It was late one winter night in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when everyone else in the house was asleep, that I first heard the otherworldly, almost superhuman voice of Chris Cornell.
It was 1989, and I was fourteen.
I was watching a VHS videotape that I’d asked a friend to record music videos on while he visited family in New York. Of course, this is before the Internet, before MP3s, and well before YouTube and online streaming. This was at a time when we had to wait weeks to get our hands and ears on the latest music coming out of America. And music videos were a different story altogether. There were only two local Saudi TV channels—one Arabic, one English—and access to satellite or foreign channels was restricted for most of us. So it was really rare and really exciting to actually be able to watch the artists—whose voices and words you lived and felt and laughed and cried to—perform their craft.
My friend managed to squeeze 6 hours of MTV’s Headbangers Ball into the two-hour videocassette I’d given him, using a VCR setting called extended play. I waited anxiously until my dad got home, and we went to his house to pick it up. I brought it back, popped it into the VCR, and devoured it all in one go, watching and listening, late into the night, long after everyone else had gone to bed.
At the end of the six-hour metal marathon was a song by a band I’d never heard of.
It started with a slow, dark, ear-piercing riff constructed entirely out of feedback. Then, it came. That unreal voice, rising from the din of feedback, beautiful, demonically hypnotic, shaking your bones. I haven’t heard anything like it to this day. The song was “Loud Love.” The band, Soundgarden.
And then, two minutes into the video, the tape ended. I rewound it just to make sure. I popped it out and checked again. And again. But that was it. It was the end of the tape. I was desperate to hear the rest of the song. There were no rock music magazines available anywhere near me, none of my friends had heard of the band, and there was no Google to Google anything with.
Years later, I would go to my cousin’s house, and he would show me this wonder called the Internet. He would load up Yahoo’s search engine and say, “Ali, what do you want to know about? Type anything, anything you want, and it’ll find it for you.” And I would type in Chris Cornell. My first ever Internet search.
But back then, I didn’t have Google or Yahoo. All I had were those two minutes at the end of the tape, which I watched over and over again. I also took a tape recorder, held it in front of the TV speaker, and recorded it so I could play it in my Walkman headphones before going to bed.
It was that year that I moved to Pakistan to continue high school while my family stayed in Riyadh. American music was easier to get in Pakistan than Saudi, and I did manage to find some magazines with short articles about Soundgarden. But apart from that, even there, no one had heard of band. The album wasn’t available anywhere. Again, all I had were those two minutes of “Loud Love.”
Finally, in the spring of 1990, I got some great news. Another cousin from England was coming to visit us in Pakistan that summer. I wrote to her, asking if she would please get me the Soundgarden album. I sealed the envelope, rode my bike to the post office, and mailed the letter. She replied quickly (which means I got her letter about three weeks later) and said she would. About a week before her visit, she went to both Tower Records and HMV in London. No one there had heard of Soundgarden, and neither store had Louder Than Love in stock. But she asked them to order it for her, and picked it up a few days later. When she finally arrived in Pakistan, she handed me the tape.
“Loud Love” was the first song on Side B. I had to fast-forward to the end of Side A to get to it. Finally, I listened to the song from beginning to end, savoring every note. It’s hard to explain to young people today who can access any band or album they want online how exhilarating and euphoric it is to finally get your hands on a record you’ve been waiting months and months for. I was in love. I locked myself in my room. I closed my eyes and listened to the entire album. Then, I opened up the cover and followed along with the lyrics. And I listened to it again. And again. I still listen to it today. I have every lyric on that album memorized.
Those who know me personally have heard me say repeatedly, for decades now, that Chris Cornell is the single best singer who ever lived. Chris’s voice and music has been an integral part of my life in a way I can’t explain. What his voice does to me is what a potent drug might do for someone else. It’s beyond just a melody or a song. It isn’t constrained by the dimensions of any familiar format. It’s unbridled abandon—it’s carefree, wild, raw, animalistic. Chris Cornell is the only man whose songs I’ve listened to or sung at least every week since I was a teenager. My own band does very few covers, but when we do, it’s often a Chris Cornell song. Just last week, I sang “When I’m Down” to my seven-month-old daughter at bedtime. His melodies seem to have the same effect on her.
Less than two years after I first got hooked on those magical two minutes at the end of that Headbangers Ball tape, Soundgarden exploded into the mainstream with their 1991 album, Badmotorfinger, alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains as part of the Seattle grunge scene. Now, everyone knew them. Their albums were available at every record store. They transformed the music scene. They won Grammys. Johnny Cash covered “Rusty Cage.” Chris recorded the haunting, beautiful-beyond-words Euphoria Morning. And then, he did it all again with Audioslave.
I never met Chris Cornell, but like millions of his fans, I grew up with him and loved him deeply. There was something about his voice—it wasn’t just music to be listened to. It was helplessly, transcendently felt. It was intimate and transformative in a way that’s inexplicable. I don’t know what made him choose to end it all, but knowing what I knew of him through his art, I understand.
I wish I could have done for Chris what he did for me. Today, though, I’m that 14-year-old kid again. Desperate for more, but the song’s been cut too soon.
“And I’m lost
The words I’ll never find.”
— Chris Cornell, “Seasons”