It was 1994; I was working in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – I’d left England a couple of years before in order to do something more with my life. I’d left behind a bunch of things, including a lot of music (I could only bring a handful of cassettes with me) and left behind the band I was in at the time. Working in Ethiopia in 93/94 though was an amazing experience – they’d just escaped from the chains of the Dergue regime, and it was an exciting time to be there.
I’d asked a friend in London to mail me a handful of albums that were “outstanding” (my criteria)- in return and after several weeks waiting I got “Siamese Dream” by the Pumpkins, a Jesus Lizard album… and a copy of “Superunknown”. Pretty random music in the context of Ethiopia- especially considering I was also listening to a lot of Ethiopian music and speaking Amharic and Italian- in both cases badly, but between the new CD’s and the languages I was trying to speak, my ears were opened to new sounds.
A few months prior to the arrival of these CD’s, I’d also met a beautiful redheaded Swiss girl who- unbeknownst to me at the time, was to become my wife and the mother of our two daughters.
Around the time the CD’s arrived, I’d been asked to help set up stands at an exhibition in Mekele, in Tigray- an arduous drive of 24 hours in 4WD’s, through very variable territory, some of which was still relatively unknown (to outsiders) as it had been off-limits during Ethiopia’s civil war. During the two-day drive up to Mekele, I had “Superunknown” on permanent rotation- I had immediately fallen in love with Chris’ voice, lyrical richness and the very different sound of the band. The landscape I was driving through seemed to suit the music- that particular road goes through a huge range of environments- rainforest, savannah, desert, arid mountains and long grassy plains- to say nothing of the welcoming towns and villages on the way.
My new girlfriend had managed to join me – so we had an amazing time, for a few days in Mekele. Soundtracked by Soundgarden, in one of the coolest cities in Africa.
21 years of adventures, marriage, travelling, children, poverty, riches and experiences followed. That amazing leonine voice followed us through all of them- and proved to be a profound influence on my own singing (not in Chris’ league by even the remotest stretch of my fevered imagination!).
April 8th 2014 wasn’t the best day- my beautiful redhead and I were told that day that her breast cancer had spread, and her prognosis wasn’t good. We had two daughters to bring up and various other problems to solve as well- finances not least. In the time that followed, I ended up working in Brighton (England) during the week and coming home to the south-west to see her and the girls (we needed the money)- on the long, 200-mile commutes up to and back from Brighton I had long periods where Soundgarden, or Audioslave, or Chris’ solo albums rotated round- those gnomic lyrics making a second connection and some kind of sense amid the emotional turmoil.
My redhead passed away on the 13th January 2016- unexpectedly; in every sense too soon. I had a fevered, crazy drive from Brighton to try to reach her in time. Whatever we might say to ourselves, none of us are truly great drivers- but trying to press through traffic, avoid police, not break the law (too much) and keep safe resulted in a very surreal driving experience, and that was probably the fastest, safest and best driving of my life- the kind that Providence only allows you to do once, and once only. Although I wasn’t paying any attention to much beyond the zen-state of driving-with-a-mission, it turned out the soundtrack to that drive was “Higher Truth”.
The year that followed wasn’t easy- a lot of heroes left us that year as well, to say nothing of major changes around the world. Carrying our daughters, working, combining both with the help of friends- all these things presented some major challenges, some of which I am still working on now. But- I had that ever present catalogue to listen to; be inspired by; soothed by and just- sometimes- to live inside.
One lasting effect of all that inspiration through the years was that music started pouring out of me- grieving for my wife, introspection, celebration of life and of friends- all sorts of subjects, ideas and feelings combining in this great flow of music. I’m no big deal as a singer- I can get by- but I know with certainty that, without the decades of inspiration, I wouldn’t be even a tenth of the way to where I am now. The outpouring of music started back in February this year, and it’s been flowing since.
That day in May came, and left its mark. I never met Chris; never got to see him, or Soundgarden, or Audioslave live (there’s a regret). I’m just one of the many he inspired; comforted, reached out to, related- or just plain entertained. I feel lucky, in that everything I have experienced has left me with a great deal of perspective (or so it seems- I’m mostly still an idiot)- despite everything, I have led a greatly privileged life and one it seems to me greatly, hugely enriched by the backdrop of that great, creative, leonine Voice.
Chris’ family, his friends, bandmates and those who knew him- I don’t know what to say that’s in any way comforting- I know myself that words are small things in the face of this- little drops of meaning that melt away as they land. I don’t know what, if any, consolation can be gained from the fact that his voice was heard in some of the remotest, wildest places on this planet, and still touched two souls, and helped carry them forward.
In remembrance and gratitude. Chris- thank you.