I was introduced to Soundgarden around the time I was introduced to my best friend, Trev. It was late 1992 and I was in high school. I'd been digging on Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains for a while and when the Singles soundtrack dropped, I was anticipating going deeper with the Seattle scene which was shifting the paradigm of culture around us. We didn't have the Internet but we devoured fanzines, rare VHS tapes of live performances, and copied album cassettes that we played until they stretched and broke. It was the most amazing time to be alive.
My first exposure to the voice of Chris Cornell was the epic song Hunger Strike from the album Temple Of The Dog. [as and aside, I am not going to do the heavy lifting of explaining the relationship between all the Seattle bands and their various interchangeable lineups as it would take away from the purpose of this post. I will say that it was a scene that played together, supported each other, and showed me early on what true community looked like.] Initially I was impressed with his power and range, but it was the song Birth Ritual on the Singles cassette (which I'd just bought the weekend before) that blew my mind. Trev and I were in the lunch area of our school and he'd given me two cassette tapes to copy for him: Singles and Sonic Youth's Dirty. I was the dude who had the albums at school so I usually spent my evenings compiling mix-tapes and hand-made album cover designs in my bedroom. Trev was a year ahead in my sisters class and we hit it off immediately.
On the studio recording, Birth Ritual has a distorted guitar wave that zones in and out before a bowel-jarring riff hits you between the eyes, runs right down your spine into your feet which then propel you off your feet into a mosh! As if that's not enough, a voice that's sounds half man, half banshee then blasts forth from the speakers leaving you wondering what in the world is actually going on. And that's only the first twenty seconds of the song! The next five minutes are a masterclass in precision and originality. I was hooked.
Another standout track on Singles is Seasons. A haunting ballad penned and performed by Cornell that showcased his versatility as a vocalist and the depth of his songwriting. His catalogue of writing and collaborations over the past 25+ years speaks for itself. Tours and albums with Soundgarden, Audioslave, and solo made him one of the most respected and prolific artists of my lifetime.
Chris Cornell became the defacto statesman for the Seattle scene over the years for many reasons. The sheer force of his personality and talent are definite contributing factors to this, but I like to think it was because he was a father figure to so many in both the early and latter days. His paternal stature as was felt not only by bands but fans alike. I heard of his death when my phone rang at 10:00 am this morning. It was Trev who broke the news to me. This is not just another dead famous person. This is a guy who taught Gen-X kids that it was OK to look, sing, and walk and talk like yourself. I have had the privilege of seeing him many times in concert at pivotal points in his career. As I process his death today, I am inspired by him to chase after the things I love, to embrace my community of friends, and to turn the music up loud and never stop rocking.
Other will drive on the road he built! You are the Highway, Chris.