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Recalling Chris Cornell's final show in Detroit before his sudden death

Chris Cornell performs with Soundgarden on May 17, 2017 at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (Photo: Jason Colthorp)
Chris Cornell performs with Soundgarden on May 17, 2017 at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (Photo: Jason Colthorp)

DETROIT – I've had a few days to think about watching Chris Cornell's final show and then reporting on it the next day.

It's still hard to put into words. I've gone from being shocked, to completely dumbfounded, to in a little bit of denial that he's gone, and now the sadness is settling in. The unusual part of all of this was in the middle of all those feelings was having to give some firsthand accounts of the Soundgarden show to anyone who asked, plus a newspaper and radio show, all while being assigned the story of the day -- the death of Chris Cornell.

The story was like the day -- eerie. Using my own pictures and video for a story I was reporting was a first. My day began with an executive producer calling and asking if I was up to doing the story, which I said I was. I was pretty sure I wouldn't start weeping on air, but I also didn't want to report it unemotionally considering I was there, or worse yet, come off as a fan just idolizing Cornell. It was a tricky balance to explain what happened and also share a little of my perspective having been at the show.

The Chris Cornell fan

First of all, let me explain what kind of fan of Cornell I am just to let you know who you're dealing with. In 1991, I was still watching MTV and I caught a video of this new band called Soundgarden and thought three things: That may be the coolest name for a band ever; the singer has an absolutely incredible voice; but it's a little too heavy metal for me and that was reinforced by the fact it came on during Headbanger's Ball.

I was falling in love with another Seattle band at the time -- Pearl Jam. And then Nirvana. And then Alice In Chains. Long story short, I was a grunge fan. But then I heard a different side of Chris Cornell on the Singles soundtrack with the stripped-down acoustic song "Seasons." And after Temple of the Dog, well, there was no mistake: I was a huge fan of Chris Cornell and this voice that rose above and cut through anything and everything. When "Hunger Strike" came out, I did my wannabe rock star thing by pretending to sing the Eddie Vedder parts. Pretty soon I was pretending to sing the Chris Cornell parts. I went back and found Badmotorfinger and by the time Soundgarden released Superunknown, I was a huge fan and even saw them at Pine Knob (now DTE) for that tour in 1994.

That fandom hung on and then was reignited when Cornell was part of Audioslave. I tend to play mostly the old tunes, but Cornell's solo acoustic stuff is pretty amazing, too. So, bottom line: I'm not the guy who knows every song on every album, but I like Cornell and all of his bands a helluva lot.

The show

The Fox Theatre was sold out. Even though I was dressed more for the Hall & Oates show at the Joe that night, I didn't feel out of place among the hard core Soundgarden fans decked out in all black. The show started a few minutes late but nothing seemed out of the ordinary as the guys walked onstage to screaming fans. Chris Cornell seemed as cool as ever. The band sounded as good as ever. But I haven't heard them live since '94 or seen what they had been like on the tour up to this point. Right out of the gate, I thought his voice wasn't 100 percent and was a little underwhelmed by his stage performance. Still, I thought it was a great show.

He didn't interact with the crowd a lot, other than to tell everyone to "stand the (bleep) up" toward the beginning and that we were such a good crowd that he felt sorry for the next show's fans. He gave a couple quick intros to songs, and a few fist bumps to the front row, but other than that he just did his thing.

When they powered through "Spoonman" and "Outshined" back-to-back early on, I was that 18-year-old kid again rocking out with pure joy. Yeah, maybe it wasn't perfect, but I loved it. The excuses in my mind were plausible -- a 52-year-old guy getting a little tired on tour, or it was the laid-back venue the Fox Theatre provides for bands. When I look onstage, I see four guys up there doing something I could never do, so Chris Cornell at 70 percent is still pretty damn good to me.

I was a little surprised the next day when I messaged Detroit Free Press music reporter Ashley Zlatopolsky, who I'd seen the night before, to ask her opinion. She said from her critical point of view, the show was a disaster. She outlined why later that day in her article and everything she wrote is true. I also thought it was brave to write something so brutally honest like that while the entire world was still mourning his death, but that's the job of a journalist. I just don't watch concerts with the same critical eye. However, just pointing out observations from that night has incurred tweets of us being self-congratulatory for seeing the "signs" when there truly were none. I'm certainly not patting myself on the back for anything, but knowing what we know now, obviously we're going to analyze his every move from that night.

He finished the show by inserting the refrain from Led Zeppelin's "In My Time of Dying" into the final song. Some think it's clear he was improvising judging by the fact Matt Cameron, Kim Thayil and Ben Shepherd didn't back off their instruments, for which that part seemed to require. Cornell howled the lyric "I want nobody to mourn/All I want for you to do is take my body home." He'd sang it many times before, just like many of the dark suicidal lyrics in some Soundgarden songs. In "Outshined" he held the scream on "I can't get any lower/Still I feel I'm sinking" longer than most others that night. Did it all mean something? Were they signs? I don't think anyone can say for sure, but again, with the benefit of hindsight, yeah, something wasn't right. That said, let me be clear: I did not see a guy who was suicidal on the stage that night. No one did. Was he off his game a little? Yes. Did we think he would be found dead in Room 1136 of the MGM Grand an hour later by his own hands? No.

The aftermath

I woke up to my third alarm at 7:30 a.m. Thursday. I checked my phone. The notifications from my texts, Facebook and email appeared and disappeared from my phone too fast to comprehend completely what had happened. At first, I thought I'd just gotten a bunch of comments on the video from the concert I'd posted. But quickly I realized something had happened. Our assignment editor Chuck Jackson was sending out emails regarding Chris Cornell. Finally I read one. "Believed to be suicide" was the phrase that caught my eyes. I sat there staring at my phone with my mouth open. "Bodyguard busted down the door ... Cornell found unresponsive on bathroom floor ... band around his neck ... ." This was unreal. About that moment, my executive producer Jen Wallace was calling and asking if I could handle doing the story. At that moment I couldn't handle getting out of bed.

I replayed the show over in my mind a few times wondering if those moments and any others were signs for what was to come. I realized later it wasn't just the Detroit show but maybe something that had been going on for awhile. Reviews of the previous few shows described the same underwhelming performance by Cornell. Maybe the answers aren't in the concerts, but in the police report of his death.

In a phone call with his wife at 11:35, he told her he'd taken too much Ativan, an anxiety drug which has numerous side effects. Among the most serious include wanting to hurt yourself and suicidal thoughts. And he took two more than he should have, according to his wife. Was this the first time he over-indulged on that prescription drug? If not, how long had it been going on? Did he even experience any of Ativan's side effects? His tweet earlier in the day was upbeat about being back in Detroit. His social media suggested a dad very much in love with his wife and kids ages 17, 13 and 12. Nothing seems to add up.

The appreciation

I'm sure we'll learn more in the coming weeks about what may have happened. All I know, is that it's a real shame to lose another voice from the soundtrack of my generation. Chris Cornell pioneered the grunge movement, even though Kurt Cobain got all the credit because too many kids like me weren't able to see the genius of Cornell and Soundgarden while Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was flooding the mainstream. Cornell also seemed to be the guy who kept the rest of that music scene together when guys like Andrew Wood (Mother Love Bone), Cobain (Nirvana), Layne Staley (Alice In Chains) and Jeff Buckley died tragically. He was the guy who survived addiction. He wouldn't ever fall down the hole those guys couldn't escape.

Sitting here writing this and listening to all the tributes on different radio stations, my sadness is starting to fade into an appreciation. I appreciate his lyrics, his dedication, his spirit (like starting a band just to record an album to pay tribute to his late friend), and most of all his vocals. His voice was just unmistakable and more powerful than so many others. I appreciate it and while millions of us will miss it, we can be thankful he gave us so much before he tragically exited the stage.


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