Chris Cornell died this week. David Farrier writes about what Cornell’s music meant to him, and the day he met his hero.
I hadn’t had wifi or cell reception because I was deep inside a weird forest in Japan, but when I switched my phone back on, it was to a flood of messages about Chris Cornell passing away. My friends knew how I felt about the guy and his musical output. When given the opportunity, I won’t shut up about him.
One of those messages was from my friend Grant Findlay. “No words man.”
Grant and I had shot an interview with Chris in Los Angeles years ago, before Soundgarden had even reformed. What struck me about meeting Chris – this hero of mine – was not only how humble and open he was, but the fact he’d driven to our hotel on a weekend.
He had a million other things he could have been doing, but he came to us. The only other musician who’d ever done this in my eight years as an arts reporter was Chino from Deftones. There was no junket hotel, no label people – just a musician driving out of their way to meet some idiot from a TV station in tiny New Zealand. Why he did, I’ll never know, but I think it was because he was kind.
Grant summed the day up: “This was truly a great day man. And I feel absolutely privileged to have shared this half hour with you.”
It seems so trivial to me in a way, me writing about Chris Cornell dying. “Oh look: a guy who met this guy one time, and now he’s making the story about him and that time he met him.” But that’s the thing that a musician does, if they make good music – they become intimately entwined in a total stranger’s life and I think maybe it’s okay I write about him.
I have so many vivid, important memories attached to this man. My first concert when I moved to Auckland was seeing Audioslave at the Auckland town hall. It was a band of true rock stars – former members of Rage Against the Machine teaming up with a new vocalist for a truly bizarre new band. It wasn’t a side project, this thing was giant.
‘Cochise’, their debut video, was directed by music video giant Mark Romanek, and saw a frosted-tips Chris and the band parading around on a roof, fireworks exploding in the background. It was ridiculous, it was huge. The concert was the same. It remains one of my most vivid concert memories, a pang of positivity in a city and time in my life that was, at the time, terrifying for me.
I met my friend Rima Te Wiata for the very first time at a Soundgarden concert. It was a Big Day Out, and I found this wonderful woman who was as captivated by Chris as I was. She analysed his lyrics and his life, bursting with joy she was about to see his band perform. She had an old-school tape recorder, one that took a physical tape – and she waded into the crowd to bootleg the concert. We took turns holding that tape deck in the air, capturing the show in all its aural glory.
More recently, I snuck out of my own housewarming party to see Chris perform an acoustic set at the Aotea Centre. I desperately wanted to hear him perform ‘Billie Jean’ (that near four-octave vocal range, man!), and I got to hear it that night.
Sneaking out of that house that night was the best thing I did all year. Chris reminded me all of his complex, wonderful forms over the years. He performed the theme he wrote for James Bond, he took us back through Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog (‘Call Me A Dog’ – my god, what a song!!!), his solo work on Euphoria Morning.
It’s that album I’ve had on repeat. He’s young and he has ridiculous facial hair, but I think it’s Chris at his most open and honest. It was a painful, sad record to listen to them, and it’s infinitely more so now.
And that record back in 1999 wasn’t meant to be called Euphoria Morning. It was meant to be called Euphoria Mourning, but his manager thought it might be too confusing. I’m glad Chris got to make that title change when it was reissued a few years ago. He said: “It was a pretty dark album lyrically and pretty depressing, and I was going through a really difficult time in my life – my band wasn’t together anymore, my marriage was falling apart and I was dealing with it by drinking way too much, and that has its own problems, particularly with depression. So I titled the album Euphoria Mourning.”
That was back then, this is now though. His life seemed full, and good, and wonderful. To an outsider, there was no mourning. But that’s the thing, right? You never know. You never know.
It is not my place really to write about why Chris Cornell is no longer here. I think that maybe Frank Guan has captured some of my own feelings, but even this is lacking. Nothing really makes a death like this make sense. But we have to try, right?
“This kind of thinking has to happen, but it shouldn’t be the only way to read Cornell’s death. What made him a great vocalist, and Soundgarden a great band, wasn’t only technical accomplishment (though they certainly didn’t lack for that), but complexity. And Soundgarden’s greatness lay in its ability to convey not only bleakness and the will to death, but the dogged will to live that opposed it. Life isn’t death, but living and dying are, actually, the same process. Far from being a monument to despair and abjection, Soundgarden’s music plays out the struggle against them. Cornell was too honest to be merely sullen, and the voice with which he delivered his impressions, and the guitars and drums behind them, were too beautiful to simply amount to a document of doom. Heavy as death but dynamic as life, Soundgarden struck a balance between the two, and it was this realness that made their songs a resource for countless desperate individuals too smart to cheer up yet too strong to give in.”
I wish this hadn’t happened. I hate that you can’t know what is going on in someone else’s head. All you can do is try and be kind, always. Kind like Chris was kind, driving all the way across town to do an interview with some stupid sweaty kid from New Zealand.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.