Fairy God Rocker

from: May 26, 2017

“I’m sorry to hear about Chris Cornell,” our friend Denise texts Theresa, a day after Cornell’s death. “I know he was your Fairy God Rocker.”

The story, which has earned us a lot of Awws, goes like this.

Fall 2013, I was living in Westchester, working in publishing when I learned Cornell was playing the Beacon Theater in New York City, solo acoustic. I made note of the day tickets go on sale, and that morning I pounced online. But I did not pounce fast enough. Ticketmaster sold out in a mere hour.

“Well, that fucking sucks,” I thought. (Cornell, it seems, was an inveterate pottymouth, and I write this post in tribute to him.) “I won’t be seeing Chris Cornell in New York City.” I hadn’t seen him since Lollapalooza 1993. But I still had my framed promo print from the “Carry On” album hanging on my apartment wall.

His face was one of devilish good looks. He was handsome and his eyes captivated. Of course, he had the locks of glory: to be anointed a rock god you must have them, and Cornell did.

A few weeks later, Ticketmaster emailed me what I recognized as an automated promotion. I had starred Cornell as a favorite artist in its system, and the email said that seats were available for one of his shows. I clicked and clicked until I was looking at a seating chart of the venue, seeing a single available seat: F14. In Brooklyn the F train had been my local train, and 14, being my birthday, was my favorite number. I snatched it up, checked out, and printed my confirmation.

“Woo hoo! I’m going to Cornell after all!”

But the printout in my hand bore some strange acronym: UPAC. I googled that. Ulster County Performing Arts Center. Not the Beacon Theater? No—this was a theater in some place called Kingston, New York. I Google-mapped that: 90 miles away.

Some weeks later, I made the drive. Got to bleak-looking Midtown Kingston, ate at a diner, and headed to the venue. I wore my black jacket and my dessert boots—as bad-ass as this English major and textbook editor gets.

I’m waiting in my seat when just before the opening act a woman in a teal corduroy hat with funky hair comes sidling into the row. She sits in the seat next to me. She has on a rad jacket, skirt, and tall boots, and completely on impulse—I swear I’m not normally so quick to judge, and I don’t usually use the b word—I thought, This chick is either a total bitch or the coolest thing on earth.

Turns out Theresa is the latter, and we’ve been together 4 years now.

Theresa’s side of the story adds a mystical twist. After a breakup, she’d been going to an epic number of shows in recent years at places like the Bowery Ballroom and Union Hall, so she considered herself a master concertgoer. She picked her UPAC seat when many were available, and picked with savvy, figuring that if she chose one of an available pair, she’d likely end up next to a single man. She picked F15, which had only one spot next to it.

She had recently told a friend she was ready to date again, and wanted to date a writer. She jokes now that she conjured me with witchcraft. I can’t say she didn’t.

Rusty Cage

That’s the fun part of the story.

The shitty part is grappling with the unknowns around Cornell’s death, initially watching video from Detroit, hearing Cornell speak the lyrics of “In My Time of Dying” during “Slaves and Bulldozers,” wondering if his action was premeditated.

At the UPAC show, Chris arrived on stage peddling a sweet low-rider bicycle that a fan had made him. He introduced proudly, with open affection, the song he’d written for his wife by telling its backstory, how he’d proposed to her. When Theresa and I saw Cornell two years later (at the Beacon after all), he brought his kids on stage and introduced them. As fans, we felt like part of his family, we felt let in. Maybe even loved.

All too recently, when Prince died, I’d had to grapple with grief for the loss of someone I’ve never met, someone I’d idolized and followed for decades. I wasn’t ready to grieve again. But I needed to know what happened. Past addictions, out on tour again. Had he relapsed?

I subscribe to the Soundgarden.com newsletter. When I saw the tour announced earlier this year I was surprised. Would he find it fulfilling to go back on the road and pound out angry anthems? One song from Euphoria Morning, Cornell explained at UPAC, contained 26 different chords. He said when he left Soundgarden, he was sick of riff rock. He wanted something more complex. Never a man to under-do a thing, perhaps. I’d tried playing these songs on guitar. Much harder to memorize than the power chords of Badmotorfinger.

But beyond those musical considerations, to go back to “Rusty Cage,” after having sang (in “Never Far Away” from Scream)

I don’t have to pray anymore
Because my soul has been saved

I couldn’t imagine that with his family and apparent serenity, that he still felt caged.

This isn’t the time or place, but Cornell in fact, seemed to have an obsession with being saved, and I think a look at his lyrics across the years would bear that out.

Kept the Movie Rolling

The strange thing about these deaths of men I’ve admired is that they send me inward in ways I never would have expected. They make me ask, what did I admire in this person so much? Am I at all like them? Is my grief really justified?

The day of the Detroit show, Cornell’s last day alive, I shuffled Soundgarden on iTunes at my house as I packed gym bags and work bags to go into Kingston (I now live 20 miles outside it). I don’t mind telling you I have a Marantz receiver that plays into a pair Klipsch bookshelf speakers and subwoofer. Soundgarden is the perfect band to play loudly, when Cornell’s voice is paired with the loudness of drums and guitars and he’s signing his most powerfully—just as Theresa had wished to hear at UPAC.

When a track from King Animal came on (Soundgarden’s reunion album), I remembered having dreamt about the album in some way, seeing the snow-covered landscape of the album artwork in my sleep, just the night before. The whiteness. I don’t know what it means, if it means anything.

It was Theresa who told me, when I woke, that there was bad news online. I read off and on throughout the morning, as much as I could tolerate reading about his past with rehab and alcoholism. As I reported to Facebook, I hadn’t read about Cornell’s treatment at all at the time it happened. I wasn’t sure why I’d never followed it closely, but I figured it was because of my distaste for the gaudier aspects of celebrity and gossip. It turns out he and I were receiving our respective rehab treatments during the same years. We were both in clinics.

My enduring addiction was a burden, and I had tried and failed to save myself for many years. One thing that got me to treatment was the realization of how long I’d been at these behaviors that did me little good. In other words,

I kept the movie rolling
But the story’s getting old now

Those lyrics from “Outshined.”

It may be that these lines helped me characterize my own life to myself. It may be that I kept Badmotorfinger in heavy rotation throughout my twenties and thirties precisely until lines like these crystallized into their personal usefulness for me. That’s probably the best thing I can say about the man: he may have helped save my life through the power of his voice.

What he wanted for himself, he gave to me. Does that make him a martyr? No, because I don’t think it’s true that he didn’t give it to himself as well. I read Chris say he actually liked treatment. It was interesting and he learned a lot. I was glad to read him saying that. I felt the same way. Recovery saved me. Ever since going through SAA and a clinic, I heard “Spoonman” differently. “Save me / I’m together with your plan.” That to me meant my program: the first workable plan I had since my paper route.

Meanwhile, my Facebook friends are dropping “RIP Chris Cornell. Love his songs.” And “OMG, Black Hole Sun was everything when I was a teenager.” The sentiment seems shallow, and that’s something Cornell might have detested. But it can’t be helped, and another of his song’s sentiment applies: Just keep it off my wave.

I never miss an opportunity to rail against the inadequacy of social media, and I won’t miss this one either. Never more than when someone dies does the flippancy of social (noun) sting; never does its convenience and ubiquity speak louder than its actual content; never is its sentiment less discernible, more mistakable, than when we are really hurting. Never does it seem more insincere than when we need authentic clarity and condolence.


My idolization of Cornell is funny, because I see TV trailers about heroes, and I see movie posters with Captain America, and I tell myself that these archetypes are done to death. (Even the cape and tights jokes are done to death.) Superman: strength personified. Batman: revenge personified. But it turns out I am not immune to these figures, because I’d have to say that it’s Cornell’s incredible strength of voice that made him luminous to me. The guy had pipes from here to Thursday. I’ve watched videos of a professional singing coach demonstrating Cornell’s “compression” style, particularly with Audioslave tracks. Watching these you come to understand the amount of work it takes to move that much air under control for 3, 4, 5 minutes. At UPAC, I watched Cornell do it for 120 minutes, without so much as a few sips of water.

And as we all know from trying, singing powerfully in the upper register can be painful to an untrained voice.

That strength of voice spoke to his strength of character, if you’ll forgive the platitude. But what indicates strong character? As we know from our leaders, it’s not declarations of victory and a posture of infallibility. It’s admissions of struggle, and subsequent endurance. Some of Cornell’s best lyrical work, his best songwriting, comes when he writes of doubts and inner conflict. Cornell was very open this way, lyrically.

holy water on the brain
and I’m losing sleep

holy bible on the nightstand
next to me

This from “Holy Water,” a song in which it’s the soaring length of the chorus’s first “Yeahhhhhhhh” that colors Cornell’s vocal attitude a brighter shade than mere dour, faithless complaint. He was no grungy Debbie Downer; he was always a man searching, and to that all fans can relate. I know as an addict what he meant in saying, in “Fell On Black Days,” that “I’m only faking / when I get it right.”


At Vice, they linked to Ben Stiller’s parody “The Grungies,” which cast Seattle rock as a hollow commodity via allusion to The Monkees’ show (which itself ripped off The Beatles). But The Monkees were the world’s most contrived band, and Cornell was the antithesis; his authenticity was in your face. Anyway, it’s hard for parody to stick to someone who’s already parodied himself, as he did in “Jesus Christ Pose.”

Music critics and music journalists, like art critics, philosophers, and historians are always rushing to quantify artists’ output, as if without a categorization it has no meaning. Throughout his career, Cornell sang sincerely about personal struggles, and he knew that once he put his work out there, it could be reduced to a trope. What I always admired about Cornell is that he seemed to trust that true fans, the kind of people he cared about and wanted to reach, would care less about slapping the right movement term on his and his bands’ music, than they cared about experiencing it. Feeling it.

Cornell will be buried today, and I wanted to get this very disjointed post up today, as inadequate as it feels in capturing how much he guided me and lent me strength. It’s funny to think how awfully I sang his songs in cars around St. Paul and Minneapolis throughout my adult life. I will continue to grab an acoustic and try “Doesn’t Remind Me,” as long as no one is home. My throat will hurt like hell during its highest parts, but it’ll feel poignant.

I read Chris talking about how his songs are free for fans to take on new meanings, their own meanings. Lines from “Doesn’t Remind Me” will always make me think of addiction:

Things that I loved
Things that I lost
Things I held sacred
that I dropped

On a more positive note, Chris’s own cover of Led Zep’s “Thank You” would be entirely apt. Many at his memorial today in Los Angeles, I suspect, will feel thankful for what his music did for them. I will finish here instead with one of his solo songs. Theresa and I bought a flowering plant and put it in the yard. It’s a breed of Columbine called “Songbird Dove.” It has white flowers, and as long as I’m here and we’re keeping it alive, it’ll be never far away.