The passing of Chris Cornell (RW67)

John was up late watching Soundgarden videos until 4:30am the day before recording Episode 67 or Roadwork, because Chris Cornell had died in the middle of the night on Wednesday, May 17th of 2017.

It was one of these terrible moments when all of a sudden all of his Grunge friends on Facebook were posting threads just saying "Oh no" and there would be 50 comments "I can't believe it!", "No", "Sad face". John realized somebody had died and wished someone would tell him whom they were talking about! Even Jonathan Poneman, the owner of Sub-Pop records who is pretty sparing on Facebook posted something similar, which was an indication for John that it must be somebody from their scene. Then somebody said "Chris was so young" and John got even more confused, but with that as his clue he was able to figure it out. News outlets from Britain, like The Guardian and The Telegraph were first on the scene. After that he watched it unfold and started getting texts from friends.

Chris had never been one of those bad drug people and he was not on drugs at the time. He was more like a dad person of the Seattle scene and felt like the responsible one. He was married to Susan Silver, the manager of Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. Chris was smart, but not sarcastic and snide as Kurt Cobain always was. There was a moment in time when Kurt could have become a political figure. Enough people were listening to him and he could have had a profound effect, but instead he was fighting with Eddie Vedder and with Axl Rose and his attitude never evolved beyond "Corporate Rock music sucks!" Cornell was never bratty that way. Instead, he always felt grown up.

John's relationship with Chris

John didn't know Chris personally, but he was right there all of the time. John counts many people as friends who were part of that big musical moment when he was about 22 and Chris was 26, but the guys he never knew were Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Chris Cornell and Mark Lanegan. He knows the bass players and drummers of all those bands, like he is friends with Barrett Martin of Skin Yard, Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, Duff McKagan of Guns'n'Roses, but never knew the front men. There was just that little generation gap. Still, John has a strong feeling about Chris Cornell, because he was like a tribal elder around the Seattle scene. You pick a side, you pick the people you admire and John admired all those people. Layne Staley of Alice in Chains was the one that was the most distant from him in terms of having any sort of picture or knowledge of him. He felt far away somehow. Their song Man in the box was the first tune coming from Seattle that sounded like a radio hit and that happened right about when John moved to town. Soundgarden had always been the center. Nirvana was from Aberdeen. They came out of Olympia, but they got lumped in because it was a regional scene and they moved to Seattle later. Soundgarden on the other hand was Seattle all the way. Chris was a huge influence on John and it is just shocking when somebody like that dies because John had to evaluate and confront the fact that he wasn't ready for Chris do die. John is a guy in his 40:s and so are all his friends. Where does one put those feelings? John didn't know him! Chris was not close to him enough that he would call his friends and share, but in fact that's what's happening. They are all reaching out to each other and sharing. So weird!

John was at Soundgarden's LP release party for Badmotorfinger, their 3rd record that catapulted them to mainstream fame. They played two nights, once at the Off Ramp Cafe, once at the Rock Candy. Both had a capacity of 400-500 people, but that was the time when the clubs in Seattle flouted the fire department. Those who had a capacity of 500 people let 800 people in and it was like a total human pig pile, but nobody cared because it felt amazing. You are in this space and get completely crushed, people are climbing up the walls to see the band. Those shows were incredible, like stadium rock shows, but inside this little club.

Early Soundgarden music videos and the difficulty to define the new grunge style

John wanted to hear Burden in My Hand and the easiest way to do so was to watch the video. Soundgarden was the first grunge band in Seattle to sign to a major label. Even before grunge had a visual identity Soundgarden was already on their way. They were the pioneers and nobody knew how to package them, so their early music videos showed Chris with his shirt off and some chains, fire in the background, Chris screaming madly, throwing dirt. Ben Shepherd is looking weird and punk and scary. The whole band was a little bit like Cheap Trick: Cheap Trick had two guys who were really handsome and projected handsomeness in all their fashion choices. They looked like they could be in Aerosmith. The other two guys looked like they were not in a band at all! Bun E Carlos looked super-cool to John, but looks more like an aircraft controller in 1977 with his little round glasses on and his cigarettes going. Soundgarden was the same way: Matt Cameron and Chris Cornell were really attractive guys with cool Rock 'n' Roll hair and they looked like cool Rock people, while Ben Shepherd was a guy from Kitsap County who looked like he was trying to get into the Navy, but the Navy wouldn't take him, because he already had a criminal record, so somehow he ended up playing the bass in this huge band. He could just as easily ended up as a mechanic in the Washington State Ferry system.

Kim Thayil is one of the first Indian Rockstars that John can think of. He seemed really exotic as the only guy who had a full beard in Rock'n' Roll and so did Chris with his little van Dyke beard. The original bassplayer of Soundgarden was Hiro Yamamoto and there weren't a lot of Japanese Rock people either at that time. All in all, Soundgarden were very exotic looking, and in these early videos you can't tell if they are Metal or what else? Those videos are terrible representations of the band. A video for Nine Inch Nails showing monkeys being electrocuted makes sense. Future, scary, dark, and sketchy. But Soundgarden? What is that music? It is kind of Zeppeliny, but feels very modern. It certainly does not feel like whips and chains! In a later video they were at a mental institution, but they were not crazy either. One wishes you could go back to the start and allow Soundgarden to establish themselves within the context of that grunge look that came later. Not just the Pearl Jamy boots and flannel, but videos with themes and stories, because Chris' songs had stories!


John was following the story as the news broke that his death was a suicide. What? Drug overdose? Well, nobody expected Prince to overdose either, but still! Frankly, Chris was looking a little ragged lately. You never know who slipped and did it wrong just one time, but it didn't seem in character! A lot of the people John was talking to suggested it must have been a massive heart attack, that he had just played a big Soundgarden set, went back and had some general heart thing. That seemed the logical explanation! But then it came out that they had found him in the bathroom and there was something around his neck. He had never advertised that he was depressed. He had his eyes open and he was cynical about the world, but he was not coming from a place that life is unbearable. A couple of suicides were fairly close to John in recent years and he himself struggled with depression throughout his adult life. Stories like that are really devastating to him and feel like a kick in the stomach. If you are depressive, you really do think it is going to get better, at least John thought that. It was going to moderate at some point, it couldn't possibly get worse! Maybe just a little bit, enough that he would grow out of it. Losing people to suicide where it got worse and worse and it never got better doesn't fit into that scenario. John had repeatedly talked about Robin Williams. Whatever that day was, it was certainly not his worst day! He had so many worse days than that day, it was just that day he couldn't take it anymore. It didn't seem like he'd planned it, but he was probably thinking about it for a long time. About a year after that, John lost somebody close to him in the same way: After all of this? After everything we have done? After all those years, it is now? 46 years old? But you just run out of steam!

Even though John didn't know Chris Cornell and he doesn't know Kim Thayil either, he has been around them, he has friends who know these guys and you do get an impression even of people you don't know very well. He was just like "What the fuck? Was there some secret drag, some monkey that's been on Chris that he never revealed?" It seems even more tragic if you think of it in terms of his aloneness, but this morning the story gets weirder as his wife says he has no history of depression, he was not depressed, she had talked to him that day, he is not a depressed person at all. But Chris didn't reply to her early in the morning after the show, so she called a friend to kick down the door, she called hotel security and they went into the room. If your husband doesn't reply immediately at 02:00 in the morning after a massive show in Detroit, do you really send a friend to kick down the door? John doesn't know the ins and outs of their relationship, but that seems a little severe, a bit of an oversized reaction, if you really have no feeling that the person is at risk. Chris was done playing the show presumably pretty damn late and John was already aware of his death at 3:00am in the morning, so there wasn't a lot of time in there for all that to go down. He went back to his hotel after the show, his door is getting kicked down, he is already dead and it is in the news within the space of just a few hours.

Is this maybe a Michael Hutchence situation? That seems weird, too! It had been the first time we had even heard about the technique and it was the subject of some fascination. David Carradine from Kung Fu had done the same thing: Auto-erotic asphyxiation. Chris always felt like an adult, and although that is an adult thing to do, it would be taking things to the edge. Chris had two kids, loved his wife and was out headlining a big tour. When Chris went off the show, he surely didn't need to lug around gear. Soundgarden used to play at The Ditto tavern in Seattle where the audience is standing on the same slippery beer-soaked tile floor as you are, and you are just screaming into a guitar amp. Soundgarden had the Rock'n'Roll start as low as anybody, but for over 2 decades Chris Cornell has walked off the bus immediately onto the stage where everything is ready, the audience is already there, he does his show, says "Thank you, good night!", walks off the stage, down a flight of stairs, people are running after him with towels and water and he walks immediately back on the bus on his way to somewhere. John can't even imagine in the context for himself to be on tour, as he hasn't been a stadium rock musician since he was 25. When you are in a small rock band, 80% of the work would qualify you as a teamster. You have to load up all the gear after the show and you come home in the middle of the night. John doesn't know how the isolation feels like when you go to some enormous hotel, some great suite, and you are just wandering around your hotel room while your wife and kids are somewhere else and you are just FaceTiming with them - for decades! Maybe he is tying a belt around the bathroom door because that contextualizes his experience somehow and it focuses him. You don't expect those things! It is confusing! It is not confusing when you are 23 and somebody ODs because they flew a little too close to the sun. It is a tragedy to lose somebody for such a stupid thing. (RW67)

Suicide is an epidemic among men between the ages of 45 and 70. More middle aged and elderly men commit suicide than any other group by far. There is that feeling of isolation, loneliness, irrelevance and feeling lost. Middle aged men typically do not show their feelings and die alone, over and over, all the time. Gun shot wounds, hanging themselves, and - at least in John's world - also the ones that have struggled mightily with drugs and alcohol. A lot of them are sober, which Chris Cornell nominally was, but a doctor prescribed him some anxiety medication and he started to abuse it because he was a drug abuser. A lot of them have struggled with the combination of being depressed and being an artist. Being middle aged and collosally depressed is very familiar both to John and a lot of people he knows. Colossally depressed middle aged drug addict artist: this group is highly vulnerable to the type of "What happened? We thought he was doing great!" No one will ever know! Profound unchecked depressino combined with an overdose of downers, combined with the loneliness of a hotel room on the road. How far will you have to plumet to not have been planning suicide for a long time, but to spontaneously decide that you need to end it all right now. He put the chain on the door, went into the bathroom and put a chain on that door, because he knew people would be trying to get to him and he wanted to kill himself as fast as he could. What could possibly be going on in his mind? (RW68)

The Temple of the Dog (RW68)

Chris Cornell was room mate with Andrew Wood, the singer of Mother Love Bone. At the time, the unifying characteristic of the Seattle scene that Grunge would later become was still missing and every band was completely different from every other band. Mother Love Bone could be classified as glam metal and was much more consistent with the sound of Poison or Warrant that could be heard on the radio at the time, although at least Andre Wood was way more fun and rye. Everybody expected them to become the biggest band in Seattle, but then Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose at a very young age. Chris and Andrew were very close and in his grief Chris wrote a bunch of tributes, recorded them onto an album with the remaining members of Mother Love Bone who by then had formed a new band called Pearl Jam together with singer Eddie Vedder who nobody in Seattle had ever heard of and who got a featured role on the tribute album. The band and the album was called Temple of the Dog. In December of 2016, Temple of the Dog did a couple of reunion shows for their 25th anniversary. They had only played live once back in the day.

It is necessary, it is vital that we talk about it and discuss it and speculate on it. John found it interesting to think that those shows could have been a contributing factor to Chris Cornell's suicide. Maybe Chris hadn't fully processed Andrew's death. Maybe it dislodged something and contributed to his preexisting depression. Maybe it triggered an avalange of burried feelings and by talking about it he is reminding himself. It might have been the 20th anniversary of an old record or the 20th anniversary of Mia Zapata's death - all this stuff can sneak up on you and you realize that you didn't deal with it at the time, because you were on drugs then. You didn't face the death of your friend or something awful that happend to you, because you were so high. John hasn't been high in a long time, but that doesn't mean he went back and went down in the blood and guts of those old ugly things.

Closing Thoughts

In the last couple of years, John lost a number of friends in their middle ages. Three people who played in The Long Winters died. One was a total shock and surprise, but two of them had terminal illnesses. That is awful and weird! The reaper comes along and takes a group of people in their early 40s or 50s. From here on out it is just going to continue like that and John just hopes he is not one of them. After all, he does have high blood pressure and doesn't get enough exercise. People will find him dead and say: "He just ate one extra slice of cake that day and that was the slice of cake that killed him. He died in his bath tub with half a slice of cake on his bath desk and a half finished Sudoku book." If that happens, then at least it wasn't suicide. Or maybe it was just a two decade long suicide.

The bassline of Burden in my Hand (RL249)

John was listening to Burden in My Hand which has this fenomenal feeling in the bass part of the chorus and pre-chorus that he wanted to figure out for years. When you listen to the entire track, you can't quite pick out exactly what the bass is doing, but it sounds like a super-grunge bass. There is a lot of guitar and Soundgardeny polyrythms going on. The other day John thought there must be something on the Internet about this, so he googled "Soloed bassline burden in my hand" and it was there. It is really hard to understand what is happening, because it doesn't sound well-played or well thought-out, but it sounds like Ben Shepherd threw a bass down a flight of stairs. There are a bunch of comments under the video saying that sloppiness is part of his brilliance, others call it an amateur garbage performance. Somebody said that you need to listen to it in context. There is even a video with the bass in the right channel and the band in the left channel. John thinks he understands what Ben is doing, but he is surprised he didn't take another take, trying to make it a little better. This record has been recorded at Bad Animals Studio, it must have cost $1500 a day to make this major, professional rock album, so the bassline has to be intentional.

When you listen to the track, it not only works, but it works amazingly well! Still, there is nothing about the part that would suggest it. There are Hammer-ons, fret noise, klanks and clonks. It is not a clean take and John has really been chewing on that bass part for the last two weeks. At least within the Soundgarden style the song is a high water mark and yet John as a recordist and a person who is making rock albums cannot picture himself in the studio as the engineer listening to that bass take and say "Great! Print it!", which is another piece of evidence that John must be missing something. This is what you do in the studio: You solo your parts and listen to them many times before you even hear what the whole arrangement sounds like. Often you listen to the bass with the drums, but even if it was working together with the drums, John cannot imagine that when they soloed it and they heard all the noise and chaos, the people who are getting paid big dollars to do this had the cleverness to say that that is done, because they would try to justify their enormous salaries by suggesting to do it 50 times until he gets it right. Somewhere in the chain, either Ben Shepherd said that it was perfect and he will not do it again, which either requires tremendous confidence or tremendous fuck-you-itude, or the producer heard it and said he wouldn't change a thing, which would be crazy smart. Maybe Chris Cornell said: "Nope, that's our sound!" Somebody must have made a stance for that bass line!

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