Part of Me: Chris Cornell Calls It a Day, My Heart Breaks

It’s been two weeks since the death of Chris Cornell and still I’m not settled over getting my thoughts about it out. When John Lennon died, I was too young to grasp the…not importance, because I somehow knew it was a big deal that my favorite band ever (as a child and until now) was truly done, but the pain of those congregating outside the Dakota where the ex-Beatle lived and died was something I wasn’t mature enough to comprehend. I saw the tears in everyone’s eyes, but couldn’t join them in mourning.

Kurt Cobain was next, who retroactively got labeled the spokesman – and “John Lennon” – for my generation, but like the Dallas Cowboys being tagged “America’s Team,” that  wasn’t something which everyone agreed. I know I didn’t. Few people remember, in fact, that Nirvana’s then fresh release In Utero was polarizing at the time, and the band’s popularity was waning while Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins were blowing up. Jump ahead past to the not-so-shocking deaths of Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley in 2002 and Scott Weiland in 2015, while also realizing Bowie had been sick and Prince was on another level of stardom, Chris Cornell hit differently. Harder. Like, this was my John Lennon if there had to be a simple, tied-in-a-bow descriptive.

Soundgarden, however, had been around longer than any of those acts, were signed to a major label before them, and bridged the gap between 70s and 90s hard rock for both incoming grunge fans and leftover lovers of cock-rock. Cornell was a shirtless, lion-maned rock God without coming across as cheesy, and the guys could drop metal riffs and Beatles-esque melodies with equal effortlessness. Lyrically, Cornell’s words resonated not just because of their authenticity, but because anyone who ever went through the doldrums could identify with them. Nothing was bright and sunny; hell, the most popular song of theirs is titled “Black Hole Sun.”

During high school, when the mainstream breakthrough Badmotorfinger was released, I became a Soundgarden fan. Working for a record store at the time, we could only play the album after 6pm each weeknight; it was a weird rule, mainly centered around new releases of “heavy music” like Soundgarden, Ozzy (No More Tears), Metallica (The Black Album), Guns N’ Roses (Use Your Illusions), Nirvana (Nevermind) – top sellers by the way, all of them. Weekends, everything was fair game. When the familiar, slightly deceiving intro siren swirl of album Badmotorfinger opener “Rusty Cage” dropped in, it was pretty clear I was working.

I never caught them live as headliners though. Not then, in their first run. It was this weird, youthful mindset; everyone, every band, every friend, family member…they would last forever. I did it with Nirvana – blew off free tickets to The Armory show at Philadelphia’s Drexel University in 1993. Alice in Chains more times than I care to recall, especially given how much I love them today – and they even opened for Van Halen! Luckily, when it came to Cornell, I got to see him a half dozen times or more.

The first time I really focused on Cornell live was with Audioslave, which I documented in part in a piece for Vanyaland post-Cornell’s death, and nabbed a photo with CC and my terrible facial hair which I’ll subject all to below. Each time they, “A-Slave” as myself and the Ninja joked, came around, we caught them.

Then Cornell split.

By that time, I was living in Boston. He had taken to doing full on solo tours, which were fairly well received. I interviewed him about his new record, Carry On. Went back to Philly to see him and gave my backstage pass to a friend’s wife who was obsessed like a giddy teenager. Then, in 2010, an errant tweet of Cornell’s declared the return of Soundgarden.

Managed to see Soundgarden for the first time officially with the classic lineup and classless girlfriend in tow in 2012. Took a bunch of pictures, met Kim Thayil (who I interviewed for The Boston Phoenix) and Ben Shepherd backstage, called it a day. Then, Cornell started doing this thing which he called ‘Songbook.’ It was like his solo shows, but without the pomp and heaviness of those gigs. Basically, it was Chris, an acoustic guitar, sometimes a backing instrumentalist or two, and all these amazing stories of how he came up with each song. I can honestly say these were some of the most enjoyable concerts I had seen in years, if not ever.

He started hinting about working with Audioslave again. A new Soundgarden record was on the way. He toured with Temple of the Dog for the first time ever while I was heading to Iceland and left grated to have missed it, especially since the trek opened in Philly.

Now he is dead.

Happy to have caught Chris Cornell in the multiple opportunities I had. Crushed he is gone. The way he died…suicide by hanging? That part I am still trying to wrap my head around. Maybe that’s why it’s hitting harder than the others? I don’t know. Like life, and not to try to be all profound here, but it’s a process to come to terms with it.

I’ve had to do three articles for my different outlets, and sometimes when news like this breaks, it’s tough to make each of them different in tone and subject. Not here, not this time, I have too much to say, hence this post. The Vanyaland piece is by far my favorite and most heartfelt, but in one for The Daily Times, I was able to create a playlist of the 10 best Chris Cornell songs, subjectively of course. Here, I’ve expanded it to 22. Have a listen.

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