Thursday, 20 July 2017

Birthday Letter

It’s been over two months since Chris Cornell died.  Today would have been his 53rd birthday. Shock affects people in different ways, but for me, the days and weeks following his death went by in a blur. Helping to organise his funeral gave way to listening to his elegies.  So many of his friends, family and colleagues spoke or wrote beautiful things in his memory, but I couldn’t seem to do the same.  In Hollywood, Jacaranda blossoms were blooming across a summer he’d never see.  The night after his funeral, I sat on the hill outside Griffith Observatory and watched the shadows lengthen.  And I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

I’ve been told that just as physical injury can trigger a natural anaesthetic which protects the victim, the sudden death of a loved one can produce a numbness of the mind and heart which only gradually gives way to anger and grief.  I think that’s what happened to me.

Still, it’s pretty pathetic when a writer runs out of words.

Lately, there have been signs that my heart is coming out of hibernation.  I’ve been getting angry. With myself.  With people who write stupid things on the internet.   Even with Chris, who left all of us high and dry without the chance to offer help, to understand, even to say goodbye.   I’m told that anger is a normal part of grief; that it helps with the healing process and eventually gives way to acceptance.   But I’m still a long way, a very long way, from that.

So I’ve been trying to remember all the good things.

Like the day in 2007 I first met Chris, backstage at the Astoria in London.  For such a tall man he had a way of moving silently, almost stealthily, and I was still setting up to record my interview when Chris walked over to the room’s single window and with his back to me, said “Have I been here before?”

He never cared much for hellos and goodbyes, the routine enquiries after health or wellbeing with which most people bookend their conversations.  Choosing to take him literally rather than metaphorically, I reminded him of the last time he’d played the venue; with Audioslave, four years before, fresh out of rehab.  He laughed as I fumbled with my recorder and sent its batteries skittering across the floor. Then he distributed himself over three rickety chairs and talked for an hour, not just about music but about physics and history and psychology and politics.  They’ve knocked the Astoria down now, but whatever they do with the space where it stood, it’ll always be a haunted place for me.

originally posted to Flickr What remains of the Astoria.
That interview, and the one which followed back home in Scotland, eventually led to Chris hiring me.  For the next decade, I wrote PR, did research, kept archives, proofread everything, became part of the management team, helped his family, and looked after social media for him and for his bands and projects.  One of the greatest things about the internet is that for those of us dealing in art and ideas, it enables almost anyone to work from almost anywhere. Which is exactly what I did.

Visiting Chris and Vicky for the first time in Paris, I remember the exact moment when a small blond figure in a nappy appeared in the sitting room doorway and fixed me with a basilisk stare just like his father’s.  Then Chris appeared, crouched beside him and picked up a ball which he rolled slowly towards me as he told his son my name.   I’m not sure that Dad quite allayed the little boy’s natural suspicion of this strange lady, but it was a nice way to make his, and his big sister’s acquaintance.

Chris loved his family profoundly. Whatever he was doing, whatever else was in his mind, he was always a devoted husband and father, as he was always an appreciative friend. Despite his rock star cool, he had a natural gentility which seemed to come from a different age.   It’s the little things, really.  Stopping to help his wife who was making slow progress in heels down an elderly staircase at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and then opening the door to let me step into the wings ahead of him.  Walking with him through the centre of the crowd at Hyde Park after Soundgarden’s wonderful ‘Superunknown20’ show to watch Black Sabbath from the VIP viewing platform, a child on his shoulders like a hundred other dads down on the grass below on that summer evening.

I remember him phoning to cheer me up when the response to his album “Scream” wasn’t all we’d hoped.  Carefully spelling out my 12 year old son’s Gaelic name in the cover of a children’s book he was autographing for him, anxious not to get it wrong;  then ten years later, writing to congratulate that same son on getting his degree.  Doing everything he could to help friends or fans through bereavement, or to send little presents or organise special backstage meetings for those who were sick or disabled.  I remember his abundant kindness, his keen intelligence, his all-encompassing warmth for those he trusted and his disdain for those he did not.  I remember how little he cared for status, or power, or riches, and how much he cared for talent and loyalty.

On Twitter, which for a while he embraced with all the delight of a kid with a new toy, he could be as surreal as Spike Milligan.  He always saw the scope for comic confusion in language -  once, he asked me about the Highland Clearances, and then confessed that he’d never been able to shake the mental connection with department store clearance sales.

He was a brilliant mimic, copying or creating characters at will. He once called me and adopted the persona of an extravagantly gay and terminally confused international telephone operator - if he hadn’t dropped the pretence I don’t think I’d ever have got the joke.  During a discussion of British gangster films while we were driving to a show in New Jersey, he suddenly became Ben Kingsley's foulmouthed cockney psychopath Don Logan from Jonathan Glazer's ‘Sexy Beast’.  The language wasn’t a big stretch – Chris swore like a sailor – but all the insane black humour of the character was there in a flash ("Yes Grosvenor! Yes Roundtree! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!") before he lapsed back into his usual conversational calm.  He had many actor friends, but always insisted he’d never try it himself. Perhaps he should have done.

 Because of the physical distance, I didn’t know Chris as well or see him as often as some.   But what I remember most of all is the way he’d pick up exactly where we had left off, weeks, months or even years before. As he had at that very first meeting, he would just start talking: no greetings, no awkwardness, no catching up, whether it was a chat about our respective children, a dive into his musical seascape or a discussion of psychogeographic geometry (Chris felt north/south or east/west divides were artificial, and the real divisions in the world were diagonal).  He rarely felt very far away.  As he wrote to his friend Eric Esrailian, “we are neighbours in a modern world where proximity is relative and the threshold to our hearts moves outside time and space”.

But I will miss the little light on my phone, colour-coded blue,  that told me there was an email or a message from him.  I’ll miss watching him wind down with his family after a show.  I’ll miss his irritation with his staff when we couldn’t keep up with his alarming pace.  I will miss sending him birthday wishes every July 20th.  I will miss his hugs.  I will miss his smile.

Chris knew all about darkness.  It suffused his work and was part of the ocean he swam in as an artist. But darkness is not always destructive. It's just the other side of light, and that nocturnal imaginative world was part of his nature. It would never have taken him away from the people and the music he loved. The alien darkness around him that night in Detroit was chemical. Drugs change brain chemistry, and I think that in the benzodiazepine delirium that engulfed him, Chris became not-Chris. And he was lost, to himself, his family, and to the world.

This isn't the place to talk about the evils of prescription drug culture in America. And I don’t think Chris would want us to sit by the side of the road and cry.  He'd want us to push on with our lives and make him proud. But I do know that the world is the poorer now that he can’t construct a future for himself, for his songs, for the wife and children he adored, and for all of us.


[Postscript: the other day I came across an old song I wrote with my husband, The Size Of Dreaming. The inspiration had a lot to do with Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra, and a little to do with the sound of Chris Cornell. We wrote and recorded it twelve years ago, but it feels strangely appropriate now. You can listen to it and read the lyrics here.]


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this story. I really enjoyed reading it and for some reason, reading this, just makes me feel good inside. Or less sad than I was before I read it. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story and your song. I only met Chris once but we had a genuine authentic conversation and connection. It is a memory I will cherish forever. I am sorry for your loss; his loss is profound even for those of us who weren't actual friends; the can only imagine how much worse for you. ����❤️��

  3. Thank you for sharing with us, Clare. You were so fortunate to have these experiences but I imagine your grief is more complex because you worked with him. I remember chatting with you occasionally in the Audioslave forums for a number of years in the early 2000s - you were such a knowledgeable fan and good writer, I am not surprised that he saw something special in you.

  4. Thank you for sharing your stories... none of us can imagine or understand your pain, or Vicky's or his children's, or any of Chris's loved ones. I think sharing and reading stories that completely shine a light on Chris's incredible character are comforting for everyone, but more importantly keep that Chris first and foremost in our minds, and not any image the internet trolls try to conjure. I met Chris - I didn't know him personally - but I'm one of those people he reached out to when he heard I was suffering & and invited to a concert. At that time I was far more disabled than I am now & recently released from 3 months in a hospital having barely survived getting hit by a drunk driver while on my Harley, was fresh off a LOT of time on prescription oxycontin and oxycodone, and his kindness very much helped this girl keep her passion to keep fighting. I'll never forget his kindness and compassion. And I'll also never forget the kindness & professionalism of the people on his team... it was obvious everyone loved their job, and that speaks volumes about the man. God bless all of you - you, his family, the team, and all of Chris's loved ones. While it might not get easier, I hope & pray you are all able to find some peace and comfort today. ❤ Much love ❤

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  6. Immensely enjoyed reading this. Thank you for sharing your story. I never met Chris but feel like I know him. Your story is exactly how I imagined his personality to be. How fortunate you were to have met and spent quality time with Chris. Like so many I was stunned and devastated by his death. It hit hard. I'm slowly coming back to life again but still have moments of sadness and tears. Can't imagine how those close to him are coping. Time is the healer. Happy Birthday Chris. xo

  7. Clare, thank you so much for sharing this with me, with us, the loyal fans who loves Chris from the bottom of our hearts! I cry like a baby while I read this, but in the end I feel some peace. Thanks again!!!

  8. Thank you so much, everybody, for all your kind words, both here and on social media. I'm happy that what I wrote seems to have helped other people. It certainly helped me.

    1. Perhaps another writer's grief--Sherman Alexie's recently published and incredibly moving open letter--might help you with yours. You can find it here:

      Alexie's writing has saved me, again and again, just as Chris Cornell's music has so many people in this world.

      Perhaps it is something profound in nature--both the brooding beauty of the Pacific northwest and the capacity of both these astonishing voices from that place to create extraordinary bliss from extraordinary pain--that sings through a Chris Cornell or an Alexie to transform our lives.

      And perhaps Alexie's realisation about his need to grieve in private rather than shout his sorrows from the stage will speak to you.

      But who knows, really? All we can do in the face of abiding loss is to slowly gain back the courage to persevere, inch by painful inch.

      Thank you for your courageous words.

  9. That was such a beautiful remembrance of Chris. It a true gift to those of us who loved his music and him by association, though we never met. Thank you.

  10. My comment may be poorly translated and therefore may be distorted (I'm French), sorry in advance, but I wish to thank you Clare for sharing this story I would have liked to never read ... But your writing skills allow you to perpetuate what Chris and his music would have liked, as you say and you have been doing for a very long time also on your blog of Chris Cornell (have you kept your posts?). I do not have your writing skills, but with your words, your time and your sharing, it gives me the impression of being also understood in my unconditional fan of soundgarden and Chris. The lyrics of the songs I tried to understand, but Soundgarden and Chris knew how to share sensations with their music that finally made sense, something really sensory they had been giving me since the 90s, and that you knew very well Describe with words that I would have liked to have found. Thank you also for your beautiful photos of your country on Insta and your sharing on twitter. Take care of you and your family Clare. A big thank you and forgiveness if the translation is not terrible

  11. What a wonderful story you told!!

  12. with tear stained cheeks -- ur words touched me so warmly as profoundly.I've followed Chris Cornell since 89. Aside from Festivals& Shows - Learning/listening and Luving his Creative creation to connect with his hauting deep soul. The Mega interviews and literature read from his childhood to music genious to alcohol/drug abuse to overcoming and getting help - to his 1st marriage & divorce disaster 🎸🎸🎸.
    to lifelong loss of friends which were truly his family
    to new bandmates & sik tunes.
    themes of movie soundtracks and his charitable compassion.
    and of course onto his insides 💗Vicky💗 Proudest parent Ever. The guy ALWAYS remained consistent in his beliefs. stay true to his heart. never forced by society period. Chris 'walked slow with big stick' (an old saying my grandfather would use) people and places meant deeply to Chris. they mattered to him. he viewed long and listened from all angles. Im not that easily impressed by ppl today as they've lost heart/soul and worry all to much about the meaningless. I've literally felt like I knew Chris intimately. However I'm just a loyal respectable long time fan. He will Forever be more than his GodgivenGift🎤Lyrical Genious📝. Have such heart for you Clare you spoke so beautifully and clearly hold Chris is in the highest regard. I'm still struggling with the belief that Chris willingly took life. see I can't even add the 1word before 'life' ChrisCornell was an exceptional human being/ gentleman w/ a tender and complex heart/mind. deserves a lifetime of remembrance which is what he will receive. Fans simply idealized him.
    with my respect and thanks to you Clare ur words were beautifully spoken and reached.
    ✌💗 & 💪 be kind to urself and patient. greif is beyond wicked, I know the pain.
    warmest respect
    Diane/Long Beach N.Y.

  13. No matter how often or not so often we see somebody,that person will have an impact in your life. It's a terrible loss for his family, friends and fans. There are so many stages of grief, and there is no order in which one deals with them. I loved one song in particular he made with Pearl Jam. They combined their vocals and beautifully put together Hunger Strike. I was 19 years old, and as if it was yesterday, I remember thinking that not only did he have an amazing voice, but the song itself had so much meaning. I listened to that song for many reasons, but mostly because I got good feelings in my stomach it when I heard him sing high notes. Silly, huh? It's wonderful that you shared your special memories with us. Not for one minute did I ever believe he was anything less than a humble, family man. I do believe you when you say a chemical took over his brain. Depression, sadness, demons and chemicals always are a bad mixture. This night, that chemical won, unfairly. It's so unfortunate that he is gone. He had very strong messages to give to so many people. I pray for his children and hope they get to the point of understanding but still know that suicide is not the answer. They need honest answers to what lead up to this and how this is by no way any fault of theirs. God bless and thank you for your beautiful story.

  14. Thank you for sharing. This kind of contribution helps ease the sadness. ❤️

  15. Dear Clare - it's been ages, but I still remember many conversations we had about Chris while on the Buckley board (inastateofgrace) and to think about Chris in the years that followed would be to think about you too. I was so happy to learn you were working with him because I knew he was in good hands. Quite honestly, I don't wish to read anything about Chris unless it's been written by you because your word is truth and you bring him to life for those of us who did not know him in a way that no one else could. I've seen Chris live many times (with Soundgarden, Audioslave and solo) and was devastated when he cancelled his show in Tucson. The Fox Theater is directly across from my office and I held my breath as his name went up letter by letter on the marquee. That was my last opportunity to see him live. I'll be ever grateful to him for the music and memories and all that he meant to my life. Someone criticized me recently for saying that his music gave me life, but I meant exactly that and won't apologize for it. Bless you for sharing him with us. Love to you, Bonnie Email me if you like.

    1. Goodness, Bonnie - how wonderful to hear from you again! I'm so sorry I didn't see this sooner. I am away for a few days but will certainly write to you on my return - I'm sure we both have much to catch up on!

  16. Hi's been what seems like 100 years since I've "spoken" to you. I've been busy with my own life and off of social media for quite some time.
    I'm glad to hear that you've started to grieve for Chris. It's never going to make logical sense. Especially to anyone that doesn't suffer from depression. As a lifelong sufferer myself, I can tell you that his choice to leave had nothing to do with who he has left behind. The internal struggle(s) simply became too much to bear. The heart was fooled by the darkest corner of the brain; where the most dense fog you could possible fathom set in and completely blocked all vision and hope for another day. Can you imagine this?
    I don't believe for a minute that drugs were the catalyst. But I do believe that pharmaceutical companies and their synthetic products are foremost, villainous.
    Chris was one of this earths most beautiful creatures (inside and out). But as you know, he was more than that. He was truly enlightened with a magic that no one could cognitively grasp. But we all could feel it in his presence and through his music. I don't even think that even HE thoroughly understood the power he held with his gifts. Always living his life through contradiction with the purest of perceptions must have been tortuous in his personal moments of reflection. Meaning his aversion to redundancy and materialism. How emotionally laborious it must've been for him to continually process being idolized like a god on a pedestal. Did he not want everyone to know that we are ALL unique and talented? That he wasn't any different? I believe that as much as Chris loved making music, being a father and a loyal friend to many. His internal conflict became massive enough to catapult the pendulum into another plane of existence. Which is where he is now. Existing in a state of pure love, freedom, equanimity and equality with everything that touches his soul. He IS higher truth now. But damn it anyway, my heart still bleeds as I stare at the stage with it's heavy curtain closed. Never to open again for us. At least, not here in our reality.
    Bless your heart, my dear. I look forward to reading a very special book that has yet to be written by you. I think you might remember what I mean!
    Love and hugs to you and your brood (including Sirius),

    Kim (aka: Universalear)

    1. Hi, Kim! How nice to hear from you again and I'm sorry I didn't see this sooner. I think you're very wise to have stayed off social media - Frankly, I wish I could do likewise and spend more time getting on with my own work, but it's part of what I did for Chris and must continue to do to support his family and his legacy. for what it's worth, I think Chris usually had a very efficient strategy for dealing with his inner darkness; he put it into his art. It was a singular and powerful alchemy. And I do blame the drugs for upsetting what must have been a fairly finely-balanced mental and emotional mechanism. But whatever happened, we can't bring him back, and that's the heart of the matter and the tragedy with which all of us are trying to deal.

    2. PS I'm sad to say Sirius died last summer - he got to a fine old age for a Newfoundland - but we now have Hamish, a bright and sprightly Irish Wolfhound pup!

  17. Thank you so much for posting! Love,light and healing energy~ G <3

  18. Thank you once again for all the wonderful replies - I had never imagined there would be such a full and generous response to this and was amazed to come back to this page and see so much had been added. thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

  19. Thanks for this. I'm a long time fan & depression sufferer who drew great strength from his music, and him fighting the good fight. Darkness is so consuming, and and it's inexplicable to those who don't experience it. ‬ I appreciate the elegance & respect you show his legacy.