“Chris Cornell, Audioslave and Soundgarden singer, has died age 52,” appeared the title of a post on one of my friend’s Facebook pages. I had just finished anesthetizing a patient after surgery and was trying to catch up on what’s going in the outside world when that news hit me like a runaway train. At first I thought this was one of the infamous internet hoaxes, but a niggling worry in my mind caused me to check on other sources and what I dreaded the most was verified as true with an official statement from his management. It was a surreal feeling, one that I never thought will occur with someone that I grew up listening to on a regular basis. Chris does not know me, but to me, he was that familiar voice whose words and songs were with you throughout some of the hardest parts of your life growing up. Being a doctor, dealing with death is second nature to me, but why I would feel the loss of someone who lived half the world away? I guess the grief is almost like losing a close friend that I have spent a large part of my youth with, taking for granted that we will be growing old together as we ride into the twilight of our lives only for him to leave me midway of the journey unexpectedly. My heart goes out to his family and I wish them the strength and courage to face this huge loss.
I remember listening to Chris and Soundgarden for the first time. It was sometime in 1991, late in the night studying for my Pre-University exams when my favorite DJ came on air. The initial playlist of the Top 40 songs from the standard love ballads to some radio friendly rock songs were being played. Then, she introduced a song that started with a blistering guitar riff followed with a rhythmic thumping of drums and reaching a crescendo with a wail of mighty proportions. It was like nothing that I have ever heard before and by the end of the song, Rusty Cage began to sound like the anthem of my life. When all I wanted to do at the time was to break my rusty cage and run. My hometown was a small sleepy hollow at the southern tip of Malaysia, where the economy was driven by rubber and palm oil plantations. Coming from that background of 3rd generation immigrants to Malaysia, the only way out of poverty was a good education. Whatever that was transpiring in Seattle by the grunge movement at the time resonated with me despite me not having a single clue where Seattle was on the map of the United States. Label it whatever you want, it didn’t matter. Here was a band that defied all norms and Chris was reaching out directly to me with his stellar voice.
It wasn’t long before I pleaded with my mom for a couple of dollars to buy the Badmotorfinger album. This were the pre-compact disc days where cassettes were still the popular medium and everyone had to have a Sony Walkman. I didn’t have one, but had an old radio player that had the play, forward and rewind buttons. I was so glad that every one of the songs on this album was so good that the forward and rewind buttons were left redundant. Outshined, Slaves and Bulldozers, Jesus Christ Pose, Room A Thousand Years Wide and New Damage were just one of the many songs from the album that I never felt tired listening to till this day. At the peak of the grunge popularity, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains were getting a large proportion of the radio airtime, but it was Soundgarden and Chris for me and I am sure to the many millions out there who at some point in their lives felt left out, awkward, sinking in despair and yet by listening to his angst-ridden voice, it slowly helped us to find the courage to overcome the negativity in a positive way. I never did drugs, heck I haven’t even smoked a cigarette so to my parents his music was my only vice and an outlet. And a safe one at that. So, they approved of me headbanging my youth away.
The next phase of my life was in medical school and when Superunknown was released I was finishing my first-year finals. And what a joy it was listening to that album as well while you’re negotiating the anatomy of the brachial plexus and cranial nerves and figuring out the physiology of the respiratory system and various other systems. I had my Superunknown to accompany me throughout that period and cleared the exams. Soon I began to listen to their earlier songs before Badmotorfinger days including the collaboration with future Pearl Jam members in the Temple of the Dog album.
Fast forward two decades later to 2017, I am now a consultant anaesthesiologist in private practice with a beautiful family and working hard to continue to do the best in my life. It’s not always the dollars and cents that matters sometimes and I hold dearly to one of his lyrics from the Hunger Strike song. I don’t mind stealing bread from the mouth of decadence but I can’t feed on the powerless when my cup’s already over-filled. It serves as a reminder to me that you can continue to earn a living from your profession and be charitable at the same time without trying to take advantage of the weak.
Now that he is gone, I am left with the one regret that I was never able to watch him and Soundgarden perform live. The closest that they were here in the region was Australia, an 8-hour flight away. I envy many of his fans who have not only seen him perform live once or twice but regularly throughout his career be it as a solo artist, with Soundgarden, Audioslave or Temple of the Dog. One thing is for sure, Chris the man, the icon and the legend whose songs reached out to me and many others, whose words struck a chord and whose voice served as a companion in many memories will forever live on by the gift of music that he has bequeathed to us. Thanks Chris for keeping me Alive in the Superunknown.
Dr Gunalan Palari
Consultant Anaesthesiologist and Critical Care Physician, Malaysia.