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The Day I Tried To Live: A Tribute to Chris Cornell, Soundgarden & "Superunknown"

by Dan Goldin (@post_trash_)

"The words you say, never seem to live up the ones inside your head."

I have a bad habit of checking my phone the moment I wake up to see what the internet has been up to since I went to bed. Generally speaking only a few hours have usually gone by, and usually I'm just deleting a bunch of junk emails. Yesterday morning I awoke to the news of Chris Cornell's death, and to make matters worse the first two posts I read on social media were jokes and puns being made at his expense. I'm not here to critique the sensitivity of the internet (lord knows there are more important issues in the world) but I quickly moved passed the snide remarks and sarcastic jabs to a sinking feeling. Celebrity deaths happen the same as any other. It's always sad to lose someone you care about and to be honest it feels strange to mourn someone I've never met or known on any personal level, especially when you've had to deal with the grief of losing family and friends. With that in mind though, there was something in my stomach that I just couldn't quite shake.

"I woke the same as any other day, you know I should have stayed in bed"

I'm not what most would consider to be "a strong writer" and I don't think I'll ever be asked to eulogize someone, but I felt compelled to write something about Chris Cornell and more specifically the lasting impression of Soundgarden's fourth album Superunknown; not a statement on his death but rather a celebration of his life and it's impact on me (and I can only assume many others). I didn't do any "research" so to speak, but it's all from the heart.

This is not a statement on his suicide. It's an important part of the story but I honestly don't have the knowledge of mental health and psychology to breach that subject with any sort of authority. From an outside perspective and even a passing understanding of Cornell's lyrics, suicidal thoughts are something that plagued him for much of his life. He made the most of it... until he didn't. He had a family, he had friends, and he remained creative until the end, but dealing with mental health issues is a life long battle. I want to move forward with the fond memories but I also want to say to anyone who has ever dealt with thoughts of suicide, you're not alone in the world and there are people out there to help, from friends and family to the many dedicated professionals.

Chris Cornell and Soundgarden have an unprecedented impact of my formative years. I was ten years old in 1994, a fourth grader in suburban Maryland. I wasn't a "cool" kid. I didn't know about labels like Dischord, Touch & Go, and Amphetamine Reptile as a happy go lucky elementary school kid. My introduction and infatuation with music came from the local DC "alternative rock" radio stations WHFS and DC101. I soaked in the grunge movement like a sponge. I loved it all... or damn near close to it. The world of grunge's once underground scene was Top 40 material by that point as bands like Soundgarden, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Primus, Beck, Alice In Chains, The Breeders, The Bends-era Radiohead and even indie darlings like Meat Puppets and Dinosaur Jr flooded the airwaves. Hundreds of second generation "grunge" bands popped up worldwide... Toadies, Bush, Local H, Elastica, Tripping Daisy, Spacehog, Silverchair, it seamed as though the moment would last forever... and I was game. Perhaps this destroys my "indie cred" but spoiler alert: I don't care. I don't believe in the idea of "guilty pleasures". I had no one to tell me about Fugazi, Sonic Youth, the Melvins, or Helium. My radio station wasn't playing The Jesus Lizard, Polvo, Barkmarket, or Unwound. I had to discover those bands years later (when the internet became a thing that people had). Anyway... the point is I am kid of the 90's and even at a young age I knew there was something special about Soundgarden and it's members, Cornell, Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd, and Matt Cameron (even if my favorite band was Bush... hey, I was ten years old).

"Don't you lock up something, that you wanted to see fly"

I don't remember the first time I heard Soundgarden but it was sometime around the release of 1994's Superunknown, a record that to this day remains an all time favorite of mine. Sure, there's "Black Hole Sun" and it's iconic music video and "Spoonman" with it's actual spoon played rhythmic breakdown, but it was "Fell On Black Days" that had me hooked. It was a dark song that felt buried in personal anguish but restrained in its aggression, a song that felt complacent to simply wallow in the dark as Cornell switched between his goose-bump inducing low croon and his signature howl. It was a straight forward statement of despair built on the magic of Soundgarden's subtle complexity. Like Cornell's depression, it was bleak without reason, an outlet for devastating sadness, and it was beautiful. Yesterday I read an excerpt from a Rolling Stone interview in 2014 in which Chris Cornell said of the song:

"I noticed in my life there would be periods where I would feel like things aren't going so well, but they weren't based on any particular thing. There wasn't a catastrophe, there wasn't a relationship split, nobody got in a car wreck. My outlook just changed. It was kind of a terrifying thought. I wanted to write a song about that."

There are a million sad songs. Life can be a bummer and it feeds artistic inspiration. It's a release, a temporary way out. There was something about "Fell On Black Days" though, something that simply resonated as Cornell questioned his "fate" and the depths of human emotion and left it with an uneasy glimpse of hope, "sure don't mind a change". I remember getting the CD, excited by the thick booklet full of lyrics and artwork, the disc that looked like vinyl (whatever that was) and the album that felt capable of doing just about anything that Soundgarden wanted to do. The record yielded another three singles (ah, the 90's) on top of the aforementioned radio staples; the warped variety of gnarled classic rock ("My Wave"), psychedelic prog ("Superunknown") and spaced-out doom ("The Day I Tried To Live"), a song that would later become a personal obsession of mine. The singles were only the start.

At this point Soundgarden had already released three exception records, Ultramega OKLouder Than Love, and Badmotorfinger (unbeknownst to me at the time), pushing the boundaries of their sound with each successive release, blending their brand of heavy and distorted blues (aka grunge) with sludge, metal, punk, and progressive rock for a sound far more nuanced than their Seattle peers. They hit a new creative peak with Badmotorfinger, a record that took their experimental ideas they had established here and there in the past and ran with it. A true classic, the album is raw and tormented and it set Soundgarden up as an unpredictable force capable of the punishing "Jesus Christ Pose" and the doom pop of "Outshined," while hinting at a radiant accessibility that was often inexplicable. Three years later, the band would release Superunknown, continuing to expand their sound, pushing the envelope to its breaking point over the course of 71 minutes. The band incorporated Eastern melodies, they continued to experiment with tunings, chord structures, and shifting time signatures... and they did it all as one of the mainstream's biggest bands. How many bands do you know that have topped the billboard charts with a song written in an odd meter? Soundgarden made their technical ability sound natural, and a big part of that came from Cornell's soaring vocals and attention to songwriting, a defiant bait and switch that presented the facade of accessibility. His sense of melodic direction and vocal control contorted perception and dazzled without distraction.

Superunknown for all it's multi-platinum success and wealth of exposure was no picnic however. The record opens with a song called "Let Me Drown" and ends with "Like Suicide" and well... there's not a great deal of sunshine between there. "Mailman" rides a downward spiral ever downward, creating the most unlikely of mantras "I know I'm headed for the bottom". The song is dark and damp, but Cornell's vocals are a shimmering example of his abilities as he naturally shifts his pitch line by line, slowly pulling his vocals from the bottom of his register to the heights within the verses. "Head Down" is downright twangy at its introduction and as it unfolds into pure psychedelic drift, the affected performance is gripping both texturally and emotionally. The song's disorienting atmosphere and use of complex polyrhythms, acoustic layers, and warm dissonance feels almost comforting with Cornell singing "head high, you've got to smile" but the feeling is defeated, even if gloriously so. "Limo Wreck" has always felt to me like a statement on excess and wealth, a society being built by money and possessions, a world that despite Cornell's rock star status, he seemingly wanted nothing to do with. The verses are poetic, setting the visuals of "progress" and the detached response to the destruction of it all. By the time the guitars stab into the hook, Cornell is howling like the apocalypse is near, "I'll be going down, for the rest of the slide. While the rest of you harvest the gold, and the wreck of you Is the death of you all". 

"I woke the same as any other day, except a voice was in my head. It said, "Seize the day, pull the trigger, drop the blade and watch the rolling heads"

Then there's the aforementioned "The Day I Tried To Live" and "4th of July," a crippling pair of inescapably beautiful and desolate songs... a pair of songs that in no small part make up my musical DNA, past and present. Borrowing influences from bands like Black Sabbath and King Crimson in equal measure, these songs are the prime example of Soundgarden's magic, a narrative of expansive songwriting that work with a near symbiotic relationship (though not by design, there are of course two songs between them in the tracklist).

"The Day I Tried To Live" opens with two slinky guitar lines, floating through space and bending reality before the Shepherd's flawless bass line and the dense cracks of the snare. Cornell works some true vocal brilliance, singing about the struggles of pulling yourself out of bed in the morning, painting a dismal portrait with brilliant colors: "The day I tried to live, I wallowed in the blood and mud with all the other pigs". The band's minimalist sprawl of the intro explodes into a million divergent pieces, accenting melodies, displacing rhythms, and stretching structural limits. It's a gloomy song that feels uplifting... and it shouldn't. It's a reflection of anxiety and human interaction, but it's one of the first songs I think of on days when I question my own (not so) creative output; ie: the record label and this here site. 

"4th of July" on the other hand is (triumphantly) claustrophobic in its gloom. Slow and brooding, the emotional heft is immediate from the opening moments of Thayil's crawling riff, a thick cloud of doom that's as heavy as a ton of bricks situated directly on your chest... but it's unbelievably and unflinchingly gorgeous. The song creeps in like a slow moving fog, balancing the sparse heaviness with Cornell's incredible doubled vocal harmony, using both his throat shattering yelps and his deeply bummed croon, pairing together his greatest gifts to create a piece of depressive bliss, both woefully disinterested and screaming against the world as it crumbles around them. Cornell sings, "Naked in the cold sun, breathing life like fire. Thought I was the only one, but that was just a lie. Cause I heard it in the wind and I saw it in the sky. And I thought it was the end, and I thought it was the 4th of July" marveling in his own catastrophic wonder. If the doom genre has a sweet spot, Soundgarden have perfected it.

There are few "joys" to be found on Superunknown (hammered home by "Like Suicide") and yet to those the album has impacted, it's about as close to perfect as a single record gets. There are layers to unfold, rhythms to re-listen to on repeat (seriously, Matt Cameron is unreal), and a world of doom and gloom to analyze and take your own meaning from. It's a timeless album that 23 years after its release feels as fresh and exciting as ever (except for maybe "Black Hole Sun" and "Spoonman" but I blame the same mainstream radio that introduced me to the band for beating those into the ground) and it's the type of record that is undefinably influential on a wealth of bands in all sub genres of rock music.

Soundgarden moved forward yet again with Down On The Upside, a record that abandoned all preconceived notions and went headfirst into progressive tendencies. It's another stunning achievement and every bit as brilliant as the two albums that proceeded it without looking backward. The band's "swan song" showed that as the walls of the grunge era were closing in all around them, Soundgarden were still expanding their vision and their artistic capabilities.

Shorty after the release of Down On The Upside the quartet called it a die, but Cornell stayed busy, he kept working and he continued to explore his creativity with solo albums and new projects. There's a lot than can be said about his post-Soundgarden efforts, but remember this: for every Timbaland produced mishap there was also "Can't Change Me". For every acoustic tour where the members of The Wallflowers struggled to recreate Soundgarden's music there was "You Know My Name," putting Cornell in the elusive club of folks to write a James Bond theme... and let us not pretend the first Audioslave album doesn't have some real gems. However you feel about the past twenty years of Cornell's output, he has remained resilient and Soundgarden's legacy is forever untarnished.

When Soundgarden announced their reunion back in 2010, I was ecstatic. I know what you're thinking... reunions are never a good thing, right? Well, I never had the opportunity to see Soundgarden live during their initial run and the prospect of that opportunity was all I'd ever wanted. I remember the day it was announced. I was at work at Peet's Coffee in Cambridge and I could hardly work. I was legitimately buzzing. I bought plane tickets to their first announced show as the headliners of New Orleans' Voodoo Fest (though they played a warm-up or two before it) and it was everything I could have asked for and more. I got to see them twice more before the release of King Animal, the band's final album and each time I was equally floored by their performances. Even in the worst of settings, festivals and amphitheaters... it didn't matter, nothing else mattered. This is but a small piece of Cornell and his legacy. He battled his inner darkness for as long as he could, and I'll be forever grateful for what we're left to remember him with.

"One more time around (might do it). One more time around (I might make it). The day I tried to live"