I fell in love with Soundgarden a little late. Now, with Chris Cornell’s passing, I wish I’d fallen in love with them earlier. It would’ve given me more time with them, and him.
They were on the periphery of my music knowledge, probably back to the Louder Than Love era (1989). When I heard Cornell’s voice a couple years later on Temple of the Dog’s “Say Hello to Heaven,” I didn’t think of him as much more than the guy singing with Eddie Vedder, amazing pipes notwithstanding. I had bought into Pearl Jam in a big way by then. It was their appearance on screen and on the soundtrack to the great grunge-era Cameron Crowe movie Singles that brought him and Soundgarden more into my sights. Cornell’s solo song on that soundtrack, “Seasons,” spoke to my soul. Just a man and his guitar. It felt like autumn. Still does. It was so evocative of its time to me, both in terms of pop culture and my personal life. I’ve always known there’s a “My Shuffled Life” post in me about that song, but it just hasn’t popped up on shuffle at the right time. Later on the soundtrack, Soundgarden’s “Birth Ritual” launched its bombastic rhythmic assault on my eardrums, Cornell’s voice soaring in its high register, to show me, finally, what the band was all about.
But it was the spring of 1994 that was really “Soundgarden” to me. That was when I fell in love with them. That was when Superunknown was released. I bought it immediately because “Spoonman” had slayed me on the radio and MuchMusic. It didn’t take long for it to become one of my favourite albums of all time. I couldn’t stop listening to it. As much as I was pouring the album into my ears on a daily basis, I think maybe a little of it started seeping out of me as well. Had it become part of my essence? There was this guy Bob in my university screenwriting class who I had just met that year and shortly after the album was released, he said something like, “I bet you’re really into that new Soundgarden album.” I said, “Yeah, I love it. How did you know?” “You seem like you’d like it,” he explained in his dry, eyes-half-lidded Bob way. So maybe I was oozing Soundgarden by that point.
By the time I decided I didn’t need to listen to Superunknown every second of my life anymore, it was summer and I still craved Soundgarden. So to the back catalogue I went, first to Badmotorfinger. Well, there I was again, unable to stop listening to a Soundgarden album. As I wrote about in my post about “New Damage,” I was reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula at the same time I was obsessed with this album, and the music’s dark intensity was the perfect soundtrack to Stoker’s gothic creep-fest.
That album was dark and heavy, but there were so many colours to Soundgarden, and to Cornell himself, which he showed in his solo work as well. When he joined the remnants of Rage Against the Machine in Audioslave, I was overjoyed. Heavy rock music was going through a hard time in the late 90s and into the new millennium, and I felt like Audioslave was just what we needed to show the kids how it’s done.
I don’t know why, but I never saw Soundgarden in their prime, in the 90s. But I finally got my chance after they released their reunion album, King Animal. I saw them co-headline with Nine Inch Nails in a rain-soaked performance at the Molson Amphitheatre in 2014. It was a solid set, but I can’t say they blew me away. Not every set fires on all cylinders, it happens. But they had it going a year later when I saw them headline Big Music Fest in Kitchener. They just stood there and destroyed. And Cornell, known more for his intensity, showed a lighter side. Commenting on the thick cloud of pot smoke wafting onto the stage, he said they didn’t need a smoke machine for that show because the fans had created a “pot smoke machine.”
So, yes, he was a man, like all of us humans, who was more than you assumed he was. Not just intense, but funny, too. As the Singles soundtrack showed us, not just heavy, but delicate, too. He was not just a brilliant and beloved musician, but a beloved husband and father, too. It’s easy to forget about that last part when we hold people up like idols.
His tragic death gives us the opportunity to remember and celebrate all these things about him, and the millions of things about him that those not close to him could never know. I’ve been listening to Superunknown as I write this and now, as I come to the end, the song that really sparked the flame of my love for the band and that album has come up: “Spoonman.” It’s a song that makes me smile in a way that very few, if any, Soundgarden songs do. It invigorates me, with its bright vocals and rhythmic playfulness. And a smile is a great gift at a time like this.