by Albert Rodriguez -
SGN A&E Writer
One of the reasons I wanted to become a music writer was to interview rock stars. To delve into the minds of the prominent figures in the industry and ask them questions that perhaps they routinely don't get asked like, 'Have you ever had Gay groupies?' or 'How many pairs of underwear do you pack for a tour?' You know, the important stuff.
Somehow, though, I never quite imagined being on the receiving end of a call with Chris Cornell. This happened twice, actually; the first time in 2007, if memory serves me correctly, and again in 2009. The first interview, I requested, but the second was entirely at his request because his publicist mentioned to me via email that he really enjoyed speaking with me the first time.
When I learned that Cornell had died a week ago, reportedly taking his own life in Detroit while touring, I honestly couldn't deal with it right away. It took me about two days to believe that he was really gone. And unlike Kurt Cobain and Layne Stayley, who I also loved but never got the opportunity to speak to, with Cornell I got 30 minutes between two interviews that I can take with me anywhere I go. Those were 30 uninterrupted minutes alone with Chris Cornell. I had him all to myself.
Cornell was born in Seattle. He was a native, who attended Shoreline High School, just outside the city, and worked as a sous-chef at the landmark waterside restaurant Ray's Boathouse. His earliest days of music were with a cover band called The Shemps, which played in neighborhood bars around Seattle. That didn't last long, and neither did he go very far with it. But his second venture would prove to be an entirely different story, the formation of Soundgarden. This put him on the map.
Signed to local label Sub Pop Records, Soundgarden emerged onto the rock music scene with back-to-back EPs in 1987 and 1988, a few years shy of the grunge boom. It was 1991's Badmotorfinger album featuring the blistering single 'Outshined' that caught everybody's attention. Two additional singles, 'Rusty Cage' and 'Jesus Christ Pose,' helped Badmotorfinger become one of the best-selling albums that year and also earned it a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance. In 1994, the Seattle group would widen its success considerably with Superunknown, which transitioned them from an alternative indie band to a mainstream rock act.
Two released tracks from Superunknown, now classics, 'Spoonman' and 'Black Hole Sun,' received heavy rotation on top radio stations around the world and on MTV. Around this time, while living for a few months in Tacoma, I stumbled upon a bar within blocks of the Tacoma Dome that was a gathering place for young Gay men; in fact, they even had a drag show there on select weekends in the tucked away back section of the place. But in the front end of the bar, facing the street, was a jukebox that was stocked with everything from Madonna's Bedtime Stories to The Offspring's Smash to Beastie Boys' Ill Communication. Also in the mix was Superunknown and every time I went to this bar, regardless of what night it was - most nights it was mixed, sometimes it leaned very straight and other times it drew a big Gay crowd - I played 'Black Hole Sun.' It became predictable, as soon as I ordered my beer I took my change directly to the jukebox and among the batch of songs I chose to hear blaring over the speakers was 'Black Hole Sun.' Those were good times of my youth, of discovery, that I'll always remember. Incidentally, 'Spoon Man' and 'Black Hole Sun' bestowed Soundgarden with double Grammy Awards in separate rock categories in 1995.
From Soundgarden, Cornell would launch another musical project, Audioslave. He was now the frontman of two bands. Then, he went solo, and released five albums on his own between 1999 and 2015, all the while still recording and performing with Audioslave, when he wasn't writing a Bond theme song, like 'You Know My Name' from 2006's Casino Royale. I saw that movie on Thanksgiving of that year and remember how excited I was to hear Cornell's song because I hadn't yet listed to the leaked version of it on the Internet.
In recent years, Cornell reunited with his Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog bandmates, playing sold out concerts around the world with the former and a limited number of dates domestically with the latter. One of his final live appearances in Seattle was a solo acoustic performance at Benaroya Hall last year, which didn't allow any media writers to attend, but I certainly tried my best to go. I wish I'd tried a little harder.
'I suppose that happened, even before I was a rock star, and you have to find that flattering unless it's creepy or it makes you uncomfortable. If it's inappropriate, then it's inappropriate. But if it's positive attention, it's positive attention and anybody that doesn't like it is lying,' Cornell stated in his 2009 interview with Seattle Gay News, when asked if he found it flattering to be hit on by guys.
His reply to the question of whether Soundgarden drew Gay groupies was answered with 'We had Gay fans, there were Gay people in the scene, there were Gay people in the bands that were in the scene. That was one of the things we were pissed off about: that Soundgarden was used to being seen as aggressive, dark, brooding - which we were - but we were sometimes also accused of being misogynistic and macho. We came from a scene where we shared the bill with bands that were largely women, or Gay people, or who were anything and everything. We came from a very liberal place and a very liberal scene.'
And when our conversation landed on Capitol Hill, Cornell reflected on his days of hanging around the neighborhood. 'That was a big part of my musical period, living on Capitol Hill, a place where I had a band rehearsing in my living room and I would have to lock up all my equipment and my furniture because people would always try to steal it. [Laughs.] I got robbed a few times, but it's a place - in terms of Seattle proper - that I have a soft spot for.'
To read the full interview, which also features discussion about the historical grunge period and Cornell's recommendations in Paris, where he lived part time with his family and owned a lounge (which he invited me to, though I never made it there), go to http://www.sgn.org/sgnnews37_17/mobile/page38.cfm.
Although I never met him in person, possibly because I never requested to, I'll treasure those brief moments with Chris Cornell over the phone. He was very sweet to me, and I'm grateful that he blessed Seattle Gay News with two interviews.
His funeral, oddly, will happen in Los Angeles, not in the Emerald City, on Friday, May 26 and he'll be buried at the Hollywood Forever Ceremony with the public allowed to view the gravesite as early as 3pm on this day. Local businesses, including KEXP, Easy Street Records and Seattle Theatre Group, which owns the Paramount and Moore theaters, honored Cornell with tributes this past week.
RIP to a rock giant with the kindest heart, a Seattle icon whose music will be passed on to new generations. We'll miss you, Chris!
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