I was fifteen, living in a little town outside a big city. There wasn’t much to do, unless you had both money and a car, and I wasn’t quite there, yet. For entertainment, because we couldn’t afford albums or get to shows, my friends and I traded fuzzy, buzzing bootlegs and mix-tapes of bands like Mudhoney, MotherLoveBone, Nirvana, Soundgarden, sounding strangely muted, so far removed. We mourned that we’d never had the opportunity to see Green River live. We were certain that everything interesting and good was passing us by.
A year later, I had both money and a car, thanks to an after school job that left me and the car reeking of cinnamon, sugar, and yeast. But it was worth it to drive down into the city, or take the late ferry over to Bainbridge on Friday and Saturday nights. I sat in damp grass while guys only 5 or 6 years older than me sang on picnic tables. We swarmed gravel parking lots behind bars so down and dirty that you didn’t even need fake ID to get a beer, listening to music about pain, depression, sex, and heroin. We were certain that everything interesting and good was here and now.
A year later, Andy Wood died. He wasn’t the first, nor the last. Accident, overdose, murder, suicide. For these, I learned the first part of Ginsberg’s Howl almost verbatim…
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking
for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking...
Who else could write so eloquently of our angels and demons, down through generations, except their fellow dead?
Another year, and I was 3,000 miles away in the olive grove of Academe, where torn jeans, thermal underwear, and flannel shirts were a fashion statement, not simply the wardrobe of the working poor, myself, my friends. I could look down at myself, clothes bought from the Salvation Army, identical to runway styles in the fashion pages of the Sunday NYT. I couldn’t even afford the paper the photos were printed on.
By the time I returned home, to Seattle, most of the furor had died down. It was possible to be “from Seattle” like a normal person. It helped that Seattle has never been a normal town. This isn’t a place where celebrities are stalked by photographers or surrounded by mobs of screaming fans. It rains too much to stand around waiting for a photo op or an autograph. And we’re proud of our determined egalitarianism, of billionaires who wear faded jeans and drive Hondas, dismissive of conspicuous wealth, contemptuous of equally conspicuous consumption. Just north is the home of the US communist party, and labor organizers were born from the timber mills, fisheries, mines, and fields of the region, spreading like Bolshevik dandelion seeds, east and East.
Over the decades, Chris Cornell has become someone I see at the dog park and the local cafe. We went to the same vet, shopped at the same grocery store. Just another guy in Seattle, with tattoos, facial hair, and a dog. And yet, with his death, my memories have split in thirds. Where there were two Chris’s, now there are three, and I never knew the last one.