MUSING WHILE I WORK
by Clare O'Brien
This morning an item on my phone caught my eye. It wasn't the kind of content I'd usually go for - a podcast of a debate between three academic philosophers. But something about the title - a quote from Leonard Cohen's Anthem - made me hit play. And I was captivated.
The premise of their discussion was simple. Why does our current thinking about the world - whatever field we're working in - throw up so many paradoxes? Why can't we arrive at a unified theory of everything, as Stephen Hawking wanted so badly to do? Is it all down to our human limitations, our inability to understand the complexity of the universe we live in, or is something else going on here?
The three participants were an entertainment in themselves. Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek humorously locked horns with post-realist philosopher Hilary Lawson - referee Shahidha Bari accused them at one point of "violently agreeing" with each other - while Oxford metaphysician Sophie Allen tried hard to get a word in edgeways.
But after nearly half an hour of discussion, one glorious truth emerged: there is no truth. That paradox, mentioned at the start of Hilary Lawson's initial pitch, shows us the innate limitations of language when we try to describe - well, anything at all really. If there's no truth, how can that very statement be true? Which means... but that way madness lies, or at least the meaningless tedium of a circular argument.
You can watch the whole discussion - whole or in bite-size snippets - HERE. Make up your own mind. But the lesson I took away from it was this: things start to make sense when we stop needing them to. It's not that we're too stupid to work out what the universe is, exactly - it's more that the universe is resistant to that kind of explanation.
It's like a creative idea you can't pin down, or which evaporates as soon as you think you've caught it. We know from the story of Orpheus and Eurydice that looking behind us to check something is definitely there means it will slide away from us, back into whatever chaotic flux it came from. Sometimes the things we glimpse out of the corner of our eyes, or which we are barely aware of, just out of earshot - are the most powerful things of all.
That's not to say that everyday theories, routines and mechanisms aren't useful. We understand on a local level how to build a house that doesn't collapse, or how to use technology to observe the universe. We can have certainty, closure, about finite things, so we can successfully get stuff done.
But in the end, the three philosophers agreed that on a macro level, reality is probably unknowable. It natural state is to be open rather than closed. There are no easy answers, no theories of everything. And we should probably stop trying to force it to deliver them.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
- T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
Several hours later, I was catching up with Andrew Marr's Sunday news digest on BBC iPlayer. One of Marr's guests was the physicist Brian Cox, currently engaged not in teaching undergraduates but in homeschooling his ten-year-old son and contributing to lockdown resources for the nation's children. On being asked to sum up the value of science on the curriculum, he referred to Richard Feynman's 1955 article:
"What, then, is the meaning of it all? What can we say to dispel the mystery of existence? If we take everything into account...then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. But, in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel....if we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, then we must keep the door to the unknown ajar."
Personally, I find it a huge relief to be unburdened of the need to try to know everything. Not only is it doomed to failure, it also encourages all the worst behaviour of which I'm capable. It feeds my ego at the expense of my curiosity. And on a societal level, it leads to totalitarianism of one sort or another.
We think we crave certainty. Especially in times like the present, we feel exposed by our helplessness and self-doubt in the face of something new - in this case, a virus we know nothing about. We may, with the help of science, solve this problem, close down the vulnerabilities and uncertainties it forces us to feel. This pandemic may be successfully overcome - only to be replaced by another in a few years' time. Or we may learn from the experience and create a new, better environment for ourselves in which such catastrophes are less likely.
But that's not the same as having all the answers - which can be why the easy, empty promises of politicians usually fail. While they're telling us we can "get back to normal" or "take back control", they're not only selling us a lie: they're depriving us of the opportunity to explore what reality may be: open-ended, ineffable, sublime.
Just learned a few moments ago of the death of Sir Stephen Cleobury.
Some of you are probably thinking “who?” Classical musicians don’t command the same level of recognition as pop stars and rock legends, and most of the time they’re probably more than grateful for that. I’ve worked for both, and the stresses and strains that led to the death of my more recent employer Chris Cornell wouldn’t have come close to touching Stephen.
The Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge was a deceptively quiet man, dignified and bespectacled, famous for presiding over the start of Christmas for half the world. My children knew almost from birth that Christmas doesn’t begin until the first notes of “Once In Royal David’s City” soar out of King’s College chapel via BBC radio, and Stephen was the man who upheld that long tradition – the Festival Of Nine Lessons and Carols – for nearly 40 years. He did much more than just that, but I’m not writing a career retrospective here. You can get the whole story from his Wikipedia page, from this Classic FM obituary (which contains some video) and from countless reviews of the marvellous music he helped create and record. Better still, just seek it out and listen to it yourself.
Instead, I want to remember the year I spent working for him at King’s before I left to start a family and nurture it in the wilds of Scotland. His quiet sense of humour, his passion for music and for teaching. His funny stories about Cambridge life, and the even funnier stories his students told me about him. It was because of him that I got to experience a world I would never otherwise have touched, a world in which I could rub shoulders with the gods of the classical music world, work inside a 15th century building and once narrowly miss colliding with the Queen in a corridor. I never did learn to look where I was going.
Knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours this last summer, Stephen died on St Cecilia's Day – St Cecilia is the patron saint of music - which probably would have amused him in a sardonic sort of way. He had recorded Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia with King’s College Choir and his sense of the religious, though never a standard kind of devotion, was always vibrant, spun through his interpretation of the church music to which he gave his life. He had a young family with his second wife Emma, and it must have been a source of great pride when his nine-year-old daughter became a chorister at York Minster last year.
Some time after I stopped working at King’s, I returned to interview Stephen for a Christmas feature commissioned by a glossy magazine. It was only then that I thought to ask him what kind of music he listened to at home. “Anything but choral,” was the wry reply. Knighted only this last summer for his long service to choral music, he didn’t have long enough to savour whatever he was enjoying in retirement. Prog-rock? Bebop? Dubstep? I’ll never know. But he made a mark on the world while he was here, and this year’s Christmas will be bittersweet.
Recently I saw the National Theatre's production of Macbeth, thanks to the broadcast technology of NTLive.
Set unusually in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of burned-out buildings and improvised weaponry, it depicted a nightmare landscape from which reason had receded. Communication had been replaced by rumour and hearsay, power was bestowed on those who shouted loudest and risked most, and violence had become the strongest and most effective argument.
Sound familiar? Although some critics hated the production, in this setting, Shakespeare's darkest play resonates on a particularly topical frequency. If we are to live in a world where random murder - by states as much as by terrorists - is normalised, the slaughter of Macduff's household becomes not a medieval relic, but modern life in microcosm. In a world dominated by fake news, Macbeth's betrayal by the witches - the "juggling fiends" who "palter with us in a double sense" - becomes a practical cautionary tale.
Our 21st century society is regressing into superstition and prejudice. We already know what it is to be tricked into a course of action - be it Brexit, or the election of a mad demogogue - through the equivocation of those whose only object is mischief. And we are finding out what it's like to be locked into a downward spiral from which, once it's been set in motion (article 50, anyone?) there seems to be no escape.
In the play's final act, its protagonist descend into horror, madness and death. Tragedy demands that at the end of the process, a sacrifice is made so that malign energy can be neutralised and the body politic healed. We've seen none of this so far in the world outside the theatre. The premature death of great ones has mainly affected the benign and inspirational - everyone from David Bowie to Tessa Jowell, with suicides amongst artists - Scott Hutchinson, Avicii, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington - climbing to frightening levels. But while the good guys go to their graves too soon, the ogres and tricksters continue to walk among us, reminders not of our own murderous sins but of our failure to confront encroaching, everyday evil.
The moving wood that presages the tyrant's fall in Macbeth is no supernatural event, but a liberating green army camouflaged by foliage. As we surrender to superstition and lies while our climate turns against us and our oceans are choked by plastic, it may take an equally powerful effort to banish the invading darkness and let a little light in once again.
It's a cold, rainy winter's afternoon, and I'm listening to music while I strobe between working on next month's social media calendars for my day job, and adding some of my old press cuttings to this website. I'm also wondering why I can listen to so much David Bowie with so much pleasure, despite his being just as dear and just as departed as my late employer, Chris Cornell.
It's six months since Chris made his tragic and unexpected exit, and somehow I still need to do my job, picking my way through the wreckage he left and the internet vermin that swarm through it. I've only done it, I think, by shutting the door firmly on any normal expression of grief and barricading the doorway. I can just about hear what I ought to be feeling as it screams and smashes its alien head against the wall, but I daren't let it out. Quarantine allows me to function, but everything connected with the good man who was once my friend has become contagious. Looking at pictures and videos is bad enough; listening to the music in any sustained way is impossible. When it's unavoidable, I hold myself back, handling it through imaginary gloves and breathing apparatus. I dare not inhale.
So as I leafed through old box files of clips, it was a bit of a shock to find my first interview with him, from almost exactly ten years before his death. I've told that story already, but reading through what I'd made of our two long conversations made me remember exactly how it felt to be free and clear and at the beginning of something. It was a stark and cruel contrast to how the tale ended, and that made me obscurely angry, but putting it back online [see below] feels like a positive step. Maybe one day, my incarcerated grief will emerge, and I'll be able to deal with it properly. In the meantime, I'll carry on listening to Bowie, whose music had protected me since childhood, but whose loss left me human.
Part One: 16 May 2007, London
Perhaps it's the cramped and shabby setting of the room at the top of the Astoria, but Chris Cornell seems larger than life as he steps through the door and shakes my hand. Tall, slender and slightly other-worldly, he pauses to stare out of the window before settling himself into a grubby armchair. "Have I been here before?" he wonders aloud. "It looks kinda familiar."
I remind him that this crumbling old theatre and dance hall was the scene of Audioslave's first UK show, in London back at the start of 2003. He nods dreamily, muttering something about Soundgarden. Had they played here, too? Neither of us can remember, so I tell him it's plain that while every other musician on the planet is intent on reforming their old band, he seems to be getting back together with himself.
"Er, yeah, I guess so," he replies with a chuckle. "I think that in a solo career, you can do whatever you want any time you want. Like Robert Plant, for example. No more Led Zeppelin - so he does a Robert Plant record. But then there was the Honeydrippers thing as well. Audioslave in a sense was that kind of thing for me. Because I had a solo career, I was open to an idea like that."
That solo career had stalled following the 1999 release of the critically acclaimed but slow-selling Euphoria Morning. When Rick Rubin had his bright idea and told Rage Against the Machine to try jamming with Chris Cornell, he started a train of events that resulted in three albums, two world tours and six years of music-making. In February 2007, Cornell finally put an end to months of speculation by confirming his departure from the supergroup, citing "irresolvable personality conflicts as well as musical differences."
"It feels like what I was doing was interrupted almost," he ponders. "Not for a bad thing, for a really great thing. But it does feel good to get back. I don't think I was really ready for it anyway, after Euphoria Morning. I think my life was too much of a mess, I was drinking too much, I didn't really have the focus to be just doing my own thing."
Chris doesn't regret any of it, but now feels that Audioslave was a diversion within the context of a longer journey, "like I'm back towards this forward movement musically that I kind of started with Euphoria Morning. Just a real free-form songwriting experience where I'm not really thinking about the outcome that much. I'm just going with whatever mood strikes me musically on the day when I'm writing a song, and then I'll make that into the song. Audioslave was a band, so it wasn't like that. It really was constricted to ingredients that you all four agree upon, that you like about music. Soundgarden had that too, [though] Soundgarden pushed the envelope a little more because we were a band for a lot longer."
In the years following the end of Soundgarden, Cornell sank into personal depression linked to his intake of alcohol and pills. At the same time, he was dealing with the disintegration of his marriage to erstwhile manager, Susan Silver. His time as Audioslave frontman seemed to be part of his recovery from that dark period, and Cornell has certainly spent the greater part of his life as a recording artist collaborating with other musicians. So does he now feel that playing material from the past is helping him wrap it all up - leaving him free to evolve and move on as an individual?
"Well, I'm just kind of figuring out what it means," he replies. "To be honest it's a little strange now to play Audioslave songs amongst Soundgarden songs and songs from different solo projects, and I'm not really sure why. You know, it was a little strange to do Soundgarden songs at first when Euphoria Morning came out and it was also strange to do Soundgarden songs when we did it in Audioslave, but then I kind of got used to it. I'm just having to get used to playing Audioslave songs in a band that's not Audioslave. 'Cause that was a pretty specific identity, I think."
Audioslave's identity always had trouble shaking the "temporary supergroup" tag. Despite producing three solid albums in the time it took contemporaries Velvet Revolver, for example, to come out with one, critics remained unconvinced of their cohesion as a band. And despite their show of solidarity, Audioslave sometimes evoked not so much a band of brothers as Dumas's three musketeers. A trio of inseparable men-at-arms -- plus d'Artagnan, the man on the weird yellow horse, always a bit of an outcast.
Cornell gives the impression that the machine eventually ground to a halt through a process of attrition rather than some major cataclysm. Was it really impossible for the band to evolve further after 2006's Revelations?
"Sure, Audioslave had the ability…but it would take adding a lot of hands-on, it would take digging deeper, it would take a pretty intense effort from everyone in the band. I didn't feel like I was willing to put in still more than I was already doing, 'cause I would rather just make my own records. Audioslave isn't my first band, it's not that first love where I'm willing to do that, because this is my first thing and I want this to be together forever no matter what. I'd rather have the freedom combined with the effort, versus just the effort, but still have opinions to dodge and to work within and parameters to work around. 'Cause I really don't need it."
Fans had known there was a solo side project in the works for some time, but Cornell had initially seemed to be planning something low-key, possibly acoustic. So it was a surprise to some when Steve Lillywhite (U2, Peter Gabriel, XTC, Rolling Stones) was announced as producer, a heavyweight studio band was recruited and the project seemed set to become a major release.
The resultant album Carry On (Suretone/Interscope) showcases Cornell's adaptability and vocal range across the whole gamut of styles - from the aggression and fire of rocker 'No Such Thing' to the soul food of 'Safe And Sound'. There's drama in the anthemic 'Silence The Voices', passionate lyricism in the Beatles-esque 'Scar On The Sky' and even a couple of countryish ballads in 'Finally Forever' and bonus track 'Roads We Choose'.
The album emerged worldwide at the beginning of June. Since April Cornell has been touring extensively, taking in destinations from Reykjavik to Istanbul and beyond. The tour - set to last for eighteen months - is a celebration of his twenty years in the business.
"I'm doing Soundgarden songs now that I'm not 100% the author of, too, which I didn't do before. This is the first time I've done things like 'Jesus Christ Pose' and 'Slaves and Bulldozers', 'Zero Chance' …these are all songs that I co-wrote with someone else. I haven't done that until now and frankly, that feels great. I was like the majority writer on every single record I've ever done and I was so involved in the music and the composition that it all feels pretty close to me. I don't feel like I'm doing a cover song from another band when I do a song by Soundgarden or Audioslave."
His current live band, though, are a far cry from Audioslave's ready-made set of doughty musketeers. "The band I have now I put together really last minute - I've been really lucky," explains Chris. "I needed people who got along with each other and did it all in a way that was sort of harmonious. These musicians have to really live on top of each other, they have to get along with each other almost more than they have to worry about getting along with me, 'cause I'm so busy doing press and other things all the time that I don't see them as much as they see each other."
It wasn't as straightforward a process as Cornell had hoped. The musicians who'd helped realise the new songs on Carry On weren't necessarily the most suitable players for Soundgarden and Audioslave material, or for that matter, available for the long haul.
"And I started noticing right away with other musicians that I was auditioning - that weren't even the guys that played on my record - that they were taking that sort of territorial view of marking out their space and, you know, 'this is a job I have working for that guy playing his songs, and fuck you!' There were a couple of different guitar players that voiced that they weren't necessarily that eager to play with two guitar players on stage. You know, they could do the job themselves, 'I don't really want another guy'. Even if that were the case - it's an idea I might have entertained - to say 'I don't want to do that', made me think that already, they're more worried about sharing the stage than they are anything else. That's sort of weird - and these guys aren't going to get along. When you're a band you have to learn how to live with each other and figure out what you do that bothers the other guy, and that guy has to figure out what bothers you. But in this situation, part of the criteria was that it would be someone who didn't have an attitude."
The band Cornell eventually put together - comprising guitarists Peter Thorn and Yogi Lonich, bassist Corey McCormick and drummer Jason Sutter - was recruited via open auditions at Los Angeles's Musicians' Institute, and selected as much for their personalities as for playing. Like all good guns-for-hire they're quick to pick up a song - but what's most notable about them is how quickly they've coalesced into a band with their own strong onstage identity. They also have a musical ease and flexibility which allows them to explore the whole range of Cornell's catalogue as a songwriter.
"For sure!" Cornell agrees. " I needed to find musicians that could get the whole picture, that could get the sensitivity of some of my mellower or more arranged solo stuff as well as the sheer aggressive nature of some of my songs in bands….I mean the first time Audioslave did 'Loud Love', or whatever it was, the first Soundgarden song [we did], it was really strange because it sounded so different. The band I'm playing with now sounds more like Soundgarden - this band has the ability, like Soundgarden did, to really not pay much attention to time. Like, the song starts, it doesn't really matter how long it's going before I start singing - if there's a guitar solo it can go on longer than normal, you know, we can stretch songs out. This band has the ability to be pretty ad-libby, pretty stream-of-consciousness oriented, and Audioslave was pretty strict - if something didn't happen when it was supposed to, we'd get kind of thrown off. So I think the Soundgarden songs sound a little more natural with this band doing them."
It's not as if the band are well-oiled, characterless music machines churning out exactly what they're told. Watch a Cornell show, and each musician seems to be coming from a different place - yet somehow, it all coalesces into a seamless whole. Jason Sutter has a style that manages to be both lusty and concise, getting away with individual displays like his showpiece solo in 'Slaves & Bulldozers'. Corey McCormick has an elastic feel that underpins the whole without becoming leaden, and the two guitarists have fascinatingly complementary styles and personalities.
"Yeah, they really do!" grins Cornell. "And that's still coming to light. Night after night. There's that first step of everyone learns the songs, and they know all the parts and they play them, and it comes together and it sounds good like that, and that was probably the first five, six shows, maybe seven shows. And it's been more a promotional tour so we're not out playing night after night, it'll be like we play one night and then I'll do like a day of press, or two days of press, and then we play again. So after about seven shows, which took a couple of weeks, all of a sudden I'm hearing things in the middle of songs which are not on the record, they're not things we worked out; it's just like the different guys are filling up parts with just with just… vibe, and ambience, and things that the songs have never had before, that I've never heard before, and that's where you get into a kind of a bonus. It's not what they're hired for, it's not something you can expect from someone, and when it shows up it's just really lucky, it's really great."
Composer and multi-instrumentalist David Arnold is also at the Astoria tonight, preparing to make a one-off guest appearance with Cornell and his band for their rendition of Casino Royale movie theme 'You Know My Name'. Keyboardist Natasha Shneider was a big part of Cornell’s last touring band for Euphoria Morning. Carry On, too, features keyboards from sessioneer Jamie Muhobarac as well as one-finger contributions from Cornell himself (“If it sounds like a monkey could play it, that’s me.”) Does he miss the musical muscle of keyboards onstage?
“When you have two guitar players, you can kind of get all that stuff done anyway. Especially with the technology now. And with these guys…Peter Thorn, he has a great talent for recreating sounds on guitar, sounds like it could be an organ, a Hammond…he can reproduce almost any sound. Yogi’s sort of more a classic rock guitar player, so between the two of them we don’t really need keyboards and you don’t miss it. Like, a lot of the identifiable horn parts that were on You Know My Name are played on guitar and it feels like the song, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.”
Although Cornell is now the one in charge, it's difficult to see him as simply a singer with a backing band. Live, the onstage chemistry between all five musicians is tangible and inclusive: these aren't guys who are happy to stand in the shadows while the man with his name on the tickets hogs the spotlight. "Yeah - this is no different to me than Audioslave in that I didn't know those guys," he clarifies. "We got in a room and starting writing songs, we worked together, we made records, we toured. This is the same thing - I feel just as close to these guys as any band I've ever been in at this point. The structure's a little bit different, but I'm not a dictatorial type of a guy. Generally someone will ask me 'what should we do?' and I'll say, 'I dunno, what do you want to do?' Unless it's something I really NEED to do - then I'll say it. But once you have four or five guys, whatever, in a room playing music or on stage, you are a band."
It's inevitable though, that some fans of Cornell's previous work will take time to accept what he's doing now. Perhaps some of them will choose not to accept it, just as some Soundgarden fans disliked Euphoria Morning or refused to acknowledge Audioslave. However, Cornell feels that the live band is working hard to win over any doubters. "This band is accepted by the audience night after night, they're loved by the audience, there aren't a lot of people with their arms folded staring down their noses at them because they're not the original members of some other band, we're not getting a lot of that," says Chris. "I think you have to play, people have to see it, people have to be a part of it and see that everybody's having a good time, everyone's into it. I mean y'know, I dunno, there are bands where guys have been in the band for 25 years and they don't look like they're having as good a time as these guys. Look at the drummer of U2, he doesn't look like he's someone who wants to be doing this, he looks like he'd rather be doing something else . . .and it's his band!"
This easy-going joie de vivre is something of a departure for Cornell. In his Soundgarden days he was something of a patron saint for the disaffected and around the time of Soundgarden's biggest hit 'Black Hole Sun', his music teemed with pain, fear and fury. The songs might have been full of suffering - but the singer, it turned out, was a survivor. Since his turn-of-the-century nadir, Chris Cornell has successfully battled addiction and depression. Settling in Paris with his wife Vicky and their children, his songs have begun to deal with the positive side of life as well as with the dark and transgressive - a sea-change which some fans have found hard to navigate. What would he say to those people who believe artists only do their best work when they're suffering?
"Er , well they might be right… it depends on the artist, really," he laughs. "It's hard to say. I think that songwriters can write good songs depressed or happy and they can write bad songs depressed or happy. That's been my experience. For example, if you're someone who prefers moody dark depressed themed music, then you might think the song isn't as good, but that doesn't mean it isn't, it's just not your cup of tea. And also I think as long as the emotion's sincere, I think you're OK. There are a lot of bands…particularly hard rock bands, or these modern heavy metal bands with the singers who don't really sing, they just sort of growl like a monster puppet and where the lyrics are really dark and aggressive and evil…there's no real emotion in it; it's kind of just like Halloween, 24/7. It's not disturbing, I don't feel that there's any deep connection to any type of distress or depression or anxiety or anger. It's just a production decision - let's be this kind of band, you know, "I wanna write dark pissed-off songs." Very few people do it where you really feel it, you feel like that's for real. And no one's going to do that forever. I mean, someone's entire career writing songs that are either angry or depressed? You're going to run out of things to say I would think, you'll just run the risk of writing the same song over and over."
Some of the artists that do make these kinds of production decisions erect a whole onstage identity, propped up with costumes, sets, dancers. Marilyn Manson's stage shows, for example, have as much in common with cabaret or theatre as they do with music, and even the back-to-basics White Stripes are surrounded with layers of myth - the red-and-white colour code, the brother-and-sister act, Meg's embroidered drumstool. Arguably, such artists choose to assume a persona to put up a wall between their onstage and offstage self. Does Cornell?
"It depends…," he muses. "I'm not really sure. Maybe at a time there was, maybe at a time there was a character I was trying to portray, that I put out so that there'd be some sort of difference or distance - but those are all kind of smeared with me. Because, you know, the different periods of my life where I've acted differently onstage I've also acted differently offstage, so I don't know."
A lot of the changes in Cornell's visible personality have had to do with his alcohol problems. "When I was touring with Soundgarden for Superunknown, that was really the first time I really started actually drinking on tour. I never did before. I drank a lot, but not on tour, and I didn't really smoke on tour either. I was really focussed, you know, the show was important and my lifestyle was pretty clean. And then in 1994… Kim [Thayil] and Ben [Shepherd] and I just sort of started to get a little bit crazier in terms of our overall behaviour, you know, years of being on the road and being in a band and whatever. I started going onstage from being a little bit buzzed to being absolutely wasted, and that changed my personality onstage. I remember very specifically. All through my Euphoria Morning tour I was drunk onstage or drinking onstage, one of the two, or at some point onstage I was drunk and then I'd sober up a little bit, I don't know."
Cornell laughs before lapsing back into thought. "But . . . I don't know even how much different I am. It feels different. But it was a little bit weird going back to being completely sober and going out onstage with Audioslave and not even really having the memory of what I used to feel like or be like onstage. And I think…. I guess I dealt with it by singing the song, and just kind of concentrating on that. Like I'm going to go out and stand in front of the mic, and sing the song good, and then whatever happens after that, I get sort of swept up in the song and it's all pretty natural. And I'm still that way. When I was in my early twenties I would run out for the first song and just start going apeshit and you know, "this is a rock show and fuck you and here we go" . . . and I haven't been that way in a long time. You know, if I'm not feeling it, then I'm not going to be doing it but I usually . . . unless there's something really wrong with the sound or something, the music sweeps me up eventually. I guess that's where the natural part comes in."
Cornell is the kind of artist whose influence runs deep. Fans and fellow musicians alike have described his songs as therapeutic or inspirational - Guitarist Vernon Reid publicly thanked Soundgarden for 'The Day I Tried To Live' which he said "kept him going" one particularly dark day, and actor Brad Pitt namechecked Cornell as a source for his own portrayal of Achilles in 2005 movie Troy. Chris isn't sure how all this makes him feel.
"It's kind of surreal. I guess I feel kind of detached. I mean it's good, because it reminds me I'm in the privileged position where what I do musically actually gets out there and people hear it and it has an impact and it has an effect on people. You know, a woman the other night came up to me and she had books for my children, and she was talking about the books that she would read with her children when she was in the hospital. And I've had people come and say that they went through the exact same kind of stuff, and it was songs that I wrote that got them through it, that they concentrated on it . . . you hear that a lot. If I spoke to fans more I would actually hear that more, I think, and that's why it's important to me not to feel like it's necessary to describe, song after song, what my intentions were when I wrote it, and what I want people to think when they hear it, or feel when they hear it or read the lyrics, because that's not the point. I don't think that's what I do or what I should do. I think that what the listener owns, that what the fans owns, is their interpretation of it, their feeling of it. I don't feel like I'm someone who should be writing messages that I really gotta be concerned with getting out there to other people who don't know it."
Chris Cornell laughs, his clear gaze relaxing into wry amusement. " I don't think I know enough. I'm not that smart."
A self-confessed "wild ADD boy", Chris left high school early, unable to fit into the disciplines and structures of formal education. I start to tell him about a friend of mine - an American special needs teacher who finds his lyrics work brilliantly as a way of getting the troubled, sometimes dysfunctional young boys in her charge to react to language. He cuts in, fascinated, almost disbelieving: it's plain this isn't something he's heard before.
"Really??? REALLY?? That's cool!…..I wish the teacher had tried me with that when I was a kid. 'Cause I didn't have very much luck."
In some ways the video for Carry On's lead-off US single 'No Such Thing' seemed to feed into some of those same issues, stirring up controversy amongst the moral majority with its harrowing and violent imagery. Some fans described it as "unwatchable drivel to appease a mindless audience"; others argued that it had "a lot to say about the weird contradictions of the human heart". How did Cornell feel it reflected what he was expressing in the song?
"Well, it doesn't really have anything to do with the song. I viewed it as a soundtrack to a piece of film. The original idea was trying to portray on some level, this backyard wrestling scene - this really grassroots organic scene that happens in the US that people do frown on, and people are divided about as a scene. There are a lot of people who think that it's absolutely the lowest common denominator and like, the sign of the apocalypse that kids would spend all their time doing that -- whereas I see it differently. I see it as a reaction to a world where now everyone is sitting at a desk looking at a computer and spending all their time indoors and not doing anything physical."
That's not to say that Chris advocates going out and smashing a bottle over someone's head, or throwing an unconscious girl off a cliff. "It's also a manner of theatre -- and I think that's the problem people will have with the video. People always take things literally, take things as a message. People also take the responsibility away from anyone who might view or listen to something. In other words, a piece of film - or a song, or a painting - is not a suggestion for action to someone, or a suggestion of any kind for that matter. It stands on its own as what it is. And so to me the video, really, it's not . . . I don't find it particularly powerful. I don't know if it ended up portraying what I really wanted to do in the first place when it came to the sort of grassroots backyard wrestling thing, other than the fact that some people are kind of freaked out by it, which I do like. But the imagery I think is unbelievable, it's just fantastic. It lives in such contrast with the song that it ends up like my song is just the soundtrack to this odd collection of imagery - and I think it's very artful and really well done. "
So that's the video, but what of the song? Rocky Kolb, the American physicist, wrote that "the laws of the universe tell you that if you start out with truly nothing, this is unstable and will decay into something. The universe is inevitable. Nothing cannot exist forever". As a scientific rejection of nihilism, that's fairly succinct. Was Cornell thinking along the same lines ?
"Yeah, that's pretty much it in a nutshell. It's just taking the math out of a social situation, or humanity, which I think we kind of do. If you're not moving forward, then you're moving backward, if you're not satisfied then you're dissatisfied; if you're not wealthy you're poor. You know the kind of thing; humans don't tend to flatline. I don't think we do, I don't think we coast. I don't think people necessarily, by their own nature, tend to be complacent. I mean you might go through periods where you're complacent, but I don't think that's our point. I don't think that's the point of our existence really, I don't think that's human nature. I think we're in motion and it's going to be one way or another, it's not just going to be down the middle."
However, if we're not running down the middle, then sooner or later we're going to hit one or other extreme - and as Cornell further explains, "the whole thought process came about from trying to figure out what would be in the mind of a suicide bomber. I guess it's pretty simple, you know. If somebody doesn't value their own life, I don't know how you expect them to value someone else's. And in a weird way - not to say that I condone it - but I do at least understand that thought process, and that's really all I was trying to do, trying to understand how it could happen."
Suicide bombers often consider themselves warriors in the service of an ideal, though, however outlandish that might seem - and it's not every murderer who thinks along those lines. "If it's something like serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, that type of a person, there is no understanding, that's a fucking crazy person and all you need to understand is that they're nuts and things are not there that are supposed to be there, or things are there that are not supposed to be there," insists Cornell. "There's something wrong, but it's not normal, it's a sickness."
But not every case is as clear-cut. "There's always that argument, you know, this kid at Virginia Tech that shot 32 people, was he crazy? Or was he just really acutely depressed and disenfranchised? I don't know. Probably crazy."
As always in the aftermath of an atrocity, theories and counter-theories fly and everyone's looking for explanations. "I think he was nuts," concludes Cornell. "I think with carnage like that which is so horrible, everybody wants to be able to be mad at someone … but you almost have to look at it like these people got hit by a bus, or a plane crashed. It's a tragedy, an accident. Because this kid probably was an accident of nature, something was wrong in his brain and he snapped. And it wasn't that someone was lax, and it wasn't that he's evil, and it wasn't that the gun store sold guns, it wasn't any of that, it was simply that his brain didn't work. But I don't know that, you know, that's just what I imagine. Maybe it's easier for me to imagine that, instead of imagining that someone could be that bad."
At this point of moral turbulence Chris Cornell's tour manager descends to carry him off; there's a photo session to do before he goes onstage, and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, now snowy-haired, wanders in to say hello. It's a busy night - but there's very little missing from the titanic performance Cornell, band and guest star David Arnold give a little later that evening, in front of a capacity audience which also includes half of London's press pack and Carry On producer Steve Lillywhite.
Well over two hours and three encores later, Chris emerges into the near-empty auditorium to sign memorabilia for competition winners. Calm, soft-spoken and cool as a cucumber, it's difficult to recognise him as the same man who has just won over London with peerless musicianship and sheer vitality. As the band say their farewells and the curtain finally comes down on one of the best nights I've spent in a theatre, it's hard to harbour any nostalgia for the past when the future looks so bright.
As he'd told me before the show, in an overcrowded profession Chris Cornell feels constantly privileged to be playing music that "actually gets out there." It's obvious that he's constantly aware of that daily dispensation - and intends to give everything he can in return.
Carry on, Chris.
Part Two: 27 June 2007, Glasgow
There's a compelling story which New York magazine editor Robert Stein used to tell about Marilyn Monroe. He and photographer Ed Feingersh had persuaded the actress to do a Cartier-Bresson style verité shoot, what they called "a straight look at her life".
As he recalls "…between moments of being seen, there was another Marilyn, suddenly drained of energy, like the air being let out of a balloon…Marilyn had never been in a subway. Wrapped in the camel's hair coat, her famous hair subdued, she walked to the Grand Central stop of the IRT and down to the platform. Nobody recognized her. Eddie's camera kept clicking while she stood strap-hanging on the uptown local. No heads turned. Back up on the street, Marilyn looked around with a teasing smile. "Do you want to see her?" she asked, then took off the coat, fluffed up her hair, and arched her back in a pose. In an instant she was engulfed, and it took several shoving, scary minutes to rewrap her and push clear of the growing crowd."
Artists like Monroe adopt their onstage persona as though it were a costume, a suit of armour to hide behind or plumage to be displayed. They strike poses, employ stagecraft, construct themselves out of a confection of lights and choreography. Sometimes, like her, they simply stand offstage, out of sight, and operate the machinery that projects the goddess or the Wizard of Oz the people cross continents to see. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, we seem to hear them say, as the creature on the stage runs through its act, night after night, and the crowd cheer the persona they believe in, the one they've bought into.
Others go a different route. The recent story of Chris Cornell has been all about drawing back the curtain and letting such projections fade away. Although he's admitted hiding behind a persona in the past, the singer of the band once dubbed 'Frowngarden' has never seemed happy with labels, however hard the press or audiences tried to force his music and his personality into categories that suited them.
With Carry On, his second solo album, he seems to be trying harder than ever before to leave behind the preconceptions people have of him. Barechested rock screamer. Heavy-metal hero. Unattainable sex god. Doom-laden grunge miserablist. Supergroup member. Although his live shows are revisiting almost every era of his career as well as promoting his newest songs, the intention seems to be to tie everything together, create a career coherence that makes sense to him as well as to audiences. At the age of 42 he's so restless to move on, carry on, establish a new independent identity, that tonight his energy is palpable.
Rehearsing songs at soundcheck, he keeps up a constant on-mic commentary - joking, teasing his bandmates, his mind skipping from distant boyhood memory to the previous night's Dublin show in an instant. It's almost a show in itself. Later, sitting backstage at the Glasgow Academy on a shockingly vivid lime-green sofa, we pick up the threads of the conversation started over a month before in London.
Steve Lillywhite said that if there was one artist in the world who was capable of coming out with music that was comparable to what Jeff Buckley was doing before he died, it would be you, I tell him.
"Yeah, I mean, the first conversation we had was pretty much that, that was what he said to me," Chris recalls. However, he slides away from too direct a musical link with his dead friend, as he does from any comparison with other artists. He's almost impatient, shrugging off associations.
"Everyone sort of has a description in their own mind of a record... how they see an artist, how they see a band... and his [Lillywhite's] made sense to me. But…it's all just kind of talk at the end of the day, because what was Jeff Buckley doing? I mean, I dunno, he made one record a long time ago and he was having trouble making a second one. So it's an idea, it's an attitude, it's like a starting point I suppose, it's a reference point that you both understand.
"But then moving forward, it's based more on the songs that are written than anything, and I don't really write into particular concepts. So I think ultimately where our attitudes kind of met, that made sense, was …[I'm] someone that's maturing in rock music, that wants to, versus someone that kind of wants to stay in a vein similar to that person's past."
That need to change and to progress is something Cornell explores in the song 'Ghosts'. Addressing someone who's looking for his old self, he sings: "I'm sure you found the right place/Same address you knew before/But that won't change what lies behind the door/And what lies underneath/Has to change/From the inside out/He doesn't live here any more." It's something he's reiterated in many recent interviews, even telling Men's Health in September 2006 that "even if you have exactly the life you want, you have to change to survive."
"I think that's why in a way Steve [Lillywhite] was good for me," Chris continues. One of the things was, really, the fact that, looking at his discography… the records he's been involved with, that there wasn't really anything with any heavy metal on it, there wasn't anything where if I write a song, for example, like 'No Such Thing', he's going to add production to it that's going to make it sound like someone I don't really think I am. And it kept all the songs more organic sounding, based on the songwriting and not so much on a production style."
Cornell is eager to stress that this hunger for variation isn't new. The self-confessed "wild ADD boy" seems to have been juggling different potential careers from the beginning.
"Probably 75% of Carry On wouldn't make any sense to be in Audioslave. Which is not a new circumstance for me - I had the same situation in Soundgarden, the whole time. I was actually making home recordings on 4-track that were being played on the local college radio station at the same time they were playing Soundgarden demos, like before we'd even made a record. So like the two . . . me on my own as well as me with the band, co-existing at the same time, started from the very beginning. So I guess I've always been quite used to it."
Although he doesn't in any way regret the time he spent fronting Audioslave, he does feel that those years effectively interrupted the course of his solo career. "I didn't go back to what I was doing in Soundgarden, but I took a step back into the direction of aggressive rock, and out of more ethereal and melodic music. Which was welcome, 'cos I love aggressive music as well, but I have yet to really establish myself as this other type of songwriter, singer," he admits. "That's why I see the problem with three Audioslave records between the two solo records. I feel like… to a degree, Carry On is similar to Euphoria Morning in that I'm just getting started making solo records. I was doing that on Euphoria Morning and just kind of reacting to the band that I'd just been in for 14 years and just writing songs that I wouldn't be doing in that band - and that's what made that record. But the next record would've been more, I guess, what my true identity is as a solo artist.
"But instead I became a member of Audioslave and so now Carry On is a little bit like Euphoria Morning in that it's a little bit of a reaction to Audioslave… I think my next solo record will be the first one that is really not a reaction to anything. If anything, maybe it'll be a reaction to this record, I don't know!" he chuckles.
Perhaps that means he has to persuade the public all over again that he's more than a rock frontman with an impressive roar.
"I remember when Temple Of The Dog came out, hearing people saying they were quite surprised that I could sing songs like that or write songs like that . . . I was a little bit surprised, because I thought, why wouldn't they think that? And then I thought, well, nobody's ever really heard any of the other songs that I've written… the Temple Of The Dog thing ended up selling a lot and still, when I would come out with a new song that sounded more melodic, for example, moody, or ballad-like, it still seemed to cause a problem with certain fans that just didn't expect it, and just didn't know that was something that I could do."
It's a recurring difficulty for Cornell. "Even Soundgarden had that problem, you know, if we came out with a bunch of songs that sounded like 'Outshined' you could've put us in a box and we would've sold more records back in like 1990, 1991, '92, and we'd be less important historically because of it. You know, people wouldn't be thinking of us as meaning much. But we would also have been copied more. There would have been bands where you would've thought, OK they sound just like Soundgarden. Because we were so eclectic, there wasn't really any band in particular or artist that seemed to lift what we were doing exactly. And also we changed as a band pretty dramatically over a period of a few short years….even just Soundgarden as a band seemed to have critics confused - and not always in a bad way, sometimes it was in a good way," he laughs.
Critical confusion has certainly followed the release of Carry On, dividing reviewers into those who value its exploratory intent and those who are bemused or indignant that an artist of Cornell's pedigree might want to transcend the limitations of a successful genre. Cornell, however, feels that music has to stand outside notions of genre and trend.
"Whether it's taken positively or negatively, you can't really rely on either one… the climate really has nothing to do with the artist. If you look at it in the 60's, really changing what you did wasn't really a matter of whether you wanted to be accepted, it was really mandatory. People had to transform, I mean look at a band like The Rolling Stones over the course of a few years and four or so records. Or The Beatles, like how much they changed, and how much music changed just in that short time - like from 1964 to 1969, how much rock music completely changed and how much was included in it . Nowadays it's not so much, you know, are you changing 'cause you've gotta change and show growth, it's more sort of looking back - like, "well, it doesn't sound like what we're used to or what we like."
Moving on, though, is sometimes more easily said than done. The songs on the album have a multitude of origins, from the version of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' which grew out of a conversation with his wife about improbable covers, to the James Bond movie theme 'You Know My Name' which took its lyrical themes from Daniel Craig's performance and the movie's script. One of the most striking songs on the album is the meditative 'Disappearing Act', but according to Steve Lillywhite that was one of the most troublesome songs to record and mix.
"There are different schools of thought on what that song was," recalls Chris, "but I did demos for everything, and 'Disappearing Act' was the very first one I did, and my demo was all acoustic. That one… and maybe one other song …was the only one where I didn't play all the instruments, and have drum loops, and basically get a pretty accurate demo that we copied in the studio. So we didn't really know what to do with 'Disappearing Act'. I knew I wanted a full band, we wanted upright bass, acoustic guitars, like keep it acoustic-ish, but have it be a band, not just be me and an acoustic guitar. And I think because we didn't really have a template for it, we were sort of exploring, and it was also one of the first songs we did. And then Steve got adventurous on it and he put a lot of bowing and strings on it, and different things, and then he basically made a mess that he had to sit around and figure out how to make work. And he did, actually!"
'Disappearing Act' is perhaps one of the most complex and rich songs on Carry On both emotionally and musically, yet unlike, perhaps, 'Silence The Voices', it doesn't begin to stray towards the ornate.
"No, I think that was his struggle," recalls Chris, "because I would go out in my car, I'd be driving home, and I'd turn around and come back with the CD and yell at him because it becomes like a mess. The balance was like, what do you put in there that reaches that epic point without it becoming too much? You know you have to find that fine line where you're just pushing your luck a little bit, with the epic nature, but not so much that it all implodes. And because everything with this record - and with me working with Steve - was organic, you can't really use any tricks, you can't really cheat it.
"Like a lot of modern music is sort of time code, bass, drum loops, and you're dealing with sonic texture and compression. You're just turning things up, and aggressive things sonically are coming and going, and that creates your dynamic. But when it's really the tempo and the band, like Nir Z's drumming on 'Disappearing Act', he speeds up and slows down, he swells, he's playing these drum phrases through parts where normally you would just have like a straight beat, and it was a brilliant performance. And the organic-ness of it made it difficult, I think."
Lyrically, some of the songs on Carry On seem to glance back over their shoulder towards older material as well as dealing with new experiences. 'Killing Birds' seems in parts to directly reference Soundgarden's 'Like Suicide'; and like Audioslave's '#1 Zero', 'Poison Eye' evokes a sense of surveillance, of watching and being watched - although it's not clear whether the song is threatening or paranoid, whether it's the hunter or the hunted that's actually the viewpoint character.
"Well, I think the hunted doesn't happen without the hunting, you know, like one hand kind of watches the other," muses Chris. "And then other things like 'Like Suicide' and 'Killing Birds'…. it can create similar imagery, but that's more accidental, maybe. It's like, maybe, using similar words, but as different metaphors. Which is normal."
"What I will do, occasionally, if I'm writing in a kind of a condensed period… there'll be words that sort of reappear. But themes don't necessarily, although sometimes it seems like they do. With '#1 Zero', I never really thought of it as being paranoid or threatening . If anything, it kind of typifies… I think….. what male affection feels like to me, but is overlooked and is never written about. I don't know how many friends I've had and I've watched them have identical obsessive experiences with women and in relationships. And I don't see that as being bad, or good. I see that as being normal, but nobody ever points that out as being normal. So why not? Everyone refers to male obsession when it comes to females and relationships and jealousy as being unhealthy and weird and bad - and it might be all of those things, but it's also more common than anything else when it comes to the male approach to relationships. So something like 'Poison Eye' is meant to be aggressive, but I think that want or need to express that aggression can't come without some sort of paranoia that arrives first. I hadn't really thought about that before."
It's almost time for Chris to take the stage and the Glasgow auditorium is buzzing with anticipation. The tour's publicist is making wind-up signals at me from the open door, but Chris is still deep in thought.
"I'm not going to speak for everyone else in the entire world," he chuckles, "but for me, there's a certain amount of paranoia going on all the time, I guess. There's a certain amount of over-reacting inside, whether I show it or not."
What was once a virtual symbol has become a virtue signal...
It's Remembrance Sunday. As I write this, princes and politicians are laying wreaths at the Cenotaph, and the great and the good of Britain are parading down Whitehall behind the tattered human remnants of wars and police actions.
When I was a child in England, our family always watched the remembrance services. The evening event at the Royal Albert Hall, with the poppy petals descending from the ceiling like red snow. The wintry solemnity on Sunday morning, which we even attended in person once or twice. My grandfather had been seriously disabled by a gas attack in France during World War I, and my father had narrowly escaped death in Palestine during World War II when his jeep went over a land mine. I grew up with a sense that I was lucky to have been born. That I owed a great deal to the sacrifices made by those not as lucky as my own forebears; those whose lives had been cut short, who never got to have children and watch them grow up.
So I always bought a poppy from the men and women from the British Legion with cardboard trays and collecting boxes who stood outside shops in the high street., and I wore it every day. I knew it didn't matter whether you put in 5p or £5 or £50; the poppy you wore was the same, made by veterans, worn for remembrance and respect. The Queen and the Prime Minister may have got to leave their oversized wreaths at the Cenotaph, but it didn't make them better than me when I dropped my pocket money into a jangling tin and picked out my paper flower and my pin.
I'm middle-aged now. I think the changes surrounding remembrance have been gradual, which is why I haven't much noticed them until now. They say a frog doesn't notice the water it's in getting hotter until it's being boiled to death, and maybe it's the same thing with freedom. The first insidious signs of change came when celebrities and public figures were attacked in certain quarters for not wearing poppies on television. Most had always done so, but what is the value of an emblem of support if it's not chosen freely? How can someone be forced to remember, forced to sympathise?
Worse, forcible poppy-wearing started to become associated with the so-called "patriotism" of the re-emergent far-right in Britain, the same vocal minority who had already co-opted the English flag of St George and were fast doing the same with the British Union Jack. These factions attempted to turn a non-aligned symbol of memory and regret into a political emblem. There was some attempt to turn this aside by those who chose to wear "pacifist" white poppies, but damage had been done to what people were increasingly beginning to think of as a brand.
I live in a rural Scottish village, so perhaps I've been insulated from the worst of the process. Round here, things like charity collections tend to operate much as they've always done. This year, however, I was in the city in the week leading up to Remembrance Sunday. Here, the poppy-sellers of the past have been consigned to memory, replaced by concession stands in shopping malls offering "official poppy merch".
This was a serious psychic jolt for someone raised on the idea that the size of your donation had nothing to do with the size of the emblem. Here were fancy enamelled badges and pins for sale, along with poppy-emblazoned tote bags, T-shirts, mugs, teddies and earrings. There are even websites - a posh one with "fine jewellery" for England, cheap and cheerful for Scotland - where you can order up more swag, with categories conveniently arranged as to price. What was once a virtual symbol has become a virtue signal, with plenty of opportunity for you to display your superior level of remembrance, your upmarket patriotism via your purchase of £750 diamond poppy cufflinks or a £30 decanter set.
I do understand that the objective is to raise money to help those whose lives have been vandalised by war. My father, the one who nearly got blown to bits by a land mine, always taught me that cynics were people who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. And I wonder how many people "shopping" at the poppy merch stands and online shops, the people who criticise and shame those who don't join in, are more attracted to the remembrance brand than the reality of what was endured by those who fought for freedom they no longer seem to understand.
Poppies for young men, such bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed.
- Sting, Children's Crusade