Lost Howls of Youth

Now it seems like too much love is never enough/You better seek out another road/’Cuz this one has ended abrupt — Temple of the Dog, “Say Hello 2 Heaven”

I woke this morning to a text from an old friend that Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell had died. A short while later I saw another friend had tagged me in a post on Facebook: it occurred after Soundgarden’s apparently triumphant return to Detroit last night, and the early speculation is suicide. He was 52.

I don’t generally go in for the extended mourning of celebrities. They are just folk, like we are: pray for their souls, and for peace and consolation for their families. Then again, sometimes a song, an image, a voice is so tied to a particular period in one’s life that there is no escaping the impact. Chris Cornell’s voice was the howl of my youth — the closest thing to a rebel yell I ever sounded in my relatively serious and square teens and twenties. His bands — especially Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog — were a part of me in my younger days.

I always enjoyed a diversity of music. I heard classic country at home, eighties pop and glam rock on the airwaves, and got an introduction to metal from my sister’s high-school sweetheart. In my own high-school days, a friend introduced me to the band Living Colour, which was my favorite band when I headed to Yale in the early 1990s. Grunge was beginning to emerge in my neck of the rural Michigan woods: the opening riff and drum fill of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” could set a room of teens to pogoing in seconds, and Pearl Jam was seeping into the radio playlists. But in Durfee Hall, I heard Soundgarden’s album Badmotorfinger for the first time and was hooked.

Soundgarden’s music was unlike anything I’d heard before: deep, sludgy, and dark; brash and thrashing, like a mastodon in a prehistoric tar pit. Cornell’s voice could be low and soulful, brooding and angry, blue and weary — and man, could he wail. The music wasn’t typical — I didn’t think at all at the time about odd keys, time signatures, and rhythms, or a general lack of conventional guitar solos. I just knew that for me, it was interesting. In a good way.

And since I enjoy word-play, I always enjoyed Cornell’s lyrics, which were witty enough to be taken almost seriously, if they weren’t so abstract:

Every word I said is what I mean/Every word I said is what I mean/Everything I gave is what I need/Virgin eyes and dirty looks/On what I have and why I took/Counting all the hands I shook — Soundgarden, “Slaves and Bulldozers

I recall an interview I read in which he admitted to messing with people who looked too deeply for meaning in his songs, giving different and sometimes conflicting interpretations to his odd lyrics. And a video clip in which his sarcastic humor shines through as he explains just what Soundgarden is while his bandmates try not to crack up:

“Soundgarden is a state of mind. Soundgarden is a frame in time. …Soundgarden is a tear from an eye — dreaming.”

Soundgarden (and Badmotorfinger in particular) was the soundtrack to my college years, the go-to late-night rock when assembling the newspaper late at night at the Pioneer (sorry, Suz), the dark cosmic heartbeat that lulled our eldest to sleep when he was a baby, and the music that has tested every stereo system (home or car) that I’ve ever  purchased. It is also, unfortunately, the reason I purchased my first stereo system bigger than a boombox as a college junior, and used a credit card for a non-emergency purpose. Soundgarden shook the dorm-room walls in those days, and I purchased rarities, bootlegs, whatever I could get me hands on. That’s the sort of influence, for better and worse, Cornell and Soundgarden had on my younger self.

They were that band for me.

I don’t listen to that sort of thing as much as I used to, but my sons still do. I never saw Soundgarden live, though I did see Cornell in Detroit when he was touring to support his solo album Euphoria Morning. Bren and I talked about trying to get tickets this time around. I guess we missed the opportunity.

I don’t remember half the time/if I’m hiding or I’m lost/but I’m on my way — Soundgarden, “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”

I didn’t know him, but I’ll miss him. Prayers up for Chris Cornell, his family and friends—may God grant them all peace and consolation.

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