An Indian fan on hearing Chris Cornell, singer of Audioslave and Soundgarden, is dead
He may have been 'ours', but he belonged to no one.
- Total Shares
Honestly, I’m still just hoping this is one of those elaborate internet hoaxes. That Chris Cornell is very much alive – not suddenly dead at 52 with no causes yet revealed – working on some bizarre collaboration or the other, one which I’m probably going to cringe at. See, Cornell didn’t just write music. That would be too easy. He spoke to us all. He told us, in twisty non-sequiturs, that it’s all going to be OK.
“What the hell is this guy doing?” It was my first reaction the very first time I heard Soundgarden, and became an audience to Cornell’s unreasonably versatile range and delivery. The song was "Black Hole Sun". He’d hit these really deep, grimey notes – a hallmark of the alt-rock movement Soundgarden sort of fit into – and then he’d suddenly start screaming away in a pitch that would scratch my ear-drums at high volumes (the only way one should ever listen to music).
It was exhilarating. Therein started a lifelong love affair – with its own set of ups and downs (Timbaland, Chris?!) – with an artist who changed so many lives. An artist who helped us all find ourselves and discover who and what we wanted to be as we grew up.
In school, in the early stages of teenage disenchantment, the misfit kids – such as me – often sought out something bigger than ourselves. At first, you desperately want to fit in. But when you can’t, all you want to do is stand out. Music, for so many, becomes that one thing you cling to, where it takes on greater meaning. We had to rebel against the stuff we’d been force-fed at an early stage: Dylan, Bollywood, the Beatles, Floyd, Indipop.
The obnoxious brats, the ones at my school especially, were more than happy with Bollywood music and the cheese-pop doing the rounds on MTV. This was the late '90s and early 2000s. Only a handful of outliers tried to even look for something more, usually thanks to the influence of an older sibling or cousin. The internet was only just becoming a "thing", so the nerds would discover cool websites to read about music and then get hold of pirated MP3s or tapes.
Some kids found rap music, others discovered the joys of metal – Metallica’s Load and Reload, followed by the harsher Ride The Lightning, were choice picks. I found what was called "grunge". We didn’t have access to everything happening abroad, so the options were always limited.
None of us understood the nuances of individual taste. What we liked, age 14 or 15 or 16, became our identity. It was who we were, man. And Soundgarden spoke to that still-forming, free-of-weariness, malleable, primal part of us. The band, and Cornell’s confessional words of his own struggles and dreams – from Temple of the Dog to "Fell On Black Days" to Euphoria Morning – taught us to accept who we were, to embrace it, even.
Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, the Screaming Trees, and a handful of others – all part of this little angry-young-adult movement – each had their own unique way of expressing themselves. But Soundgarden always had something very weird and messed up about their music. Like when I heard the ferocious, viciously exacting Badmotorfinger, I couldn’t tell its head from its ass.
And yet, it was just this kind of physical release. A couple of the songs even made their way on to the iconic Road Rash game, remember! Superunknown, their most popular release, had literally zero dull moments. It was a band at its creative peak, throwing shit at the wall and watching everything stick. Even Down On The Upside, much maligned by some, was a revelatory album for me.
It was over all too quickly of course, but Cornell was never one to sit on his ass and do nothing – something I realised much later in life. He was always creatively thirsty, always restless and yearning to express himself.
I was at Palika Bazaar, visiting this store that used to house the latest international music, months before it released officially in India – sometimes before its international release too. This fuzzy little tape, with some kind of fireball on the cover, just happened to be there.
The year was 2002, and I’d read online about something called the “Civilian Project” or just “Civilian”. A supergroup featuring Chris Cornell and the instrumentalists from Rage against the Machine! It was every 15-year-old’s wet dream (not like we needed one at the time). Then they all fought and dissolved the whole thing. Then they kissed and made up, and the band came to be called Audioslave.
The early demos had already been leaked. The resplendent video for "Cochise", the first single by Audioslave with the fireworks and male bonding, had just hit MTV when I bought that tape, for double the price. “This hasn’t even released in America yet!” said the bespectacled college kid selling that tape, justifying the Rs. 200 price-tag.
I think Audioslave is when Cornell truly blew up, at least here in Delhi. He became accessible to people who didn’t have to be weirdos or alienated. No one knew Soundgarden, but everyone knew "Like A Stone", to the point where it’s still played on loop at bars in Delhi – in 2017. It’s one of those forever-songs at any karaoke night – you’ll have at least three people fighting for it. Half the crowd will sing along to it. Audioslave’s music had a steadily-dipping quality to it (but they did have some knockout bits too) before they finally called it a day after their third album.
Somewhere along the way, I felt Cornell slipping away. Moving into a new world. This always happens. Super-fans who share a deep connection with a musician will inevitably get bitter and resentful when they see that artist being appreciated by a more mainstream audience, an audience that hasn’t put in half the effort to understand Cornell like I did. It’s not rational, I get that; it just is. Cornell became increasingly popular, especially with that James Bond song, and he even tried his hand at some rubbish trendy-pop music. I felt distance, bitching about him for leaving us all behind.
But, grudgingly, I learnt to accept that Cornell didn’t owe me anything. The music he wrote may have changed my life, but that’s not all he was. Even through the stuff I couldn’t quite appreciate, I could feel that there was never a moment where he didn’t feel that all-consuming need to say what he needed to, hence the Soundgarden reunion in 2011/12. He may well have been ours – that’s how strong the connect was – but Chris Cornell belonged to no one. Farewell, old friend, you gave us all hope.