I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that Chris Cornell is gone. His was one of the voices that sang to me when I was growing up. It isn’t hyperbole to say that his music helped shape my identity. As such, I have so many great memories associated with his music and its involvement in my life. Most people who know me are, at some point, told my Lollapalooza story. In 2004, I won an amazing radio contest and I got to go on tour with Lollapalooza. I got my own tour bus (along with the other contest winner and our guests), and I got to meet members of the Distillers, Incubus, the Donnas, Queens of the Stone Age, Jane’s Addiction, and Audioslave. With the shocking passing of Chris Cornell, I’ve done a lot of thinking about just how blessed I am to have had this experience. I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about Audioslave and its cultural significance. As a band, they are probably less celebrated than Soundgarden, but to me, their musical and cultural contributions are actually quite significant and worth discussing.
Rock ‘n roll and rebellion have always worked together. From the early days when Elvis gyrated his hips on national television, to the anti-war anthems of the sixties, rock music has always been anti-establishment. How is music affected, though, when overt “rebellion” becomes mainstream? For example, Audioslave came into the music scene in a time when cocky self-indulgence was the norm. Consider two examples from the late 90s/ early 2000s: Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit. Limp Bizkit sold over 1 million copies of Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water in its first week. Kid Rock’s debut album, Devil Without A Cause, went platinum 17 times over, and his second album, Cocky, went quadruple-platinum. Both Kid Rock and Fred Durst are the proud lyricists of such gems as: “And all this for the fans, girls, money, and fame. I played their game and as they scream my name I will show no shame” and “I did it all for the nookie.” That’s the shit that got played on the radio back then. Incessantly. Both of these “artists” may be (thankfully) passe by now, but in an era when this sort of outrageous overconfidence was ubiquitous and rewarded with mainstream attention and popularity, I contend that it actually wasn’t terribly rebellious. Truly rebellious music in that sort of musical climate reacted against pompous masculinity. It was introspective and intelligent, dark and deep, multifaceted and complex. Audioslave, I think, was the embodiment of that sort of rebellion. Audioslave was a band that was rebellious in their introspection. When meaninglessness is disguised as rebellion, true rebellion can be found in music with meaning. In an age when being full of oneself was commonplace, Audioslave’s lyrics were disarmingly self-deprecating and sad.
Audioslave may not have been as overtly political as Rage Against the Machine once was, but that doesn’t mean that their music wasn’t as socially important. As Tom Morello once stated: “I think that all music is political. If music is sexist or if it’s homophobic or if it’s escapist, those things are all very political… when music is made with honesty and integrity I believe it’s inherently good and can resonate politically even if the lyrics are not about the Guatemalan labor union.” A song like Audioslave’s “Set it Off,” for example, resonates with political action and social unrest. Cornell implores his listeners to “Set it off” and “set it right,” a clear message that the world is in a state of turbulence, in need of revival, in need of a spark. This message is all the more compelling when one considers that Audioslave basically screamed it from the rooftops of New York City when they performed it on The Late Show. The song opens with the lines:
He was standing at the rock
Gathering the flock
And getting there with no directions
And underneath the arch
It turned into a march
And there he found the spark to
Set this fucker off
Here, Cornell’s lyrics pair Biblical allusion (the Good Shepherd gathering the flock, Christ as the door that will be opened as compared to standing underneath the arch) with social movement. With motivation and social backing, a spark can quite easily turn into a flame. One person can lead a march of people, and together, they can create change. Upon reflection, that song was more timeless than I could have realized at the time.
But again, I want to emphasize that political lyrics are not the only rebellious lyrics. When music at large is so manufactured, the most rebellious music is gritty, real, and honest. Morello once said:
It was very important to me that the music that we make and the lyrics that he writes, that it’s honest. I think that’s when music is most compelling. I think Chris is a great lyricist. He writes from a more personal, haunted, like almost existential point of view, which I think is really compelling when combined with the in-your-face nature of a lot of the music.
At the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, Rage Against the Machine was up for the award in the Best Rock Video category. The winner that evening was Limp Bizkit. Tim Commerford protested that victory by literally raging against the machine as he climbed atop a large metallic structure on the stage. Fred Durst failed to recognize Commerford as the bassist for Rage Against the Machine and actually encouraged him to jump. Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland, clearly not recognizing him either, commented “This guy is rock ‘n’ roll. He should be getting the award.” Borland was on to something. Commerford’s actions are indeed symbolic of true rebellion. Clearly there is an audience for the sort of commercially and socially acceptable rebellion that consists of “beer and lifestyle music.” After all, that sort of music wins the MTV Awards. Having the wherewithal to tread one’s own path, though, dangerous as that path may be, is true rebellion, and true rock n roll. Just like Commerford’s stage-rushing, Audioslave put out a quiet call. Though played loud, the roots of their rebellion were spoken in quiet wisdom… like a stone.
There is no other Audioslave song quite is as sad and tortured as “Like a Stone.” And upon reflection, it’s also sadly prophetic. On the Live in Cuba DVD, released in 2005, Tim Commerford reflected on the song and discovering its meaning for the first time:
[Chris Cornell] is a poet and he fooled me with a lot of the songs in that a song like “Like a Stone,” I thought it was a love song. The chorus says: “I’ll wait for you there / Like a stone / I’ll wait for you there / alone” and I was like, “Yo bro, what are you waiting for?” and he’s like “Waiting to die.” And I just went “Oh okay that changes everything.” I went back and looked at the song and got kind of saddened by what he’s singing about… It changed everything for me. That made me go back and look at Temple of the Dog songs and Soundgarden songs and everything, and I started going, “Okay, I get Cornell now. He’s a genius.” He fooled me for fifteen years, you know, where I thought some of the things that he was singing about were slightly trivial. But they’re never trivial. He’s deep.
The video for “Like a Stone” begins with a seated Cornell, holding a microphone down away from his face, as he faces the floor. As if moved by some unnamed inspiration, Cornell leans into the microphone, still seated, legs crossed, and sings the song. His body language is pensive and vulnerable. The room he is in is dark, lit by chandelier and candelabra. The walls are yellow and the room’s accessories, a mirror and a fireplace, are dark and gothic. The mood of the video reflects the tone of the song:
On a cobweb afternoon
In a room full of emptiness
By a freeway I confess
I was lost in the pages
Of a book full of death
Reading how well die alone
And if were good well lay to rest
Anywhere we want to go
In your house I long to be
Room by room patiently
I’ll wait for you there
Like a stone I’ll wait for you there
The video does have its light-hearted moments. There are brief moments where a smile creeps up on Cornell’s face. Commerford plays with a baby and carries the child on his shoulders at one point, but these light and tender moments are balanced with morose words. As Commerford carries the baby on his shoulders, Cornell sits in the foreground and sings of sitting “in regret / Of all the things I’ve done” with thoughts hearkening back to “all that I’ve blessed/ And all that I’ve wronged.”
I realize now more than ever that Audioslave was exactly what I needed at that time in my life. And getting to meet Chris Cornell in that era re-ignited my passion for music and art. That’s one of the reasons why his death made me so sad. Nobody else sang like him then. And now, no one sings like him anymore.