All of these years later, I will still give you $100 if you can hit the high notes of “Say Hello 2 Heaven.” You have to do the notes justice and you have to do it on video, but…free money, people.
More on that in a minute.
The first time I saw the word “Soundgarden” it was on -- as Shelly Marcone said in The Last Boy Scout -- “a very enlightened place”: Angela Kircher’s ass.
The word, emblazoned in black Marks-a-Lot across the seat of a cutoff jean-shorts, not only served as the first time I would set eyes on the band’s name, but the act of inscribing (done by her older sister, Mary Susan), far pre-dated any fabricated clothing that would boast “pink” or “juicy.”
If memory serves, the article had stirred up a bit of controversy in casa Kircher as, according to Angela, Mary Susan was either pissed at her for wearing the shorts or turning them into shorts. Or maybe it was that she’d gotten a little bit of attention for sporting them in school. Who knows.
Either way, I sat next to Angela in Maralin Noble’s Spanish class in 1990 and pondered the word’s meaning after watching her deposit a Kleenex at the front-of-the-room trash can. My literal interpretation of the word had skyrocketed my already tree-high crush on the girl one year my junior. She had an incredible skin tone, a gorgeous smile, and a vibe about her that would render any young boy’s mind useless. Angela garnered a lot of attention from a lot of guys in that classroom, either because they all struggled to control the same energies for her that I had or because they felt like her personality warranted excessive ribbing. Perhaps both.
Anyway, I inquired.
“It’s a band,” she said.
This mystified me, and to be honest, cast a shadow of embarrassment upon my self-proclaimed-music-expert ego. In the moment, I envisioned my total ignorance on the subject as a ruiner regarding my chances with Angela. How, I’d wondered, could there be a band out there I’d never even heard of? How had the hundreds of hours I’d spent studying and absorbing all of the world’s music (read: classic rock and rap) completely overlooked an entire band? My guess is that the look on my face gave away my thoughts.
“I dunno,” she said. “They’re my sister’s.”
A year later Nirvana would release Nevermind and, for a lot of us, music scholars or otherwise, that would be the dropkick of exposure to the grunge genre. In June, 1992, the movie Singles descended upon us Gen-Xers with both certainty and curiosity regarding the state of music in America. Were I to give the idea serious introspection, I might be able to come up with another soundtrack that carried such significant influence. At the moment, the only thing to come to mind also came -- no surprise -- out of Seattle: Eddie Vedder’s work on Into the Wild.
I mean, Singles was cool. Good flick, introduction to some new actors, fun story about love and relationships, but it was all about the soundtrack, the exposure to a ton of new artists and how their work was woven in to the film’s emotional storyline. I never found any of the three Chris Cornell tracks on it to be exceptional. If I had to choose one, “Birth Ritual” packed the most punch, but that’s all beside the point.
Five months prior to the drop of Nevermind, a collaboration known as Temple of the Dog released their only record, and most of us Midwestern youth would have no idea the self-titled album existed until Pearl Jam’s Ten had saturated the nation.
A couple of my buddies geeked out about the record and educated themselves on the backstory, teaching the rest of us about Mother Love Bone and Andrew Wood, little of which resonated with me; I was too busy researching what picks and amplifiers Jimmy Page used in March of 1970 and who deserved the bulk of the credit for the music of Pink Floyd (answer: not the guy kicking off his tour in Kansas City this month).
It all started with the single, “Hunger Strike,” though, which I feel like we first saw the video for on “Beavis & Butthead,” but things from that era remain a bit cloudy. Regardless, that song blew our minds, and for me, served as the introduction to Cornell. The song itself was and is amazing, but the video took it over the top with the wheat-field and beachfront segments. The presence of Vedder made the song and the video cool and relevant, but Cornell’s vocal abilities served as the authentic attention grabber.
I probably listened to the entire album a dozen times before it became a dusty artifact in my cassette collection, and while “Hunger Strike” stuck the hook in me, the real hero of the record has always been “Say Hello 2 Heaven.” And now, in May, 2017, the irony hangs heavy with Cornell’s passing.
“Please, Mother Mercy,
Take me from this place,
And the long-winded curses,
I keep hearing in my head.
Words never listen,
And teachers, Oh they never learn.
Now I’m warm from the candle,
Though I feel too cold to burn.
He came from an island,
And he died from the street,
And he hurt so bad like a soul breaking,
But he never said nothing to me, yeah.
Say hello to heaven, heaven, yeah.
New like a baby,
Lost like a prayer,
The sky was your playground,
But the cold ground was your bed,
Said, poor stargazer,
She’s got no tears in her eyes,
But smooth like a whisper,
She knows that love heals all wounds with time,
Now it seems like too much love is never enough,
Yeah, you better seek out another road,
‘Cause this one has ended abrupt, Oh!
Say hello to heaven, heaven, yeah…
I, I never wanted to write these words down for you,
With the pages of phrases of all the things we’ll never do.
Yeah, so I blow out, out the candle, and I put you to bed,
Since you can’t say to me now,
How the dog broke your bone,
There’s just one thing left to be said:
Say hello to heaven, heaven, yeah…”
Seeing those words typed doesn’t even scratch the song’s surface of justice.
It. Is. A masterpiece.
Having done 20-plus years in the restaurant industry, I recall the dozens and dozens of dares, wagers, and colleague-concocted challenges that either were born mid-shift or surfaced in the wee hours of the morning. Five bucks to chug a mug of pancake syrup. A 20-spot to do a rail of wasabi powder. Buy your bar tab if you can eat three packs of saltines in under a minute or drink a whole gallon of milk (in less than 20) without puking.
I’m still proudest of my own original challenge: one hundred dollars if you can hit the high notes of “Say Hello 2 Heaven.”
You know, I’ve worked in a bunch of places and met a ton of people in them. I bet I’ve rolled that challenge out there in 15 unique scenarios and have never once even had one person commit to an attempt. In fact, without equivocation, I think every single person has declined with an immediacy that has confirmed two things: a) the person that is confident enough to accept has not yet been born, and b) inner relief for myself in not having to sell something to come up with that kind of money.
Written as a tribute to Wood, the still-ripe-with-pain lyrics now apply to Cornell’s cut-short days on Earth.
And really, the thing is confusing as hell, considering that of all of the musicians from the ‘90s grunge scene that have died, Cornell always seemed -- from an outsider’s perspective -- to have his shit together. His now-ominous departure suggests the opposite.
I won’t attempt to dissect fame or drug use or depression or suicide and I won’t try to justify any actions or understand any decisions. I’ll just say that I was far from Cornell’s most dedicated fan, but his talents touched me some two and-a-half decades ago in a way that still resonates with clarity. As social media often reminded us, 2016 claimed the life of many a celebrity, and as we’ve seen this week, Cornell did -- in addition to all of his original work -- a ton of cool cover-song and acoustic renditions. If you haven’t already, fire up your YouTube machines and give them a listen.
It’s hard to imagine that another musician with such iconic influence will come along again and it’s certain that one with pipes like those will not. There is, then, just one thing left to be said…