‘Part of Seattle died:’ reflecting on Chris Cornell’s death

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The first text came at 5:29 a.m.

Half asleep, I awoke and looked at my phone. “Cornell!!! OMG!!” read the text.

The note was from my close friend Steven. We often text back and forth about various rock n’ roll musings. When I looked at my phone, bleary eyed and not quite awake, I figured that it could have meant anything. Although I figured it had to be big news since a pre-dawn text is highly unusual.

Maybe Chris Cornell broke up Soundgarden. Maybe he announced a free local concert. Maybe he endorsed Trump. Or maybe he … no, it couldn’t be that.

After trying to figure out what the text meant I checked my inbox. I’ve been out of the music journalism game for three years now but I still get some of the good press releases.

I didn’t get a press release. Didn’t need one. Because at the top of my inbox was a Rolling Stone newsletter with the subject “Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell dead at 52.”

Stunned, my response back to Steven was one word:

“Wow.”

——

Like many, I immediately took to Twitter as part of my grieving process. I wanted to talk with my music-loving friends and my former readers and Twitter is my social media communication tool of choice. After expressing my shock and sadness, I briefly recounted the one time I met and interviewed Chris. I shared the short version of the story on Twitter because, well, there’s a 140-character limit on tweets so I had to be brief. Here’s a lengthier account of my experience.

Soundgarden performs the second of their two night sold-out performances at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, Wa. Photo by Alex Crick - Web - Twitter

I was assigned to review Audioslave’s 2005 concert in Everett for the Seattle P-I. The concert was special for Chris Cornell because his father lives in Everett. A day before the show I was asked by Chris’ publicist if I wanted to briefly talk with Chris to add some color to my review. I grew up a huge Soundgarden fan and I was just beginning my career as a budding music journalist. I could hardly believe what was being offered. I immediately said yes.

The day of the show I was escorted into the venue by Chris’ wife Vicky. I met his 1-year-old daughter. We ate vegetables from catering and talked for a little while before Chris showed up. I was very nervous.

When Chris arrived he asked me if I wanted to check out the opening band, which was 30 Seconds to Mars. I shrugged, not really knowing the protocol for when one of your teenage idols asks if you want to check out a band. We ended up watching Jared Leto and his bandmates for 15 minutes from the side of the stage. It was a surreal “is this really happening?” moment.

The interview was for color, which means it was to get small tidbits of info or anecdotal info from Chris that would enhance the review. I was told I only had five minutes. It had already been 20 and we hadn’t even started our interview. I was way out of my depth as a cub reporter hanging with rock royalty and was worried about not getting what I came for.

After watching Leto, Chris walked me to his tour bus to start our interview. If I was out of my depth before I was in an entire universe of uncharted territory now. I was playing it cool when we sat down to talk, acting as if I had been on dozens of rock stars’ tour buses in the past (I hadn’t), but on the inside teenage me, and then current me, was bursting.

Chris could tell I was nervous. He flashed a smile my way and offered me a water. That smile immediately calmed me down because I knew how transparent my cool front must have seemed. However, I didn’t stop bursting on the inside.

I pushed record on my tape recorder and the interview started. We talked about whether Soundgarden would ever reunite. He gave a “never say never” answer but insinuated it wouldn’t happen. We talked about what he was listening to at the time. We talked a little bit about politics. And we talked about his family. A lot.

Soundgarden performs the second of their two night sold-out performances at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, Wa. Photo by Alex Crick - Web - Twitter

Every time he spoke about his wife and daughter he became highly animated. He was very happy throughout the entire interview but when he talked about them the happiness was turned up to 11. That’s when I knew what to write about.

Oh, and that five-minute interview? It ended up lasting for more than an hour.

When the interview ended I was escorted back to the venue by Chris’ security guard. I was speechless the entire walk back. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I spent an hour shooting the breeze with one of my idols. One of the biggest rock stars on the planet hung out with me on his tour bus for an hour. One-on-one. Forget being a professional music journalist. I was in music geek shock.

I could no longer keep my cool. I ended up hugging the security guard when we got back to the venue. I gushed about Chris and explained the entire interview to him. He was very surprised. It was awkward.

Needless to say, I got a lot more than color. In fact. I actually got a lengthy feature profile out of the interview that landed on the front page of the Seattle P-I. The profile. which I renamed “Chris Cornell on fatherhood and rockstardom” for Guerrilla Candy, focused on Chris’ then life as a dad who had remarried and found a new life outside of America.

When I tweeted the very abridged version of that experience I made sure to include a tweet about Chris as a father and how important his family was to him during that interview.

I remember almost every moment of that interview, and thanks to my tape recorder I have it all documented. But what I remember most was how Chris beamed when talked about his family. I made sure to include that in my grief tweets because I was sure his life as a father would get overlooked in all the rushed obits.

Reading back the transcript of that interview, these comments from Chris stand out:

The focus of my family, my wife Vicky, my daughter that is a year old, my son that’s coming, my 5-year old daughter (with former manager and ex-wife Susan Silver) who I don’t see that often. The focus on my wife and my children, it really helps me make sense of the music side of it somehow. There’s just something that’s just core, and I don’t know how to put it, sort of eternal. It’s something that’s natural, rhythmic, that makes sense in this family where it’s sort of shed the light on music and how much music makes sense.

—–

Soundgarden performs the second of their two night sold-out performances at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, Wa. Photo by Alex Crick - Web - Twitter

Earlier in the morning, I was asked by a Sirius XM station to comment about Chris’ passing and I politely declined. This celebrity death hit too close to home and I was still figuring out how I was feeling. Besides, I knew there were many other qualified people who could talk about Chris and I was sure they would do so way more eloquently than I could.

I don’t mind being considered an expert on grunge, but not for situations like this. I retain my well-informed fan status when it comes matters like the death of one of my iconic teenage heroes.

A little while later I was contacted by a reporter for the Seattle P-I, my former paper. I didn’t feel like talking, but I did manage to send him a written statement he used for his story. This is part of the story:

“Chris was unparalleled a rock singer and icon,” local music journalist Travis Hay said via email. “Each of the major grunge vocalists had their imitators, but there was no equal for Chris. To this day there isn’t a vocalist who could hold notes the way he did or sing with the range he had, and he seemed to do it so effortlessly.

He was a powerhouse with Soundgarden and Audioslave and when he dialed things down for his solo material his voice was equally as powerful,” Hay said. “I don’t think there will ever be another voice as unique as Chris Cornell. I was lucky enough to spend an hour with him for a story I wrote more than a decade ago and that hour remains one of the highlights of my career.”

After crafting that carefully thought out statement, I opened up Facebook, which was a mistake. I estimate roughly 75% of my Facebook friends are music industry folks and a majority of those people either worked with Chris in some capacity or knew him personally. Facebook was a crushing place for me to visit.  It was too difficult for me to see my friends go through their grief while also processing my own.

—–

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Later in that night, I decided to attend the public memorial at the Seattle Center put together by KEXP. Prior to walking into the station’s public gathering space, I stopped at the International Fountain. The speakers were playing “Rusty Cage.” It felt appropriate to pause and reflect on the moment. I was also getting a very strong, and justified, feeling of deja vu.

Like many Seattle residents my age, I had been to a public memorial for a beloved grunge icon at Seattle Center previously. The year was 1994 and the circumstances were quite different.

As a teenager, I attended Kurt Cobain’s public memorial with my mom. I was at the International Fountain when hundreds of people rushed it to celebrate Kurt and grieve together. Very different circumstances but the same fountain. Deja vu highly merited.

I hadn’t really figured out how to process Chris Cornell’s death. I didn’t know him yet he was a very important and formative figure from my adolescence. I had only met him once, but that one encounter made a lasting impact. I wasn’t a friend or family member. He was just a guy who made music. Why should I feel sad?

But being there at the fountain, the same place I was 23 years ago, I managed to figure something out. I felt like I closed some sort of grief loop. I felt tranquil and serene. It finally felt okay to grieve and be truly sad. And in that moment I thought about Chris Cornell and how he talked about his daughter. It made me a little happier.

Then I thought about my 3-year-old son. I wondered how I would be able to comfort him when he inevitably faces tragedy. I became thankful for that moment in time because I knew figuring out how to process my grief would help me whenever I need to be there for my son. Knowing that made me a little happier too.

The memorial was touching. It felt good to be in the same room with hundreds of people who were feeling the same way I felt. Three DJs spoke a few words (John Richards, Sheryl Waters and Riz Rollins) and there was a display case at the back of the room with a gold record and various Soundgarden albums. During his comments John Richards said something that perfectly sums up what happened when Chris Cornell died. “Part of Seattle died today.” I think he was right.

Thank you KEXP for providing local music fans with a place to gather and grieve. And thank you Chris Cornell for everything you gave the world. You will be greatly missed.

Twenty-three years ago I was one of dozens of teenagers running at this fountain during Kurt Cobain’s public memorial. Tonight I sat here alone listening to the International Fountain play the final seconds of “Rusty Cage” before walking into KEXP’s public memorial for Chris Cornell. Both memorial services were touching, moving experiences. These two icons left this world way too early and both committed suicide. While Kurt’s battle with substance abuse was public and his issues known, what is believed to be the main contributing factor to Chris Cornell’s death, depression, was mostly invisible. Depression is a terrible beast to have to wrestle alone. Folks, if you need help please, please, please reach out to someone who cares. Suicide prevention lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. #chriscornell #ripchriscornell #soundgarden #audioslave

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Travis Hay

About Travis Hay

Travis Hay is a professional music journalist who has spent the past 14 years documenting and enjoying Seattle's diverse music scene. In 2009 he established Guerrilla Candy and is currently the site's editor and publisher. He has written for various media outlets including MSN Music, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, Seattle Weekly, Crosscut.com and others and was the founder and editor of defunct music site Ear Candy.