There must be something good, far away.
I distinctly recall walking in the door of my childhood home at ten years old and saying to my mother, "I've just had a musical revelation."
I had heard "Black Hole Sun" on the radio for the first time.
It pushed and pulled my young mind in so many directions at once, sweet and sour and rich and balanced and full of joy and rage and submission to a world whose complexities were only beginning to truly reveal themselves in ways that I could understand. The song's effect was physical, making my stomach float and swirl like a young crush. It made the hairs stand up on my arm like someone rubbing up beside me unexpectedly. And what it did to my ears -- who can say. The bizarre chord changes, the perfect unaffected arc of the melody, and the sheer dynamic bombast of the drums, bass, and guitars. My head exploded. Then I saw the music video and the deed was done.
By week's end I withdrew sufficient funds from my piggy bank to purchase Superunknown on compact disc (used) from a strip mall store called Boogie-Go-Round. On the back cover it read "Produced by Michael Beinhorn and Soundgarden / Mixed by Brendan O' Brien" and though I couldn't have told you what either production or mixing meant, I did recognize Mr. O' Brien's name from one of the other five compact discs in my collection (Aerosmith's Get A Grip -- less revelatory). Though most of Superunknown was too dense for me to process before puberty, I could tell that it was built like a fortress and that in time all of it would make sense.
The frontman Chris Cornell wrote brutal lyrics, unapologetically honest and raw but without sacrificing his higher literary abilities. The way his metaphors would weave across verses fascinated me and his bizarrely visceral word choices blurred the physical and abstract in a way that made me think about art in an entirely new way. And the band sounded like a Frankenstein monster, a machine made of flesh. Hyper modern but drenched in tradition. The sound of the record itself fascinated me, and over the next decade my worship would only deepen -- this was the sonic Mona Lisa of hard rock.
In my early twenties I found myself interning and then assisting the man whose name had jumped out at me from the back of that used compact disc sleeve, and for a few years I got to study Brendan O' Brien's skills in person and connect them to the way his mixing/production had made me feel ever since that first listen to "Black Hole Sun." He taught me a lot more than how to mix, but that's for another post.
Soundgarden disbanded many years before I got to the studio. I had never seen them live. On a tour stop in Atlanta, the new Cornell/Rage supergroup called Audioslave came to our studio to cut a few songs with their old friend Brendan and for one of the very few times in my life, I was absolutely starstruck at the thought of meeting Chris Cornell.
I was still the new guy on the rather small studio totem pole and it was my job to take the band's dinner orders. As dinner time approached, thinking that they were taking a break, I wandered nervously out to the live room with my notepad and pencil in hand. They didn't see me come into the room and decided to launch into another take at mind-numbing volume while I stood frozen to my spot. I was less than ten feet away from Chris Cornell and though I couldn't hear his voice over the amps, I could feel the power emanating from his vocal cords into the mic. There were three members of Rage Against The Machine standing in the room with me as well, but I only had eyes and ears for Chris.
After swapping reels of tape and tidying up a bit from the rock tornado, the engineers and I were able to spend a little bit of time eating dinner with the band in our lounge. Chris was much taller than I realized, very friendly, polite, and soft-spoken with ponderous troubled eyes that are familiar to anyone who's ever seen a photo of him. He invited the studio crew out to the show the next night, and though so much great music had entered my lexicon since I became a Soundgarden fan, the solo rendition of "Black Hole Sun" that Chris performed to a silent arena that night will forever remain one of the best musical performances I ever witness. It stripped away the production and the bombast to reveal the core of a perfectly written song, and one that clearly still resonated for him as much as it had for me when he recorded it over a decade earlier.
Another decade has passed since that show. I got to see Soundgarden do a shockingly good show on their first reunion tour. I recorded some music of my own. I still listen to Soundgarden and muse on their brilliance constantly. Usually several times a week.
Yesterday, learning of Chris Cornell's death on my way into the city, I felt both stupidly shocked and stupid to feel shocked. I don't have any insight to offer and won't pretend to. The man's struggle was always evident and always a part of what made his music so beautiful. One of those great dilemmas that a lot of artists can't quite solve, or maybe they all solve it in different ways and this was his way.
I do know that Soundgarden remains a constant point of reference for me and for my band, with their unpredictable song structures and weird tunings and time-signatures that don't sound complex until you try to sit down and actually play one of their songs.
But more than anything it's the writing. At his peak with Soundgarden, Chris (along with Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd, and Matt Cameron) recalibrated what it meant to play heavy music. Soundgarden showed that you didn't have to be stupid and misogynistic to be raucous and powerful. Chris proved that he could really say something important and insightful to his listeners even while his guitar amp was rattling their teeth.
If you don't know his music, you should. If you do know his music, you should get to know it better. He was a special voice in this world. I have too many favorite Chris Cornell lyrics to pick just one, but this has to be towards the top, especially today:
"Follow me into the desert as thirsty as you are."