It Began At The Ditto Tavern: Chris Cornell's Life As Grunge's True Seattle Son
Of course it's a story about death and Seattle music.
I woke up this morning after bad dreams last night, only to find the real nightmare — that Chris Cornell of Soundgarden was dead. As with all these losses it seems surreal, untrue, unimaginable. But there it is.
If there was one Seattle band of the "grunge" era that seemed more "Seattle" than any other, it was Soundgarden. Nirvana was actually from Aberdeen, and not a single member lived in Seattle until 1992; Pearl Jam didn't become a band until Eddie Vedder arrived from San Diego. But Soundgarden was truly Seattle. Chris Cornell went to high school ten blocks from my house, though for accuracy, that's just outside the Seattle city limits (and, for accuracy, he dropped out of that high school).
Soundgarden also started before all those bands. The Screaming Life EP, which came out on Sub Pop on October 1, 1987, beat all those other bands to the punch. I was editor of the Seattle music magazine The Rocket in those days, and we were the first place to publish on Soundgarden, putting them on our cover when they were playing to just twenty people. That was probably appropriate, in that our magazine was located in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle (now dominated by Amazon), which was low-rent and filled with taverns. Soundgarden made one of these, the Ditto Tavern, one of their homes. Seeing them there early on, you had the sense they truly had something, but there honestly would be only a dozen people in the audience.
Cornell, however, had a singing voice that sounded like stardom. We once put him on the cover of the The Rocket and headlined it "Golden Throats." During a photo shoot for another cover story we had the members of Soundgarden stand in Green Lake covered with mud, an homage to Mudhoney (another Seattle band in that era still trying to find an audience). Soundgarden was a slow burn, and nowhere near an overnight success. The band was on three record labels before it broke, and its biggest year was 1994, after Kurt Cobain died and when many saw the Seattle scene ebbing. But Superunknown was a record that could not be denied, and "Fell on Black Days" may be my favorite vocal of that entire era.
When they finally got through, Soundgarden's members had already done their ten-thousand hours — they'd been a band for almost a decade by the time they topped the charts. "We didn't make four records that all sounded the same and the fourth one sold a lot," Cornell told me in 1995. "If anyone looks back at our history, our fans who have been around know we're not going to pull the rug out from under anybody.
"It could be that it's taken us so long to reach this level of success that our own perceptions haven't really caught up with it yet," he told me.
Soundgarden had a few more good years after that, but temporarily broke up in 1997. Cornell joined Audioslave, then did some solo records. There were gems in his post-Soundgarden songs. A few miscues. I wrote a negative review of his attempt to cover Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," and he was unhappy about the review. That didn't really change our relationship. I was the hometown writer, the guy he knew had been at the Ditto Tavern. I interviewed him a bunch after that still, and wrote bio material for Audioslave, and the Temple of the Dog reissue last year.
It was no secret that he had always struggled with depression, but drugs were also something he admitted to the press he'd battled with. That story for Chris — for Seattle, for anyone who has battled with addiction — is so complicated it can't be easily distilled. We don't know the full story yet, and words almost can't capture the level of the loss.
Sometimes that feels like it is a story unique to Seattle music — darkness equals Seattle — but it is not a linkage of just one city and loss. It's a human story.
Often it was loss that Chris and I talked about, either in official interviews, or when the tape recorder wasn't running. Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone had been Chris's roommate when Andrew overdosed, and that loss forever shaped Chris as a musician and as a person. Sometimes you thought that Chris's entire career — and not just the Temple of the Dog album — was a tribute to Andy.
In one of those conversations, Chris told of me Andy, "I don't know that we understood the full power of his aura and what he meant to all of us.
"It wasn't just like that I lost a friend," he said. "It was bigger than that."
Later in that same talk, in 2011, Chris looked up and seemed to be grabbing his thoughts, having a hard time keeping it together.
"There are a lot of fallen soldiers out there," he said.
Today, my bad dream from last night tells me there is one more.
Charles R. Cross is the author of nine books, including threeNew York Times' bestsellers. His 2001 biography of Kurt Cobain,Heavier Than Heaven, won the ASCAP Timothy White Award, and has been published in dozens of countries. Cross was Editor ofThe Rocket, the Seattle music magazine, from 1986 through 2000, which helped launch and break the grunge movement. As a journalist he was written for hundreds of newspapers and magazines includingRolling Stone, Esquire, Spin, Spy, Entertainment Weekly, Guitar World, Us, Salon, The London Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Playboy, Q, Mojoand many more.
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