Running into Chris Cornell and striking up a conversation felt like the most normal thing in the world.
Running into Chris Cornell and striking up a conversation felt like the most normal thing in the world. Jason Merritt via Getty Images

I woke up this morning to a group text that simply read: Chris Cornell. So Sad. I immediately assumed the worst and searched his name, which confirmed his death. Finding out about Chris’ passing only reminded me of the first time I ever heard Soundgarden. It changed everything.

I was a freshman at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma Washington in the fall of 1989. I’d come from Salt Lake City, where, in high school, in addition to US History and Algebra II, I learned about the Pixies, the Descendents, Metallica, The Smiths, and tons of metal, punk and New Wave bands before them.

My freshman roommate, Luke Miller, had left his high school band, Mr. Bungle—the one Mike Patton later left to join Faith No More—to go to college. Luke introduced me to Kyle Keever, another freshman, who had grown up in Seattle and lived in the A-frames, a cluster of rustic cabins in the woods of the UPS campus. During our first weekend at UPS, Luke and I spent a night in Kyle’s A-frame trading CD and cassette DJ shifts on his stereo.

We liked a lot of the same bands and spent the night and introducing each other to new ones. Luke played The Crumbsuckers, a tight hardcore band from Long Island. I played Kraftwerk. Everything seemed fine until Kyle played Soundgarden, a local band which neither Luke nor I had heard before.

It was like hearing Jane’s Addiction for the first time: Not metal, not punk, but with elements of both, which I suppose qualified it as "alternative." Soundgarden took Sabbath, Black Flag, and Zeppelin, and put them all in the oddest box of their own. And that singer—belting out low moans and high shrieks, but with less pretense than anyone else I’d ever seen with long hair.

Soundgarden’s second album Louder Than Love was released two weeks later and I picked it up at my new favorite place, Tower Records by the Tacoma Mall. Friends and I had planned to see Mötley Crüe at the Tacoma Dome that fall, but once Soundgarden tickets went on sale for the same date, we promptly shifted gears that night, and forever.

On October 16, 1989, Soundgarden headlined the Moore Theatre, a haunted, gothic style, 1,800-seat venue in downtown Seattle. Prong and Voivod opened the show, confirming the metal roots I had felt in Soundgarden.

After college, I worked at Easy Street Records in West Seattle. This was around 1994 when Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were two of the biggest bands in the world. Both Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell visited the store often—Eddie, during business hours, usually under a hat, unbeknownst to the other customers who held Pearl Jam CDs in their hands. Chris, on the other hand, preferred to shop after hours, arriving promptly when the store closed, politely asking if he could hang out and shop by himself while we shut the place down.

Soundgarden broke up in 1997. In 1998, when The Presidents of the United States of America broke up, I remember an interview with PUSA drummer Jason Finn in The Rocket, in which, when asked why the band broke up, he replied, “The same reason as Soundgarden: Chris quit,” referring to PUSA singer Chris Ballew.

Years later, when I co-owned Sonic Boom Records in Seattle, Mark Gajadhar, drummer from the Blood Brothers, worked in the store. Kim Thayil, Soundgarden’s guitarist, stopped in regularly and one day had a conversation with Mark, in which they each complimented the other on their playing. I had fantasies of two of my favorite musicians playing together, but that has yet to come to pass.

I was fortunate enough to see a reunited Soundgarden in Chicago in 2010 at a secret theater show before their Lollapalooza gig. And again in 2014 on a rooftop in Austin at SXSW. Chris looked and sounded healthy, energetic, even magnetic—better than when he was 25.

It’s strange how present Soundgarden has been for me in the past few weeks.

One month ago, I excitedly opened my copy of Sub Pop’s reissue of Ultramega OK and read Kim Thayil’s thoughtful, eye-opening liner notes about the making of the album and the band’s state of mind at the time.

Two weeks ago, some colleagues and I drove back from upstate New York and listened to Superunknown in its 70-minute entirety. “This song was huge!” someone shouted about “Black Hole Sun,” which is buried at track seven. “Spoon solo!” someone shouted, referring to “Spoonman,” which follows. “'The Day I Tried To Live' is track 10!?” We marveled at the band’s ability to turn odd time signatures and tricky arrangements into massive hit songs on an album that sold over four million copies in the United States alone.

Last week I was in Seattle to play a reunion show with my former band The Long Winters. When we needed a break from our own indie rock, we busted into a clumsy but non-ironic attempt at “Outshined” and joked about playing it on the KEXP live session we were taping the next day.

Soundgarden will never be the first Seattle band anyone mentions. It will always be Nirvana or Pearl Jam. But for me, Soundgarden was first. They introduced me to and embodied what it meant to be a huge band without the bullshit that huge bands carried before them. Iconic musicians who sat on top of the world, and at the same time, normal guys who continued to frequent the same Seattle record stores and bars that my friends and I did.

Running into Chris Cornell and striking up a conversation felt like the most normal thing in the world. In 1990 on Halloween eve, Faith No More opened for Billy Idol at the Seattle Center Coliseum. My freshman roommate Luke Miller and I went to see Faith No More and as we were leaving, soon after their short set, we ran into Chris and Kim. Luke immediately struck up a conversation with Chris.

“Are you guys here to see Faith No More!?” I stood behind Luke, in awe, the four of us the only people outside the arena while Billy Idol began his set.

“Yeah,” Chris said calmly. “What are you guys up to?”

Nabil Ayers is the co-founder of Sonic Boom Records and now runs the label 4AD.