I hate the clause "the first time I saw." I don’t want to hear it, and you don’t either. When you hear that clause, ‘the first time I saw,’ you immediately know the writer is going to maunder on about something that happened a long, long time ago, and that is relevant only to him or her. Suffice to say there was a first time, and a second and a third, and many other times as well, but there will never be another, and you know exactly who I’m talking about, don’t you?
I cried when I found out, and I hardly ever cry, and especially not in public. I cried at Starbucks, for god’s sake. It wasn’t like I knew him, though at times we were in proximity. I had interviewed his band. I had ‘hung out’ with them – that is to say, we were all in the same room at the same time, not that I would ever have spoken to any of them in such situations. In any truly meaningful way, I did not know him, or them, and the band isn’t in my top ten. I easily might never have seen them live again despite the events of last Thursday.
And yet I wept. I felt – I feel - just terrible, way worse than when I heard about so many others – even Prince and David Bowie, I’m sorry to say. I felt bad about them, and I will probably miss their music more. But this felt personal. It felt generational. It felt horrible, and unexpected, and like a punch in the gut. In some weird way it felt like it had something to do with me, when rationally speaking, it doesn’t.
At first I couldn’t understand it. I have never felt this way about a celebrity death. I remember when Michael Jackson died, the woman who lived next door to me in San Francisco went into genuine morning. I saw her on the street a few days later, draped in black, and she told me she hadn’t left the house in days, she was just listening to Michael Jackson music and weeping. I thought that was a little goofy at the time, but now I sort of get it. Michael Jackson stood for something in her life, as I guess Chris Cornell does in mine. It feels like I am grieving for a person that I actually knew, but what I am really grieving for is the past. I am grieving for grunge.
I guess I hadn't really thought about how much it meant to me. But all the obits and pictures and posts I’ve read in the last few days have really driven home how much Soundgarden was the actual fountainhead of everything we felt about that scene. The photographs of Chris, flicking his sweaty hair back; frowning, keening, surfing on the bodies of boys like him…it catches at my heart right now. Seattle and everything: it had a sensibility that just jibed with my inner self, and it was one I had never felt before in popular culture. It was characterized by dry humor, long silences, a slightly askance look at the rest of the world and it’s vagaries, by which I specifically mean the Reagan 80s with its bright colors and major chords and fake sunny outlook and fucked up Patriarichical values. Grunge’s whole ethos was chilly but kind: hearing it was like breathing cold mountain air after being in a stuffy room full of awful smells. The Fluid and Mudhoney and the Afghan Whigs (my personal favorite of the bunch) all co-hesed around this sensibility, but Soundgarden were its purist distillation.
|LOLLAPALOOZA. PHOTO BY LANCE MERCER|
I didn’t always like their music – sometimes it could be turgid – but oh, the look, the sound, the feeling of it: as my friend Jenny wrote on her feed, “there is music you turn to for joy and happiness, but Soundgarden were there for those other times.” That’s so right. Those other times are more often. Those other times need their soundtrack as well. "Rusty Cage"? "Seasons"? And some of the lines cut so deep. “Looking California, feeling Minnesota.” “Dreams have never been the answer/dreams will never make my bed.” “Hands are for shaking, not tying.” It’s breaking my heart to write them now.
People often claim that grunge was overly male, but I didn’t feel that, at least not in comparison to punk and even indie rock.* I can’t explain why because those mosh pits were one big testostorone-filled tureen of flesh-addled flannel, but I’ve been in them and they didn’t feel dangerous, like others I've been in - like punk rock ones, or hardcore. Plus, the grunge scene was the first place – hell, maybe the only place -- I didn’t feel like I was being judged all the time. It was a place where you could be a total schlep, you could wear beat up boots and torn stockings; you could sport big huge shirts, and have bad hair. I remember one time I was at this party in Park City Utah, at the Sundance film festival for the premiere of “Hype,” and a bunch of us (not Soundgarden, but other Subpopsters) were sitting in this hot tub in the snow, and I just thought, 'wow, these are the only strangers in America that I would totally appear naked in front of.'
Yesterday, I was sitting on the porch of Sue’s house on a rare sunny moment, looking out at the sound. It was all dark forest green with glints of yellow sun glancing off the water below us. Faint shouts of children dragging some kayak into the water in the inlet. Mount Rainier, looming over the whole scene. Sue’s a nurse practitioner now. I’m an educator. In other words, we both have to be grownups and live in the real world now, and as we looked out at the Washington waterway – so far from our California roots, but so close, in looks and feel, to that snow-cold purity of heart that I grasped at when I first heard grunge -- we reminisced sadly about those days, and how Chris Cornell, personally, embodied that ethos, and was somehow implicated in a lot of our more golden memories. Like, one time she and I were both covering some terrible metal conference at the LA Airport Hilton and Temple of the Dog played in the loading dock. The loading dock! It was hilarious. Another time, in Spain, Soundgarden were opening for Guns N Roses, and Guns N Roses cancelled, so they came to Nirvana’s show instead. Nirvana were so fucked up at that time, backstage was the most depressing place on earth, but the advent of Soundgarden there turned it into a mini moment of Seattle, i.e. less about hopelessness, more about hope. They were dour, but not sour. Being near Soundgarden that night made being an American in Spain feel like a good thing, not a bad one, and there's not many things you can say that about.
Of course, that was all a long time ago, and as several people have pointed out, the past is a different country, and besides the wench is dead. Only occasionally, now that I live in Washington State, it all comes back to me, just how different Seattle seemed from the rest of America at the time. Now, maybe less so, but that is the case only because these guys were successful, and because the world didn’t bow them down.
Only it turns out, maybe it did, and that is what feels so unbearable. If only there were a word I could write here that indicated a single, long, shuddering sigh. Well, since they’re isn’t, please consider it sighed.
|When we were very young. Photo by Lance Mercer|
On social media, you can write your own obituaries. Instead of the bare facts of the deceased person’s life – born July 20th, 1964, died May 17th, 2016 – you can insert yourself in the narrative. That might sound selfish. But isn’t it important to know how much a person’s contributions to the world, meant to individuals like me? Sure, I didn’t know him. But in some profound way, Chris Cornell’s death is affecting me as if I did. Many years ago, Lester Bangs once wrote an obituary for Elvis Presley which he began by saying Elvis gave him “an erection of the heart.” The same can be said about Chris. To those who were older than grunge, andto many who were younger, this may not make much sense, but to all of us who hailed each other in that allegorical loading dock of the early 90s, it must truly be said: We will never agree on anything as we agreed on Chris Cornell. So I won’t bother saying goodbye to him. I will say goodbye to you.*
Super thanks to Lance Mercer for allowing me to use these awesome photos. And for being an awesome person to cover the grunge scene with all those years ago. Not saying goodbye to you yet, my friend.
*You could say it was overly white, but honestly, now that I am living in Washington State, I don’t see how it couldn’t be. My daughter’s high school is 2.8% African American – and that’s probably more than many places in the state.
*apologies to Mr. Bangs, linked source.