It’s Friday evening. I’m 17. I jump on my bike and swing out of our drive, past the yellow field in which we drink, through my sleepy, sun-warmed village and onto the road to my friend’s house. It’s the place we all meet before heading into Chester, where we’ll put the world to rights in some ancient pub, our para boots happily sharing the same stained carpets as the brogues of the old men who have drunk there for decades.My friend has recorded a tape for me. I flip up a gear and press play on my Walkman.
A guitar siren flourishes in my left ear and sustains; a question answered immediately in my right. The pattern repeats. Same question, same answer. Like a call to prayer. Faster this time, and again faster, until a spluttering surge of drums and bass plunges me headlong into Rusty Cage, the first song from Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger.
By the time I’m halfway through Slaves & Bulldozers, I’m crossing the bridge over the motorway and have to stop. It’s not because I’m tired, it’s because I can’t understand what the band’s singer has just done with his voice. 3 minutes and 28 seconds in — Now I know why you’ve been taken — he drops the pitch, raises it again, and suddenly in my head there appears an image of a screaming skull.
Over the years that same album has planted countless more images in my consciousness – a traveller wandering through centuries, live cables thrashing in a flooded basement, a waggon of smoke and beer rattling through a desert – and they all started life in the larynx of Chris Cornell.
I reach my friend’s house just as Jesus Christ Pose nosedives like a flaming juggernaut. My heart is racing as he opens the door.
A year later, April 1994, my dad stops me at the bottom of the stairs.
‘I’m sorry, son, but he’s dead.’
‘No,’ I reply, ‘That was just a rumour.’
He shakes his head.
‘It’s real this time, I’m sorry.’
The next few days — this was before the internet — are a muddle of half-heard conversations, news reports and magazine interviews. Eddie Vedder with his eyes painted black with corks. Grainy pictures of a man’s legs, like a child’s, splayed on the floor. Disgust as the press surrounds the house. One hot evening the four of us drive to Manchester Academy. Tad support, Doyle crowd-surfing at the end – and if you’ve ever seen Tad Doyle in the flesh then you’ll know why this was such a spectacle – Soundgarden walk on to play their first UK concert since Kurt Cobain died.
Kim Thayil stands stone-still for the entire set. Matt Cameron beats his toms like he wants them to burst, and Ben Shepherd thunders away, an oily shadow in the corner. Cornell screams. There’s a trembling, vulnerable electricity about him, and he only has a few words for us, his voice gripped by a dreadful monotone. A friend is gone.
We see them again a few more times over the years, and one incredible solo set from Chris in Glasgow. Each time the years have had their ways with us, carving us with lines both visible and invisible. We age in different places, with kids, marriage, jobs, dreams falling and rising like waves. But the music stays as it always was, and for 3 hours standing in a dark cavern, we’re 17 again.
I get stuck to things. Songs, books, films, even years that made a difference to me. Am I wrong to let this happen? Somehow stunted? Shouldn’t I have moved on by now, grown up and grown out of the siren that blasted into my left ear more than half my life ago?
I’m almost 42. Shouldn’t I be into jazz? Why is that noise still echoing in there?
Because art’s single desire is to worm its way into a stranger’s head – and once it’s in, it’s in. You can believe what you want, pretend you’ve moved on, but you never outgrow the songs of your youth or the connection you feel with the people who sang them. At least, you shouldn’t.
But he was just a man, right? Just a stranger, somebody I never knew and who never knew me. It’s ridiculous to mourn someone you never knew.
The 2016 celebrity cull the world WTF?-ed, emoti-ed and gif-ed at never touched me, so I only half-understood the tears when the Bowies and Princes died. Now I fully understand them, but I also understand that while they’re real, they’re not just for the man, or for his family, or for his friends, or for the sheer frustration at living in a world where those with heart always seem to die young, and those without it rule the world. They’re for ourselves, these tears, both individually and collectively. Because they’re dying. These heroes who get into our heads are dying, and we have nobody to replace them with.
Chris Cornell showed us what happens when you take huge talent and marry it with passion, integrity and hard work. These qualities have driven every single icon of our rapidly waning modern artistic age, but I honestly don’t know how much we foster them these days. Soundgarden had been a band for 10 years before their breakthrough album, Superunknown, was released. 20 years later, after breaking up and reforming, they were still touring. Is that even possible now? Or does everything have to be now, instant, you’re a star, done?
In twenty years time, who will we be thinking about when we sing no one sings like you anymore?
It’s 1 am the next morning. We’re back from the pub and after sandwiches and tea at my friend’s house (we’re still kids – binge-drinking hasn’t occurred to us yet and those doom-laden hangovers lurk a decade away) I ride home through dark, empty streets with side B of Badmotorfinger for company. There’s a graveyard in my village where, on late nights like these, I sometimes play a game. It’s pretty dumb — I have to creep between the graves for as long as possible until I’m scared shitless and have to run out.
But this time I cannot for the life of me get scared enough to leave. I have found a secret weapon, some ragged and beautiful thing more powerful than fear.
So I sit by the grave of a dead stranger, look up at the stars and listen to my new weapon echoing inside of me, growling, growing, building strength and becoming the armour I will find myself putting on time and time again throughout my adult life. Alone in a dark room or in a field with a thousand others, in the depths of a forest, from a snowy hill or a bright Texan highway, down or up, sitting, running, driving, writing*, it has echoed and will still echo — the sound of a man at odds with himself and everything around him, singing of steel shores, full moon blankets and luck’s last matches struck.
(*A Soundgarden song is hidden in plain sight at the end of The End of the World Running Club — my gift to Ed for his onward journey.)