Friday, May 19, 2017

Chris Cornell, The Start of Everything

Another guest blog, this time by our friend, Tuolumne.

"Consider yourselves our greatest influence," said Kurt Cobain to Kim Thayil. Yes, this once happened. As mentioned in the book "Grunge is Dead", an oral history by Greg Prato, Kurt Cobain bluntly said this the first time he met Kim Thayil at some house party, when Nirvana was first breaking into the Subpop-centered social scene in Seattle. I read this only maybe 6-7 or so years ago. Like most people my age, I was led to believe that it was Nirvana and the Green River spawning of Mother Love Bone/Pearl Jam and Mudhoney that was fully responsible for “Grunge” and the “Seattle Sound”. I was led incorrectly. 

What really happened was that Nirvana was trucking it into Seattle often around 1987 or so, and they were just getting to know the town and scene, since they were from Aberdeen, another town altogether. It was not long after this that Chris Cornell could be seen around town wearing Nirvana t-shirts, championing the band. This was before Cobain became self-conscious about who to mention when naming his references. Later, when perception, competitiveness, and insecurity started settling into the scene, Cobain would mention his more pure-punk influences, like Scratch Acid and Meat Puppets, and not mention Soundgarden. But Soundgarden, and their innovative and boundary-stretching sound, is what set the course of the entire Seattle Scene. I know this now, and I feel like most people don’t realize this. If anything comes out of what feels like a completely senseless death, I hope it’s atleast this. Those dirgy sounds that mixed 70s classic rock with punk, that was made in some out-of-the-way oasis in the Pacific Northwest, that sounded like it could only come from there, and specifically in Seattle, had to incubate somewhere. They incubated in the mind and soul of Chris Cornell, The Seattleite. 

Now, as a new alt-rock fan, and a 16 year old one at that, I certainly knew none of this. It was Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and then Soundgarden and then Alice In Chains. It took a little digging, and I finally got there (no thanks to the music press), but I finally got to the bottom of it. Soundgarden started everything. And the whole aesthetic was led by Chris Cornell. Reading oral histories and biographies told me this, but really, if you just listen to the bands in the scene, with more seasoned ears and in sequence by the year they came out, it was Soundgarden that drove everything. They, along with Mudhoney, were the building blocks of Subpop. Soundgarden, and Soundgarden only, led this scene into major label territory before everyone else followed.

Chris Cornell was a pure Seattleite. He grew up, as he has been known to say, "in the most stereotypical Seattle neighborhood". That "sound" and attitude so deeply associated with Generation X and rain and isolation and disenfranchisement *had* to have come from somewhere and someone. Somebody who was lonely and a little depressive, but understood the power of wailing over titanic riffs. It was Chris, and the rest if history.

Now, let’s get back to Pearl Jam. Imagine an alternate reality, one where the Seattle scene was about competition and turf wars. I think we’ve heard the story about Pearl Jam’s first Off Ramp gig. How Eddie was nervous and shy about how he was going to be received. About how he and Chris Cornell stood under a black light, and Chris welcomed him into the scene, while Ed is thinking he looked like the devil under those lights. Now, imagine an alternate version, one where Chris is so mad that Andy Wood left the world, and that a new guy was now fronting this band. He could have seethed, been put off, just been nice on the surface but never really supportive. Credibility meant a lot in those days. He could have mouthed off to everyone in Seattle “nah, not the same, I wish it was Mother Love Bone”. Pearl Jam already struggled enough with cred in those days, with Cobain and Mark Arm (insecurely) at the time not exactly being their biggest boosters. Chris Cornell joining this chorus could have devastated their credibility. The band could certainly still have broken through, but it would have been without any cred. No Cobain or Arm, and no Cornell backing them, hell they might as well have been an early version of Candlebox in this cred-centric era. 

I think I only began appreciating Cornell’s support in the last few years. Maybe when he did the PJ20 thing. Soundgarden and Pearl Jam certainly fed off of each other. I can't confirm this, but I have a strong hunch that the "butterflies" line from Outshined had to have come as a result of Chris really digging Mookie Blaylock/Pearl Jam's "Even Flow". The bands are so intertwined it's actually kind of hard to separate how much they influenced each other. The rainy arena ready riffs, the somber but energized vocals that came out of Vedder, Cobain, Staley - there were certainly many many influences, and all 3 of the singers were/are artistic and singular voices in their own right - but there is a common thread that ties them together. There is something about them that outsiders of the Seattle scene (like me) identified as of a similar aesthetic, representing *our* version of what a rock singer should be. Chris Cornell was the common spark that united them. It all could have been so much different, for the worse, if Chris Cornell didn't have a generous spirit that helped sustain this group of friends and community of musicians.

Slaves and Bulldozers was a teenage bedroom anthem of mine. Rusty Cage, Room a Thousand Years Wide, Tighter and Tighter, Fell on Black Days, Call me a Dog, Say Hello to Heaven, Burden in My Hand. One of my personal favorite Chris songs is the Audioslave song Be Yourself. More recently, his music appeared to take a more positive tone with Higher Truth. He seemed in pretty good spirits from what I saw on the videos I saw online for the Temple of the Dog tour. He'd broken through all kinds of new territory over the last several years. He had more folk music in him. New instruments. A power pop record. A country record. Another electropop record (this time done right). I caught some of his interviews this past year, he seemed more positive than he has in a long time. Looking California, Feeling Minnesota indeed.