May 18, 2017

Break That Cage, Chris

by Robert Dean

I remember the summer of 1994. I was 13. I was stuck in an emotional paradox of figuring myself out in this kaleidoscope of so many feelings, and so much going on internally. My grandmother had passed away and coupled with the death of Kurt Cobain. My world was on its goddamned head.

My grandmother had passed away from ovarian cancer at 54, and because we were so close, the loss shook the foundation of my being. Losing Kurt Cobain was my 9/11 – my favorite singer was gone, and it made the death of my grammie feel that much more real. To this day, I compound the two as the same loss, and both of their memories are inter-connected. Everything I saw, felt, and experienced was internalized, processed through a childhood rage that didn’t manifest in ways that were destructive, but bled out through what I consumed.

I’d already been a kid into rock and roll, metal, grunge, punk – but, because no other music captured that spirit, the tangibility for emotion, there was no going back. The sound of a guitar cranked to the ceiling with booming drums and a singer wailing their hearts out became the lynchpin to how my emotional process.

At 35, losing Chris Cornell hurts because he’s a mile-marker for that time, for my generation. We had front row seats to his rise. We watched the band become a part of the lexicon. Losing some of the other incredible artists of our lives hurts in their own, signature ways. We process death with a sense of ownership in relationship to our lives and personal experience with that person. Soundgarden’s music was a part of my childhood and remains a part of my culpability as a growing human. There’s poetry in those phrases – they stick with you, they imprint the bones with an aloof suffering. It’s not on purpose. It’s just symptomatic of the generation. There’s always a little tinge of suffering for the Gen – X that’s inescapable, no matter how happy someone may be.

Losing Chris Cornell feels odd. We didn’t expect his death. Losing Layne from Alice in Chains or Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots was sadly not surprising. We wanted them to get better, to regain their forms as idols and icons. But, that would never come to pass.

We mourn him because he was someone we were excited was back with Soundgarden, keeping the flame of rock and roll alive. Despite being elder statesmen in the game, they’re a meat and potatoes band that everyone can carry in their pocket as uniquely “theirs.” Losing Cornell is another showcase of mortality, but also that when our icons die, the feeling like you lost a page of your personal narrative is just too real. For a lot of us, we include the songs we love as psychological footnotes in our greater story. Soundgarden carries that weight for me.

Soundgarden was and is different. They’re a band who crossed the lines of so many styles and categories. Those riffs are powerhouse, sludgy masterpieces. From the vocal range to the destructive, bombastic drums, or the in the shadows, but totally amazing bass playing, Soundgarden was a band of pure players. They’d dabble in metal here, or define a notion of grunge, and I may be mistaken, but I think one song might have some banjo.

There’s an inescapable presence to their music. It’s timeless, and kids will always be into them.

One memory though, it sticks out anytime I think of Soundgarden. I remember they’d dropped Superunknown and the world was at their feet in the wave of Black Hole Sun. While I saved my pennies to buy a cassette, some of my friends weren’t so keen. I remember one of the first experiences in diversity was connecting with a Mexican friend because his world was hip hop and mine was rock and roll. We had the cultural exchange of him showing me Warren G and Nate Dogg’s Regulators and me showing him Soundgarden.

It seems small, but I remember that time of innocence where things like the music you liked didn’t define your friendship, like so many do. I’m a nerd. I obsess about music, about records, about every aspect of the artform. I connect with people who feel the same.

In this memory, the exchange was pure. We took something from one another and accepted it. We defined that summer by trading my grunge or punk or metal, for hip hop. I now liked Snoop Dog or Cypress Hill, and he now liked Metallica or Nirvana.

But, it was Soundgarden that opened that door. I grew as a person because of one song and one summer. It may seem insignificant for most, but I like to remember those pure moments, the ones that exist on the axis of absolute joy and now, so many years later, I still do.

Thanks for that time in my life Chris. See you on the flip side.

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