When I look at photos of Chris Cornell—especially those from the early nineties—I’m immediately struck by two things: one, how handsome he was—how tall and handsome and robust-looking—and two, how happy I was listening to his music. In the case of the latter, of course, the passing of time, coupled with the sudden sting of a tragic event such as the one that occurred last Wednesday, can cause us to over-tint the glasses through which we view our memories. In this instance, however, I’d say my vision is pretty clear.
Like so many folk from my generation, from the age of about fourteen to seventeen, grunge music ruled my world. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Soundgarden—as well as other, non-Seattle-based affiliates such as the Smashing Pumpkins—these bands provided the soundtrack to my days as a teenage dirtbag. Days that consisted of wandering aimlessly through a shopping centre, trying to get served in the various village pubs around where we lived, chasing the girls we met there… and then laughing about it all afterwards. That’s what I remember most. The laughter. Because for all the angst and sullen introspection that underpinned a lot of this music, grunge was most definitely a unifying force among me and my peers. It brought us out of ourselves and it brought us together, helping to form a bond that’s lasted more than twenty years.
A random memory: cycling down to MK Bowl one summer to see REM and Radiohead with my buddy Sam, I caught sight of my reflection in the window of the office blocks near the train station. I remember distinctly, I was wearing an olive-green shirt with a white check pattern and I had my best Chris Cornell shorts on—knee-length, combat-style—and boots. Brown boots. And I remember thinking, you are one cool dude, Matt Pucci. You are one cool dude, because you look like Chris Cornell. Kind of. If you squint. If you could grow a proper ‘tache and your hair was longer and you were about six inches taller. Aside from that, though…
Perhaps if I’d been ten years older when grunge broke I might not have fallen so hard. I might also have been a little less inclined toward its sartorial code. (To this day, I still favour the checked-shirt-and-jeans look on my days out of the office.) I might even have wondered how this stuff could be so popular when there was so much other music out there—music that was way cooler, quirkier, and more deserving of the “alternative” label. But life isn’t like that, and the fact that I was alive and young and highly impressionable at that point in time meant that grunge—and Chris Cornell, in particular—spoke to me in a way that few other styles of music have since.
When I heard that he’d died, I was devastated. Couldn’t believe it. It didn’t take long to hit me just how much his music had meant, and in an attempt to find solace in shared grief, I found myself sifting through all the articles and tributes that people had written. The best of the bunch was this one, by Amanda Petrusich, in which she discusses Cornell’s “unforgettable vulnerability”—something that I have to admit was only ever in the periphery of my consciousness. I loved Soundgarden for all the same reasons as everyone else, I suppose: guitarist Kim Thayil’s uniquely aggressive-yet-melodic riffing… the juggernaut power of Matt Cameron’s drumming and Ben Shepherd’s bass… and, of course, Cornell’s scorching, multi-octave voice. After the band split, in 1997, I continued to follow Cornell’s career. I heard his début solo album, Euphoria Morning, while I was living in France, and I bought the first Audioslave album the day it was released. But it was Soundgarden—that most weird and wonderful of mainstream grunge acts—along with the other classic Cornell record from the early nineties, Temple of the Dog—to which I returned most often.
Looking back, Cornell’s vulnerability was self-evident. It was there, in his lyrics, and in the range of vocals he employed to articulate those lyrics. The fact that he was a handsome and robust-looking bastard just made it all less apparent. Precisely how and why he chose to end his life in the manner that he did remains—at the time of writing—unresolved, and to a certain degree, it’s immaterial. I never met the man, but I can say with complete conviction that Cornell was a man who cared. Plain and simple. A man who made every attempt to articulate what he felt and noticed, about himself, and the world around him. There are countless examples I could cite in order to illustrate this, from any one of the projects to which he lent his formidable vocals. However, it’s a line from that first Audioslave album that sticks in my mind today and sums up Cornell’s generosity of spirit, and his enduring appeal. The track is named ‘Hypnotize’, and its chorus consists of a simple instruction, which Cornell intones in a warm yet uncharacteristically restrained manner: “Oh no, don’t keep your good luck to yourself.” Later in the track, he says “I know you’ve got problems, I see it in your eyes…” adding that “it’s time to see you’ve got to give, if you wanna believe.” It’s by no means his most virtuosic performance, but there’s wisdom in these lines, and in the way he delivers them—a wisdom that only comes from looking both within and without—and like almost everything the man touched, it’s uplifting and unsettling in equal measure. Rest in peace, sir.