By BRUCE DENNILL
I had two interactions with Chris Cornell. The first was after his set at the My Coke Fest music festival in Johannesburg in 2008, perhaps the most exciting reason ever to go to a racetrack in Alberton. I was covering the event and was offered the opportunity to meet Chris backstage, which I thought would be good, even though the reality of such introductions is generally less glamorous than the hype would have you believe.
I started to regret accepting the invitation when it became clear that I’d need to leave my spot in the crowd halfway through the set in order to line up at a particular spot backstage where he’d materialise after coming off stage. I did manage to hear, before following those instructions, Cornell play what he described as “a new song I hope you’ll like”. I think it was No Such Thing, which had been released the previous year but had not yet made much of a splash in South Africa. Cornell finished it and appraised the crowd, who responded enthusiastically enough.
I heard the rest of his performance from backstage, watching Chris’ massive shadow cast against the stage backdrop thanks to the footlights in front of him, and then watched with mild dismay as a queue of competition winners, industry insiders and a few other media formed in front of a catering table with a plain white tablecloth, where the singer would sit and accept adulation.
Moving directly from the buzz and thrill of delivering his influential hits to a heaving crowd a couple of metres away to the relatively dreary duty of some marketing glad-handing must’ve been a bit a bit of a downer for Cornell, and he gave a perfunctory, shy smile before sitting down and leaning forward, his dark curls falling forward and obscuring his face.
The meet and greet session was not about communication. Goofily grinning automatons with random pieces of paper – ticket stubs, cash slips from the concession stands, printouts of their to-do lists for the day – filed past Cornell’s table as he automatically autographed whatever was put in front of him, occasionally lifting his eyes to look through his hair and enquire about who he should make out a message to, but little more than that.
When I made it to the front of the line, there was an awkward pause.
“I, er, have nothing to sign. Don’t see the point. Not sure what I’ll do with a Post-It you’ve scribbled on.”
A further pause, then Cornell lifted his head, his face neutral, but engaged.
“Really liked the new song. Everything works – great structure, strong hook. I think it’ll fly, man.”
Nothing for a second, then a slowly widening smile, and Cornell reached up, hooking his hair behind his ears and nodding.
“Thanks, man. Appreciate that. Good to get feedback.”
He reached out and shook my hand.
“I don’t get the signing thing, either.”
A less than discreet shove in my back – a young woman wanted her moment with Chris. He crossed his arms and reverted to type. I headed back out front to catch Muse.
A couple of weeks later, I received a call from the My Coke Fest promoters, who’d offered a few artist interviews in the lead-up to the festival and then cancelled them, citing availability and scheduling issues. Apparently, Cornell’s people had been in touch, and he wanted to chat. I assumed his team was following up with a number of dropped leads, rather than imagining he’d spotted my name on a laminate and thought, “Hey, dude who didn’t want my signature in Johannesburg; gotta get me some more of that.”
Whatever the case, I was scheduled for a 10-minute follow-up phoner. I presumed it was a junket-style thing, via one of those annoying publicist middlemen who give you a five-, two- and one-minute warning, ruining the momentum of a discussion that’s already difficult to develop properly in such a limited slot.
It wasn’t. Chris was at his home in Paris, where he lived with his wife Vicky Karayiannis, daughter Toni and son Christopher. One of the kids was on his lap when he – not some preoccupied lackey – answered the phone. I could hear him whispering something like, “Daddy needing to talk now” as he brought the receiver to his mouth.
“Hey. Thanks for calling.”
He was relaxed and charming. We spoke about Carry On, the solo album he was touring at the time, and the material he was working on for Scream, which would land the following year. We remembered Soundgarden and grunge in general and how bad much of mainstream pop was. We expressed our mutual appreciation of the value great vocals add to any music and Chris played down his own place in the pantheon of superb singers while I gushed about how deserving he was. We mused on the positives and negatives of living in various places – Seattle, Paris, Johannesburg – and we took occasional breaks as Chris broke off to cuddle a child or pick up a toy. We nattered for nearly an hour – he never intimated that he had somewhere else to be or that he was bored to tears by having to sit through his 643rd Q&A of the year.
I’d later look back on that dialogue as one of my favourite interviews in 20 years of arts journalism.
We didn’t talk about depression. It hadn’t come up in the research I did, though it was probably there, had I aimed in that direction. Cornell had referred to that condition elsewhere as “daily drudgery”, a phrase that didn’t gel with the man I had gained an insight to during our phone call. He was, in conversation, gentle, self-deprecating and possessed of a dry wit. He completed an hour-long call while engaging with his kids, rather than locking himself up in a quiet study and ignoring them. He appreciated feedback on his compositions from a journalist who, for all he knew, was tone-deaf and couldn’t strum a note on a guitar.
He’ll be remembered for music and lyrics that refused to shy away from the darkness and for a banshee howl that could inspire as easily as it could terrify. He was, like all the grunge figureheads, enigmatic and difficult to gauge. And, for the hour or so in which his life overlapped with mine, he was a sweet, generous guy I genuinely enjoyed spending time with.
Rest in peace.