I will always be amazed by the power of music. Like nothing else in this world, music is both universal and personal. Universally a quintessential defining feature of the human experience, yet created in such variety and forms as to create tastes and experiences that are intensely personal. Music can mean anything to anyone, music can make us laugh, make us cry, make us smile, make us jump, make us scream. Its power moves us emotionally and physically. Song and dance are the oldest forms of human culture, and arguably the greatest cultural achievements of our species. And thanks to our advancements in technology, music has gained immortality.
We have been fortunate enough to live through a moment in time where an expression of sound organically grew amongst a group of musicians from an underground scene that was cultivated and nurtured in its rainy city, and like a rising tide it surged into a massive wave that became a movement that shook the world and defined a generation. This sound tsunami crashed into the shore and changed the shoreline forever. Tragically in its aftermath, as the wave receded with the tide, we lost much to the dark depths from whence it came, including its most powerful voice.
We have been forever touched by this sound wave, but having lived and experienced it, we are not always able to properly recognize just how incredibly unique and rare it was and is. For the music of one city and its musicians to so effect the world as to become a central part of a generational identity, is unprecedented in history. The music transcended languages, boundaries, cultures and even the music itself. Inevitably, in our human need to label everything, we named it grunge.
The artists themselves always had a difficult time being labelled grunge. The word often became associated more with image than with sound, which never sat well with artists who were notoriously anti-image and believed in a moral obligation to preserve the purity of musical and artistic authenticity. The artists had lost control of the creature they created and it was bigger than any of them had ever dared imagine. With it came tremendous pressure. The artists were extremely uncomfortable being idolized as the voices of a generation. This humble and honest discomfort with fame only made them more endearing, more human, more authentic. Grunge never sold out. Grunge didn’t go mainstream, mainstream went grunge. And while the consequences of success were actively contributing to the demise of many of our grunge gods, the music was reaching its fans at deep emotional and psychological levels, healing and comforting millions of people. And I was just one young boy amongst the masses, captivated and forever changed.
I almost missed it. I was 10 years old in 1992 when Nirvana and Pearl Jam blew up, and was too young to go to concerts with wild mosh pits. Grunge was and is a quintessential Gen X movement, and I am the first year of millennials (to my dismay). I have always been jealous of the early fans who got to see legendary performances in small venues. But grunge transcended generations, capturing young fans like me and my friends through music videos. Videos for “Smells like Teen Spirit,” “Even Flow” and “Hunger Strike” were my gateway. And then in 1994, the video for “Black Hole Sun” was released, and its impact was profound. To my 12-year-old self, the video was scary and creepy, the music dark and melodic. But something about that song I found utterly captivating. There was a latent sadness, a melancholy, that was in some strange way comforting.
I was 14 years old in 1996 when Soundgarden released “Down on the Upside.” They released videos for “Pretty Noose,” “Burden in my Hand,” and “Blow up the Outside World.” I soaked it up, there was no such thing to me as too many viewings of those videos. But I still didn’t own a single grunge era cd. My family didn’t have much disposable income and I was always broke. It wasn’t until 1997 when I was finally able to scrounge enough money to buy the Soundgarden compilation album “A-Sides.” It was the opening of a floodgate, after which I absolutely had to own every grunge cd I could find. I bought every album from Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and of course, Soundgarden.
Mainstream music media pundits were telling us grunge was dead. Kurt Cobain was dead. Layne Staley’s drug issues had torn Alice in Chains apart. Soundgarden broke up. Pearl Jam was still rocking but they had gone to unprecedented lengths to derail their own popularity to regain control over their music and find peace of mind. Mainstream music had moved on. But I was just diving deeper into grunge. I was discovering the raw energy and power of Soundgarden albums “Louder than Love,” “Ultramega OK” and “Bad Motorfinger.”
But no song spoke to me in my teenage angst like “Blow Up the Outside World.” After any day of dealing with typical teenage issues of confidence, hormones, and school social structures, it was a vital form of therapy to come home, turn the music to near deafening levels and just scream the lyrics to “Blow Up the Outside World” along with Chris Cornell. With the music so loud I could only hear Chris, it felt like I was singing it. I always experienced a profound emotional release when I screamed at the world along with Chris Cornell. No matter the trouble, I could release my frustrations through the music of Soundgarden, and that voice. Chris Cornell put voice to my frustrations and was an emotional outlet. The music was always there when I needed it. When my grandfather passed away, I sat in my car and sang along to “Fell on Black Days.” Tears streaming down my face, Chris Cornell gave voice to my sadness, and we mourned together.
I was beyond ecstatic when Soundgarden reunited and toured in 2011. They came to Vancouver in July and at long last I finally got to see them live, like I had always dreamed as a kid. It is difficult to find adequate words to properly express how incredible this concert was, to do it justice. Chris was a banshee. His voice echoed around the stadium and seemed to come from everywhere at once. On songs like “Jesus Christ Pose” and “The Day I Tried to Live,” his piercing shriek seemed to go right through me, like it was calling my soul. And then I had what I can only describe as a religious experience. The moment I had waited for half my life, “Blow Up the Outside World.” Arms outstretched, hands up, I sang along with everything I had. And I realized that everyone around me was doing the same thing. Every hand and every voice was raised. I sensed a togetherness with all these people I didn’t know, a unifying feeling that sent a shiver down my spine. It was a moment I will never forget, and I feel truly blessed to have experienced.
In the years that followed I was fortunate to see Soundgarden two more times, including at the Pemberton Music Festival in 2015, and I saw Chris Cornell solo on five occasions. I loved every song Chris ever did, from Temple of the Dog to Audioslave to all his solo albums. His ability to sit by himself on a stage with just a guitar and his iconic voice was nothing short of astonishing. I firmly believe there was no song he couldn’t sing, no genre he couldn’t perform. Soundgarden had always seemed like the genetic offspring of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Though often called grunge or metal, they were really a rock and roll band, heavily influenced by classic rock yet evolved into something new. Chris Cornell was one of the last true rock legends. And he only furthered solidified this status with his breathtaking covers of classic songs, from John Lennon’s “Imagine,” to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”
What truly connected Chris Cornell to millions of fans around the world was his authentic ability to emote. He externalized his internal struggles in song. It was deeply personal and real. You could hear it in his voice, see it on his face. And that, more than anything, was grunge. Because grunge isn’t a sound, it’s an ethos. It’s a search into the darkest depths of self, an embrace of our fears, laid bare in verse and released in song. And despite being so intensely personal, it tapped into the universal human experience. Depression, anxiety, addiction, abuse, loss. The music was there for us in our own personal struggles. The music made us feel less alone. It helped us rage, helped us mourn, helped us heal. It became a defining feature of personal identity.
And this, more than anything else, is what made the death of Chris Cornell so painfully tragic to his fans. That after all he had done for us, after all the times he had been there for us, we were not able to be there for him. In his darkest hour, we could not be there for him as he was for us. It seems so unfairly cruel.
The pain of this loss will linger. Our memories of Chris Cornell will always be bittersweet with melancholy. But the music will endure. Timeless.
We fans will remember Chris forever with two words that have become our motto, the title of an early song that best recognizes and summarizes his soulful ethos: