How Chris Cornell Made Change Not So Scary

posted by Jonathan - 

Change happens. Transitions are scary. I think most people don’t really mind change, but we struggle to deal with the fear involved in the transitions. This past week I was able to take advantage of some promotions to make my cell phone, internet, and t.v. services less expensive, but it came with a cost to my psyche—what channels, functionality, saved DVR recordings, or sentimental keep-sakes will get lost? Transitions can be scary. So, to deal with the stress of it all, I sat up watching some of my favorite concerts and shows. It was a little tough because the joy and challenge of those sorts of things is the time it takes to enjoy them truly. But there I sat making sense of loss of things that, in the grand scheme, aren’t important at all.

One of the shows I had recorded some time ago was the Soundgarden episode of the Guitar Center Sessions series. The concept of the show was Nic Harcourt interviewing the band, interspersed with clips of them performing live. In some of the episodes, Harcourt could ask brilliant questions, but in this one he just didn’t know his stuff—so the band carried him, despite his seeming not to understand their sense of humor.

Soundgarden, despite some public ignorance on the subject, was foundational to what came to be known as “grunge” rock from Seattle in the early 1990s. Their frontman, the late Chris Cornell, was possibly my favorite singer of the last 30 years because he could sing the hard-edged Soundgarden songs that he wrote with a supernatural presence and tone. Nobody sang like Cornell. But in addition to his amazing voice, he was a great song writer and he could give super interviews. He was smart, witty, humble, and seemed to be patient with most of the interviews I’ve seen.

During one of the interview segments, Harcourt asked the band about what the “grunge” idea was all about. Cornell said that while “grunge” was a cooked-up term that really didn’t define anything because the bands it applied to don’t really sound much alike. But he said the one thing about it was that it might have represented the last great growth to the art form of rock music. 

By now, it was 1 AM and there I was reflecting on whether rock music has evolved any in the last 25 years. 

Ok, so there were the Foo Fighters, but they truly evolved from the Seattle scene and could be understood that way. Great bands like Bush, Breaking Benjamin, and Stone Sour have been interesting, clearly evolving their sounds from the heavier tonal themes of some of the Seattle bands. Most of the great rock records from the last 25 years either derived from the Seattle bands or they were artists already around before, during, and through the early and mid-90s--Metallica, Red Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, U2. Still, I haven’t spent enough time thinking about whether rock has seen much positive growth to speak too deeply on the subject, but I know that even if I can’t appreciate it yet, maybe I’m missing some good things. Maybe rock has lost an edge, but what if something else is emerging that I might miss if I keep dwelling on the past? Things change and our responsibility isn’t to keep changes from happening, but to get used to them with grace.

Nostalgia is such a temptation. Looking back on some perfect time is as natural to most of us as breathing. Our memories sometimes play tricks on us by convincing us that things really used to be so much greater than they are now. I think one of the hardest things about growing up is being honest about our memories and not idealizing them. When Cornell looked back on his career and over the years, he didn’t seem to have much patience for the media-generated portrayals of what came out of Seattle’s rock scene—they tend to be too idealized and cheaply categorized--he was much more interested in getting to the next song and not trying to react to what has gone before. He was so comfortable embracing that the past is over and that it’s time to move forward that he made me, for just a split second, not so afraid of moving forward even if it meant letting go of some DVR recordings.

The deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington last year, and David Bowie and Prince the year before, helped some folks put life in perspective (maybe me, too, but the jury is still out). We likely will have to give up some things as life changes, even our heroes and loved ones—one day some of them will have to give us up. The transitions will happen and we can’t stop them anymore than we can stop change itself. As Yoda says, “It is the way of things.” The past is over and trying to recreate it keeps us from staying present in the moments we actually live in. If I’m to be courageous in my life, one of the first things I have to do is to stay present in the alive-now, not sleeping among the dead past or hiding from a terrifying future. Staying in the alive-now means keeping it all in perspective, knowing what truly matters and what’s really no more valuable than a DVR recording.

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