“I want to get into Soundgarden.”
My brother’s declaration was random. It was 2011, I was fifteen, going on sixteen, and he was home a lot, studying for his CPA exam. At the time, he was still living at home, his bedroom in the basement, the same room where the computer was located. He and I never had a bad relationship, but the seven-year age difference meant we weren’t the closest. During this time period, however, we had no choice, as he wasn’t going to study anywhere else and I couldn’t just pick up the computer and everything associated with it and take it to my room. This year was also riddled with several personal problems within the family. There was no one else to talk to about it, and we found ourselves stuck in that basement room together, sometimes with our other brother.
So we spent a lot of time together, watching wrestling, playing video games, listening to music. I was deep into a foray on Tumblr, so I even taught him how to make gifs on Photoshop. At this point, we were friends, and friends share music. So when he randomly decided to “get into” Soundgarden, so did I. In 2011, I never realized just how important that decision would be.
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t recognize the ominous sounds of “Black Hole Sun.” It’s classic – the perfect song for the disillusioned Generation X and still perfect for millenials. I remember watching the video with my brother and him claiming “the bassist looks like that guy from Queens of the Stone Age,” something I think about every time I see Ben Shepherd or Josh Homme.
Of course, we delved deeper, exploring Soundgarden’s other music videos before taking the plunge and downloading their entire discography. We were obsessed with the band and then realized what we were mostly obsessed with was the lead singer.
At the height of Soundgarden’s popularity in 1994, Chris Cornell didn’t look like your typical grunge guy. No long hair (though he of course had this feature earlier and again later), no lanky, heroin-riddled figure, no overabundance of flannel. And his voice wasn’t stereotypical either. While Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder’s vocals sometimes sounded garbled to me, Chris Cornell’s was clear. The former’s vocals were rougher, grittier, which was perfect for Nirvana’s and Pearl Jam’s respective sounds, but Cornell’s cries were different. Loud and expressive, it was never hard to gauge the emotion in the songs.
It was these qualities that made us even more interested in Chris Cornell than the band as a whole. I’ll always consider Soundgarden a favorite band of mine – probably number two on my list, right behind the Red Hot Chili Peppers – but Chris Cornell quickly became my favorite singer. Euphoria Morning is a masterpiece, Carry On an interesting departure from his brand of hard rock we came to love, and Scream is…well, Scream. Later, we heard the acoustic stylings of Songbook and the wonderful Higher Truth and loved them as well. At the time, my brother planned to (and did) play “Preaching the End of the World” on his 24th birthday simply because of the line “I’m 24 and I’ve got everything to live for,” and now I plan to do the same next year. We moved on to Audioslave and Temple of the Dog, learning and loving everything.
Shortly after this discovery, we learned Chris Cornell would be bringing his Songbook tour to Pittsburgh. We couldn’t pass up this opportunity, so we of course set out that winter to go. My brother had a very specific Chris Cornell playlist he had curated and listened to all the time, featuring songs like “Applebite,” “Like a Stone,” and “You Know My Name.” When we stopped to get gas on the way to the venue, there was an incident that led to my brother smelling like gas, and as he got back into his car, Cornell’s voice sang out “Burning that gasoline.” The smell of the gas was somehow lessened by the absurdity of the coincidence.
Needless to say, the show was amazing, and we would do it again two more times in Cleveland over the years. We discovered Chris Cornell’s humor, saw his attempts at matchmaking, and listened to the stories behind the songs. In May 2013, we even managed to see Soundgarden in Pittsburgh – a rainy, outdoor show that resulted in me getting a cold for the next couple days. It was totally worth it.
News of Chris Cornell’s death in 2017 hit me hard. I woke up too early that morning, only to check Twitter and learn of his passing. I was crushed, even more so when I learned the cause of death. His music helped create a bond, a friendship between me and my brother. Now, it’s difficult to listen to his music without tears coming to my eyes. I had been looking forward to new music from him and Soundgarden. I was ready to see him in concert again. Meanwhile, this man I idolized had been hurting. It’s easy to forget that these larger than life figures are real people with real problems, like depression or addiction. The emotions he evoked in his songs were true. Those feelings were real – it was never just an act, an attempt to create a popular song.
Today would have been Chris Cornell’s 54th birthday. He should be celebrating with his family and friends, eating cake and basking in love and appreciation. But he’s not. He’s not here. He’s somewhere else, and I hope he knows how much so many of us love and miss him, how much of an impact he’s had on us.
Happy birthday, Chris, rest in peace.
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