Late last night, as I struggled to decide if I could write a poem…an anything, I decided to fold down the sun umbrella on the back porch. It had been an 80 degree day and the night sky was clear. Somehow, we went from having the worst winter in Seattle on the history books (4 feet of rain. Yes, you read that right.), to seemingly skipping Spring altogether, and going straight into Summer.
As the umbrella came down, the sky was revealed, and along with it, an array of constellations looming overhead straight out of a movie. I brought my laptop out, sat on my Mexican falsa blanket, and soon I was joined by my cat who curled up on my lap. She has been needing extra TLC since her surgery last week to remove a mast cell tumor the size of a silver dollar. She has to wear a cone for two weeks as she has an impressive set of stitches…18 to be exact. She’s beat my record of 13 staples. She’s only managed to pull out one stitch…so far.
As she fell asleep into kitty dreamland, I couldn’t move my arm. Well, I could, I just didn’t have the heart. So, I stopped trying to force myself to write and just sat there with her and stargazed. In the distant background, a chirping sound that at first sounded like crickets. “But…we don’t have crickets in this part of Washington. Do we? Could a five minute move north have made that much of a difference?” I thought to myself. The longer I sat, the more clear it became that they were frogs chirping their spring mating call at 11pm at night. I guess that’s a popular time for them, too.
Above me, Ursa Major, the bear constellation from which the Big Dipper comes. Behind me, Cassiopeia. To my left: Jupiter as bright as a small sun, on an upward trajectory passing through a neighbors pine tree, shining still, like a spotlight. As I watched a plane come from over the Puget Sound and pass by, I spotted a satellite. You can always tell by their predictable and steady line and velocity. I wondered what data might it be transmitting and receiving. Could it see me?
In my eyes, a huge shooting star fell from the sky. In my ear, I was listening to Chris Cornell’s album “Songbook” from 2011, a compilation put together of live acoustic versions of his music spanning his career. I only just bought it yesterday. I kick myself for not catching up with more of his recent work in these last several years. This particular album is a work of art. What people may not know is that not only did he have “that voice,” but he could play one mean guitar. The two of them alone together is pure magic.
Do yourself a favor and give a listen to this album sometime. I promise you, you will be transported in its transcendency. If you only remember “Black Hole Sun,” whether by generational gap, distance, location, musical taste, then expectedly, you can not fully know the level, the depth of this man’s musical brilliance and talent and poetic beauty. Hell, I’m still discovering him in new ways, at age 40, having grown up with him in Seattle.
Right now…I live five minutes north of Chris’s elementary school, and five minutes south of his high school. This is within my very personal sphere of existence. I can feel him here. I routinely pass areas they were known to be inspired by, to write about, to sing and to film videos:
In Magnolia, Discovery Park is the site of the Temple of the Dog video “Hunger Strike.” At Magnuson Park, the sculpture they named themselves after, “A Sound Garden,” features tall pipes that turn in the wind and make sound. I was just there last summer. At Volunteer Park, the sculpture “Black Sun” inspired their “Black Hole Sun.” The list goes on.
When I was in high school, I recorded my high school jazz band album at Bad Animals Studio in Belltown two months before Soundgarden recorded their Grammy-winning album Superunknown in the same studio. Crazy, right?
Seattle is one large neighborhood, as one speaker — at the packed and incredibly moving impromptu KEXP memorial — noted in his speech. At least…it used to feel that way back in those days. With the overtake of tech workers eating up the city, we struggle to recognize the soul of Seattle now. That is why being a local here is something uncommonly special. It is why it was hard to be at the fountain with my flowers and only see a dozen or so others who trickled by over the course of the day show up with theirs. With Kurt’s death, we had hundreds. Those who were not here during Chris’s time cannot have the emotional connection we do. It’s not a sleight, it’s just the truth.
This is why this is personal to me, to this city, to the people who have lived here with his music in their blood, his lyrics in their bones, who shared the view of a gray sky and ocean waves with him, who watched him explode into the spotlight. He should be known, we want(ed) to share him, his voice is both alternately angelic and dark, whatever he needed to be, whatever we needed — he was.
On the day the news broke of his death, I went to my favorite record store and bought the vinyl for Superunknown and Temple of the Dog, two albums that have been on my must-buy list since recently coming back to owning a turntable. Somewhere, in a packed box, I have my tapes and CDs of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Mudhoney; all of which had been in heavy rotation in my bedroom of my childhood home.
While the world and time I grew up in had its struggles, trauma, pain, fear…I could count on the big 4 (or 5, if you want to included Alice in Chains) Seattle grunge pioneers, for respite in their lyrics, relief in their screams, tears in their ballads, to do what I couldn’t always do on my own: express my emotions to the people in my life. When others were blind, would not hear, could not feel how I felt…Chris, Kurt, Layne, Eddie…could.
Chris’s impact on music cannot be overestimated. If it weren’t for him, Eddie would not have gotten his start here in Seattle. He nurtured him after Eddie moved here from San Diego, and brought him on to the Temple of the Dog album, his first time recording. And Eddie is not the only one. Chris had a way of inspiring musicians that he knew and those he didn’t. Just as his music has inspired millions of fans on a global scale.
Recently, I read an article with a video link to someone commenting on his passing. In his segment, he mentioned that when artists are at the height of creating, it is usually after a period of time that had emotional significance, not during; that it is in the moments of clarity and reflection where the art is made.
This struck me. I look at my own writing. And while there are moments of venting in the heat of the moment, a majority of the writing I do to process things is after the fact (sometimes years), when there has been silence, down time, deep reflection.
Chris wrote about many dark things. He also wrote about light, fight, and survival. Even the darkness he wrote about had elements of light. People will naturally look for signs in his songs, and of course connections will be made. He struggled and fought depression and addiction. He had been sober for many years. He most likely should not have been allowed to be on something with nasty side effects like Ativan (Dr. Drew also said as much). I am inclined to believe his wife’s statement that he told her he may have taken “an extra Ativan or two,” and was “just tired,” as he slurred to her in his last call.
Ativan can cause severe side effects such as hallucinations and suicide ideation/attempts. I had to take it temporarily in high school during the years my brother’s bipolar episodes were causing emotional trauma. On a low and normal dose, I felt like I couldn’t form words. I hated it. It numbed me out. I can’t imagine what adding two or three times the prescribed dose would do to someone, especially a recovered addict. (Never stop Ativan cold turkey without seeing your doctor for supervision. It must be tapered off gradually with doctor’s permission.) I have no doubt he was not of lucid mind and would never have consciously left his three beautiful children and his wife, whom he loved dearly.
In the week prior to Chris’s death, my own writing was quiet. I have been writing virtually daily for over a year here with barely more than a day of quiet here or there. But, this last week, the brain stalled. Perhaps I sensed something subconsciously.
And then something that cannot be explained, or perhaps it can: on Wednesday night, I had a lengthy, vivid, visceral dream of sobbing uncontrollably for someone who had died. I did not know who this someone was, but while in the dream, I clearly knew. I was reading their words and bawling incessantly.
I woke up disturbed, exhausted in body, in lungs; the kind of dream where you can feel you’ve been acting it out in your sleep. The first thing I did was look at my phone where the notification had popped up overnight of his death. Taken aback, shocked, in disbelief.
I have cried almost every day since. No dream. But life.
And I am merely one example of the kind of reach he had into hearts. Multiply stories like this a million fold, and this is why this man’s departure is so achingly felt.
But, nothing compares to his family’s pain. And if this is what we feel, one cannot presume to know the depths of grief they feel.
His beautiful daughter Toni has been gifted with a voice as well. You can see the love in both of their eyes in this heart melting duet: