I just keep rowing

Of course I love Soundgarden. Released in 1991, when I was just 21, Badmotorfinger was my introduction to their unique style and I remember a shiver went down my spine when I heard the opening strains to Rusty Cage. For years after I had Soundgarden on constant rotation: their Screaming Life EP, Ultramega OK, and my favorite Louder than Love. I drop-tuned my guitar and sat up all night, every night, trying to learn how to play Thayil’s unique rhythms. But despite being a guitar player and Thayil being one of my favorites it was Cornell’s voice and lyrics that sold me on Soundgarden.

Chris was unique. His voice could range from a low grumble, a whisper of quiet hurt, to a full scream in an instant. Not the uncontrolled rage scream of many other grunge artists, but a sonic elbow to the solar plexus. When Chris hit you with a note, you knew it.

Soundgarden was my soundtrack between 1991 and 1993. I was at that age as a young man where I was trying to throw off the shackles of my youth and so just the idea of breaking out of my “rusty cage” and running appealed to me. Ironically, I wasn’t in any cage at all, I lived in Tacoma, Richmond (Va.), crisscrossed the nation in a Greyhound bus, and even lived out of my car for a while. I literally owned a guitar, an amp, and a duffle bag with clothes. That was my cage.

I’m now more rusted in my cage than ever. Where could I possibly run to if I broke free today? What would I be breaking free from? Free from my daughter? I don’t want that. I like my cage. I like the rust. 21 year old Tim would probably call me a sell out, fat, and wonder why he ever gave up on his dream to be in a band like Soundgarden. 21 year old Tim was a jerk.

In 1992 I even spent 6 hours in the mud and rain, braving porta-potties piled high with dung, a three hour drive up and back, and $5 bottles of water, to see Soundgarden live at Lollapalooza.

We waited through an awful set by Ministry, a bunch of other opening bands stinking the place up, a rain delay, sound problems, and when they finally played, the crowd exploded. You can see in the video the choking fog of sweat given off by the crowd as we moshed in slippery mud to an hour long set of our favorite songs. I just remember being held upright in the slick mud by sweaty bodies and literally gasping for breath after about 20 minutes. And of course, I remember the music. It was a heroic set. Chris was electric.

But you, if you’re a fan of Soundgarden, already know all of this. You probably have your own teen-angst story about them and it probably kicks off about the time they dropped Superunknown.

Superunknown is Soundgarden’s best album. And it’s dark. It appeals to young people because it’s dark, and brooding, and beautiful all at the same time. Fell on Black Days is the single song which defines that album and Chris’ maturity for me. I still, to this day, whisper these lyrics to myself in bad times.

Whatsoever I’ve feared has come to life
Whatsoever I’ve fought off became my life

Just when everyday seemed to greet me with a smile
Sunspots have faded and now I’m doing time
Now I’m doing time’

Cause I fell on black days
I fell on black days

Whomsoever I’ve cured, I’ve sickened now
And whomsoever I’ve cradled, I’ve put you down
I’m a search light soul they say
But I can’t see it in the night
I’m only faking when I get it right
When I get it right
‘Cause I fell on black days
I fell on black days
How would I know
That this could be my fate?
These are lyrics from a young man who is sensitive to the world beyond his years. Who among us hasn’t felt like the universe is collaborating against them? That no matter how much we try to do good we still get it wrong? Who hasn’t felt like they were faking it when they got it right? I’m 46 and I feel like a fraud every day. Whenever something intelligent escapes my body I feel like I lucked into it. And of course the road to my own personal hell is paved with good intentions. How does a young man see these things that I am only now realizing?

Within a few months after Superunknown went platinum, Kurt Cobain killed himself. Suddenly people were combing through Kurt’s lyrics looking for answers to the question “why.” After Kurt people started asking questions about Chris’ lyrics and wondering if he too was suicidal.

Chris was asked about the darkness of his lyrics in 1995 and he responded perfectly:

You’ve written more than a few doom-laden songs. Is it legitimate to read a songwriter’s demise into his lyrics after the fact?

When Andy (Wood of Mother Love Bone) died, I couldn’t listen to his songs for about two years after that, and it was for that reason – his lyrics often seem as though they can tell a story. But then again, my lyrics often could tell the same one. In terms of seeing everything as a matter of life and death – if that’s what you’re feeling at the time, then that’s exactly what you’re going to write. It’s sort of a morbid exchange when somebody who is a writer like that dies, and then everyone starts picking through all their lyrics.

In Kurt’s case, whatever he was thinking and whatever he was writing, there wasn’t an arrow pointing at what his demise was. It’s a stream of thought though, it’s a possibility – it’s definitely something that somebody was feeling when they were writing. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t, either.

I am not going to enter into a morbid exchange with Chris’ lyrics. I don’t know why Chris did what he did. The temptation is far too strong to look back through his massive catalog and pick out the pieces of his writing that fit the narrative we need to craft to make sense of his death. But I do have a story about his life which I think better illustrates the man he was and how we should remember him.

In 2013 my friend Tiffany was dying of cancer. This was her second go around with the disease and this time things weren’t looking good.

Tiffany loved Soundgarden. When we all chipped in to get her an iPad, I had it inscribed on the back to read “searching for the ground, with my good eye closed” a lyric from one of my favorite songs off Badmotorfinger: it’s another snippet of Chris’ poetry that informs my life and reminds me that everyone is just like me, searching for happiness in all the wrong ways.

Tiffany had been to every concert she could possibly go to and even flew down to California for a show in 2012 when things first turned bad. There she met another fan and they hit it off immediately. This other woman took a chance and emailed Chris Cornell’s manager, recounting Tiffany’s story and her battle with cancer, and revealing that it was Tiffany’s dream to one day meet Chris Cornell in person.

I don’t know more of the details, other than the fact that the meeting happened. From what I gather, Chris was touched by the story and gave Tiffany and her husband Jimmy backstage passes to a show here in Seattle. After the show they were invited into Chris’ dressing room where they hung out for a while, talked about life, and took some staged photos.

But there was one candid photo where Tiffany and Chris first meet and she launches herself into his arms. I don’t know who took this photo but I suspect it was her husband Jimmy. In it you can see him just vulnerable, and I will probably read too much into this, but I see a deep compassion in his face.

Soon after that photo was taken, cancer took Tiffany and when Chris Cornell heard of her passing, he tweeted out his condolences.

Tiffany’s favorite song on Soundgarden’s 2012 King Animal album was Rowing. Chris played her that song at the concert. The lyrics go:

Moving is breathing and breathing is life
Stopping is dying
You’ll be alright
Life is a hammer waiting to drop
Drifting the shallows and the rowing won’t stop

Don’t know where I’m going I just keep on rowing.

Tiffany stopped rowing in 2013.

Chris stopped rowing in 2017.

May they both rest in peace.

Qq

22 Comments on I just keep rowing

  1. Beautiful. Made me think of this:

    “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

  2. The lyrics to Fell On Black Days have been echoing in my head now for nearly two days. I still can’t believe it, and I am having a hard time processing this one more than others.

    In that song he is referring to so many missteps he took in his life. He brought them on himself, the Black Days. But *how could he know*, indeed.

    Thank you for this post. You are a lost brother I never knew I had, even the U21 Tim would have been…

    Hug your little girl and bake more bread. I am going to check in on a few (sometimes self-destructive) musician friends just for the heck of it. And hug my little girls too. Keep rowing Tim and cheers.

  3. Really fine Tim. I don’t know Soundgarden’s music, but we’ve all got a story like this (or should have).
    For me the big hit came when Joe Strummer died.
    Thanks for writing this and all power to you mate.

  4. I was coming of age with the dawn of the grunge. My cousin was visiting from the USA at the time and introduced me to Nirvana before I discovered Soundgarden. Funny thing is, that’s when I started watching the Arsenal. When the premier league began and the international telecasts began in 1992. Chris Cornell’s voice and songwriting carried me through some great ought times. RIP

  5. You are a good man, Tim. I’m so glad that I have been reading your posts for almost a decade now.

  6. Man, thanks so much for taking a break from Arsenal to write about Cornell. It’s weird how sad I feel about this, but I guess it makes sense given when in my life I discovered Soundgarden (an angsty 19-year-old in 1991), how much I idolized Cornell, and that this is the first time a musician I really connected with has died. I’ve read elsewhere that people never connect to music in their lives in quite the same way as they do as an adolescent through the 20s. Something about this particular formative period bonds deeply with whatever one happens to be binge-listening to. And man, I binge-listened to Badmotorfinger for years.

    I, too, learned all of Thayil’s licks on the guitar (even though, unfortunately, the cover bands I played with weren’t all that interested in grunge). And, I, too, moshed like hell at Lollapalooza 1992 where, yes, Ministry sucked, RHCP were disappointing, Pearl Jam were good, but Soundgarden were the real reason I was there, and they tore it up.

    Love that picture of your friend and Cornell. I agree with you about the compassion. From everything I’ve read about Chris Cornell, he was a genuine and caring guy. The suffering often are.

  7. Thank you everyone.

    Full disclosure: I edited the piece for a few errors and to clean up some formatting.

  8. I think compassion is one of the most underrated traits in humanity. Individually everyone appreciates it when they need it, but as a society we seem to be actively selecting against it. Not only do we disincentivize it with a sink or swim economic structure, but outside of certain specific genres, narratives that celebrate it or attempt to call it forth are actively suppressed. Maybe it’s because we’d rather identify with a ‘winner’ or maybe the depth and sheer randomness of misfortune is too terrifying, but more often than not we look for bad guys so that we may indulge in our two minutes of hate.

    Thank you Tim.

  9. Soundgarden were one of the first bands I discovered for myself. I sought them out aged 17, knew I would love them, and still do. Stole the tab music book for badmotorfinger because I couldn’t afford it (sorry Chris) and learned how to play the album back to front. To be honest I wanted to hate Chris Cornell for his looks and talent – I was a jerk too and was not into egotistical front men – but he always threw me. He was focused, intelligent, brave and the songwriting managed to be profound and playful at the same time. There was nothing not to admire. I’m a little lost.

  10. I remember your eulogy to Tiffany on the blog. Wonderful that she got to meet one of the greatest rock vocalists and song writers of the last 30 years.

    It’s not music we cover as a band but my current lot are all big Soundgarden fans. I didn’t discover them until Superunknown but quickly backtracked to Badmotorfinger.

    One of their big hits is sad but the melody is amazing. Probably a lot like Chris was:

    Black hole sun, won’t you come
    And wash away the rain?
    Black hole sun, won’t you come?
    Won’t you come? Won’t you come?

  11. i sorta became a soundgarden fan in fall of 1992. i was either nineteen or 20 years old at the time and was in north georgia doing this course the army has called ranger school. someone began humming the song “rusty cage” and it became the theme song for the rest of the course. ironically, i didn’t buy the cd until 1999 at a used cd shop in tacoma (it was only $.99). i also bought pearl jam and nirvana cds that day.

    i wouldn’t qualify myself as a legitimate soundgarden fan. it was simply part of the soundtrack of my life in my early twenties because everyone was playing it. another cool irony is that my son, who’s almost thirteen, plays drums and loves trying to cover rusty cage. he’ll be upstairs with his headphones on but i hear the beat and know what he’s playing. it takes me back to those cold, rainy nights in the mountains of north georgia. rusty cage helped me survive one of the toughest tests of my life.

    bummer about your friend and one of your favorite musicians. music is so important for people at that age. i’m sure you weren’t a jerk. hell, at twenty-one, you’re still trying to figure out who you are. that discovery has helped shape you into the person you are now and we’re all fans. just keep rowing.

  12. Every time you drop a non-Arsenal blog in here it’s golden
    Yes you brought me to tears
    Thanks for sharing Tim

  13. I discovered Pearl Jam accidentally in 2002. I was 10. I started playing the guitar two years earlier but didn’t feel a connection with the instrument.
    Then I started listening to Seattle sound. I was blown away by Layne Staley’s voice and amazing dissonant harmonics he made with Jerry Cantrell. Amazed by simplicity and emotions of Nirvana songs. Loved guitar work of Gossard and McCready graced with deep baritone of Eddie Vedder.

    And then I put my hands on Temple of the Dog record. And I discovered a new voice that sounded like nothing I have ever heard before. Chris Cornell’s voice. Somehow I got Soundgarden records and I couldn’t believe someone is able to sing like that.
    I started learning english listening to songs of all afromentioned bands. I started loving guitar and practising hard. I fell in love with music. I may be data analyst at the end of master studies right now but music is what drives me, what I create and perform. Seattle sound is my background and reason for it.

    As I was growing up, I’ve followed Pearl Jam around the world a bit. I was lucky enough to make it to the US and PJ20 festival they had for the 20th anniversary. It was a dream come true for me coming all the way from Poland to see my beloved band there. And during the encore on the first day Chris Cornell joined them and they played a few Temple of the Dog songs as well as Mother Love Bone’s Stardog Champion.
    I remember clearly, I had shivers down my spine while hearing his voice. I experienced that only a few times in my life. That’s the voice that hits you straight into soul.

    I saw Soundgarden once in 2013 in Berlin. I don’t think I found my jaw dropped on the floor to this day.

    His ability was insane, his ideas were brilliant, lyrics deep, his dedication during live shows was always great.

    Can’t believe he’s gone.

    Say Hello to Heaven Chris.

  14. The greats, I mean the real greats do inspire people. I never had a choice. I was drawn to music like a moth to a flame. I grew up in as a kid in the sixties. I’m a tail end Baby Boomer. And I’M so thankful for that. Stevie and Aretha and Motown and the British Invasion, John, Paul, George and Ringo. Wakes me in the morning and puts to sleep at night and paid my kids college education.

    And football, always footie, and the Arsenal come what may.

  15. I was never a Soundgarden fan – a little bit before my time. But I remember when Chris Cornell joined Audioslave. I knew he was a big shot frontman, but I didn’t like it at all because I was a huge Rage Against the Machine fan, and I felt it was a betrayal of that band’s style.

    But I listened to Audioslave anyway, and man that was one hell of a voice. I am the Highway won me over and got me through a particularly painful breakup. And from there I delved into Chris’ previous work.

    His passing has made me very sad.

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