Thursday, May 18, 2017

My classic rock: Goodbye, Chris Cornell

This song was already too much, but with today's news it feels even more so. How bittersweet to find, via my colleague Alexis Sottile's remarkable new interview with Cameron Crowe, that it was inspired by an inside joke of sorts, the mythology of Singles' hapless protagonist and Citizen Dick leader Cliff Poncier.

Chris Cornell was very obviously a musical titan. An almost scarily mighty wielder-of-voice, a true rock god in an era where that concept was under attack. And a master songwriter. Superunknown is probably my favorite Soundgarden moment, with "Fell on Black Days," "The Day I Tried to Live" and all the rest. They were a gloriously loud, weird, over-the-top band, in many ways the antithesis of the sardonic reluctance that Cobain and Co. embodied. There was nothing apologetic or shrinking about Soundgarden. Cornell wailed, literally, and the band did the same. They were prog and punk and heavy metal and pop. (I can think of few hit singles that check all those boxes the way "Outshined" does.) Maximal and insane and fun, in their own brutish, caustic way.

I'm not a Cornell completist. Beyond "Seasons," I don't know the solo material well — though this a.m., I had a great time combing through his sizable backlog of covers, which play like a roadmap of his musical DNA, from Zeppelin to Whitney Houston — and as much as I adore both Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine, I can't say I really warmed to Audioslave beyond their titanic introductory single "Cochise." (I should also add that while I'm often the guy who can be found going to the mat for allegedly indefensible releases, judging by what I've heard of Scream, Cornell's infamous Timbaland collaboration, the album seems to generally deserve the scorn that's been heaped upon it.) But the Soundgarden back catalog is absolutely a part of my musical pantheon — like Cornell himself, now, those records are immortal.

It seems to me that the rock music of my youth is now generally appraised in a mocking way: all that '90s flannel and angst is often condescended to retroactively in much the same way the output and milieu of the '80s "hair" bands are. (And let's not even get started on a band like Stone Temple Pilots, a phenomenally talented group that never seemed to transcend punchline status in the eyes of the tastemakers, whose idea of taste somehow always seems so abhorrent and antithetical to my own passions and interests, especially as far as rock music is concerned.) But make no mistake: This rock was classic. Have you listened, really listened, to a song like "Would?" lately, or one like "State of Love and Trust" — I guess it's no coincidence that my go-to examples for many of these bands all appear on the Singles soundtrack, which was such a treasured object to me at a young age, maybe even my favorite multi-artist compilation of all time — or "Limo Wreck"? This was intensely high-stakes music, virtuosically composed and performed. Music that, as much as I love contemporary quasi-mainstream rock bands from Queens of the Stone Age to the Mars Volta to Mastodon, attains a grandeur and sturdiness and scope that really hasn't been heard in this medium since.

All I can say is, I'm glad I lived through it, and I'm sad to hear that Chris Cornell could not enjoy the kind of late-career contendedness that, say, his newly Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–inducted peers in Pearl Jam seem to be rightfully basking in. Whatever he was going through, I think it's fair to say he deserved better.

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