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“No one sings like you anymore” – Chris Cornell, Black Hole Sun
Today (5/24/2017), Vicky Cornell posted a letter to her late husband Chris. Chris Cornell, best known as the lead singer of the band Soundgarden (major contributors to the Seattle “grunge” scene) died tragically last Wednesday (5/18/2017). Her letter, though the consequence of tragedy, is one of the most honest and heartfelt things I have ever read.
To My Sweet Christopher,
You were the best father, husband, and son-in-law. Your patience, empathy, and love always showed through.
You had always said I saved you, that you wouldn’t be alive if it were not for me. My heart gleamed to see you happy, living and motivated. Excited for life. Doing everything you could to give back. We had the time of our lives in the last decade and I’m sorry, my sweet love, that I did not see what happened to you that night. I’m sorry you were alone, and I know that was not you, my sweet Christopher. Your children know that too, so you can rest in peace.
I’m broken, but I will stand up for you and I will take care of our beautiful babies. I will think of you every minute of every day and I will fight for you. You were right when you said we are soulmates. It has been said that paths that have crossed will cross again, and I know that you will come find me, and I will be here waiting.
I love you more than anyone has ever loved anyone in the history of loving and more than anyone ever will.
Always and forever, Your Vicky
Again, the letter is remarkably touching. I love you more than anyone has ever loved anyone in the history of loving and more than anyone ever will is one of the most powerful sentences I have ever read in my life. I am not being hyperbolic. The love and the sense of loss, the hurt, all packaged in a humble and candid sentence—she bravely, painfully, and honestly disclosed a bragging right that should be the envy of all so-called lovers in the universe. Honesty is the hallmark of effective communication and subsequently the heart of any time-honored and adored art. Chris Cornell was honest.
Cornell was not my favorite musician. I appreciated his contribution to music, and I have been a fan of Soundgarden for over 20 years, but I had (and am still wrestling with) an abhorrence of any music from Seattle via the early 1990’s that didn’t conform (an extremely ironic word regarding this context) to my preconceived notion of the ethos and integrity of punk rock. The popularity of Nirvana (again, a contextual contradiction) was the epoch of everything I considered sacred and incorruptible in 1994. The fact that Nirvana (a self-proclaimed punk band) signed to a major label was warranted in my eyes; How else can you change the system but from within?
And Kurt Cobain, as a rock star, was the antithesis of a rock star—I somehow convinced myself that he accidentally became popular, that DGC records forced him into signing a deal, that if it were up to him my proximity to Washington (I lived in Michigan at the time) would have made it impossible to hear Nirvana. And I was cool with that. I believed he wanted it that way, and I believed exclusivity made a band more admirable and more (note this) talented. The music didn’t have to move me, at least initially. The band just had to not want me to like them.
Soundgarden was the first of the Seattle “grunge” bands to sign to a major label (A&M Records, 1988). Their intention, unabashedly, was to sell records as a marketable, reliable product. They wanted to fulfill their contractual obligations. They wanted me to dig them. This isn’t a crazy move. Everyone does this. If you work, you will eventually seek recognition and compensation for your time and efforts. If you are an artist, justifiable compensation often equals selling out or (conceivably) compromising your craft in an effort to be massively consumed. Though there is a fallacy in this ideology (surely not every artist changes their sound for mass appeal), I have fortunately avoided a lot of lame bands thanks to this mindset. Conversely, I have also missed out on quite a bit. But, I have felt like this since I was a little boy and old habits are Bruce Willis.
There was a thing with EPMD versus MC Hammer in the late 1980’s. To clarify, MC Hammer and EPMD were never really against each other in any kind of capacity, but my young mind observed their dissimilarity and therefore drew a line in the sand that never actually existed. For all I knew, EPMD and MC Hammer could have been besties. But EPMD were known for their street credibility in contrast to MC Hammer’s suburban, cross-over appeal (he had a cartoon and an action figure). I learned to base my entertainment selection on distinctions like these by the time I could read.
For example, I knew a Looney Tunes cartoon was going to be watchable when the opening credits revealed Mel Blanc as the voice actor. Similarly, I learned to associate myself with artists who seemingly served the art first, themselves second. This idea became concrete when I moved to my cousins’ house, Tymon and Tony. Fans of EPMD, Public Enemy, KRS-1, et. al., they explained the difference between these artists and MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and the like. The loyalty of any fan requires the properly sized head for blinders—that is, big, stubborn brains, and a negative propensity for bullshit.
Once I latched onto Nirvana, I couldn’t help but scrutinize any band or artist that signed to a major label after them. It was alchemy: their marketing strategy plus my ideology. Soundgarden (to reiterate, they signed prior to Nirvana, but I heard of them after) had an uphill battle to face in terms of garnering my support and respect. I looked at them like they were on the coattails of Nirvana when the opposite was the truth! That’s just how my brain worked. I was irrational. After Kurt died, Soundgarden released the song “Black Hole Sun,” followed by their fourth studio album Superunknown.
I was ashamed of myself for liking it instantaneously. It’s a great record. It was a great record when I was 14 years old, and it still is today. And Soundgarden consistently delivered great music. From Ultramega OK (1988) to King Animal (2012), Soundgarden has always been a good band. And I would have rather had bamboo shoots stuck under my fingernails than tell anyone that I liked them.
Soundgarden was not a “secret shame” kind of band. They weren’t Incubus, for example (you secret Incubus listeners know who you are). But they came from an era where not being a rock star was being an admirable rock star. And they were at the mercy of fools like me—the only game they could play successfully was the long one. And they did. Their sound holds up, and their commitment to their craft remained to the end. They waited, ever so patiently, for me to get my head out of my ass and listen to them play as ardently as they wanted to play for me. I can proudly say that I am a fan of Soundgarden. But Audioslave?
I couldn’t have cared less that Rage Against the Machine was on Epic Records (a subsidiary of Sony Entertainment, and about as corporate as a band can get). They juked the Seattle stigma by being from California, and similar to Nirvana, they wore their we hate anything corporate chip on their sleeves (see their name). I fucking loved them. Their breakup seemed like the natural end of something so powerful. As such, I didn’t expect a Rage reprise, or Rage 5, 10, 15, 20-year reunions. When the shit inevitably ended, I assumed there was absolutely no going back. Then Audioslave happened. It was Cornell’s powerhouse voice with Rage Against the Machine’s powerhouse guitar + rhythm section. Bookoo bucks on paper. And they were damn successful. You couldn’t turn on a hard rock or alternative rock station without hearing them. And then, they dropped “Like a Stone.”
All of a sudden, Rage and Cornell are on pop stations. Ryan Seacrest is introducing their song on some obligatory top 10. And it’s what this new incarnation of each band wanted. And that desire, regardless of their respective amazing talent, made me loathe them, and made me particularly loathe Cornell. Perhaps that’s why it took so long for me to like Cornell out loud in the first place. With Audioslave, Cornell wanted to expand his audience. He wanted me and other people to like him. What a sinner.
I would like to apologize for my foolishness. Chris wanted to share his art with the world. He was talented. He was honest, and there is nothing wrong with that.