The Highway

It has been many months since I updated this blog. I’ve been editing my latest book Monarchs… and it has taken up most of my time. I keep saying I’m going to write a little something, maybe share a poem or throw together a timely essay, but life gets in the way. And also, darkness. My brain is flitting back and forth between some very interesting colors, most of them residing between shades of gray and charcoal. Sometimes when its like that, I don’t feel like writing. Sometimes I write in a frenzy. It is what it is.

I’ve been brooding a lot lately on artists that leave us too soon, namely musicians. The darkness of rock n’ roll, toxic masculinity, and those among us who seem the hardest but are actually the most vulnerable. I’ve got an idea rolling around in my head…I’m not sure yet if “.deadrockstars.” is a short story, a novel, or something else. I’ve been immersing myself in artists whose talent was immeasurable but who didn’t always see their own worth, and left us frustratingly early. Scott Weiland, Peter Steele, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse.

I never, ever, not in a million years, thought Chris Cornell would be among them. But now he is.


Chris Cornell died last night. And so I’m coming out of writing hiatus to talk about him for a bit. Because I can’t not talk about Chris Cornell.

I’m a kid who hit adolescence in the early-mid ’90s, so when you talk about Chris Cornell, my eyes light up. Was there ever a time when he wasn’t the fucking greatest? No, there wasn’t. That voice. He was the undisputed king, the best voice of his generation, hands down. If anybody comes at me with “he oversang”, I will fight them.

I’m going to attach several YouTube videos to this post, and I’m not sorry. The dude was in three bands, all of which were spectacular, released five solo albums and did countless collabs and covers. How could I choose just one to define him? I can’t, so I’m not even going to try. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll be seeking solace in those YouTube videos, clinging to memories and nostalgia to get you through the pain of losing yet another one of our rock-god heroes. I’ll no-doubt leave out a bunch of good stuff, but you know how to find ’em.

Everybody knows Temple of the Dog, or if they don’t, they lived under a rock in the 90s. But even more than that collaboration, I always loved the song he did as AliceMudGarden (with Alice in Chains and Mudhoney), “Right Turn”:


And of course, my favorite Soundgarden song is nobody else’s favorite Soundgarden song. But I just loved how the man could sing in a four-octave range and still tried to sound like the Beatles:


His solo work was amazing, too. And it’s cheesy as hell, but I’m not gonna lie…his version of Ave Maria is on REPEAT every single Christmas. Zero fucks given.


Then there’s this gem, a cover of Prince/Sinead’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” that is so subtle and breathtakingly beautiful (and timely, considering Prince just died a few months back himself) that it will move you to tears:


This one is just cool. That’s all.


And saving the best for last…
Excuse me for getting a bit sentimental and weepy here, but I have to. I think we all agree that Audioslave was a good band, no, a great band, but…in Chris Cornell’s legacy they’ll come in second to Soundgarden. Rightly so. But Audioslave may be more dear to me. They came out when I was living overseas. My memories of that time period are disjointed, and I’ve forgotten a lot, and other memories are all jumbled up and the timeline isn’t always cohesive. But I have the clearest, most poignant memory – something I think of often, like, at least once a week – of a moment when I knew I would be alright.

I was walking down the street in Parnell, Auckland, on the way to work. I had an ugly orange windbreaker on, and headphones in my ears. It was an overcast day; the kind where you feel the drops of rain in the air. The wind was something fierce – it always is in Auckland, but especially that day. I thought it might blow me over. I had blisters on the backs of my feet from walking to and from work every day; I didn’t like to take the bus because I felt watched. I was in the very beginning stages of an abusive relationship – I knew something was wrong, and that I was in big, big trouble, but I also still had a little hope that things might change, go back to normal. I was starting to wear clothes that were too big, lots of hoodies, and I didn’t like to be looked at. I was lost, adrift. Terrified in a place I found beautiful but didn’t really belong.

Those earbuds played the Audioslave album over and over again during that time period, and I loved every single song, but one in particular was playing that day. The opening of the song reminded me of Canon in D, and made me nostalgic before it even began. As I walked down the hill in Parnell to my mundane job, bruised and in despair, Cornell’s beautiful baritone-tenor rang in my ears, and the words washed over me like a warm, sweet wave:

“Pearls and swine bereft of me
Long and weary my road has been
I was lost in the cities
Alone in the hills
No sorrow or pity for leaving I feel

I am not your rolling wheels
I am the highway
I am not your carpet ride
I am the sky”.

I knew, listening to that song, that I was going to be okay.
Laugh if you want, but I knew. And whenever I felt lost, or like I couldn’t bear up anymore, I would listen to that song. I know I’m obsessive about my music, and I talk a lot about songs and artists that inspire me, but I can’t put too fine a point on this, y’all: that song buoyed me. I clung to it when I could cling to nothing else.

I still do it. Not two weeks ago I put my earbuds in, walked down my long, dusty driveway in North Georgia and felt like I was back in Parnell again, listening to Chris Cornell soothe the storm within. It always puts tears in my eyes.

Just yesterday I was looking at the cover of that album. I’d never noticed, in over a decade, that there’s a tiny person standing there, in front of the giant flame monolith. A little person in a red shirt with skinny legs, just standing there staring. “Huh.” I thought. “It’s weird how you never see something and then suddenly its just there.”

Thanks for the gifts, Chris. And oh, how many of them you gave to us. No sorrow or pity for your leaving we’ll feel. Just gratitude.



By lillahlawson

Author of Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree (Regal House, 2019), and the Dead Rockstar Trilogy (Parliament House, 2020). Georgia Author of the Year Nominee. Poet, Essayist, Genealogist.

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