May 18, 2017

In dreams until my death, I will wander on. Rest in peace, Chris Cornell

The words you say, never live up to the ones inside your head.  The lives we make, never seem to get us anywhere but dead.

Within a half hour of reading of Chris Cornell's death, the lyrics started flooding my head. All those lines that touched me through the years, from my late 20s when Badmotorfinger was released and I discovered Soundgarden, all the way through my 30s and Euphoria Morning and the end of the one lasting relationship I've had, into my 40s and Audioslave, and then Chris's music changed with his second solo album and I couldn't relate anymore and I discovered Jack White. But even though the new music he was making had changed, the old music was still there.  There was no way any of those old Soundgarden albums or Euphoria Morning or the first Audioslave album could be put aside entirely.  They had meant too much and still did. Still do. Chris's imagery and metaphors could be obscure, but then he'd cut through the obscurity with a line as sharply meaningful as a razor. Or a diamond.  

Dreaming only of the ones who never dream of you... never dream of you.

Prince's death last year was a horrible shock, but this is worse.  I loved Prince's music, but I felt Chris's music.  I've written about a few of his songs in the past-- Like Suicide and I Am The Highway, especially, moved me to words.  

Sitting here like uninvited company, wallowing in my own obscenities...


I've experienced depression and self-hate and Soundgarden was the first band I discovered that reflected what I felt.  It was always so obvious that Chris had also been there and understood and was able to express those feelings in a poetic way that buoyed me up rather than bringing me down. Fell On Black Days was like an anthem for me for years.

There are so, so many others. I could make this post an hour-long read/listen if I, and you, had the time.  But I'll leave it brief.  We've all got our own favorites, our own personal lines and words that touched us and left a mark, helped to define us or to uplift us.  So I felt it was important to take the time to remember just a few of my own, the ones that most immediately came to mind. More will continue to come over the next few days and I'll wish I had included them here.  But I have to go to work. As the title of Chris's second solo album states, we all have to carry on.

On reading of his death this morning, Like a Stone was one of the first that rushed into my head and it's the one that I'm going to end with.  I once read an Audioslave interview in which the other guys in the band talked about how this song came together. They described how Chris just sat in a chair with his eyes closed while they played the music for him and they thought he had checked out, that he wasn't paying any attention. Then he opened his mouth and began to sing the words that'd come to him while he was sitting there with closed eyes.  I hope he's in that house now.

On a cobweb afternoon 
In a room full of emptiness 
By a freeway I confess 
I was lost in the pages 
Of a book full of death 
Reading how we'll die alone 
And if we're good, we'll lay to rest 
Anywhere we want to go 

In your house I long to be 
Room by room patiently 
I'll wait for you there 
Like a stone 
I'll wait for you there 

On my deathbed I will pray 
To the gods and the angels 
Like a pagan to anyone 
Who will take me to heaven 
To a place I recall 
I was there so long ago 
The sky was bruised 
The wine was bled 
And there you led me on 

In your house I long to be 
Room by room patiently 
I'll wait for you there 
Like a stone I'll wait for you there 

And on I read 
Until the day was gone 
And I sat in regret 
Of all the things I've done 
For all that I've blessed 
And all that I've wronged 
In dreams until my death 
I will wander on 

In your house I long to be 
Room by room patiently 
I'll wait for you there 
Like a stone 
I'll wait for you there 

Chris Cornell's "I Am the Highway"

Edit 5/18/2017, upon the sudden and shocking new of Chris Cornell's death:  I'm re-posting this old blog from 2007.  Here is the Civilian/Audioslave demo of this song--

Ok, I have to admit that the first few times I listened to this song (from Audioslave's eponymous debut album), I found it very cheesy. I mean, the dude is singing about not being a flying carpet. Then in May of 2005, I took two weeks off from work and drove the length of Route 50, a mostly 2-lane highway that cuts through the middle of the US from Maryland's eastern shore all the way to San Francisco. Because of the highway and traveling references, I decided that this would be my theme song for the trip. After a few days of listening and thinking about the song as I drove, the words began to mean something to me. I have no idea if my interpretation matches Chris Cornell's intended meaning, but I'd like to think that it might.

Pearls and swine, bereft of me.
Long and weary my road has been.
I was lost in the cities,
Alone in the hills.
No sorrow or pity for leaving I feel.

I am not your rolling wheels
I am the highway
I am not your carpet ride
I am the sky

Friends and liars, don't wait for me,
I'll get on all by myself.
I put millions of miles
Under my heels,
And still too close to you I feel.

I am not your rolling wheels
I am the highway
I am not your carpet ride
I am the sky
I am not your blowing wind
I am the lightning
I am not your autumn moon
I am the night

Things are about to get deep here, and I may ramble a bit, so bear with me. You know how sometimes it's possible to "lose yourself" in a relationship (or at least it is for some people)? To me, this song is about fighting to not lose yourself in that way. Relationships can be damned hard, and one of the things that screws them up the most is the issue of perception. I'm not talking just about romantic relationships here, either. Whether it's with a mother, a friend, a lover, a brother, a colleague at work... in any relationship, we are to the other person what they perceive us to be. They see something in us that fulfills some want or need that they probably don't even realize they have (and vice versa, of course). That's why the first six months of a romantic relationship are so magical: We're busy forming those perceptions, feeling that need satisfied, and haven't gotten to the point at which we begin to feel that maybe that person isn't what we thought they were after all. On the flipside, some people go out of their way to make themselves fit the other person's perceptions, to be what that person wants, just to hold the relationship together. I think that in most cases, all of this happens at an unconscious level, but it really seems to explain that "We just grew apart" thing, as well as the "I lost myself in the relationship" thing.

As a kinda-sorta student of Buddhism, I realized that what it comes down to is seeing things as they really are. In Buddhism, great emphasis is placed on seeing the reality of things, on learning to realize when we're projecting our own "story", our own attachments and aversions, onto an event or person we're dealing with. If you do that in a relationship, then you're just setting yourself up to get miffed when that person doesn't behave as you've come to expect them to, or when they have unrealistic expectations for you. I've dealt with plenty of this myself, from both sides of the coin. From my father and mother, to my sister-in-law, to the last guy I dated, to people at work who just rub me the damned wrong way... After coming to this realization, I now try to stop myself and ask "Am I looking at the reality of this person, or are my own expectations and assumptions getting in the way and creating this issue?" Even harder when you're dealing with someone you care for is to ask "Is this person seeing me as I am, or are they wanting me to be something for them that I'm really not?" Before I begin to sound totally sanctimonious here, let me assure you that I don't always succeed in asking or answering these questions. In any case, even if you can see the reality of the situation, it does no good if the other person can't.

To me, it seems as if the character in Cornell's song is someone at that point in a relationship, someone who's maybe experienced it before and is determined not to again. It's the ultimate anthem to self-realization and independence. This person would rather be on his own than to lose himself to another person in such a way. He'd prefer to be "lost in the cities, alone in the hills" than to be under someone else's thumb just for the sake of being in a relationship.

To take it a step further, he even tells the person on the other side of the relationship what's going on. When he sings "I am not your carpet ride, I am the sky", he's saying "Not only am I not just what you see me as being, I'm more than you can even comprehend of me as. I am greater than your conception of me and I will not be boxed in by your expectations." "No sorrow or pity for leaving I feel." A bit harsh, perhaps, but sometimes that's what it takes to get through to that other person.

Again, I have no idea if this is really what the song is about, it's just what it means to me. For all I know, Cornell was stretching his metaphoric muscles in another direction and I'm totally off-base. Either way, it's become a personal anthem of sorts. "I am the highway...", indeed.

If you can, try to get ahold of the demo version of the song that was leaked to the internet back when Audioslave was still just a rumour. Cornell's vocals on the chorus are much more dramatic. And, yeah, I realize that it's really Audioslave's song, but the words are Chris' so as far as I'm concerned it's his song (No offense to Tom, Tim and Brad. Sorry, guys.).

May 7, 2017

A lifetime of blues


Of all the old blues guys who were rediscovered in the 1960s, none changed as obviously and profoundly over the intervening years as Son House.  In that Paramount Records recording up there, from way back in 1930, it's obvious he's a young man in the prime of his life. His voice is rich with vitality, his singing is strong and effortless.  In 1965, when Alan Wilson was asked to help him remember how to play his own songs for the Father of the Delta Blues record, his voice was still resonant, but it wasn't youthful vitality that gave it its hypnotic power-- It was the sound of weariness coming out of that aged throat, as if the weight of the world was pressing on his shoulders as he sat in front of the mic.

Try playing these two songs together at the same time.  You won't hear this dramatic a difference in the singing of Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Howlin' Wolf, or any of House's contemporaries who were still performing in the 60s.  As extraordinary as all of those other musicians were, this is what makes him the superlative representative of blues music.  You don't even have to know anything about him to know that he lived what he sang.  It's in his voice, or rather, what his voice became.