I heard the terrible news about Chris Cornell’s suicide. I was laying sick in bed with a horrible cold and had spent a few feverish nights. It was something Chris said to me that echoed through my head for decades.
Back in the late 80’s, I was working as a freelance journalist for MTV and other publications. The band had just signed to major label A&M, and their publicist was keen to set up an interview.
I absolutely loved the album.
Louder Than Love was the perfect combination of old classic riffs a la Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin fueled with some punk vitality. I dived back to hear their earlier stuff on SubPop and was similarly impressed. What also resonated with me was the ethnic diversity of Soundgarden. As a young Asian American, I was astound by the fact that guitarist, Kim Thayil and bassist, Hiro Yamamoto were Asian!
Growing up in an all-white suburb on Long Island, I was an outsider all my life. It was only through music, rock and roll, that I began to find some common ground with my peers. I had never seen anything like this!
We set up an interview and met at a restaurant. It was Chris and Kim and we just hung out. Nice normal guys. It was their first time in NYC and they knew about a party. I tagged along. We spent the whole night going from party to party. At one point, we were hanging out with guitars and I showed Kim a funky slap style which he thought was kinda cool.
I wrote an article for MTV-to-Go Magazine. Then wrote up a segment for MTV Headbanger’s Ball. The album came out and was getting a bit of attention. But this was still 1989. Remember Bobby Brown’s My Perogative? Straight Up from Paula Abdul and pretty boy hair metal bands like Poison were top of the charts. Soundgarden was too dark and dangerous, yet.
About a year later, I was a panelist at an industry trade show for hard rock/heavy metal. I ran into Chris in the parking lot and we greeted each other. I was happy he had remembered me. But then as he was turning to leave, he stopped and said, “Hey man, when are YOU going to be famous?”
I don’t recall what I said, but it was a strange feeling. What does that mean? Did he see something in me?
Within a few months, I was selected as one of the new on-air hosts for MTV Asia based in Hong Kong with a satellite footprint of millions! I was the daily host of the morning show, Classic MTV and a weekly top 20 countdown.
It was the early 90’s and I was living in Hong Kong, not in touch with the music scene in the US. Asian audiences were very conservative and we were broadcasting Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey.
But, by December 1991, a bunch of us at MTV gathered to watch Nirvana’s new video, Smells Like Teen Spirit. It was like a bomb had dropped. It was fantastic and instantly I knew music was going to shift. But I never expected it to change in such a big way.
When I was an intern at a marketing agency in the mid 80’s, we worked with under-served artists at major labels, specifically heavy metal bands. No one at big labels knew what about this music or how to handle it. It wasn’t played on mainstream radio. It was underground. And yet, hard rock and heavy metal bands had been filling stadiums for years. A perfect problem to solve.
We broke these bands to a level of success. But it was still far from the mainstream.
By 1994, Soundgarden’s album Superunknown debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. I was still in Asia and read it in the news. I was shocked. Soundgarden is in the mainstream?! It was like music had changed overnight. Nirvana broke the floodgates open and gone were all the teased hair pretty boys.
I recall thinking how I would probably get to interview Chris again at some point and tell him, “Hey man, do you remember what you said to me?”
It was probably an offhand remark. I don’t think he would remember it. But it was like he had given me permission to be something more than I even believed at the time.
Thank you Chris. For everything. Your music, songwriting, voice, stage presence. You were undeniably one of the greatest.
But for me, it was the gift of a question that reverberates still.