Thursday, May 18, 2017

Fell on Black Days Indeed...

3:20 AM Thursday, May 18, 2017: I wake up sweating as the last of this damnable sickness that has stopped up K and my lives for the last week or so eeks its way from my pores. Unsure if it's near my alarm time I check my phone and see a message from Seth. I click it and read:

I find it hard to fall asleep again after this but eventually I do. This isn't world shattering like Bowie, but it's deeply terrible. And despite the sleep interruption I'm glad this is how I find out; just like when my friend Tori messaged me "David Bowie Died" early in the morning almost a year and a half ago now, seeing news of this magnitude while my brain is still halfway stuck in The Dreaming is a shock that helps cement the event as historical, i.e. I'll always remember where I was. All that said, the way in which I process this news is far more complex than I would have anticipated.

During their initial run Soundgarden was one of my favorite bands. This favor carried on well after their dissolution and although the feelings aren't quite as strong these days I wouldn't say they've waned so much as learned to share. They were one of four bands that Jake - my best friend in my late teens/early twenties - and I shared passionate attachment to the way late teens/early twenties friends often do. And there were layers to our love of these bands, Soundgarden in particular as it wasn't just Cornell as a frontman. They - along with these other bands* - were of the few where I learned to see how ever member of a group could bring something to the table to help construct such a staggering whole (for an example of this play the album version of Fourth of July really loud or on headphones). But Chris Cornell's voice - it defied description. I always 'got' why some people hated it, the sometimes grating, shrill ferocity of his attack. I loved it. Jesus Christ Pose remains a favorite and it's not annoyance I feel when Cornell hits those blistering high notes, it's a sense of joy as reality shreds around me.

I loved Badmotorfinger from the jump, managed to scoop it up in the original, limited release as a double disc with SOMMS, the re-release of which I was thrilled to pick up on vinyl during last November's Record Store Day. Their cover of Sabbath's Into the Void was arguably what also kickstarted my love of Sabbath, and as Jake and I fell into both bands we had a theory between us that SG was somehow the reincarnation of Sabbath in its perfect, original era. Sure other bands imitated the progenitors of metal, but SG didn't. They were of like-minds, the influence not so much blatant as inferred. And there were moments when Kim Thayil seemed to bleed Sabbath Volume 4 and Master of Reality through the pores on his fingertips...

I was a bit hesitant on Super Unknown at first. I still don't really care too much for Spoon Man, and Black Hole Sun took me years for me to come around to recognizing it for the odd, unsettling single that it is. But for years after its release I avoided the album; at the time I was young and probably just upset that all the jocks were suddenly into the same obscure band that I was. Ah youth and it's folly. Jake turned me around though, and he did so by drilling the rest of the album into my head, specifically Mailman, Limo Wreck, Fourth of July, Fresh Tendrils and Like Suicide. From there I really fell into the songs and production on Super Unknown hard; it was the first record I wanted to grab off my shelf this morning when I heard the news and goddamn the one of two people who stole it from me - it was Jake's copy that he gave to me shortly before he died on September 22nd, 1998. I've been hesitant to rebuy it since; Tommy wrote an excellent piece on the record last year for a Joup Friday Album and that almost sent it to my amazon cart but I hesitated, as if there was any chance in hell I'd be able to drive out to Joshua Tree and find my copy in a thrift store, where it most likely ended up after all the dust settled. Ravenous for it this morning I arrived at work and begrudgingly bought it from the iTunes store, 15 tracks of ones and zeros instead of a beautiful tactile fossil I'd touched and played and, honestly, snorted coke off of once or twice. Memories...

When Down on the Upside came out Jake and I had already been anticipating it for some time. He bought it first, on cassette, and I remember we smoked up and put it on and had a weird, 'umm, huh.' reaction to it. This nonplussed, sinking feeling lasted for a week or two, mostly because that first listen freaked us out so much we avoided the record. Then Jake took it on a fishing trip with his estranged father and returned a weekend later exclaiming its brilliance. He'd spent each night of the trip digesting the album through his headphones. This was the first time I figured out that sometimes you had to work for something great; sometimes passive listening lead to breakthroughs and sometimes it's one song that is the key to opening the rest of an album, like a flower. Again we smoked and sat down and he started the album at the beginning of the second side, with Apple Bite transitioning directly into the cyberpunk insanity of Never the Machine Forever. And from there I got it. I consumed the second side of Down on the Upside repeatedly and that eventually opened the first, more polished and 'accessible' side. For years it was my favorite SG album, might still be. Jake had a thing about lyrics; he would often latch onto the most bizarre and literary, or read interpretations into phrases that I would never have seen. Down's penultimate track, An Unkind has one I still think about on a regular basis.

"We lack the Moses, to look a Saint in the eyes." 

And then Soundgarden broke up. I tried to like Chris Cornell's post-SG work but I just could not get into most of it. I loved "Seasons", his solo track on the Singles Soundtrack, but each of his subsequent three solo albums left me cold, as did his work in audioslave. That one's definitely not his fault; I'm not a RATM fan and the idea that those three meatheads basically just did exactly what they did with Dela Rocha at the helm behind a voice as amazing as Chris Cornell's... fucking travesty mate. The track used in Michael Mann's brilliant film Collateral is an exception, but otherwise I can't turn to any of this stuff to celebrate Cornell's life now because in my opinion it is indicative of the terribly sad fact that as an artist Cornell always seemed to shoot himself in the foot. A tragedy when he was as talented as he was and when he had already had such a great vehicle for that talent in his life. Soundgarden's break-up felt like they were frustrated and upset with their fans, with the industry and with themselves. They didn't see the forest for the trees. I once read Cornell refer to them as "Just a metal band" in a way that suggested it was Soundgarden holding him back. I've never understood that - from a fan's perspective they had continually evolved over the course of their career. That was what that whole A side of Down on the Upside was about, an evolution from a Sabbath to a Zeppelin, while the B side was darker and stranger than almost anything they'd done before (except maybe No Wrong No Right or 665). They could have done and been anything, could have made whatever music they wanted as they continued to evolve. But they felt expectations held them back. Maybe they were right; were their album sales tanking? Was A & M unhappy and manipulating them? As a band they were big enough that it didn't matter, they could have been the first Zeppelin of the new age of post-industry. Instead they all kind of disappeared and Cornell went on to search for himself publicly - NEVER a good thing. By the time that Timbaland produced monstrosity hit the shelves I was done. My ex-wife loved that record, but within an instant of hearing it my only reaction was, "Well, if this fails we'll have a Soundgarden reunion in short order."

And we did. And they gave us King Animal, which is okay, but in my opinion not worthy of their legacy. Who knows, maybe I just haven't given it the time to 'blossom' like I did with Down, but I don't think so. And their exorbitant pricing of live shows since reuniting has driven a 'Fuck You' wedge between the band and I so that I don't really want to give it a chance and I never got to see them live and honestly, do not regret NOT remedying that with the reunion at all.

All that said, here's footage of their last song, the last song of Cornell's life, last night at the Fox Theater in Detroit, MI. When I heard it was Zeppelin's In My Time of Dying I got chills.

Finally, whatever the reason for his death, this was the song that I wanted to hear immediately upon learning of Chris Cornell's death. May he rest in peace and know that he changed many, many peoples lives with his music. He certainly changed mine and Jake's.


* The others were Ozzy-era Sabbath, Type O Negative and Cypress Hill.

1 comment:

Tommy said...

Well written Shawn.