Chris Cornell taught me something about sex.

May 18, 2017

I’m not sure what compels me to write when my favorite musicians die. I think it began when Miles Davis died in 1991 and I put on In a Silent Way wrote an ode. When Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in 1994, a local weekly in Atlanta asked me to write a poem in tribute. I had already written it. In this blog I have marked the sociological significance of the passings of David Bowie and Chuck Berry. But waking up this morning to the news that Chris Cornell had hung himself was particularly rough.

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Soundgarden is/was in the middle of a tour and, this morning their singer was found dead in his Detroit hotel room. Chris was may age. I might be biased, but I tend to think people born in 1964 are special. It was such an epic year (The Beatles, Dylan, MLK, my birth). This spring, Soundgarden was a booked for a big reunion tour bringing much needed rock to the kids, or at least their parents. He seemed to be back on top.

Others will write about his life or the “Seattle sound.” I was cold on the grunge thing at first because we were trying to carve out our own musical identity in Atlanta at the time and didn’t need the competiton. I was invited to contribute some spoken word to a local compilation in 1991 and I wrote a rant against Seattle that contained the line, “Riding on Tad’s log, lame as Temple of the Dog.” About five minutes later, I was all about Seattle. Turns out I smelled like teen spirit, too.

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Others will also write about suicide. I’ve written about my own past with the issue here in this blog and how it unfolded in my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart. The follow up, The Dream Police, ends in a grand climax with the Soundgarden song, “Black Hole Sun” playing. I couldn’t think of a better song to accompany the end of the world, so it’s there as a musical epitaph.

I wanted to write a sex, or more specifically, how one night in Atlanta with Soundgarden pried open my brain about the fluidity of sexuality.

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It was March, 1989 and Soundgarden was touring in support of their first album, Ultramega OK.  Neighbors in my North High Ridge apartment (the fabled Treehouse) were probably sick of me blasting it (and extra notch up on “Smokestack Lightning”), but the punk era was over and I was growing my hair long. It was time for bass guitars to rattle the building. Aspersions of the Seattle hype aside, I loved their monster sound that was an alternative to the hair metal that was ruling MTV at the time. This was our music, not theirs. For those of us that grew up on Kiss and The Ramones.

In those days, I went out to see bands play almost every night. So when Soungarden had a gig at the Cotton Club on Peachtree Street of course I would be there. And when they opened with the song, “Gun,” and Kim Thayil’s exploding guitar riff, it was on. I was 25-years-old and pressed against the front of the stage, because that’s the only place to be when a band is splitting the universe open. They were inches away from us and it was one throbbing sea of sweat and hair.

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Chris Cornell was shirtless, screaming like a banshee, his long brown hair cascading over his shoulders as he leaned back in his Jesus Christ pose. (I think you might guess where this is going.) The music sounded great but I was just captured by him and his charisma. Like the most iconic of iconic rock stars. Like if Ozzy Osbourne looked like Calvin Klein model instead of a puppy dog who had been hit in the head with a ball peon hammer. He was… beautiful.

Let me back up a space and say, at this point, at age 25, I was hyper-hetero. From the first Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall to my questionable antics on the road with the band I was working with, it was never not about being in a “girl-crazy” frenzy. Never even a crack. Sure, Tom Cruise was “good looking,” but I wouldn’t say it without the quotes. I would joke about homoerotic elements of skinhead and fraternity culture and even the mosh pit, and was still working out my own homophobic training. Gay was fine. I loved my gay friends and music idols. It just never was about me.

Chris Cornell cracked that. The memory is as clear as day. I thought, “I’m straight but I think I might make an exception for this guy.” It was the strangest feeling in the middle of a blasting rock show. What was my sexuality? Is he the only guy on the planet I would make an allowance for? He was just so, perfect. Should I try to meet him?

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I didn’t go backstage. Or write him love letters. I kinda forgot about it (at least until the next time I saw Soundgarden play). But I began to question the idea that anybody is exclusively anything as far as sex goes. Around that time I began teaching undergraduate sociology at Emory University and would lecture on the Kinsey Scale. In 1948, the famed sex researcher published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. His findings identified that only about the 10% of the male population was either exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. The other 80% are somewhere in the middle (or asexual). I would joke to my students, “If you haven’t at least one gay thought, you will!” And then I’d make some crack about the repressed sexuality of “brothers” in the “Greek” system. Holla!

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During my tenure at Portland State University, I became immersed in Queer Theory. Queer Theory seeks to break down these arbitrary binaries we place ourselves in. Gender is fluid. How butch are you today? (After blasting Soundgarden all morning, I feel pretty macho, except the moments when I start to sob.) Sexual orientation is also fluid. A lot of dudes like to play this game. – If there’s one guy you HAD to have sex with, who would it be? It’s permission to flirt with Kinsey’s scale. In my PSU classes, I began to utilize Gender Gumby. Gender Gumby is an exercise that allows a person to plot where, in that moment, they fit on a scale of assigned sex (opening the discussion for people who are born inter-sexed), gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual orientation. The beauty of the exercise is that, where you map your gender today may be completely different tomorrow. I would map mine for the students. On sexual orientation, I would make mark pretty close to the “Attracted to females” end of the spectrum, but not at the very end of it. Because of Chris Cornell.

I’m so sad about his passing. I also loved those Audioslave records, and, after some time, came to appreciate the Temple of the Dog album. I saw him many times over the years. Soundgarden played the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The city fenced off an area downtown and forced people to pay to get in. I watched the show, precariously perched on a newspaper box so I could see over a fence. Soundgarden was onstage blasting their wall of sound into the city and Chris saw me straining to see the band. He said something to someone, who came over and let me in so I could watch from inside, safe and fully rocking.  We shared this generation together.

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Gender and sex are complex things, far from black and white. And sexuality is like magma looking for a way to the surface. Horrible things happen when you try to suppress it. (Google “Afghanistan” or “Mississippi.”) It’s not surprising that people are fearful of all that hot lava. Even the most “100% certain” person can be surprised by their own sexuality and where it might take them. I got a lesson about that in 1989 thanks to a killer Soundgarden show and got to let go of that certainty. Thanks, Chris. You were never not really hot. Lava hot.

Chuck Berry told Jim Crow to roll over

March 18, 2017

Many times over the last several years I’ve reminded my friends that we live in the same world as Chuck Berry. Like people who lived in the time of Beethoven, we lived in a world where Berry still walked among us. Now some kid will have to sing, “Roll over, Chuck Berry.”

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There are people (and one President) who think America was great in 1954. We call these people “racists.” America was in the wicked grip of Jim Crow, slavery’s bastard offspring. Then on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court decided the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case and institutional racism of “great” America lost one important pillar. And three years later, skinny Dorothy Counts would be escorted into a high school in North Carolina while white students spit on her. But the writing was on the wall.

The summer of 1955 Chess Records released a single by an R&B singer from St. Louis named Chuck Berry who played guitar and wrote his own songs. He sang confidently and black legs spread wide. “Mayballene” hit #1 on the R&B charts and was the #3 song for the year on the Billboard chart. The world BCB (before Chuck Berry) was over. White kids were buying “race” records like there was no caucasian tomorrow. The children of the Baby Boom were smashing the wall of American segregation and “Johnny B. Goode” was their battle cry. I bet even some of those kids in the “White Citzen Council” who spit on Dorothy Counts would, sooner or later, own some Berry records.

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And it it wasn’t just American kids. The lads in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones sold their Anglican souls to become like Chuck, so much more than Elvis. Both played sets heavy in Berry-penned songs, including his B-sides. Listen to the Beatles’ version of Chuck’s “Rock and Roll Music.” John Lennon slyly changes the line, “It’s got a backbeat” to “It’s got a black beat” as they played in places where promoters wanted their audience to be racially segregated. (They refused to play segregated shows. They were playing a black beat, after all.)

Without Chuck Berry, there would be no Beatles or Stones, and perhaps no 1960s as we know it. Those 1950s white teenyboppers who snuck copies of “Sweet Little Sixteen” on to their parents’ hi-fi became the countercultural rebels of the 1960s, listening to John Coltrane albums and heading to Mississippi to register black voters that “Freedom Summer” of 1964, and then on to join SNCC and the whole movement to deconstruct the immoral order. You don’t have Lennon singing “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969 without “Mayballene” in 1955. And you don’t have anything that comes after. It would be 60 more years of the same, Truman to Trump.

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I was reflecting on this shortly after I heard the news today that Chuck has left us. As I am sometimes compelled to do, I scratched out some words as his first 1957 album, After School Session, blasted on from my turntable.

Earth BCB

There was a wall

Created by slave traders and Indian killers

One drop plus

The world was black and white

White against black

There was a wall

A partition between the waltz,

even the hillbilly one

and the boogie woogie

and a midnight rendezvous out back

One nation

Two halves of a whole

One race

Two people trapped

Walled off in a divided land

Then a back beat came

and the wall cracked

It had a black beat

and the white kids saw him

A brown-eyed handsome man

Out of a St. Louis shack

Give me Memphis Tennessee

Down to the delta

Then across the nation

A sound as black as coal

The wall fell

There would be no more before

The century turned on a dime

dropped right into the slot

Hail, hail rock and roll

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Chuck Berry goes back as far as I can remember.  My dad had a copy of “Johnny B. Goode” and I would visualize this strange character who could play a guitar just like ringing a bell. When I was 8, Chuck was back on the radio with his novelty hit, “My Ding-a-Ling,” but I already preferred his back catalog. I watched Chuck on the Mike Douglas Show with John Lennon, who said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” When NASA launched Voyager 1 into deep space forty years ago, I remember how smart they were to include a Chuck Berry record to demonstrate to some alien race that were an evolved species because we had Chuck Berry. (Leading to the hilarious Saturday Night Live Weekend Update tagline, “Send more Chuck Berry.) By the late seventies, Chuck’s music was rediscovered by punk rockers. His “School Days” was a favorite moment in the Ramones’ movie, Rock n Roll High School. And then in the 80s, thanks to Back to the Future, we learned that Chuck was first inspired my Michael J. Fox. Chuck Berry is the eternal time loop, up in the morning and off to school.

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It seems like he’s always been there. I was born in 1964 (shortly after his release from prison) so I guess he was. Anyone born after today will will have never shared the planet with Chuck Berry. How will they know that this wasn’t just a guy with a guitar? How will they know that his black beat changed a nation still chained in Jim Crow apartheid? How will they learn about the jukebox jumping with records back in the USA?

It’s not a tragedy to die at 90, especially if some of those years were spent locked up. There will be plenty of salacious details rehashed. Maybe they’re relevant. I just know this world would not be as it is if not for one brown-eyed handsome man named Charles Edward Anderson Berry. Hail, hail.

(Photo:  Jazz Fest, New Orleans 1994 by BP Fallon)

Note: This isn’t meant to a feminist analysis of Chuck Berry’s life or his music. That can come another day. The father of rock and roll is dead and the mother was never even named.