Article by: Anthony Florez
The word ‘grunge’ is being bandied about a lot today and it’s not a description I am particularly fond of. It is the popularly accepted description of an era of rock that originated in the early nineties, primarily in the Seattle music scene, and encompasses everything from Mudhoney to Nirvana to Alice In Chains to Pearl Jam and all the simulacra that followed — that I don’t dispute. But it is also a filthy and ugly descriptor for something that is, to me, the furthest thing from. What started out as a sort of thinly veiled critique of the movement for its garage band aesthetic, crunchy guitar riffs, and signature unrefined howling vocals, became the accepted nomenclature. Popular culture as a whole seemed to turn their noses up at the genre and although many of the bands that started the sound continued to enjoy commercial success, a lot of the feel of those original albums, the unrestrained enthusiasm of Badmotorfinger, Jar of Flies, 10, et al was never really resurrected. The thing about that particular incarnation of rock music was that while it was certainly masculine and loud and sexy, it was also incredibly intimate and vulnerable. There was nothing self-conscious about it. These were hairy, sweaty, badly dressed men singing about incredibly personal things, pouring their souls on to the page — it was art. And while they each had their qualities and unique approaches to the art form, one of the most prolific, oft-imitated, and undeniably gifted of the bunch was Chris Cornell.
This was my introduction to Soundgarden. I remember it vividly being a late-comer to music in general (I was more of a bookworm as a kid). But every so often I’d sit up late at night and watch MTV with the volume down low and stare in awe at these incredibly cool and weird people. And when Chris’ pipes come in at the beginning of this song I was instantly hypnotized by not just the voice, but the lyrics, the imagery. All I knew at that point was that this was music that immediately told you what it was about. This shit was artsy. It was evocative and beautiful and sad and strange. It made you sit back and wonder what was going on in Cornell’s mind when he wrote it and how you could relate to it, like a good book can draw you in. From this point I was already being pulled towards a darker brand of music, even if I didn’t understand or relate to (big air-quotes here) “rocking out” or “partying hard.” I related to introspection and depression and, being a reasonably average teenager, unfocused rage and frustration with the world. And guys like Cornell, Vedder, and Cobain had taken those feelings and made them into something beautiful and powerful.
I wasn’t deeply affected by news of Chris Cornell’s passing (it looks like suicide, NPR confirming via Wayne County Medical Examiner), at least not right away. From what I’ve read in news articles and anecdotal comments on Reddit he was by all accounts an incredibly sweet and humble man, which just adds insult to injury. But then I jumped on the old YouTubes with the intention of trying to meditate for a few minutes with one of my favorite songs from the man. And then when that was over, I saw another song I loved. And then another. And now I’ve been listening to Soundgarden, Audioslave, and his acoustic work for about three hours. Chris Cornell is an artist that I’d personally taken for granted and I’m marinating in that feeling at this very moment. I’ve lost track of how many times I’d heard his work and thought, well that was profoundly human and hauntingly pretty and then went about my day. And I think one of the things that contributed to that feeling (not to blame Chris) was how easy he made it all seem. That’s a quality of the greats, be it sports, writing, or music, or any other skill or talent — if you watch any of his live performances from bootleg to acoustic sets he’s flawless in every single one of them. The man was as gifted as it gets and when someone is that good they begin to feel like what no one else really is: a force of nature, almost immortal.
So that word ‘grunge’ again. Do you hear this man’s voice and think of that word? Or anything like it? Because I don’t. I think of a quote I read somewhere that said something to the effect that math is how we study and try to understand the universe, and music is how we celebrate it. And that’s a little hokey but that’s what I hear in Chris Cornell’s voice. I hear dignity and courage and beauty and fear and pain and hope … everything I wish I knew how to shout into this seemingly indifferent dark world we spin around in every day with as much grace and talent as this amazingly talented human being had. And I hear it every time. What about you? What do you hear?