In Selfish Mourning of Chris Cornell: Our own David Dierksen mourns a grunge icon.
By David Dierksen
Chris Cornell is dead, and I’m not sure there’s much I can add to the conversation that hasn’t been said. We’re all confused as to how this could happen, and maybe details will come to light, maybe they won’t. Piece after piece will describe his rollercoaster career, the magnificence of his voice, the influence of his band(s), and his place on the map of cultural significance. Writers will write broad think pieces that try to make sense of this widespread sadness/confusion and perhaps console the grieving rock community at large.
Fine. Do that. I’ve already gone down that rabbit hole this morning, and if it’s helping you to cope, then God bless. But it’s not fucking helping me. The only way I’m able to cope is to funnel all I know about Chris Cornell – admittedly very little – through the prism of my own memories and then vomit them out on this page. It’s selfish and self-indulgent and perhaps of very little interest to you. But then again, maybe you understand, because maybe Chris’ music impacted you the most at the times you felt most alone. That’s my experience, anyway.
I got Badmotorfinger and Temple of the Dog on cassette around the same time in late 1992, right after I started driving. Both albums are unimpeachable perfection. As a frequently broken-hearted teen, I’d drive the streets of my small town for hours after Friday night football games, alone, blasting Badmotorfinger if I was angry, or letting the Temple record soothe me with its wise soulfulness.
I saw Soundgarden for the first time at Lollapalooza 1992, and forever burned in my memory was their last song of the set – Body Count’s controversial “Cop Killer.” That was one of the first big shows I’d ever been to, and it’s still the biggest mosh pit I’ve ever seen. There was no escaping it, and it was glorious. And I experienced it alone.
In 1996, I got kicked in the face by a crowd surfer during “My Wave,” my tooth getting chipped in the process. It didn’t keep me from smiling when Chris introduced “Rusty Cage” by dedicating it to “the man in black.” I went to that show alone too. It was my last time to see Soundgarden.
I was studying in Italy in the Fall of 1999, and I remember countless train rides and bus trips through the Tuscan country side, headphones on, detached from everything except the view and the soundtrack provided by Euphoria Morning.
It was on this trip that Chris Cornell became more than just an artist I liked – he became a “moment” for me, one of those stories you tell as long as you’re alive. Please indulge me:
So I found myself in Rome with a group of students prior to a weeklong fall break. Members of our group were offered an opportunity to take a two-day trip down to Pompeii. Pompeii! Awesome, right? A potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But I opted out because Chris Cornell was playing in Milan that night. I’m pretty sure most people in that group thought I was an idiot (as do people I’ve told this story to since).
I had to leave super early from Rome to make it in time – if memory serves, the trip took around seven hours. I arrived probably three hours before showtime. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I had to stay in the dodgiest of hotels, run by a super creepy proprietor. My “room” was barely big enough to fit the bed, and cleanliness of the joint was clearly not a priority.
I didn’t have a ticket to the show. I only had a venue name – Rolling Stone – and an address. Logic would dictate that I take a cab, but like I said, funds were low, and I had no idea how far away this place even was. So I bought a map, located the address, and ascertained (incorrectly) that it would be a relatively short walk. Having never been to Milan, a walk to take in the city sounded like a great idea.
But as the journey continued, and the minutes kept ticking away, I realized I had misjudged the distance. I spent the last mile or so of that jaunt running to the venue and arrived about 15 minutes before showtime (no opening band). A fair amount of people were hanging out outside. I walked up to the box office… and was turned away. SOLD OUT. Fuck.
But then, just a moment later, a tap on my shoulder. It was a young, pretty-looking couple, and I must have looked like an obvious American idiot, because they said, in English, “Do you need a ticket? We have an extra one.” I half-believe they were angels. I offered to pay extra, but they sold it to me at face value, and were super happy to do it.
I walked in and grabbed a celebratory beer – I don’t even know if it was a good-tasting beer, but the best beers I’ve ever had in my life have always come in moments of victory. Five minutes later, Chris took the stage, and he opened with “Sunshower.” “Sunshower” was basically a B-side that appeared on a pretty great soundtrack to a pretty mediocre film (Great Expectations). In 1998, I played “Sunshower” incessantly on a mix that a friend had made for me during a time I really needed to hear it. It’s a beautiful song, featuring some typical Cornell creepy poetry, but ultimately culminating in what I believe to be one of his most positive songs. “It’s all right when you’re caught in pain and you feel the rain come down / It’s all right when you find your way, then you see it disappear / It’s all right, though your garden’s gray, I know all your graces someday will flower in a sweet sunshower.”
That song helped me through a mini-bout of depression, and I thought chances were slim he would even play it. But then he opened with it, and I just started crying. It was one of the most transcendent live music experiences of my life, and when people question why I believe in a higher power, this is one of my go-to stories.
The setlist hit some similarly high notes, his acoustic renditions of “Seasons,” “Just Like Suicide,” and “Sweet Euphoria” chief among them. But as the show reached its conclusion, I was feeling a little anxious because he hadn’t played anything off what I think is still Chris’ crowning achievement – Temple of the Dog. At that time, both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were reticent to play anything from it, even refusing to play songs from it on their 1992 tour together. So I figured it was a longshot. But then he played it – the record’s last song – “All Night Thing” – one of the loveliest, most romantic songs ever committed to record, and probably my favorite song that Chris wrote. It was the perfect bookend. Pompeii, Schpompeii!
These are the memories I cling to as I digest the news that Chris has joined Layne, Kurt and Scott on a sad list of unfortunate too-early casualties from that specific time period. I saw Chris perform three more times after that – once with Audioslave and two times solo. Those shows were enjoyable in their own ways, but nothing exceptional. The last time I saw him play was 10 years ago. I skipped the last several Soundgarden shows in Austin, telling myself they were too expensive. I never bought the third Audioslave record or King Animal. I never listened to Higher Truth.
I just wasn’t… feeling it. Was it that my tastes changed? Or maybe it was just getting past being an angst-y teen and then an aimless 20-something. I have a family. I’m happy. I’m not alone. I don’t know how to explain it, but I do know this: I feel regret, like I lost touch with an old friend for no good reason. Knowing that he – a stranger who played a huge part in keeping me afloat during my own times of trouble – felt like he didn’t have anyone there to do the same for him – it fills me with great sadness.
Today, I’m sending all my thanks and praise out into the ether, hoping Chris can hear me, and all of us, hoping that he no longer feels so alone.