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Guest Column: The View from the Back, Ep. IV

Posted by - 12:05 PM on 12/29/11
Today sees the fourth installment of Paul Shirley's The View from the Back column, and it's about an unlikely musician. Head to the replies to read Shirley's opinion about a recent Chris Cornell solo show and how it made him rethink the artist, and remember you can always email him or get at him on Twitter.
 
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12:06 PM on 12/29/11
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Thomas Nassiff
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The View from the Back Ep. IV - Chris Cornell By Paul Shirley

It started as nostalgia, down to the route. My friend Casey and I drove past the house where I grew up, where I first heard the guy we were going to see when I unwrapped a CD by the band he sometimes sings for. Then past the Ramada where I went to prom and where one of his songs could very well have been played by some badly-mustachioed guy from Powerhouse DJs. And then, three hours later, our destination: the dusty Midwestern town of Salina, Kansas, which happens to be the place I played my last high school basketball game, a first round state championship loss to Marysville High School.

We ate dinner in Salina’s well-preserved downtown, at a pizza joint that could have been transported straight from the sixties, down to the music being played overhead. After paying our bill, we walked two blustery blocks to the Stiefel Theater, where half of this frontier town, it seemed, had turned up for the sold-out show.

Then, a few minutes after nine, the man who I assumed would push my Delorean to 88 took the stage with a shy smile. He joked with the audience for two minutes.

And then he picked up his guitar, and he set about gently escorting nostalgia to the door.

I didn’t expect much from Chris Cornell’s solo show, in large part because I watched Soundgarden (for the first time, I will sheepishly admit) last summer at a Lollapalooza pre-show at Chicago’s branch of the House Of Blues.

That show was a massive disappointment. Because I’d never seen the band before, I didn’t know exactly why. Was Soundgarden always disappointing, or had they only been disappointing in this instance – because they were rusty or because Kim Thayil hadn’t gotten enough sleep or because Soundgarden just doesn’t have it anymore.

My lasting impression was of Cornell ruining everything. A strong statement, to be sure, but it seemed to my untrained ears and eyes that Chris Cornell was the weak link in Soundgarden. His voice, forever impressive in its own right, was too much for the songs he was singing. He couldn’t play within the band; he was constantly trying to – pardon the obvious word trick – outshine it. I told my then-girlfriend that whomever had produced Soundgarden’s albums must be a genius for his ability to rein in Chris Cornell in recorded form.

But solo Chris Cornell is far different than lead singer Chris Cornell.

Nostalgia lurked in Salina, forming the framework of Cornell’s set. As he played them, I realized I’d forgotten how many songs Chris Cornell has had a hand in. And I’d forgotten how many of those songs were a part of my life. The Soundgarden, of course. And those few Temple Of The Dog songs. But Audioslave, too. And his solo work, which is better than we think.

But nostalgia stayed in the hallway. Because it turns out that Chris Cornell has turned a corner; he’s not just the lead man of Soundgarden. He’s the quintessential solo act. Relaxed, confident, funny, good-looking, but most of all, equipped with a head full of songs and a voice sent from Olympus or Delphi or built by the perfect cocktail of genetic material and a transcendent third-grade music teacher. (Speculative.)

When Cornell hit the high hard ones in “Hunger Strike,” belting out that famous line…

I don’t mind stealing bread from the mouths of decadence,


But I don’t feed on the powerless, because my cup’s already overfilled.


…and the crowd at the Stiefel Theater got to its feet to cheer, well, it was impossible to be think of Chris Cornell as anything but exactly what we were watching: A poet, a troubadour, a vocalist – everything a solo act should be.

Chris Cornell is different now. He’s not different in a way that is depressing, or disappointing, or sad. Chris Cornell is different because he’s older and because the things he wants to sing about – and the ways he wants to sing them – aren’t the same as they were when he was 25.

He’s done the near-impossible. He’s relegated to the sideline the nostalgia of a largely nostalgic act.

And he’s found the place he was destined to arrive: onstage, alone, with nothing to depend on but his guitar, his voice, his songs, and himself.

When Cornell was finished, after two and a half hours that included almost every song we could have wanted to hear, Casey and I set off for Kansas City. Three hours out of Salina, past that Ramada Inn, past my parents’ house.

The next day, I listened to Superunknown, that album I unwrapped when I was a teenager, because I couldn’t imagine not doing so. And for the first time, I wasn’t disappointed that I never saw Soundgarden in their prime.

Because the night before, I’d seen Chris Cornell in his.
12:07 PM on 12/29/11
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Thomas Nassiff
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We can skip the "A New Hope" jokes.
12:44 PM on 12/29/11
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Jack Appleby
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Always enjoy this column. Also enjoy not being the only basketball-playing writer.
12:49 PM on 12/29/11
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Holly HoX!
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Never liked Soundgarden. Thought there were a couple good Audioslave tracks. Not much to say about Chris. I think there are better lyricist and singers from that era in my opinion. Oh well, nice article.
01:12 PM on 12/29/11
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Thomas Nassiff
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Always enjoy this column. Also enjoy not being the only basketball-playing writer.
Uh me
01:20 PM on 12/29/11
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Jack Appleby
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Never liked Soundgarden. Thought there were a couple good Audioslave tracks. Not much to say about Chris. I think there are better lyricist and singers from that era in my opinion. Oh well, nice article.
I'll give you the lyricist part, since that's totally subjective, but I feel like there really aren't many singers better than Cornell. The guy is a vocal monster.

I'm not even a big fan, mind you. But the dude has a killer voice.
01:25 PM on 12/29/11
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phaynes1
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01:26 PM on 12/29/11
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phaynes1
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I like the column a lot, very well written. Not a huge Cornell fan. I always liked his bands but only for instrumental reasons. His latest solo cd is also one of the most awful things I've ever heard. But I gotta say, "Hunger Strike," is a jam and a half.
03:33 PM on 12/29/11
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Simpleminded writer makes correction: The Soundgarden show referenced was at the Vic, not the House Of Blues. Sorry.

And thanks, everyone, for reading this. I'm enjoying writing here.

-Paul
03:34 PM on 12/29/11
Rob McWilliams
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I'll give you the lyricist part, since that's totally subjective, but I feel like there really aren't many singers better than Cornell. The guy is a vocal monster.

I'm not even a big fan, mind you. But the dude has a killer voice.

This. Dude's got an amazing range.
04:04 PM on 12/29/11
Adam Pfleider
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Simpleminded writer makes correction: The Soundgarden show referenced was at the Vic, not the House Of Blues. Sorry.

And thanks, everyone, for reading this. I'm enjoying writing here.

-Paul
Paul, hit me back about that e-mail I sent you if you get the chance. loving these.
04:55 PM on 12/29/11
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Pretty good in my opinion. Audioslave was always my favorite band he was in.
06:49 PM on 12/29/11
whiterussian
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I think he's doing pretty good.

Soundgarden will never be quite the same as it was back then, because of Chris's spent voice, but I'd still love to see them if I ever get the chance.

I love Superunknown so much.
09:43 PM on 12/29/11
KingsCrossing
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My mom made me download his recent solo record for her after hearing his cover of "Imagine". I gave the album a couple of spins and got into it myself, which led me to dig back into Audioslave's first album that I've also been spinning quite a lot recently.

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