There’s Just One Thing Left to Be Said

Chris Cornell is dead – those words still don’t make sense – and I haven’t stopped thinking about him since I got HLP Paul’s text (which read, simply, “Chris Cornell,” followed by the shocked emoji) and became catatonic early Thursday. At first I avoided his voice (and music in general), then actively sought it out: I listened to Temple of the Dog, which helped, then “Seasons,” which didn’t, before moving onto Audioslave for the first time in ages. I’ve been avoiding it again this weekend. The thoughts, meanwhile, have been non-stop but incoherent, which I suppose is inevitable when someone who’s been in your life for twenty years, suddenly passes away.

One thought, though, has stuck, and that’s the awful image of his final moments on this earth: Chris Cornell – husband, father, beloved rock star, and my favourite singer of all-time – dead in a hotel bathroom. He changed the world; he changed me. And he died alone, almost certainly by his own hand.

I’ve never been suicidal, and so I can’t imagine the sort of hell Chris Cornell must’ve been occupying in order to consider ending his life, let alone acting on those thoughts. His lyrics offer the best clues (see “When I’m Down” from Euphoria Mourning, for instance), but beyond empathizing with his plight we can’t know what he was thinking or feeling when he arrived back at the MGM Grand Detroit following Soundgarden’s concert at the Fox Theatre. But whenever someone kills themselves, especially someone rich and famous, someone else will almost invariably offer the option that he (or she) shouldn’t have been depressed because he (or she) was rich and famous. That opinion is bullshit. And that’s because mental illness doesn’t. give. a. shit.

Mental illness didn’t give a shit that Chris Cornell and his band were scheduled to play Columbus Friday night. Mental illness didn’t give a shit that Robin Williams was funny. Mental illness didn’t give a shit that Kurt Cobain had been crowned as the voice of his generation; in fact, mental illness used that against him. Mental illness didn’t care about those men; it didn’t care about their wives or kids or careers or money. It doesn’t care about me. And it doesn’t care about you, either.

That, to me, is the lesson to be drawn from Cornell’s death. To borrow from Lin-Manuel Miranda: mental illness doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. Thinking that it does is how stigma metastasizes. Rich Larson, who wrote a far more eloquent Cornell eulogy than mine, nailed this point to the wall when he wrote:

Cornell is speaking to us all one last time. This isn’t something we left behind with our twenties. This isn’t something cured by age or financial security. This isn’t something you “outgrow.” If it’s allowed to fester, depression is stronger than wisdom. Depression is insidious and tenacious. Depression can get to anybody. It can make you feel like an old man at 27. It can make you feel lost as a child at 52.

Chris Cornell was sick. In some cases, depression is little more than a blip in a person’s life. In others, it can be fatal if left untreated. Please: don’t let it get to that point. Reach out (or reach down, if you prefer). Don’t assume mental illness can be outrun, because in a lot of instances it can’t. But it can be managed, and that starts with a single conversation. If there’s a silver lining to Chris Cornell’s death – and I have to believe there is – it’s that it might help one single person open up. And that’s something to cling to, even as we continue to mourn.

On Last Night’s Bike Ride

Last week I slashed my antidepressant dosage by a third, from 15mg a day to 10. My OCD’s at a point where it hardly ever affects me: I haven’t had a flare-up since last October, if not last July, and while that doesn’t mean I’m “cured” or anything (since there is no cure) it’s still a wonderful development.

But. Psychotropic drugs are meant to mess with your body, and any sort of adjustment, big or small, is going to have an impact. I’ve felt “off” since last week, and yesterday I was so lethargic I could hardly sit upright, let alone stand. Nonetheless, after work I came home, hopped on the bike, and went for a ride. We’re just a little over three weeks out from the Ride to Conquer Cancer; I need to get my miles in, withdrawal symptoms be damned. On my way back, riding alongside Lake Ontario into a brilliant early-evening sunset, I passed the Molson Amphitheatre, whose new corporate name I refuse to use.

I started thinking about some of the shows I’d seen there. Weezer. Aerosmith. Oasis and Pearl Jam twice each. Tom Petty. Robert Plant. Black Sabbath. And then another thought occurred to me: in spite of all I’ve seen there I’d never seen a truly transcendent Amphitheatre show. It’s my least-favourite major venue in Toronto. I don’t like the amphitheatre-style setup to begin with; the chore of entering and (especially) exiting the venue puts a damper on pre-show anticipation and gnaws away at any lingering post-concert bliss. It’s a tough room.

And then I realized: “Hey, this is where I saw Soundgarden for the first time!” It was one of the most special nights in my life as a music fan, the thing I dreamed would one day happen but that didn’t seem possible until I was actually down in the pit looking up at Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd, Matt Cameron, and Chris Cornell. Isn’t Soundgarden playing Detroit tonight? I thought to myself. Sherkin and I had talked about getting tickets, but neither of us was sure if we’d be able to make it and then let the subject go.

And so I biked home, ate dinner, and went to bed. When I woke up, Chris Cornell had died of suicide, aged 52.

Chris Cornell in Toronto

Almost lost amidst the dual fever dreams of the Blue Jays’ playoff run and an utterly chaotic trip to the Middle East (oh hi from Dubai!), a Chris Cornell concert at Massey Hall, where Sam and I had most recently watched Matt Berninger throw wine into the audience and crawl around the floor like a dog. Anyway. This was my third time seeing Cornell’s Songbook tour, all of which have been magical. It was Sam’s first time seeing Cornell in any of his many iterations. Here’s what he played:

Set:

  • Before We Disappear
  • Can’t Change Me
  • Moonchild
  • The Times, They Are A-Changin’ [Bob Dylan] (reworked by Cornell as “The Times, They Are A-Changin’ Back”)
  • As Hope & Promise Fade
  • Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart
  • Fell on Black Days
  • Thank You [Led Zeppelin] (a highlight, although the version on the Songbook album remains definitive)
  • River of Deceit [Mad Season] (the highlight for me. Honestly, one of the very best things I’ve ever seen at a concert; also, while I know it’s not a Cornell lyric, the line “now I can grow a beautiful shell for all to see” is one of my favourite things that’s ever been written.)
  • Hunger Strike [Temple of the Dog] (helluva follow-up, although…I mean, I’ve seen Temple of the Dog do this, twice, so nothing compares, y’know?)
  • Doesn’t Remind Me
  • Blow Up the Outside World (not crazy about this version)
  • Let Your Eyes Wander
  • Call Me a Dog [Temple of the Dog]
  • To Love Somebody [The Bee Gees]
  • When I’m Down
  • Worried Moon
  • Rusty Cage (played in the style of the Johnny Cash cover!)
  • I Am the Highway
  • Black Hole Sun
  • Nothing Compares 2 U [Prince] (…which has turned into a kind of viral hit; it’s stunning)
  • Ave Maria [Schubert]
  • Wooden Jesus [Temple of the Dog]

Encore:

  • Josephine
  • I Threw It All Away [Bob Dylan] (!)
  • Higher Truth

The opener, Hemming, was great too. Check her out.

Chris Cornell in Calgary

He’s just so frigging good.

Set:

  • As Hope and Promise Fade
  • Say Hello 2 Heaven [Temple of the Dog]
  • Scar on the Sky
  • Dandelion [Audioslave]
  • Silence the Voices
  • I Am The Highway [Audioslave]
  • Sunshower
  • The Original Fire [Audioslave]
  • #1 Zero [Audioslave]
  • Halfway There [Soundgarden]
  • Fell on Black Days [Soundgarden]
  • Seasons
  • The Day I Tried To Live [Soundgarden]
  • When I’m Down
  • Thank You [Led Zeppelin]
  • Wooden Jesus [Temple of the Dog]
  • Call Me A Dog [Temple of the Dog]
  • Hunger Strike [Temple of the Dog] (with Bhi Bhiman)
  • A Day in the Life [Beatles]
Encore:
  • Bend in the Road (new; it reminded me of “Square One” by Tom Petty)
  • Billie Jean [Michael Jackson]
  • Lock the Doors (improv)
  • Black Hole Sun [Soundgarden]
  • Imagine [John Lennon]
As for the couple sitting next to us, a couple pointers:
  1. It’s never necessary to show up to an acoustic concert and observe the passing of each thirty seconds by yelling, “Woo!”
  2. The Beatles didn’t write “Imagine.” A Beatle wrote imagine; not the Beatles. Big difference.
Apart from that, and them, it was a great night, even though I didn’t like the show as much as the one I saw in Medicine Hat in 2011. Six-and-a-half years ago I drove from Napanee to Toronto to see Cornell for the first time, thinking I might never get the chance again. Since then I’ve seen him a second time with his former touring band, twice on his Songbook tour, three times with Soundgarden, and twice at PJ20. I wonder where he’ll turn up next?

My Favourite Concerts of 2011

It’s time for the Nonsense Year in Review, starting with my favourite concerts from 2011. I’ve learned to spend my money more discriminatingly (largely because ticket prices are spiralling uncontrollably), and 2011 proved to be a banner year. It was dominated by U2 and Pearl Jam and Chris Cornell; it featured one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen, the fulfillment of a dream, two famous cameos, and lots of Mother Love Bone covers. I think you’ll agree I did quite well.

U2 w/Arcade Fire and Carney (“Magnetic Hill Music Festival”), 7/30 at Magnetic Hill in Moncton, NB. The final night of U2’s record-breaking 360° Tour brought “the Claw” to the bottom of a giant hill in Atlantic Canada, thousands of miles both literally and figuratively from where I’d first seen the tour back in April. La Plata and, later, Edmonton were both memorable–but Moncton, which also featured an hour-long opening set by Arcade Fire, is one of my all-time pantheon concerts. A truly special night.

Video: “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” (from JiffySpook). Also worth watching: this proshot video of “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” which ends with Bono improvising a moving verse about the tour’s end.

Soundgarden w/Coheed and Cambria, 7/2 at Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto, ON. Seeing Soundgarden was, in many respects, the realization of my ultimate rock n’ roll fantasy. I barely allowed myself to dream it might one day happen–but when it actually did, and when the second song was “Searching With My Good Eye Closed,” my response was predictably ecstatic. And that’s before I saw Matt Cameron play “Jesus Christ Pose” live.

Video: “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” (from leblancdaniel469)

PJ20, 9/3-4 at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, WI. Pearl Jam threw itself a weekend-long birthday bash in rural Wisconsin–and remarkably, I didn’t even decide to go till earlier that same week. I’m glad I did: the entire weekend was memorable, and apart from Pearl Jam (more on them in a second) we got two impressive nights from Queens of the Stone Age. As for the headliners, the six hours of Pearl Jam were obviously great–but what pushed the performances over the top were two guest appearances from Chris Cornell, two resurrections of Temple of the Dog…and on night one, with Sherkin and I looking on in astonishment, a cover of “Stardog Champion” by Mother Love Bone. The other highlight? “Release,” Pearl Jam’s first song of the weekend, against which all future versions of “Release” will be measured and found wanting.

Video: “Stardog Champion” with Chris Cornell (from JeffgardenConcerts). A quick note on “Stardog Champion”: if, before the weekend, you’d have let me draw up a dream scenario for the festival it’d have been this. Seriously.

Chris Cornell, 4/27 at Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre in Medicine Hat, AB. Chris Cornell skipped Calgary on his recent Songbook tour, opting instead to play three hours away at the gorgeous 700-seat Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre in Medicine Hat. No matter: I’d have driven twice as far to see my favourite singer, especially with the promise of him without any accompaniment. Two songs in particular–an electric guitar version of the Badmotorfinger song “Mind Riot” and an acoustic take of Mother Love Bone’s “Man of Golden Words”–left my mouth, quite literally, agape.

Video: “Mind Riot” (from KeithVids1)

Pearl Jam w/Mudhoney, 9/11 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, ON. Night one of Pearl Jam’s two-night Toronto stand would’ve qualified as a nice, solid Pearl Jam concert had it not been for the second encore–but the debut of “Chloe Dancer” (which led seamlessly into the band’s cover of the Mother Love Bone song “Crown of Thorns”) and, two songs later, a twelve-minute “Rockin’ in the Free World” in which Neil Young himself ambled onto the stage with Mike McCready’s guitar strapped around his shoulder turned it into something much more memorable.

Video: “Rockin’ in the Free World” with Neil Young (from cls1974). Fast-forward to the 3:19 mark, when Eddie Vedder becomes aware of what’s happening. Watch his reaction. Priceless.

Honourable mention: U2 w/Muse in La Plata, the Black Keys w/Cage the Elephant in Calgary, Pearl Jam w/Mudhoney in Calgary

Favourite songs? Got those too, in rough chronological order:

  • U2, “Return of the Stingray Guitar” into “Beautiful Day” and “Bad” (La Plata); “Even Better Than The Real Thing” (Edmonton); “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and “The Fly” (Moncton); “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” at all three 360° Tour shows I saw in 2011. Also, while it wasn’t part of the set per se, the nightly “Space Oddity” introduction was brilliantly executed.
  • Chris Cornell, “Mind Riot” and “Man of Golden Words”
  • Soundgarden, “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” and “Beyond the Wheel”
  • Arcade Fire, “Month of May” (Dartmouth)
  • Queens of the Stone Age, “Song for the Dead”
  • The Strokes, “Juicebox” with Eddie Vedder
  • Pearl Jam, “Release,” “Better Man,” and “Stardog Champion” (PJ20 Night 1); “Long Road,” “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns,” and “Rockin’ in the Free World” with Neil Young (Toronto Night 1); “Rearviewmirror” (Ottawa); “Search and Destroy” and “Fuckin’ Up” (Calgary); the end of the first encore and the entire second encore in Edmonton
  • Temple of the Dog. I’m not picking favourites.
  • The Headstones, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”

Theatre and sports to follow!

Chris Cornell in Medicine Hat

Off I go! Setlist/quickie review to follow!

*****

Back am I. This isn’t an ordered setlist for now; it’s also worth mentioning that we missed at least part of the first song (the scheduled opener, William Elliot Whitmore, wasn’t allowed into Canada, so when Chris Cornell took to the Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre stage I was at a Dairy Queen two blocks away; I happened to check Twitter while I was there before sprinting to the venue). I’ll firm this up later.

Still shaking, by the way.

  • SOUNDGARDEN: Black Hole Sun, Blow Up the Outside World, Burden in My Hand, Fell on Black Days, Like Suicide…and “Mind Riot” (I’d been in Setlist Blackout Mode since the Songbook tour began and didn’t have an inkling “Mind Riot” was in play…but wow), plus snippets of “Head Down” and (hilariously) “Jesus Christ Pose”
  • TEMPLE OF THE DOG: Say Hello 2 Heaven, Hunger Strike, Call Me A Dog, All Night Thing
  • AUDIOSLAVE: Be Yourself, Doesn’t Remind Me, I Am The Highway, Like a Stone
  • SOLO: Scream, Sunshower, When I’m Down, plus others I’m forgetting/don’t know (I own both Scream and Carry On but I’m not too familiar with either album)
  • COVERS: Billie Jean (yes, that “Billie Jean”), A Day in the Life, Thank You, a snippet of Comfortably Numb, Imagine (which closed)…and “Man of Golden Words” by Mother Love Bone

What a night; what a night! More later.

Loud Love, Soft Love

Today an envelope arrived in the mail, addressed to me and emblazoned with the words “ESPLANADE ARTS & HERITAGE CENTRE.” I had no idea what its contents might be…until I tore it open, and out fell a pair of tickets for Chris Cornell.

How Cornell, erstwhile grunge god and lead singer of the newly-revived Soundgarden, has ended up doing solo concerts in Medicine Hat, Alberta is anybody’s guess. Yet there I’ll be on April 27 for Cornell’s “Songbook” tour. I’ve seen Chris Cornell live twice, most recently a month after moving to Calgary in 2007, yet while there’s something to be said for hearing him sing his songs with a group of loud (if nondescript) session musicians, seeing him all alone with nothing but an acoustic guitar is the stuff of dreams. He’ll be performing songs spanning his career, which means there’s a chance I’ll hear “Sweet Euphoria” live. And, well, there’s a chance I’ll hear songs from Cornell’s bizzare, ill-fated collaboration with Timbaland, too, but it’s a trade-off I’m willing to make. Cornell’s had a checkered post-Soundgarden career: his solo debut, Sweet Euphoria, hinted at greatness to come, but since then it’s been a limo wreck (ha!) of unimaginative power pop and choruses that go “that bitch ain’t a part of me,” not to mention that whole sordid Audioslave thing. The much-heralded Soundgarden reunion has yielded precisely three concerts and one old/new single. But this tour, if it’s done properly, could very well enter my rock n’ roll pantheon. In the absence of more Soundgarden dates, I literally cannot wait until late April.