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.


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