Cooper during his clinging-to-hair-metal phase. Then yet another supergroup, adult-contemporary solo albums, writing tunes for American Idol dropouts, a Timbaland-produced pop album...the list goes on.
It's not like he could've been unaware of how people might react to these kinds of offenses. I'll confess that he really didn't make any music after Down On The Upside that I cared for, and it bugged me. But after a while, after age lifted the veil of some lost "alternative" ethos, I had to respect the guy for doing whatever he felt like and not giving a shit about the consequences. It takes a lot more balls for an aging rocker to release a dance pop record than it does to make a serious artistic statement. Yet, if you were to paint Cornell as an oblivious fool, you couldn't write a more clichéd mockumentary than Cornell's actual life. He didn't seem oblivious, though. He seemed contentedly above it all, untouched and unfazed.
I'm not gonna overstate my Cornell fandom. I think he made two bona fide classic albums with Soundgarden and I'm not listening to them today. I'm not planning to go back and reassess his solo albums. I don't regret selling off my copies of Ultramega OK and Screaming Life/Fopp years ago. I'm not lamenting having given up on the guy or failing to appreciate him while he was still around. I'll leave all that to his true fans. I do feel profoundly sad for anybody that knew him, and ill that this is how it all comes to an end. It feels so sickeningly inevitable.
The last time I saw Chris was at the PJ20 to-do at Alpine Valley in 2011. It was the Temple Of The Dog reunion that middle-aged gen-xers had dreamt of all their adult lives. Each of the two nights, Cornell came out during Pearl Jam's encore--the band that stole his drummer after his band originally broke up--and did four TotD songs, stone-faced, impeccably coifed, belting 'em out like a star. I had some very emotional episodes that weekend, but not these segments. I was unmoved, somehow unable to access the gratitude I should've been feeling for the privelege of being present for these historic moments.