No apologies for writing off-topic this time. You don’t have to read this and if you don’t, I understand.
But I have to write it.
Chris Cornell was a young man I met one rainy afternoon at Seattle’s Pioneer Square Saloon, back in either 1996 or ’97 (old memory fails me). I was with a guy I knew from Bainbridge Island and in walks this guy who looked like a male model, all angles and chisel marks and deep-set eyes and zero swagger but grace…y’know?
I was introduced to him. We shook hands. I had no idea who he was; that he was even a musician. I was still new to Seattle and was not particularly a “grunge” fan, so I knew Pearl Jam and Nirvana and was only a fan of Pearl Jam. Didn’t really know Soundgarden but for a tune or two on the radio and nobody said “Chris Cornell from Soundgarden“, so I just thought he was a guy.
He was obviously very intelligent. It billowed off him, like smoke off a fire of wet leaves. He was funny, he was curious, and he was kind. That, too, came off him like smoke. It was a perfectly ordinary encounter. We talked, laughed, I spilled club soda on him, and everybody went home.
Later, I saw his face on a poster, read it, got curious. I bought a Soundgarden album. Then another one. And another. Listened to that howl – there’s no other word for it – that he could emit at will, from nowhere, like a siren going off in the middle of a quiet meadow. I was an actor for a long time, making a living at it, scrambling to get hired. And I could sing, so I did a lot of musicals. I knew singing and laughed openly at how many rock singers could growl and scream but not carry a tune in a moving van.
Chris Cornell could sing…he could probably have tackled opera, if he had been interested. The physical apparatus was absolutely there. He did sing jazz; maybe even by design, I dunno…but listen to “Black Hole Sun”, to those interweaving harmonies and challenging changes and just flat eccentric phrasing. That, my friends, is the heart of what jazz is. His tunes were easily at a jazz level of complexity. Here’s the jazz band at Samford University, Homewood, Alabama, doing their version of “Black Hole Sun”. I was floored by this. I think you will be, too.
He could carry, flip, juggle, deconstruct and reassemble, or simply embrace a melody; sing like a fucking choirboy and then shift into that howl like a perfectly tuned Maserati hitting fifth gear. Effortlessly. It would have sent many singers to the hospital to make that tonal moonshot once. He did it, sometimes, as in “Say Hello 2 Heaven“, several times a song.
Later, in 2008, a friend in Tennessee happened to ask who was my favorite rock singer, one day after a British website had asked for my five favorites. I would normally say something like, “Man, how the hell can I just pick ONE?” and dodge the question. But I thought about it. For one hour. And it shocked even me. Number 5 was Paul Rodgers. Four was Ann Wilson. Three, Freddie Mercury. Two was a solid Robert Plant.
Number One was Chris Cornell.
I had never had to think about it but there it was, once I did. Chris Fu**ing Cornell…and it wasn’t even really close. I was writing another blog, at that time, for the Seattle P-I, called “The Constant Valentine”. I don’t do it, anymore, but it’s still there. And I wrote about it myself, with a long preamble about “American Idol”, only because I had just seen contestant (and eventual winner) David Cook do Cornell’s rearrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”, which knocked me out. Here’s a link, if you want to read it, but I’ll include a short excerpt here and end this post…after saying this:
What we demand of those we celebrate and praise and even, to some extreme, nearly deify, is often at odds with the innards of those being idolized. Even those presumably blessed individuals are all, at their cores, just people trying to cope with their own worldly duties, the vast juggling act of family and work and spirit…and that hole at the middle of ALL of us that cries out to be filled. Money does not preclude someone being a fucked up mess inside. And fame and objects and distractions and diversions don’t even touch that place. ALL of us are a bit lost; a bit adrift in a bewildering, dark stormy ocean that is this world and we just try to stay afloat. It’s not a failing, not a weakness. It’s just the nature of humans, the nature of life.
I’m praying that Chris Cornell did not really commit suicide. I’m praying that our inner, communal, societal Black Hole Sun did not, finally, devour a nice, smart, talented, generous, grounded man who had so much left to explore. I’m holding out for something medical and sudden to explain why I am sitting here, tears in my eyes, remembering a great guy and Heaven’s Own Voice, who has been unceremoniously ripped away from us. R.I.P., Chris, you walking, talking, singing Gift to music, to being a man, to Seattle, and to me.
Too late, I’m afraid, to say, “You will be missed.“..
You already are.
from The Constant Valentine, May 28th, 2008, at seattlepi.com…
“So, I took a day or two and listened back, staying as objective as I’m capable of being. And the winner was…Chris Cornell.
Chris Cornell? Newer guy? LOCAL? A guy I’ve met? C’mon! I’m the anti-homer! I’m the guy who thinks of himself as a citizen of the world at large, accent on “large”. Better than Plant, Daltry…Hendrix? Well…yeah, for me, at least. Having been a singer (blues bands, musical theatre, back in DC and NC) for part of my life, I tend to look at vocalists in pretty broad terms: …can they do a ballad, followed by a scorching anthemic rock song, followed by something bluesy, followed by swamp funk? Can they cover a soul classic without sounding like a drunken frat clown? Can they mosey into a jazz tune and not sound like a garbage disposal trying to “do” a beer can?
The answer kept coming up “Cornell”.
The story of Chris Cornell’s overlap into the world of AI is as good a measure of how talented he is as anything I can think of. His wife, in asking if you can really call covering another singer’s tune “art”, moved him to provide a tangible answer. ..So, this icon of Indie rock takes hold of a whopper: Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”, a song I would have sworn would never be covered by anyone, as omnipresent and enduring as the original has been…what an actual work of, yes, art Chris Cornell was able to wring from one of rock music’s most powerful warhorses!…It was stunning. Stunning…It’s quite possible to argue that it would never have happened without A) Chris Cornell’s wife getting his hackles up, and B) Chris Cornell’s amazingly flexible, intensely musical, wildly creative gift. He had already written what I regard as one of the finest pop songs ever performed on record, (right up there with Dwight Twilley’s “I’m on Fire”) on his 1999 solo release “Euphoria Morning”, the irresistable “You Can’t Change Me”.
I’m still shocked that I sifted through 50+ years of rock vocalizing and came up with a guy I once spilled a club soda on but, all things considered, I don’t even want to take it back. Chris Cornell, if you haven’t heard him lately, definitely deserves another look, a re-appreciation, a whassup Now.”