Leitchfield, Kentucky, 1994. If you wanted music on the radio, the two options were pop and country. I absorbed every bit of MC Hammer and Garth Brooks, like they were the last drops of water on Earth. I was still thirsty, but unaware that an ocean was just beyond earshot. Sitting on a school bus one fateful afternoon, my friend Kim dropped a pair of headphones over my ears with the instructions: “You’ve got to hear this,” a scene I’d relate to a decade later when Natalie Portman pulled a similar action with Zach Braff. But the sounds that exploded into my system were not anything like The Shins. It was the monstrous guitars of Soundgarden, and the soaring voice of Chris Cornell, and it scared the shit out of me. These were dark sounds, dangerous maybe. The artwork looked near satanic. I noticed that the song listing was different than the actual track order, and I surmised, like the Catholic boy that I was at the time, that I should dare not play the songs in that order or something bad might crawl out of the speakers. The lyrics preached the apocalyptic end of the world, death and suicide. And yet, with all of this, I couldn’t stop listening. So I dug deeper, finding more bands of this “alternative” scene. It was a life changing moment in every sense of the word.
I went to summer camp in Murray, Kentucky, where all of the counselors had nicknames. I decided that if I ever rose to the ranks, I would be called Spoonman, which also became my first AOL screen name in ‘95. Then, the band released Down On The Upside in ‘96, and I played it nonstop for months. When they broke up soon after, it was the first time I had to deal with a loss of an icon. They were all still living, but the entity had disappeared. Teenagers, and those crazy unchecked hormones, can be pretty dramatic. And I was. Luckily, it wasn’t long before Cornell released his first solo album, Euphoria Mourning in ‘99. I was at Eastern Kentucky University, and I used every bit of what little cash I had to run out and buy it. Between gas, food and music, there wasn’t a second thought. Hearing that opening guitar of “Can’t Change Me” still feels like a drug to me, calm rushing throughout my veins.
When the planes crashed on 9/11, I was working at WLRS, barely out of my internship. We stood stunned as we stopped the music to bring in a live news feed. When it was decided that we’d go back to music, I chose “Sunshower” as the song to bring us back in. It was a tiny moment, and the lyrics don’t suggest any tie to an event like that, but there is such beauty in the song, something I needed so badly at that exact minute. Just one more moment of light to grasp at before the oncoming storm. It’s still my favorite song of his, and I sometimes still cry when I hear it.
I met my hero in 2011. I was now at 91.9 WFPK, he was in town for an acoustic solo run, and I was granted a 10-minute interview backstage. Nervous beyond explanation, I kept telling myself that, if nothing else, just remember to look in his eyes. Piercing blue, they were as powerful as his four-octave vocals. The moment he walked in, he was like an old friend. Everything was put at ease with his smile and handshake, and we began talking. He waved his manager off at the 10-minute mark, and ended up hanging with me for a half hour. When I look back on it, I wonder if he was lonely, and this was a break from the empty dressing room. If so, I’m glad I gained his trust.
The last time I spoke to Chris was in the Johnny Cash dressing room at the Ryman Auditorium. We only had a few minutes to chat this time, a hard stop that would have to be adhered to since Johnny Cash Jr. was waiting outside. We goofed around as much as talked about his new album, Higher Truth. We also talked about his kids, and how much fun it was to see them grow up and get into music. He had been bringing one of his daughters on stage to play with him. I had been talking with his camp to do an interview about his latest single, a beautiful song called “The Promise,” that now in hindsight, feels broken, though still powerful. Chris is gone now, and it’s hard to admit it. I’ve been listening to Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Audioslave and the solo records over and over since his passing, and he’s still right there, as close as ever. Dangerous, thrilling, soaring, anthemic and cool as fuck. And missed. One of rock’s greatest voices, and most unique songwriters, has left.